'Everyone Always Leaves Me'

It's hard to see the real magic around you when you're too fearful to open your eyes.

Milliken at the Century of Progress (1940) by Clarence Holbrook Carter

Hi Polly,

Like everyone else, I’ve been struggling a lot these past few months. I’ve seen my support system get smaller and weaker and I’ve felt left behind by a lot of people. But I always had something pushing me forward: I had a really strong relationship with my girlfriend and we were planning to move in together in LA, where she lives, after I graduate from my Master's program. Since we came up with the idea last year I’ve been looking for jobs, planning my move, and telling my parents. It wouldn’t be easy but it would be together. I graduate in three weeks, and I've been looking forward to a new step.

She just told me she can’t handle living together. She doesn’t want to break up, but she doesn’t want to be long distance without an end plan, but she really, really doesn’t want to live together. She says it’s a core value thing, that we’re just too young to move in. 

I’ve felt all the things that are important to me breaking down around me for months and this feels like the last pillar that was standing. I could trust and have faith that one person loved me the way I loved her. Now, every moment feels like I just woke up from a horrible dream. I feel so sick, and taken for granted, and like I am doomed to forever feeling like the people I love won’t put their real shit on the line to show up for me and love me the way I love them.

I feel so alone and stupid, and I don’t know how to endure this without love and support and compassion. This isn’t my first heartbreak but it’s the first one where I felt like I had no goal to work towards, no shoulders to lean on, no new future to run to. I’m trying to pick everything up but every time I start I just break down because I just don’t understand, I don't understand why I have to be the one to hurt so much.

And I feel so tired, Polly, I feel so pathetic and tired curling into myself and being my own support. I’ve tried asking for love from others, and I’ve tried giving them the love that I’m looking for. And I wound up lost and flat on my face.

What is the point of all of this? What am I supposed to do?

Bruised

Dear Bruised,

This is the scene in the old movie where the heroine grabs her panicking gentleman by the shoulders and shakes him and shouts, “PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER, FELLA!” And then our hero sort of wakes up and looks around and realizes that the world isn’t really ending, everything is bright and beautiful, he was just panicking the way he did when he was a baby, telling himself: No one is ever coming for you. No one really loves you.

Okay, fine, it’s usually the heroine who gets slapped. But we’re all capable of feeling that way. We all go through times when all we want is one thing. I want YOU to understand ME, support me, live inside my view of the world with me, proceed according to MY plan.

The trouble starts when we confuse what a baby needs with what a grown adult needs. We take the sensations we had when we were small — Where is my comfort? Why won’t anyone help? — and apply them to situations where they don’t fit.

You don’t just want your girlfriend to have compassion for you. You want her to stick to a plan that doesn’t feel right for her. She’s telling you clearly that she thinks it’s a bad idea to enmesh your lives completely when you’re so young. You’re assuming that this means that she’s backing away from you emotionally.

If she has said to you, “I want you here, I just don’t want us to be completely dependent on each other at a time when we’re both finding our footing in life,” then I would listen to those words. I would try hard to set aside your ignored baby and deal with reality. Even though your ignored baby might be whispering in your ear, “She doesn’t love you enough. She doesn’t support you! She’s going to leave you eventually!” you have to remember how often that baby makes that sound. It’s her only sound, in fact.

Sometimes ignored babies plug their ears when people say things like, “I really love you and want you here.” They push people away without knowing that’s what they’re doing. They fade out but they think other people are fading out. I see it all the time! I hear it repeatedly from two people who used to be friends: “He backed away.” “She disappeared.” Each side believes the other divested. Ignored babies everywhere!

If you don’t start understanding your ignored baby’s binary system — I AM LOVED! or I AM BEING ABANDONED! — you’re going to freak out and make ignored baby sounds every time your girlfriend goes to the corner store or makes a social plan without you. She might have noticed that this is the way you process information. She might be worried that if you move in together, you’re unlikely to make your own friends or build your own life. You’re likely to sit around the apartment crying, wondering why no one supports you.

Okay, but let’s try on the opposite scenario. What if your girlfriend hasn’t said, “I want you here, I love you”? What if she’s only saying “Come here if you want”? What if she’s being wishy washy? It’s hard to tell because there’s not a lot of information in your letter. That’s not surprising, actually, because ignored babies don’t look for information. They don’t ask questions like, “How do you see us living? What’s the ideal scenario? What are your hopes for us in three or four years? Can you see a future together? What are your true fears about me moving there?”

Ignored babies look for reassurance instead. They ask questions like, “Why aren’t you excited to live with me? Why can’t you support me? Why does this always happen to me? What is the point of this? What am I supposed to do now?”

You can’t see straight right now because your eyes are closed.

I’m sorry! I know how bad that feels because I’ve been there. When I was 22 years old, I had been living with my college boyfriend for about ten months when he finally sat me down and told me he wanted to break up. All of the reasons I wanted us to live together – so I could feel safe, so I knew what one small piece of my future looked like, so I could trust that one person loved me the way I loved him – were also reasons why we should never have lived together. I didn’t want to build a life. I wanted to hide from real life.

I was afraid of other people, afraid of the world. I didn’t want a real job in a real city. I felt like an overgrown child thrust into an adult’s landscape. I got on the bus to my shitty job in the morning and I didn’t think, “Wow, look at me! I’m a grown adult out in the world, going to work! Look at the light streaming in through the fog! Look at these strange humans in their suits! I live in the city now, this is my LIFE!”

What I thought was, “I hate this. I feel lonely. I need more love.”

The stress of the real world brought back the ignored baby who was sure no one was coming, no one would save her. My ignored baby needed a place of her own, so she wouldn’t cry when her boyfriend got a job working at night as a bartender, as if he never really wanted to see her face at all. My ignored baby needed to figure out how to make friends of her own so she didn’t have to sit on a couch, night after night, watching basketball and smoking bong hits with people who didn’t like her that much. My ignored baby needed to stop hiding from the future, hiding behind a handsome boy who was also hiding — but at least he knew that my ignored baby wouldn’t grow up until he was long gone.

He was right. We broke up and I grew up. IT WAS TERRIFYING. I distinctly remember driving straight up the steep part of Gough Street in my stick shift Honda, feeling so lost and sad and panicked that it was almost like being stoned on bad weed. I remember desperately searching for some secret sign of when I would find love. I kept trying to decode license plates for some message from the gods. LICENSE PLATES. That is some hard core ignored baby shit right there. I just wanted some reassurance that some day, I would be deeply loved and never abandoned again.

I didn’t know how to look for courage inside myself. I didn’t know how to lean on my friends without either overwhelming them or pulling away from them. I didn’t know how to show myself to people slowly, building trust patiently. I wasn’t realistic about the fact that most people are pretty jumpy about being needed too much. I didn’t know how to believe in the future or in myself. I was very, very afraid, of everything.

You’re afraid of everything, too. When you ask “What’s the point of this?”, what you’re really telling me is that you’re abandoning yourself, over and over again. When you feel emotionally needy and small, you leave your baby alone in the crib and walk away. You get mad at reality. You get angry at the wrong people for not fixing everything for you. You search for some external magic that might save you. You don’t treat yourself with love and support and compassion. When you say “The people I love won’t put their real shit on the line to show up for me and love me the way I love them,” what you’re really saying is that you won’t put your real shit on the line and love yourself the way you love other people.

You’ll surrender everything you have just to win one person’s affection. You’ll give up every plan you ever made to move across the country and focus on one person who’ll determine your worth. All you want is her love. And I guarantee you, some of the people who’ve faded out over the past year have done so because all you want is your girlfriend. You don’t know how to invest emotionally in other people. You don’t like to put your heart on the line. You’re that intense combination of emotionally needy and distant. You’re protecting yourself from past trauma, with your words and actions, so that even your love sounds a little defensive sometimes. You anticipate rejection before it happens.

You’re not alone there. So many people are like this! It’s exceedingly common, particularly when you’re in your twenties. And it is extremely frightening to start a life in the real world. Half of the masters degrees out there are just manifestations of that terror! Almost no one likes the idea of moving to a new city and making new friends and building a life from scratch. It’s very hard to do, and there’s misery baked into the picture for people like you, whose ignored babies are triggered by EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME.

So listen up! YOU NEED THERAPY. If you’ve had therapy, you need more therapy. Because your ignored baby is running your life right now. It’s hard to even give you advice about your girlfriend, because the future of that relationship is tangential. Is she the one for you? I don’t think you’re emotionally aware enough to answer that question. You didn’t tell me a thing about her or what she wants. You don’t have space for another person yet, because you have to deal with your panicking baby around the clock.

No wonder it’s so tempting to abandon your baby! But do you know what that looks like in the long term? Open your eyes. Abandoned babies are everywhere. They move away from love. They move away from joy. They tell stories about how other people lost interest or rejected them. Their lives get smaller and smaller, because they never want to feel vulnerable or fragile. When they care about things, they feel unstable. So they only pursue paths that they don’t care about. Their goal is not joy. Their goal is safety. Indifferent, slightly anxious, slightly depressed productivity is the best they can hope for.

You don’t want to land there. That’s the land of soldiering onward while a voice inside says THERE IS NO POINT. You need to find the point for yourself instead. You need to know what you love passionately. You need to understand your own heart. Your girlfriend is not what will make your life feel more safe. You’ll feel safe when you walk back into the room where your abandoned baby is crying, and you pick her up, and you say, “I won’t leave you ever again. Don’t worry. I’m right here. You can trust me.

There is nothing wrong with you. Don’t ask why everyone leaves you. Ask why you leave yourself. Find a good therapist, and ask.

Polly


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