Thursday, June 1, 2023

I find relationships really hard. How can I let people in?

The dilemma I am a 44-year-old single woman, working in a pensionable job that I would rather not work in. I own my own home outright.

In the past I did have issues with substance misuse, but I got help to overcome that and have been clean and sober for more than four years. But my history of addiction is part of my private identity – meaning few know about it.

Since becoming sober I’ve let go of any friends I knew back then for various reasons. I don’t have the patience or trust to get too close to anyone. I find relationships hard work.

I’ve now been single for more than two years. The longest relationship I’ve had only lasted a year before the roof came off and the man left as quickly as he got here. One ex-partner stays in contact. I resent him for leaving, especially as I wanted to have children. Being childless is a huge soul hurt.

It feels as if I sabotage my own life. I can’t relax, give in and let people in. I don’t like myself or my body. I never thought I’d end up single, alone, no close friends and no family of my own, bar ageing parents. I don’t know how to get over this or to pull myself together and build an alternative life that brings me fulfilment and meaning.

Philippa’s answer I feel a bit scared of you, because I sense anger when I read your email. I wonder if I’d be scared of you in real life, too? I wonder if your impatience leaks out and does a good job of keeping people on guard? Often when we have a default mood like anger, it is doing the job of keeping another mood repressed. If this is you, I wonder what the hidden emotion is. Sadness? Fear? It is hard to change a mindset, but it is possible.

When I’m over-generalising, I categorise people into two mindsets: rigid and flexible. Flexible is when you are more likely to respond to people and events in the present with the evidence in front of you. Rigid is where you only see the present through the lens of the past. If you are rigid, it’s because something big happened to you – or possibly to your parents – that caused them or you to make up a rule that has been set in stone to help them or you survive the big thing that happened in the past.

The rules may be something like: keep yourself to yourself; no one can be trusted; relationships are too hard; everything bad that happens to me is someone else’s fault. Such a rule or rules might be true at times or may have even saved you once, but they will not hold true for every situation in your life and if you cling to them, you will narrow down the opportunities you do have for a good life.

If you are rigid, you don’t have to become more flexible all at once, you can do a tiny bit at a time. You could write a few words in the middle of a piece of paper that represent your comfort zone, then draw a line around that. Then pencil another circle leaving space to draw or write things that would represent the smallest step away from your comfort zone. Then, in your daily life, practise doing things, thinking things, challenging yourself to go over that line. When that becomes comfortable you can rub out that first circle you drew to enlarge the comfort zone, draw a bigger circle around the enlarged comfort zone, and keep going.

Reading your email, I’d guess that the things outside your comfort zone that you could work to include may be: being kinder in how you think about yourself and your body; giving others the benefit of the doubt a bit more; daring to unpack what you are angry about; looking at the feelings of vulnerability beneath your anger; finding strength in your vulnerability; staying with your feelings of wanting to hide away and becoming more comfortable with them rather than acting on them.

You are going to be good at this because you’ve done it before – you got sober. That meant practising with a new way of life. You can do it again, only this time you are practising letting go of the rules that are holding you back. You have recognised that you are sabotaging yourself, this is excellent, because unless you have that awareness, unless you know what you are doing, you would not know what to change.

You want a child. This suggests to me that you do have love to give. First, practise giving love and encouragement to yourself, dare to give yourself hope that you can become more flexible, less rigid and let people in. You need people. I’m not saying let in a whole football team, but try Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, maybe online at first, and see if you can make a friend there by daring to share, like you shared with me.

I’m not scared of you now. I think I was feeling the fear that you have of other people. Letting people in will take courage. I recommend reading this classic self-help book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers.

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