Those who are closest to me will know there’s been a lot of instability, stress, and anxiety in my life the last few years, especially during 2015 and 2016. Recently I hit a low point with a series of events that knocked my feet out from under me, including losing the sweet, tender, and dedicated woman I fell in love with. Since then I’ve been figuring out what to do next. The answer to that, as you may have guessed, is to live passionately. This means self-intimacy: understanding how I got here, accepting that, and turning inward for comfort rather than outward.
How did I get here? When I was younger, I learned to deal with anxiety in unhealthy ways. As instability and stress increased in my life as I grew older, it became overwhelming, and some of my strategies for escape became compulsive and self-destructive, and contributed to my current situation. Here’s what I’ve figured out so far.
Childhood and adolescent insecurity
As a child and then a teenager, I had difficulty finding social acceptance at school: I felt incapable at playing team sports and was usually last to be picked for the team; I was bullied frequently; and I felt awkward and uncomfortable in forming new friendships. Eventually I must have become insecure about how I was different from others. Recess, lunchtime, and gym class were difficult for me, because I was shy to mingle with groups of kids; I preferred to connect one-on-one. I’d usually sneak off into a corner or the library with a book to read, escaping into my own world. Secretly I longed to be popular.
My childhood and adolescence were not all bad: I had 3-4 good friends growing up and we had fun playing around the neighborhood and creating our own little projects. On my own, I became a strong runner, practiced triathlons, and became certified as a lifeguard. I dreamed big dreams, and developed plans for achieving them. But it always felt like a struggle for me to fit in with a group of my peers.
I found ways around that: I learned to socialize with others from a distance. First it was pen pals found in the backs of teen magazines who I’d hand-write letters to and send all over North America. Then, the Internet became accessible, and it was easy to make friends virtually. I could present the good side of myself and hide my social awkwardness. But the Internet brought with it its own pitfalls and dark alleys of escape.
From an early age, I developed a pattern of escaping the insecurity and anxiety caused by fear of social rejection. Books and the Internet offered me some refuge and acceptance. During my high school years, I changed schools four times, following a process of trying to find somewhere to fit in, while receiving a good education.
Understanding myself in adulthood
Coming into adulthood, things got a bit easier and I became more emotionally aware. I found more diverse groups of people and felt at ease with them, which gave me more freedom to be myself. I organized social gatherings and had girlfriends. Popularity felt nice. I experienced heartbreak, and learned about myself in the process, including the importance of open and honest communication. The concepts of intimacy and vulnerability seemed relevant but in my early 20s I didn’t understand how to make sense of them. But I did realize that I had work to do.
Going outside of my comfort zone was an important part of my personal growth process, and I tried new things and faced my fears. I learned new languages, traveled alone and explored faraway places, tried adrenaline-inducing adventures, practiced individual sports where I depended on no one but myself, organized big and fun parties, and got involved in the community. I devoured self-help books and kept a regular journal. As I grew older, I discovered what I was good at and where my weaknesses were. These good and happy and adventurous experiences also became part of the fabric of my life. In essence, I believe I created a life that seemed exciting to me and to others and which allowed me to escape.
Over time, living in so many different places exposed me to different cultures, social norms, and values, and it opened my mind. I found it easier to relate to people who were from other cultures, religions, and values and who didn’t speak English as a native language. I felt drawn toward people who were different from the mainstream, Western society I grew up in. With these people I felt like I belonged.
Moving from place to place also led me to feel like I had no home at all and meant I had few strong emotional attachments to tie me down. And as I moved, I collected friends all over the world, and found it difficult to stay close with all of them, especially as I moved again, and again, and again, through 8 different countries in 20 years, or attending 4 high schools in 5 years. Saying goodbye became routine. Eventually I realized that my constant need to travel and live in new places was another means of escape from the loneliness and boredom of the ‘real world’. The transient and unstable lifestyle brought with it a special kind of loneliness. And it was destabilizing.
At first, technology and social media made it easy to connect from all the places I was living in and this helped to deal with the loneliness. But it’s addictive, and in some sense it is a proxy for emotional attachment. You post happy photos, friends “like” them, they express their envy at your adventures and successes, and you feel good. The recognition provided acceptance. I had such a following on social media that it made me feel popular.
But I longed for authenticity and tended to wear my heart on my sleeve. I began to share myself openly as a way to create connection and acceptance and feel some sense of release. And, although I deeply valued solitude and connecting with myself, I continued to look for support and acceptance from others in place of building the inner strength to deal with my anxiety on my own.
Coming to terms with how I deal with anxiety
Throughout my life I’ve found many ways to escape from anxiety and make myself feel better. The natural highs offered by these experiences offered me distraction and a form of acceptance. While they are not necessarily destructive or negative, I am an intense person and sometimes pursued these escape routes to excess in ways that were unhealthy, forgetting about time to heal my soul. Especially during these last few years as I dealt with emotional and mental burnout from years of travel and long working hours, these escape routes became my only relief.
These compulsive patterns were magnified in my relationships and led to a series of breakups with kind, generous, patient, loving women who I cared deeply for and had the desire to start a family with. A pattern that emerged was that if I didn’t feel accepted by them – for personal reasons that might seem odd to the outsider – I would feel rejected or take it as a sign of a lack of emotional intimacy. Being loved was a form of acceptance and allowed me to forget the anxiety. But if I doubted the love, the anxiety would jump right back. This would cause me to pause, step back, and sometimes, step away. In some cases I would push harder, trying to ‘fix’ things or reconnect, and push my lady away. And of course, one constant was my escape routes. So, as you can see – it contributed to a vicious cycle.
Funny thing is that for the last 8-10 years of my life, I’ve spoken and written at length about the importance of “intimacy” and living passionately to almost anyone who will listen. I feel embarrassed to admit that I only recently came to understand what this really means. I realize now that true self-intimacy means being able to understand, accept, and love yourself for who and how you are in the real world. This is the essence of self-love, I think. If I am wrong, someone, please shout loudly at me!
Also, intimacy in relationships means being able to openly and honestly reveal yourself to another person without seeking their acceptance, because your own self-acceptance is good enough. It does not mean you are unwilling to change, it simply means that you accept who you are now. This is also how you know a person is right for you, because they accept you for who you are, and do not try to change you.
Getting to self-intimacy
The reason I’ve been able to get to this level of self-intimacy is because I engage in reflection and introspection on a regular basis. That’s part of the living passionately equation. I understand myself well, but have struggled to accept that I am a flawed human being. While I am good at identifying my problems, facing them consistently is a challenge. Giving other people advice is easy, but following my own is not so much. These are the parts that I have been missing in my journey of living passionately.
I’ve seen a lot of good in my life, which I’ve often shared on here. I count myself lucky to have had many close and beautiful friendships and relationships, to have been able to learn new languages, to have had the courage to challenge and pushed my physical and psychological limits, the good fortune to have traveled to dozens of countries and seen fantastic things, and privileged to have had the ability and the connections to be able to help people in need – one of my greatest passions.
The tough lessons and negative experiences I have had have given me great strength and confidence and knowledge about many areas of my life. They’ve given me insight into who I am and why I am the way I am. Until now, they’ve helped me be resilient and bounce back from life challenges. But now I need to get back to basics. I need to figure out: What next? How do I bounce back from this – what is arguably one of the most challenging struggles I have faced?
Charting the path ahead
Today, I feel as if my future is uncertain: I am finding it hard to let go of the love I felt and lost. I am trying to find the strength to move on and forgive myself for my mistakes. There are questions about my career path and direction, and how to best use my education, skills, deep curiosity for the world, and longing in order to help others. The challenge ahead for me is to find a way to let go of my tried and tested escape routes, while continuing to enjoy the life I love, face anxiety head on, and have a loving, secure, forgiving relationship. Part of this will involve spending more time with myself, engaging in a healthier lifestyle.
So this is part of my dark side. If it sounds quite negative, that’s because it is. But the truth is, it feels good to be aware of it and to admit it. This is an essential step for me to be able to deal with it, to be able to accept myself, and to not be ashamed.
If I am going to beat my darkness, I need to first shine a light on it and then walk through it, and come out the other side.I am human and I made mistakes. I will forgive myself, I will learn from those errors, and I will come out ahead. That’s self-intimacy. That’s living passionately.
[This post was inspired by: recent conversations with my sister Cathy, my mother Maureen, my friends Penka and Shany, and my therapist; a fortune cookie I received at a Chinese restaurant in Lincoln, New Hampshire; and a silent retreat at a prayer house in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec.]