It’s not your job to like me. It’s mine. – Byron Katie
Life is spent interacting with people. Our identity is often largely defined by relationships; our family, our school mates, uni friends, work colleagues, our lovers, you name it.
Relationships can be a source of love, joy and support like no other. But a few breakups and broken friendships later, I realise that perhaps the most important confidante we have is ourself. And that relationship with ourself, is often the most neglected and overlooked of the relationships we have in our life.
I am an extrovert. There is no doubt about it. I feed off and love interactions with other people. I love meeting people. I love uncovering new ways of thinking and seeing how different people are put together, learning about their perspectives and interests.
But I found myself confused about my identity when I wasn’t around or interacting with other people. I realised I was highly dependent on relationships. The level of uncertainty that I experienced when I wasn’t with someone really scared me. It was unsettling.
A couple of weeks ago, I was having a rough week. I had just broken up with my long term boyfriend and best friend in the whole world, the one person who knew me better than I knew myself sometimes. My closest female friend was also upset with me. My parents were angry at me for a number of reasons. And I had just started placement in a new environment, which was a highly anxiety inducing experience for me. As is often the case with me, I was hit with a tonne of bricks all at once. I was hit with all these different things, and I had to process it. By myself.
My peace was disturbed.
I couldn’t focus.
Nothing in my mind at that moment was flowing.
I actually couldn’t function properly at all.
My mind was going at 1000 miles a second. I was contemplating a series of what ifs and pessimistic conclusions to unresolved issues in my life. Small things would throw me off disproportionately.
I would and sometimes still do take the absence of interactions really personally. ‘Is there something wrong with me?’, I would ask myself. ‘I must have done something wrong for this person to not want to spend time with me’, would be another internal monologue I’d go through.
I came down quite hard on myself and attributed blame to myself for a lot of situations that weren’t my fault. Solitude was a really anxiety provoking and self doubt inducing experience.
I thought it would be interesting to look at this in the context of a famous motivational theory. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs says relationships are important in the ‘love and belonging’ tier of the pyramid. But at the top is ‘self esteem’ and ‘self actualisation’. The latter is when a person realises their full potential and becomes the most that they can be.
Maslow also breaks esteem down into ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ versions. The lower version is the need for respect from others, other people highlighting your value to you. But the higher version entails self respect and valuing oneself. What others provide to your self-esteem means nothing until you can accept and acknowledge yourself internally, and establish self competence. Therefore it logically follows that inability to establish these attitudes can result in inferiority complexes and helplessness, as happened with me.
It was during that week I truly realised, change is the only constant in life, and relationships of all shapes and forms come and go and vary in terms of their role in your life. Nothing is ever stable or certain. You do however, always have yourself.
A large part of the problem is the negative connotation attached to the word ‘alone’. It was so important for me to remember that this was not synonymous with being ‘lonely’. Loneliness in my scenario was more of a mindset than it was a tangible reality, because I was surrounded by so many willing family and friends who I knew loved and supported me.
As they say, ‘Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.’ The mind can trick us into thinking things that aren’t true, just as it can be an incredibly powerful tool for self growth and self awareness.
A quick Google search, a few motivational quotes, and a few conversations with people later, I found myself a little more at ease knowing that I was not alone in feeling uncertainty in being alone. A simple matter of changing a perspective on a situation can change you from experiencing feelings of emptiness and inadequacy, to realising your worth through introspection.
It can open up your eyes to the opportunities in front of you, things we selectively ignore because we are so fixated on one problem, so mentally consumed in one small fraction of our life that isn’t going the way we like. It allows us not to become lazy and comfortable with the knowledge we have ‘someone’ who will ‘always be there’, and forces us to pay attention to who and what is around us, to be more attentive and appreciative to the present moment and world.
Becoming self-reliant involves learning “how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center; how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel.”
Instead of competing with others, or looking outside for validation, compete with yourself. Set little hurdles for yourself to overcome or small goals you can achieve, mentally and physically.
For me that meant taking up running and zoning out for 30 minutes everyday, focusing on the physicality of the whole process. When I am sweating and my heart is pounding through my chest, I feel alive and amazed that my mind can really triumph over my tiring body.
It meant going for a walk by myself for the first time in years to get coffee, sitting in the cafe by myself, and drinking my coffee alone. I didn’t sit on my phone, I just listened to music, looked out the café window and sipped on my delicious Mocha.
I am a big advocate of mindfulness, despite being only new to it. It is something I have started doing regularly on the advice of a good friend, when I went to him during a time of real internal upheaval on my part. I have felt it to be a rewarding exercise.
Taking 5-10 minutes to just zone out and focus on sensations you may not usually pay attention to has been largely therapeutic for me. The other day, mindfulness meant playing some Kygo and listening to all the different instruments and components to the song that my ears glossed over the many times I previously enjoyed the music. I can’t explain why, but I felt an overwhelming sense of joy discovering new things about this song I supposedly heard hundreds of times before. It taught me how to apply a new level of awareness.
I try to transpose these techniques to awareness of my mind and my thoughts. I find that introspection will work when you sit and think about yourself, and pay attention to where your mind wonders when you close your eyes, asking yourself ‘why is my mind going here’.
It can be really scary. Often your biggest insecurities, your paranoias, they all surface and you have to acknowledge and process these issues your mind usually glosses over and ignores.
Feeling vulnerable and hyperaware of my thoughts makes me feel freer, because otherwise, I find I don’t really process my feelings. They can then surface as negative feelings like anger or irritability, or present as acting out at the weirdest moments. I would usually lob these moments under the umbrella of ‘I don’t know why I feel like this!’. We always know, we just need to be attuned to our thoughts and actions to process them in a more effective manner.
Don’t sit around and wait for people to change your life because you will only set yourself up for disappointment. Rather embrace the ebb and flow, the uncertainty, the good and bad, and rely on yourself.
This isn’t meant to sound cynical toward relationships. I feel incredibly lucky every morning when I wake up and know I have the people I do in my life. I have beautiful parents and grandparents, and glorious mates to share my life with.
So remember, you are an amazing person and when you love yourself and are sure of the person you are, what you represent and what you have to offer, you will attract people like a crazy strong magnet. These people and relationships wont be fillers for voids in your life that you may or may not even be aware of, but just additional elements that enrich your life for you!
Letting go of attachment and expectations is difficult. But if you make a point to make it a priority for yourself, you will slowly experience a new level of freedom that will open up an entire world of happiness that is waiting to be explored within you.