Years ago, I attended a Gamblers Anonymous meeting to support my boyfriend at the time. There were two groups; one for the gamblers themselves and another for their friends and family. It was there that I got to know other people whose lives had been devastated by their loved one’s addiction and through them, I learned about the 12 step program that involved accepting your problems and making amends. The references to God were slightly lost on me as a non believer, but 2 of the steps in particular stood out for me:
* Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
* Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
The idea of going back and righting our mistakes has cropped up several times in this blog, but I hadn’t made the connection with the GA meeting until quite recently, when this particular ex boyfriend got in touch.
I had a break from twitter recently and that’s when the idea came to me. Following on from the events detailed in my last 2 blogs, I decided to take some inspiration from these steps and do something about all the self doubt that had been building up as a result. Some might call it brave, others would more accurately call it stupid, but I decided to revisit my past to learn more about myself, as I had convinced myself I was the problem.
So this was the plan; I would contact a handful of the men I had fallen out with. I’d ask them why things had ended as they had. There would be no arguments, no blame, I would simply listen, accept what they said and thank them for their time. Initially, I considered including ex boyfriends, but decided against it. It had the potential to get messy. Relationships can rarely be viewed objectively and if I’m honest, I didn’t really respect the opinions of the ones I’d have needed to contact anyway. There was also the danger that they’d think I was trying to rekindle something and that was certainly not my motive. No, I had to limit it to people who would be willing to give me a straight answer and hopefully, not feel any resentment towards me after all this time that could cloud their judgement. Most importantly, it had to be people I thought were good men who for whatever reason, I had not seen eye to eye with. There have been many, and despite what they or others might think, I have never thought badly of anyone I’ve fallen out with if there was no malice intended. Up until recently, I’ve always assumed that as adults, you can go your own separate ways and wish each other well when you have a disagreement.
It sounded simple enough, but I was terrified. It’s not easy laying yourself bare like that. I was essentially asking for criticism and I’d have to suck it up. I knew it’d be like taking a sledgehammer to my ego, but this was important to me. I couldn’t go on repeating the same pattern. I needed some answers and I couldn’t think of any other way to get them. Thankfully, taking a risk is nothing new to me and though I’m incredibly stubborn when I’m right, I have never shied away from risking my pride when I’ve thought it necessary.
I made a list of 5 people. 5 men I had cared about, considered friends, had a level of comfort with, and who for whatever reason, I no longer spoke to. Then I sent an email to all of them asking for the truth about why we had fallen out, if it had been my fault, and if they could tell me honestly what, if anything, I was doing wrong in the way I conduct myself. There was no guarantee I would get any answers, but I felt none of us had anything to lose, so why not? Enough time had passed for them to have a degree of objectivity about it and they didn’t need to worry about how anything they said would impact on a friendship that had long gone. Then began the agonising wait for replies.
They started to trickle in the same day. Others took longer. One emailed straight away to say he would reply, but needed more time, which I appreciated. It was kind of him not to keep me hanging in the interim. The longest took a week to reply, by which time I’d given up on hearing from him, but his was also the most detailed and lengthy email . To my surprise, every single one of them got back to me. I was nervous but also thrilled.
I’d be lying if I said they were a pleasant read. Nobody was unkind, but I had asked for the truth and boy did I get it. Some of the points came up in several replies. I had asked if I was giving off the wrong impression. If I had asked for any of it. If I conducted myself in a manner that gave off mixed signals or I led men on. On this, they answered unanimously that I didn’t knowingly lead anyone on. But there were things I did that perhaps created a familiarity that some could take to mean more.
One of them put it like this; “You’re happy to chat. Whether silly stuff where you end up giving people nicknames, or more sensible stuff. A lot of people can be.. brief. You get the feeling they’re not that bothered talking with you. You don’t give off that impression. It probably makes people think there’s more of a bond, or interest, than there is.”
He went on to say it wasn’t my fault and I shouldn’t stop doing it, that it was a nice quality, but if I was worried, I should back off a bit sometimes. This came up several times and I had to admit I did do this. I had always assumed that repeating over and over again that I wasn’t interested in relationships was enough, but perhaps my actions weren’t reflecting that and I had to take responsibility, having been so vocal for so long about actions speaking louder than words. I exchanged a few more emails with him, then took his advice and backed off.
Another point by a different person really struck a chord with me: “You want to open up and trust people but you won’t let yourself, because you are thinking ahead, envisaging the worst, and then looking for evidence to prove yourself right, both in the present and in a re-assessment of things that have been said in the past. You attract nice guys because you’re one too, and maybe they also turn out to be quite sensitive to similar triggers, and that’s what brings things crashing down, as it were.”
There was some truth to this. I am a pessimist and I do expect things to go wrong when I get close to someone, because it’s happened so many times. I am drawn to nice men too. Macho posturing has never been attractive to me. I rarely let things get very far with anyone. I usher people out of my DM folder and stick to sarcasm to keep them at arm’s length. This was seen as flirting by some. It was getting confusing.
Bit by bit, I was getting an idea of how I was perceived. The similarity of many of the replies painted a picture that was part flattering, part damning. I suspect the flattery was to soften the blow somewhat. This was all helpful, but also confusing. Every single person told me it hadn’t been my fault, yet only one apologised, though several admitted to behaving badly. Some said they were sorry things had ended the way they had, (though not sorry for what they’d done) but nobody tried to sort things out. I feel that was probably down to me stating quite clearly that this was about me, not them and though it niggled at me a little, I had to remind myself that I couldn’t change anyone else’s behaviour, just my own.
The other recurring theme was how strong I am. It kept coming up, “You’re strong, you can handle it” or “I’m not as strong as you.” I get this a lot, both in real life and on twitter. It always, ALWAYS makes me laugh. I am incredibly strong minded, but that’s not the same as being a strong person. It’s something I’ve been saying for so long to convince myself, that it’s somehow stuck. I think it’s pretty clear when you read between the lines, that I’m anything but. I feel quite fragile and the Queenly demeanour masks that to an extent, but I’m genuinely surprised that I managed to fool people into believing it. Suckers.
I’ve had a few weeks to process what was said and I feel slightly more at peace. There’s a fondness there for most of them. That constant nagging feeling I’ve had that I’m a bad judge of character has waned slightly. After all, the email replies were all kind, not accusing in tone, they’re all intelligent, good men with more insight than I had expected, and they made a sincere effort to help. I didn’t feel fobbed off or like I was being a nuisance and I had a lovely conversation with a couple of them.
It’s made me realise that I’m not the only angsty adult. Each of them admitted to having some kind of problem with relationships, expressing their feelings, or confidence issues. I have learned that everyone handles their insecurities differently. While my reaction is at first hurt, which often manifests itself as anger followed by a need to understand what went wrong, for others, it’s retreating and sticking their heads in the sand. We all cope as best we can. My sense of morality often stops me from seeing that. It’s a fault. I expect everyone to want to do the “right thing” or what my understanding of it is. I see things in black and white so my instinct is to question why someone who admits fault, wouldn’t work to put things right. Or I struggle to understand why everyone isn’t as open and honest as I am, but of course the answer to that is, it leaves you vulnerable.
At one point, when someone mentioned how they struggle with the embarrassment of rejection, I was quick to say (quite patronisingly) that it’s difficult for everyone, but you just get on with it. I realise now that was probably a dismissive attitude. After all, I have never asked anyone out, so I can’t appreciate how difficult it must be. It probably took a lot for him to put himself on the line like that and I should’ve given him more time to deal with it. Waiting is not my strong point. I see it as the silent treatment, another one of my many issues.
I guess the single most important thing I learned was that we all have issues. I had always assumed that I was hurting while everyone else just got on with their lives. While that was certainly true for some, the vast majority just internalised their problems. A common theme with men and something I’ve said before that we should address better as a society in how we raise boys. The way things are at present doesn’t serve anyone well.
Despite the embarrassment of contacting people who probably didn’t want to hear from me, swallowing my pride and (foolishly) asking them to critique my personality, I still maintain that communication is key. Keep talking. Keep trying. It’s better to go down fighting, knowing you tried, than taking the coward’s way out by hiding away. My ego may have taken a battering, but I don’t regret it and I actually do feel stronger for it.