“If you make friends with yourself, you will never be alone.” ~Maxwell Maltz
When I was eighteen I glided across the stage in front of my classmates to collect an award from the principal: All-Around Female.
I was a dancer on the drill team; an officer in the a cappella choir; a youth group leader; a singer in the show choir; a member of the honor society, Spanish Club, and Venture Scouts; and top ten in my class.
I wore these achievements like a shield, clueless of what or who I would be without them.
Inevitably, when I moved out of state for college, my shield cracked.
At college, there was no drill team, no honors points, no one to pat me on the back for working hard. I learned quickly that, when excellence is the default, it’s a lot harder to stand out.
With my shield a shambles, I had to search for a new persona—a new person to “be.”
For some people, that might be volunteering or learning an instrument. For me it was making six or seven trips to the KFC buffet line, eating fried chicken and potatoes until my stomach hurt, and then throwing it all up at the nearest gas station.
It wasn’t pretty. But with no other labels to hide behind, it was comforting.
And every so often, I indulged myself in another label: girlfriend. It was so easy to melt into someone else, and it took the focus off me. Still, when I met Randy, I didn’t see it coming. He was a young, compassionate pre-med student who was eager to complete me—and I was happy to let him.
At first, it was a great arrangement. But after a year or so, the full weight of my unhappiness surfaced. I was jobless, directionless, and lonely; I came home to Randy every night, but even he couldn’t fill the caverns I’d created in my life.
Making the decision to move back home and check into an eating disorder treatment center was difficult, but it was also the first decision I’d truly made for myself in a very long time.
Getting physically healthy was the first step, but getting mentally healthy was the most important.
One day, the program director asked what my values were. I was stumped. Student? Singer? Daughter?I listed off an encyclopedia of labels I’d used at some point in my life, waiting for a nod of affirmation. But he stared back blankly.
“I’m not asking what you are,” he clarified. “I want to know what’s important to you.”
I struggled with his question, trying desperately to reframe my life from this perspective.
As long as I could remember, I’d been trying so hard to beone thing or another instead of just letting my life evolve organically.
But as it turns out, I’m more than a student, an over-achiever, a writer, or a girlfriend; I’m a young woman who values compassion, empathy, worldliness, and family. Painting that full picture of myself was a huge step forward.
But in my relationship with Randy, it was a huge step backward. Having finally learned I could love myself and be complete on my own, there was no room for him.
I began to feel physically sick when he tried to hug me. I didn’t want him to touch me, or call me, or show me any kind of affection. He was the same kind person I’d always loved, but I felt claustrophobic. Slowly, painfully, I pushed him out.
That chapter of my life was debilitating and painful, but I emerged from it with a very important lesson:
Another person will never be able to compensate for the holes in your life. Be your own “other half,” and seek a partner who will complement you, not complete you.
As someone who had always sought external validation—in the form of awards, activities, or relationships—this wasn’t an easy lesson. But it’s been crucial for me in the development of a richer, more mature self.
Do you ever find your features blurring into those of someone else? Do you ever seek validation through compliments from others or likes on Facebook? It’s a difficult habit to break, but here are some ways to become your own biggest fan:
It’s easy to latch on to different identities when you don’t fully understand what makes you uniquely you. Do you value charity? Is it your goal to travel the world?
Make a list of all the qualities you value in yourself: Are you funny? Driven? Patient? Things like your career, your car, or your body shape will come and go throughout your life. Uncovering the remarkable core aspects of your identity will make you less inclined to cling to external descriptors.
One of the reasons it’s so tempting to focus on the negatives we see in ourselves is that it provides a sense of control. If you’re unfulfilled at work, complaining to others can provide a sense of validation. If you’re frustrated that you don’t travel as much as you’d like, rationalizing can be comforting. Stop making excuses and start making changes.
Obsessing over all the things you wish you had is one of the fastest tracks to unhappiness. I’m guilty of spending hours on Facebook or Pinterest, pining over a friend’s new downtown loft or the hundreds of intricate recipes I don’t have time to whip up every night.
Consider giving yourself a social media allowance, like no more than five minutes of Facebook per day. It will really take the focus off others and put it back on you.
When you’re uncomfortable with solitude, it’s easy to cling to others for validation of your worthiness. But what happens when the other person moves on? Relationships entered into out of necessity are bound to end painfully, because our needs change over time.
When you learn to enjoy your alone time, you’ll never need another person to fill the space.
When I first started this process a few years ago, I developed a habit of deflecting the conversation from myself onto other people. When asked what my goals were, I’d tell everyone I wanted to make my parents happy, or that I wished I had it together as much as so-and-so.
My therapist at the time would always tell me, “That’s her garden, stay in yours.”
How can you ever grow a beautiful rose bush if you spend all day eyeing the tulips next door?
Photo by Mitya Kuznetsov
Jenni Hanley is a freelance writer and editor. In addition to blogging about locally grown food at EatThisDallas.net, she is a contributor for Renfrew Connections, a newsletter providing hope, help, and healing to those struggling with eating disorders.
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