In the midst of heartbreak, it's hard to tell exactly how you're doing.
You might think you're doing great, only to find out later you were a mess. You might think you're a mess, only to find out later you were doing pretty well. It takes a little time, a little distance, a rewatching or three of When Harry Met Sally, followed by a month straight of Daniel Craig and Liam Neeson movies to make up for the chick flicks, and at least three sunset photos on Instagram to gain some perspective.
I'm three years on the other side of the hardest period of my life.
Between then and now, I feel like I've been as healthy as I could expect or ask, all circumstances considered. I had such great people (the very best people) who walked with me and made sure I ended up okay. Thanks to that mysterious cocktail of community and grace, I survived and was able to thrive after something that, for many people, is like the detonation of a bomb. For the last year or so, I've walked around like Harrison Ford, who used a refrigerator to protect himself from a nuclear blast in The Sequel That Must Not Be Named, whip in hand, like nothing ever happened.
As closely as I've emulated Indiana Jones (minus the good looks and the Nazi run-ins--everything else being pretty close), there is no magic nuke-proof refrigerator when you've experienced heartbreak. I've done well, but I know I didn't come out of it unscathed.
The first sign that all's not okay? How about the fact that I'm terrified as I write this? I hate admitting that it's not all okay--which, by the way, should be okay, but I'm still over here convincing myself I have to be 100% on my game. I still fall into this trap where I think I don't deserve anything good until I've got every single thing together. I'm fine with giving everyone else a pass, with acknowledging that everyone's got some baggage, but I won't give myself permission to not be okay.
Yeah, not proud of that.
I'm happy with the last three years of my life. I'm thankful. I'm proud. I don't think I could have come out of my situation any better. That being said, there's still work to do. In the spirit of transparency, I thought I'd share the good, the bad, and the ugly of the other side of heartbreak.
It's not lottery-level good, or tabloid-scandal ugly, but it's my actual story right now.
The Good: I don't need anyone's validation.
Here's what I've gladly left far, far behind in the rearview mirror:
Thinking that the way someone feels about me is any kind of referendum on what I'm worth.
No one has that power anymore. Not only is that great for me, it's great for everyone else, too. I don't give anyone the responsibility or burden to validate me. I don't put the weight of my insecurity on someone else's shoulders.
The obvious negatives aside, heartbreak and rejection on the deepest level provide the opportunity for something positive. Once the pain subsides and the dust settles, and you're still standing, it allows you to realize your worth separate from how someone feels about you.
The benefits of that realization are endless. Let me count the ways:
I don't need to chase someone's attention or affection. I don't need to change who I am or what I do to impress someone. The way someone feels or doesn't feel about me doesn't shake how I feel about myself. You don't think I'm a good writer? That's okay. You don't think I'm attractive? That's okay. You don't think my falsetto is masterful? That's okay (and you're probably right).
I'm okay with being by myself. I don't need someone else to "complete" my experience of life. Life doesn't begin when and if I find someone. Life is now. I can travel, with or without someone. If I go to the Grand Canyon, I don't need a person by my side to make the trip worth it. I can go to Barcelona, to Rome, to Ireland, to Scotland, to Five Guys with or without another person, and I will have the best time either way.
You won't find me at the club on Friday night, or at the bar trying to talk to girls, or on a dating site. And I'm not saying any of that is wrong--I'm saying that for me, life is good, I enjoy it as is, and I don't need to go looking for someone else to feel like I'm getting the most out of it. Also, I hate talking to strangers, so by default, any of those activities would be the opposite of my idea of a good time.
The independence, the confidence, the freedom to be happy with who I am and what I have--this is the good.
The Bad: I don't need a person to validate me, but for good measure, you won't even get close.
Confidence = good.
Callousness = bad.
I used to play out worst-case scenarios and stress out about them. What if she leaves? What if she's messing around with that guy? What if, what if, what if. That's not my problem anymore, in part because most of my relational nightmares have already come true, and I've learned I can survive them. They no longer scare me.
I've discovered that air of fearlessness is a bit of a sham.
I do a good job of hiding it, but in the last three years, and even recently, my train of thought with friendships and romantic relationships has gone like this: Do your worst. See if I care. If you want to put the gun to my head and pull the trigger, go ahead. If you want to slip the knife in my back, try me. I'll get right back up. I won't shed a single tear. I'll be fine. You can't hurt me.
Honestly, it doesn't sound like me. It kind of sounds like the Terminator. Or Gus from Breaking Bad.
That "see-if-I-care" attitude doesn't reflect a person who's fully engaged with people and life. It's cold. Detached. To not care at all if someone hurts me--it's callous. It's fear masquerading as confidence.
It's definitely not love. There's a simple truth I've known for a while now, and I've done a stellar job of avoiding it:
To love anyone is to say, "I'm giving you the power to hurt me."
I do not, can not remember the last time someone hurt my feelings. It sounds cool, and to be sure, a healthier sense of self means you don't take as much personally. That's part of it, but not the whole story for me.
To be in the place where I say, "You can't hurt me" means there's something serious I'm holding back. I take away someone's ability to make me feel pain, but I rob myself of the ability to love and be loved.
Which brings me to...
The Ugly: I don't want to need anyone.
I'm not talking about a co-dependent kind of need. I'll be glad to never need someone like that. I mean that I don't want to have any of my emotional state, any of my happiness, any of my paycheck or financial stability or career or future or any of what I've built and grown in my independence to be at someone else's mercy.
I'm okay with showing up for you. I'm okay to help out, to give, to do whatever you need. I don't want a single thing in return.
It's not because I'm a selfless person. It's because I refuse to put myself in a place where I need you.
I don't want to care if you show up for me or not. I don't want to care if you're there for me the way I am for you. I don't want to have any expectations of you.
So call me back. Or don't.
Text me back. Or don't.
Invite me to your thing. Or don't.
Come to my thing. Or don't.
Check in on me. Or don't.
Lie to me. Badmouth me. Stab me in the back. I don't care.
I will not allow myself to need you for anything. I'll be fine.
I'll be okay because I determine if I'm okay. You get zero say in it.
Family, friendships, romance, whatever.
I don't consciously choose to think like this. I'm writing it out, and it sounds as ridiculous to me as it probably does to you.
My operating definition of love has been to do stuff for people, to say the right things, to show up for them, as long as I don't have to need anything from anybody in the process. As long as I stay in the driver's seat. As long as I don't give up that power.
But to love is to say, "I'm giving you the power to hurt me."
Lately, my voice has failed me every time I've tried to speak those words. I wish I could. I wish I could flip a switch and be there.
I've told so many people, as they've recovered from injuries or heartbreak, that they can't fast forward. No matter how much they want to just be okay right now, they have to lean into the process and let the ligament or the bone or the heart heal and grow stronger again.
I can't fast-forward. I can't skip over this. I haven't rushed any part of the process these past three years, and I won't start now. The time will come for me to say the words, whenever that is. Maybe it'll be when I wake up tomorrow. Maybe it'll be next month. Maybe it'll take one more viewing of When Harry Met Sally. (Fine. Twist my arm.)
All I can do is be honest with myself, honest with the people who care about me, and continue to step forward.
If I anyone I care for experiences heartbreak, I wouldn't hesitate to tell them that there's so much good, so much healing, so much hope on the other side of heartbreak. I'd believe it with all of my heart.
I've seen enough to believe it for me, too.