I’ve reached an age where I’m drawn to looking back over past loves and lives, reflecting on what did and didn’t work well and why.
Or maybe it’s been a January thing when the year ahead seems ripe with possibility and there’s an instinct to search our memories for any lessons that can ensure that we don’t repeat any past mistakes.
One theme that stands out from my mental scan of previous relationships is the extent to which I’ve suffered from a kind of romantic imposter syndrome. No matter how much I was told I was loved or appreciated, I always partly expected to be “found out” as the fairly useless human I thought I was and get rejected. And so I protected myself against the potential hurt of that by never really getting emotionally close to anyone.
This defensive distancing was paired with a deep-seated need to be validated by a partner, although if such feelings were declared, I’d feel inclined to leave before they wore off. My disappearing act was also partly motivated by a belief that no one who cared for someone of such dubious value as myself could really be worth my attention—like Groucho Marx’s famous reluctance to join any club that would have him as a member!
After going around that particular spiral a few times, I learned enough about where my low self-esteem was coming from, and with the help of good friends and some counselling, I became able to tell the difference between the negative ideas I’d accumulated about myself and a more realistic assessment of my basic worth as a man and a human, i.e. that I’m basically “enough.”
I’ve found that when feelings of love get mixed up with looking for validation, it always ends in tears because no one else will ever be able to convince me that I’m “good enough” if I don’t believe that in my own core. I’ve learned that appreciating, accepting, and respecting (i.e. “loving”) another person for who they really are and getting the same back is a marvelous gift partly because it helps us to have those feelings about ourselves too.
This kind of self-love and acceptance is essential for me to be able in turn to love my partner in a meaningful way, partly because if I thought she was wonderful and I am only second rate, I’d always feel secretly envious and insecure with her—exactly the kinds of feelings that destroy trust and intimacy.
These days I’m fairly comfortable with who I am and don’t need to be affirmed so much by my partner in order to feel okay about myself—although feeling known and accepted by her does make the world a nicer place, and our mutual caring also helps me become clearer about my own strengths and surer of my life’s purpose.
It’s why the pain that is bound to sometimes come up in an intimate relationship is always an opportunity for learning and growth, and the effort needed to listen to and understand each other’s point of view is more than made up for by the gain of feeling deeply connected to someone else, as well as to the world and to myself.