(Apologies to Julio Iglesias.)
So you know that line, “it’s not you, it’s me?” A lot of times, it’s used when one person wants to get out of a relationship but doesn’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings by putting any of the blame on them and so they blame themselves. More often than not, the person using this line wants out of the relationship because they’re just not digging something about the other person, but they don’t want to come right out and say it. So they put the blame on themselves.
In other words, they lie.
Now I’ve never used this line myself, but I probably should have. Because in my case, it was almost always true. I was breaking off the relationship not because of them, but because of me.
…but I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll get back to this point later in this post.
Something I’ve learned recently: relationships are what tether us to this world. Relationships are our interface between our embodied, internal world and the world that exists just outside the border of our skin. And love is this interface spread wide open.
I’ve written before about how I don’t really know/understand love and I’ve posited that the reason for this is because I’ve never let myself experience love – me loving or me being loved.
I used to think of myself as a kind of passive, porous subject in space, waiting for love to come to me, waiting for an external object to come along to which I could meld myself through love. I thought that love would just seep into me as in osmosis. I thought that love would flow out of me as in diffusion.
In other words, I used to think that love was a passive thing. But I’ve come to realize that this isn’t the case.
I’ve come to realize that love is an active process, not a passive one, both in the giving and the receiving.
More significantly, I’ve come to see that I have been actively protecting myself from both loving and from being loved… but mostly from being loved.
I’ve come to see that I’ve built myself a fortress. And that I am alone inside.
Now I could go on to list the numerous ways and reasons that I’ve done this to myself, but suffice it to say that growing up, I had many ways to hide my true self, and many reasons to paint a pretty picture on the walls that kept people from prying.
And let me talk about that wall for a moment. Know who taught me how to build that wall? Primarily, it was a really strict religious organization I used to attend.
I’ve written before about how their teachings really screwed up my ideas about dating and sexuality, but I’ve come to see that the damaging effects of their bad theology and pedagogy go far deeper than that.
See, here’s the thing.
In addition to the dating/sexuality thing, they taught a really strict, particularly moralistic version of Christianity. They taught a view of God where God was an all-seeing deity who was always looking for the tiniest ways that we fell short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Of course the big things like entertaining lustful fantasy warranted God’s disgust and dismissal of us, but the same went for the little things – things like not reading the Bible everyday or not praying or swearing or listening to “bad” music or not listening to our Bible study leader (let’s call him Bill).
It’s as if God was on a hair-trigger pivot. Our job as Christians was to live in such a way that God would be pleased with us so we could keep God’s countenance turned towards us. We could only have a relationship with God when we lived righteously because that was the only time when God was pleased with us. But this hair-trigger God would immediately snap 180 degrees around any time we sinned in any way. And the back side of God radiated shame – shame that reminded us that we were weak and disgusting and not worthy of relationship with a glorious, holy God.
Our worth only came from God, but only when we lived in a way that didn’t repulse God.
Our Bible study meetings were times when we were supposed to confess our sins, all the ways that we had let God down and fallen short of the standards set up for us. It was a really shitty, humiliating time. It was perverse, really. The people who shared the deepest, darkest secrets were, at first, lauded for their openness and honesty, but immediately after, they were lambasted with shame – the group’s and God’s.
People can only take so much humiliation, but Bill had bucket-loads to dish out. I couldn’t take it, and so I learned to hide (I learned to build walls). But confession was something that was expected of me, and so I learned presentation skills (I learned how to paint my walls). Now Bill was a skilled inquisitor – he could sniff out when we were hiding secret sins and he would go on hunting expeditions to root them out. And so I had to become better at hiding, and I learned that the best way to hide a big sin was to tuck it into a smaller sin, but to talk about that smaller sin as if it were the big one.
For example, let’s say in the week before one of these confession times, I had struggled with lust (interpret that in whatever way you choose). That was a HUGE sin that would have reaped boatloads of shame and I sure as hell didn’t want that. And so before the meeting I’d scramble to come up with something else I could share (because everybody had to share something – not sharing meant you were hiding something really big and Bill would be utterly relentless in his pursuit of whatever it was). When it came my turn to talk, I had to do one of two things. I could either say that I had a good week, one where I read my Bible and prayed and didn’t do anything wrong (in other words, I could lie outright) or I could say something like, “God’s really been convicting me lately about how little time I spend in the Word. He’s [sic] shown me that I spend too much time watching television and listening to music and basically wasting time. I need to spend less time on shallow things like that and more time reading and memorizing scripture” (which wasn’t a lie, exactly, but I knew that what Bill really would have wanted to hear was about the lust, which I had cleverly slipped inside the phrase, “wasting time”).
This kind of stuff went down all the time. There’d be the “bad” thing that I knew I should share but instead, I’d either lie or share something else. And all the while, I had to be flawlessly convincing, because if Bill sensed that I wasn’t being forthright, he’d start to probe and dig and needle and if I couldn’t continue the lie, I would finally share the thing and then have to endure the double shaming of what I confessed as well as the sin of trying to hide it.
This whole process was supposed to teach me to be a better, more honest Christian. Instead, it taught me to be a masterful liar. I learned how to mimic vulnerability, how to feign authenticity. And I got really good at it, really fast.
Now let me be clear here. I realize now that I was hiding and lying, but back then, this whole process was transparent to me. It was a subconscious defense mechanism, at work deep beneath. I wasn’t conscious of how wrong Bill’s shaming process was, I just knew that I felt like shit when it happened. And nobody likes feeling like that so my body learned to protect itself through subterfuge. Hiding and lying and putting up a front became automatic.
Muscle memory teaches a boxer’s body to protect itself from blows without having to think about it. Emotional memory does the same.
Fast forward to today.
I’m in a much better place these days, as far as theology and community goes.
The analogy of the boxer is a good one. When self protection becomes a trained, unconscious, instinctual reaction, it doesn’t go away overnight or by itself. The emotional defense mechanisms I honed all those years back are still with me. In situations where I’m asked to share something of myself, without even thinking about it, the front goes up. I duck, I dodge, I lie. And I don’t consciously intend to, but I do it all behind a very convincing wall of authenticity. Remember how I had to learn to put up a front that Bill would believe – one that had to convince him that I was being real with him? I still do that. And I’m great at it. Bill made me into a world class emotional con artist.
Now here’s the thing. Remember what prompted this pattern of hiding and presentation? Bill asked me to be vulnerable, to share what was going on with me and my life, and when I did, I got my ass beat with the shame stick. And that hurt, so I learned to protect myself. See the pattern? Authenticity brings the pain of shame and so I learned to hide behind a clever mask instead.
That pattern got ingrained into me. It got metabolized into my style of relating, my way of being with other people. So now, even when my conscious brain tells me that someone is safe and that they want to get to know the real me and that they’re not going to hurt me, my subconscious brain doesn’t believe it. This part of me still cowers before the shame stick, even when it isn’t there.
Think of it this way. It’s like I go through life with a bubble around me. On the outside of this bubble is my presented self – the aspects of me that I radiate towards the world. It’s a carefully controlled, carefully crafted presentation. It looks like a real self. It acts like a real self. It’s a sophisticated surface that appears confident and smart and funny. It presents vulnerability seamlessly, preemptively. Most people see it and think, “wow, Randall’s a really with it, well put together kind of guy.”
And that’s what they see because that’s what I want them to see.
But every once in a while, someone gets up close, puts their face up to the surface and tries to peer beneath, beyond. They want to move past the defenses to the me that’s underneath. Thing is, whenever this happens, the actual, authentic me inside the bubble is cowering in terror, because in the past, when people like Bill muscled their way past the surface, I got the shit beat out of me.
And so to finally return to where I started this post, this dynamic goes a long way in explaining why I’m still single.
Because what is love? What is intimacy? What’s the whole process of dating about? It’s one person getting to know the person behind the presentation and doing the same towards the other.
The thing is, everyone has a surface self – the self they present to the world. When the bank teller asks, “how are you doing?” It’s the surface that replies, “I’m doing well, thanks for asking.” And we need that don’t we? Can you imagine how strange life would be if everyone was always their real, authentic selves? We’d never get anything done.
Our real selves are supposed to be reserved for our good friends and the really real self is reserved for the ones we love, the ones who love us. In a way, dating is just the process of peeling back these layers. If someone likes our surface and we like theirs, we go a bit deeper, we share more of ourselves, we open up more, and they do the same. This process continues, slowly and carefully, and if it turns out we’re really into this person and this person is really into us, we come to see that we’ve found a safe place where we can reveal more and more of our vulnerabilities – the truly sensitive parts of us that we normally hide from the world. To put it plainly, we can be naked with them and not feel shame. (And it’s no coincidence that this section can be read on a physical as well as an emotional level).
This process is supposed to feel safe and warm and freeing. It’s supposed to feel like that scene from 500 Days of Summer where Joseph Gordon-Levitt is dancing in the streets and everyone is dancing with him.
Unfortunately, for me, when I find that someone I like wants to get to know me – the me behind the bubble – the scene that plays out in my head runs more like the scene from The Shining where Jack Nicholson is battering down the door with an axe.
And so I run, just as things are starting to get good. And this doesn’t happen months into a relationship, it can happen right away, just a few dates in.
Because again, the thing about dating relationships is that they’re all about getting beneath the surface. But for me, all I know is how to present my carefully honed, well crafted surface. The me that’s inside is far too terrorized to come out and so as I begin to date someone and sense that they’re getting close, that they want to peer beneath the surface, I get triggered. In my internal world, alarm bells start going off, an all alert gets sounded, and I go into lock-down mode. In the external world, I find some lame excuse to not ever go out with this person again. And they’re always lame excuses. Because apart from the terror of my interior world, there are seldom any good reasons for me to break things off.
It’s a totally backwards, dysfunctional dynamic. I’m terrified by the very intimacy I long for and so I sabotage. I shield myself from the very person who longs to make my shields unnecessary.
And I suspect the women on the other end of this are wondering, “what’s going on? Why is he walking away just when things were starting to get intimate and fun?”
The only good thing about all of this is that I now recognize this pattern and understand where it comes from. It was rooted in awful theology which got branded into me by white hot shame. Through this process, I learned to protect myself through stealth and avoidance – strategies that were so well rehearsed, they became second nature.
For the longest time, I didn’t understand why I ran from relationships. I didn’t understand because that’s the thing about deeply ingrained defenses – they’re reflex, they’re automatic, and worst of all, they’re transparent to the person repeating them.
But now I have eyes to see.
I know that the fear I have of vulnerability/authenticity will be with me for quite a while. The urge to flee will likely always be my first instinct. I’ll probably see a person’s longing for intimacy as a threat for a very long time. But the hope is that now I’ll be able to recognize what’s happening. And beyond that, the hope is that in the recognition of it, I can make the choice to ignore the terror, the instinct to project and defend.
My guess is that things might not go so well the first few times around. I picture myself on a second or third date (yeah, can happen that quickly) with someone. I see myself at a dinner table across from someone brilliant and alluring. I picture the moment when I suspect that this person who I’m interested in might also be interested in me – that she wants to take a peek inside the bubble. In that instant, I’ll feel alarm bells go off. I’ll feel that deep, primal, familiar terror. I’ll feel my defenses going up and I’ll want to run or hide.
So here I am, on this date that’s going well, and while on the outside I’m smiling and laughing and making witty conversation, underneath there’s a hurricane of terror screaming at me to bolt for the door.
My hope is that at this point, I’ll recognize what’s going on – that this is just an old, irrational pattern rearing its ugly head again. With this realization, I’ll excuse myself from the table and tell my date that I need to go to the restroom. I’ll walk away and cloister myself in a bathroom stall. At this point, I will not shame myself for what I’m feeling. I will not deny or dismiss what’s going on. I will breathe. I will tell myself that this person is not Bill, that she is not out to harm me, that it’s the opposite. I will tell myself that my fears are understandable. And I will tell myself that even if my fears still get the best of me and I continue to hide, even if I end up never asking this person out again, that there will be other people and other opportunities. Life goes on regardless of how this plays out. But this person is here now and perhaps worth the risk. And so I’ll tell myself to do the best that I can, to hide if I need to, but to try not to.
And then I’ll flush the (likely empty) toilet, make my way back to the table, and see what happens next.
I’ve written this post from the perspective of my dating life, but this fear and hiding plays out in many areas of my life.
I’m trying to restructure my way of being in the world. I’m beginning to understand that there are safe places where I can open up more of myself. My defenses aren’t a bad thing per se, but I don’t have to be on high alert all the time.
And so, to all the girls I’ve shunned before, I’m sorry. It wasn’t you, it really was me.
And to all the other people in my life who’ve been opening up safe spaces for me, thank you. I learning to let my guard down, but it’s not easy.
Indeed, it’s been a long December [but] there’s reason to believe, maybe this year will be better than the last.