When I’m feeling lonely—which is a common enough occurrence with me—I long for closeness, a sense of belonging, being connected; in essence, to experience human intimacy. I want to be seen, I want to be heard. As we humans do.
In those moments, that longing feels like a hungry hole that sucks all lightness and joy out of me and empties out my soul. It is as if gravity has decided to slowly leave me and there is now nothing left to keep me from disappearing into outer space, nothingness. Like a balloon that a toddler accidentally let go of at the amusement park, a ballon being caught up in the branches of a tree, barely holding on to a twig as the wind is picking up.
In those moments, I mostly forget that I have friends. I forget that I have a phone with which I could call them. I forget that there isn’t just shallowness and pretence out there in the world. I forget that I’m not the only one feeling this way.
In those moments, all that’s left is that balloon-in-the-tree-feeling, which of course implies that said toddler had let go of me totally on purpose, simply to be given a new balloon, one with a brighter color or a different shape, one that is better suited to be tied to the toddler’s bedpost.
My inner Gremlin loooooves these moments and has a variety of stealth attacks in his repertoire with which he then comes at me. For example: “Oh maaaan, how pathetic can you even GET?? Know what this is? This is neediness! Ugly, disgusting neediness. Who needs a needy woman?? No one, that’s who.”
It’s hard for me to remember, right then, that there’s such a thing as self-compassion, because it seems downright logical to go into beat-yourself-up-mode. It IS pathetic after all, isn’t it?
So I stay alone and isolate myself (cue food!) since I’ve never learned to be a “burden” to someone else, to ask for consolation or company. (Or, in those rare cases when I did call out for help as a kid, I got rejected—which was the worst pain of all, one that I got acquainted with way too early in life. Now, even I can see that it must have been right around then that I started to believe that food was a much more reliable source of comfort and safety than any adult could ever be.)
Now, that lonely side, sadly, is only one part of the story.
The crux is that there is, at the same time, a flipside to all this, which is the thing that drives me nuts:
I don’t know how to “do” closeness and intimacy, either!
As much as I long for togetherness, I often do a terrible job with it.
It’s like this: When I meet someone new, I am very approachable and might even seem fearlessly open. I love connecting, I love sharing, I love listening. I love people.
But once I get to know them better and really like them (not necessarily in a romantic way), and they are now a friend—and, thus, the risk of being hurt increases—I can get quite weird at times, and I have a very hard time accepting that part of me. Because, most of the time when I am with people that I am more or less close to, it suddenly starts to take some time before I can open up and let them come close—even with my best friends, some of whom I’ve known for years!
When I am not superconnected to myself—which, again, is a common enough occurrence with me—and someone approaches me too quickly or seems overeager to connect, I feel like I can’t trust the situation, that something is strangely unsafe. I don’t actually feel a sense of danger, but I feel a strong urge to turn and run away. (Which, of course, I don’t do, I’m not that strange.) Mostly, what I do, is wall up and act cold and distant. And here’s the thing: I can’t seem to counteract that by force of will! It is as if “it” (something) starts walling me, “it” makes me act cold and distant—it’s by no means a choice!
Now, my friends, they know that I need some breathing room before I can become my „true“ self, the empathetic and emotionally available one. So they usually just let me do my walled-up stunt for a few minutes and as soon as this sense of danger subsides, my unwillingness to show myself dissolves and I open up automatically. That’s when I can start to be present and really connect to the other person.
People who don’t know me well enough, however, understandably feel taken aback or downright offended by my rejecting demeanor, and they get confused why, all of a sudden, I turn into a distant, walled-up person when all they did was come a bit too close a bit too soon upon meeting me. I truly feel for them, because I know that all they are trying to do is be nice: They might ask how I am, they might try to hug me, anything to connect to me, mostly with the best intentions.
What happens on my side, though is this: I feel absurdly powerless to this feeling of unsafety, one that manifests in an utter unwillingness to connect, as this sense of being in a chokehold washes over me. What I perceive in moments like this is that I’m now forced “to be nice”, forced “to be close” or forced “to be fully available on demand”, which totally overwhelms me. (Like the cat that always takes its sweet time until it jumps on your lap to be stroked. Whenever you approach her to quickly, you force yourself onto her, or you try to lift her up against her will, she’ll either scratch you, bite you, or run off.)
“But you wanted to be connected and close to people, didn’t you, psycho?” howls my inner Gremlin. “What is it with you??”
Yet, in this moment of feeling unsafe, there’s no room for rationality. In that very instant, I don’t see the situation for what it is. What I perceive is not reality, but an overpowering feeling of “I must protect myself”.
By now I know that this feeling passes; and it passes fairly quickly when the other person gives me some moments before launching into: “Tell me, how aaaare you!?” and “Come here, give me a huuug!!”. If they just stay present with me and mind their own thing, I can open up in two minutes, easily.
If the tension rises, though, and the other person stands there with that bewildered, hurt look on their face, I can’t help but wall up even more. Because, deep inside, I am riddled with guilt. It’s not that I don’t see what’s happening. I know exactly what’s happening. It is as if I’m standing beside myself, watching myself “hurting” someone who’s utterly innocent, and I feel so terribly guilty for acting so mean, and for defending myself against… nothing. So I tend to hole up even more. (Cue guilt, cue binging, cue excessively exercising, cue obsessing about my weight .)
—My inner Gremlin is having a field day in those moments. It’s hard NOT to feel unworthy of anyone’s display of interest, affection or care when I act like a malfunctioning nuclear reactor, after all.
How to explain inexplicable behavior?
With my friends, I’ve been lucky.
They love me enough to see behind this outwardly weird behavior.
They know what it is that comes over me in these situations, again and again some days, even after such a long time.
They know that I never want to cause any harm when I come across closed-off or distant.
They know, that when I turn cold or rejecting, I am not really cold or rejecting.
They know that, even after all those years, I still reflexively hide every now and then, when something inside me tells me that I’d better protect myself and be careful not to trust too easily.
They know that I’m afraid of being hurt.
They know that I’m afraid that they’ll see inside my heart and then leave me for good.
They know that, deep down, something inside of me feels hopelessly unsafe.
They know that I often feel like I’m expected to give something that I can’t give, even though there usually are no real expectations.
They know that all I truly long for is secure attachment, a thing I never had.
They know where all of this strangeness is coming from.
They know that I’ve been working very hard, with years of therapy, to get better control of the difficult feelings that stem from a very unsafe childhood.
They know that I grew up in a household where nothing was ever reliable.
They know that I was either being half-starved, abandoned, beaten, ignored, or—the crass opposite—that I was being put under enormous pressure to be perfect at school, to look prettier, to be nicer, to be devoid of needs, but to always be available to take the coals out of the fire, sometimes quite literally, when my intoxicated mother passed out with burning cigarettes.
They know that I never really knew if the hand that reached out to me was going to pat me on the head, slap me across the face or punch me in the gut.
They know that I know that my mother never meant to cause so much damage.
They know that I know how bad she was hurting herself and how lost SHE was in the world.
They know that I only recently started to really miss her, almost 30 years after her tragic death.
They know that I so much wish to have known who she truly was, beneath her alcohol and drug addiction, beneath all the hopelessness that suffocated her and made her act the way she did.
They know the real me, the cuddly, soft-hearted one, the vulnerable one, the one that only shows when she truly trusts.
They know how terribly guilty I feel for not always being approachable and open when I see them, and that I always fall back into thinking that I „have to be nice now“, which makes it impossible for me to just feel at ease.
They also know that all it takes is a few minutes of breathing room before I can come out of hiding and let down my guard.
They know what I’m guarding:
A very vulnerable, very delicate, and somewhat hungry, marshmallow-heart.
Wait for part 2… I’ll try and come up with some “solutions” for this problem.
(Which—come to think of it—will solve the world’s problems.)