J. had a boyfriend that she didn’t want to marry. She had an ex-husband who had cheated on her rather egregiously (is there any other kind?) and post-divorce she referred to herself as commitment-phobic. The boyfriend was adequate, there wasn’t any specific reason why she didn’t want to marry him in particular, she just didn’t want to get married.
We worked together ages ago, and she’d fairly regularly tell me all the things that were wrong with her. Everything had a pathology, everything had a name. “Trust issues.” “Unavailable.” The finger-quotes were implied; we were talking in pop psychology informed by miles of rows of books on the shelves of Barnes and Noble promising to diagnose you from the comfort of an armchair and a publishing deal, plus tell you how to help yourself to a solution or the next book due to be published next year.
J. A beautiful redhead with two young boys and her own house and newly-acquired balance post divorce.
And it never once seemed to occur to her that her choices were the obvious conclusion to a series of events that started with her expectations, her world view, her attitudes, her experience of being in love, and then being horribly disappointed. Who wouldn’t be wary of a second marriage when the first one went so badly awry? Not only did her wariness make sense, had she been enthusiastic about jumping right back in, would that not have been considered a little impulsive? Would we not have all wondered to ourselves if she’d loved the first husband, or had the capacity to learn?
What you call yourself matters. It frames the entire discussion. And it implies that there’s something broken there.
I’m here to tell you, there was nothing broken about J., except perhaps her trust. There’s nothing broken about the vast majority of us. Calling yourself broken effectively ends the conversation. It’s a brick wall, a dead end. There’s nowhere to go after the label.
Here’s what I think: we all have reasons. Reasons for drinking or not drinking, reasons for caution, reasons for our self-destructive behavior. And when we give the behavior a label, we put it out of our control. “I’m addicted to shopping.” Well, no. The more accurate statement would probably be “I use shopping as a mechanism to manage my anxiety. I shop when I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything, when I feel out of control, and it allows me to transform the theoretical – my bank account balance – into the tangible: a new pair of boots.”
If you’re addicted to shopping, the answer is to quit. Sounds simple … isn’t.
If you’re shopping to manage anxiety, there are options. What else would help me deal with my anxiety? For me, its something that I learned from Ratwell: lay down on the floor with a timer set for five minutes and do nothing. Notice whatever is going through your head, then let it go. Listen to your breathing. But you don’t get up until those five minutes are gone.
And that’s free.
I don’t think people are willfully self-destructive because they wake up and say “I want to fuck up my life today.” I think they choose self-destructive mechanisms to answer very real lines of causality that may or may not be given correct names. And if you look at the line of causality, give it validity, and then question what you can do from where you are, recognizing the self-destructive thing as an equally valid choice with its own consequences… then you’ve got what you need to choose. You can’t change who you are. To do that, you’d have to be able to back and change all kinds of things, from DNA to the hideously ugly pair of glasses that your mother told you were a good idea when you were 7. You’d have to keep going back forever.
Where you are today is the inevitable result of an unfathomable number of choices reaching back to the first little bundle of slime that figured out that sunshine felt good. There isn’t a damn thing that you can do about any of that and trying to is pretty much the height of idiocy. So is feeling bad about it. Sorry, but it is. You can’t go back. You can only tell yourself the truth about where you are right now, accept it, and decide what you want to do next. Not who you want to be, but what you want to do.
No, you can’t change who you are. It’s a losing battle. But you can change what you do. Being a commitment phobe is who you are. Being wary about who you marry is what you do. They are not interchangeable. And if you define yourself by a behavior, you’re giving yourself nowhere to go and now all of your power belongs to the label.
Just … be easy on yourself. You have your reasons. Those reasons are legitimate. You don’t have to defend them. But if you aren’t enjoying the results you’re getting, you can find something else that satisfies those reasons and choose that instead.
Be easy on others too. For all of the same reasons. Doing the best you can with what you’ve got is a tall order, and the vast majority get up every morning and do exactly that, day after day, no matter how tired we are. You don’t have to like other people’s reasons, but understanding that they have them helps. At least it helps me.