How to engage with the world again after a difficult start in life
April 10, 2010 8:05 AM   Subscribe

How to increase my confidence, engagement, risk-taking, and openness in the world... I feel like a phrase I read once: "she had all of her emotional widgets broken off one by one". (long)

This is hard to write about and I may not be writing this very well, but here goes.

My childhood: alcoholic, pothead, self-centered father; bi-polar mother who raged and hit. To give you an idea: I didn't realize that there were parents actually cared for their children and wanted to spend time with them until very recently. I still find it kind of jarring. To make matters worse, I probably had an undiagnosed sensory integration disorder -- I was very socially awkward and didn't understand social cues. I was suicidally depressed from the age of 9; no one seemed to notice or care. (Seriously, I showed my primary school teacher suicidal poems and no one even thought to get me help?) At this point, I don't talk to my parents anymore, and my life is much better for it.

My young adulthood: dated someone who turned out to be a sociopath. (No kidding -- I could tell you stories that would terrify you.). He was extremely controlling and forced me into a career I did not like. I met him at a young age so he was instrumental in my development.

After we broke up, I dated a series of quite nice, normal guys, but none of the relationships worked out; they all ended up dumping me for one reason or another. (Seriously, like 6 guys in a row. I'm still friends with all of them -- but no one can explain why, other than: it just didn't feel right. And these are quite smart, articulate guys.)

My extended family was no help at all. They wouldn't support me when I needed help with my parents, nor help me leave my abusive ex, nor help me with school fees. They maintain the illusion that we have a "happy family" and one family member (one of the nicer ones, actually) has gone so far as to make me leave his house when I mentioned some of these issues. I wanted him to be like a surrogate parent for me, but he wasn't up to it. Since this incident, I haven't reached out to anyone in this way again.

Every single person I have ever trusted has let me down -- every one. I know there are billions of other people in the world, and I try to keep my heart open, but it's very hard.

I know what you are going to say, and I have been in therapy and have a therapist right now. I have a lot more context on these issues: I now know I was abused, it wasn't my fault, etc. etc. I read a lot of self-help stuff.

I don't think you would know any of this to look at me. I can function in society. I have a good degree, hobbies, etc. I love myself, I do things I enjoy, I have good alone time, lots of friends, etc. I went to college as a mature student and had a great time.

Now, it's time for me to find a career and a mate and have another go at life.

I want to be fully engaged with a career, but I have a hard time choosing one and committing. I want to be partnered with an amazing person, but I don't know how to do it or what's gone wrong.

So, what is my question? I guess, how to open my heart, how to choose and pursue goals with confidence, how to move forward in life.

Thank you for reading.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The want, the desire for those things is very brave all in itself. You have put out the desire, now let your new adventures in love and happiness unfold. I have faith that they will.
posted by marlys27 at 8:19 AM on April 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Consider yourself healing from the things that happened to you (nothing "broken off" so much as being repaired) and, since you have a good understanding of what happened to you, trust that you will not only attract and encounter healthier people and better situations - but will engage with such. Being able to identify the culprit (and realize that none of this is your fault, which it seems you do) is half the battle. As for the relationships with the healthy guys that didn't work out, that's not necessarily a symptom of anything so much as "dating" in general. The fact that you have remained friends all is a healthy sign (in other words, very few people date just one person and remain with them for the rest of their lives).

Good luck.
posted by marimeko at 9:11 AM on April 10, 2010

none of the relationships worked out; they all ended up dumping me for one reason or another. (Seriously, like 6 guys in a row. I'm still friends with all of them -- but no one can explain why, other than: it just didn't feel right. And these are quite smart, articulate guys.)

People are just really ... really ... bad at explaining why they're breaking up with someone -- especially (but not only) to the person they're breaking up with. Either they don't give a reason, or they give "reasons" that are disingenuous, irrelevant, or unclear. This is true even (especially?!) with "smart, articulate" people. None of this is about you specifically.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:26 AM on April 10, 2010

I could have written this about my life - especially about the desire to still reach out to family members who reject me for not putting a smiley face on the farce that is/was our abusive family of origin. Who knows their core problem? Probably cowardice, dysfunctional thinking, general laziness in confronting reality... It's all round disappointing and I feel for you, and know how you feel. It's so lonely to feel that there is no back up in life.

Relationships end for all sorts for reasons that can't be articulated, like Jaltcoh says. I'm going to suggest that attuning to others, especially intimate others, is difficult for you. That ability has been disrupted, hurt and lost during your poor parenting. It needs attention and coaching - therapy will help so it is great that you are seeing someone.

I believe that when you have had to put on a mask of a 'false self' to survive a neglectful and violent upbringing, it is exhausting. It is hard to be truly honest and self-possessed with others, especially those who enter our intimate space. Gradually shedding that false/public self through therapy is how I have tackled this issue. It's painful at times, but I try to accept difficult emotions honestly and communicate as honestly as possible with others. Long cherished friendships have fallen by the wayside at times, but better, more honest and supportive relationships have taken their place. I stopped my natural impulse to lie about things like my true feelings, thinking they were invalid or too risky. Keep trying to be honest with your emotions.
posted by honey-barbara at 9:51 AM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

So, what is my question? I guess, how to open my heart, how to choose and pursue goals with confidence, how to move forward in life.

Which goals? Move forward in life, towards what, specifically?

The rule of thumb is this: Confusion and uncertainty come from insufficient specificity; if you think you have an answer, make it more precise, until you find the factor that you're uncertain about... then find out what you need to get that factor clarified. Getting that factor clarified will get you moving forward.

>> I want to be fully engaged with a career, but I have a hard time choosing one and committing. I want to be partnered with an amazing person, but I don't know how to do it or what's gone wrong.

Your questions seem to be rooted in not knowing how you know.

Here's an odd exercise that may or may not benefit you.

Go to a restaurant, preferably you haven't been to before.

Look at the menu.

Notice when an item seems delicious.

Notice when an item seems not that interesting.

Now notice the difference between these two experiences:

What do you do internally, when you want something? How do you picture it differently from when you don't want something?

How do you talk to yourself differently from when you don't want something?

What internal physical sensations are different, from when you don't want something?

Collectively, these processes tell you what you want.

Now that you've noticed how you know what you want and don't want-- at least on an instinctive level-- apply these to larger and more abstract goals.

Think of some things you might want-- how do you respond, internally, to each of them? Which ones give you stronger responses?

When you find an impasse, or a conflict, or you still "don't know", assume that it's because you have competing goals, or goals conflicting with beliefs about either what should be or what is likely to be. Figure out what they are and write them down.

Then start going through them, logically-- you'll probably find lots of hitherto unexamined assumptions, because we pretty much all have such assumptions (they just differ from person to person, and context to context).

And after you clear out more of the underbrush, again, ask yourself what you want and don't want.

Your objective, again, is clarity and specificity-- working out the details and implications of what you might want, as fully as possible, will help shed light on what specific things you really do want... and how to move forward and get them.
posted by darth_tedious at 9:55 AM on April 10, 2010 [21 favorites]

lakerk, the OP had an abusive family, horrific childhood and sociopathic ex-partner. I don't think suggesting that OP somehow caused any of these situations is at all helpful. It would be comforting to believe that runs of bad luck only happen to people who somehow Do Something Wrong, but the universe really doesn't work that way.

OP: You say you have a hard time choosing one career and committing to it, but you'd really like to have a career you feel truly dedicated to (if I'm reading you right). On this, I think choosing and pursuing a goal with confidence is something that might come a little easier if you think about what your desired outcome looks like. What does it mean to pick one career that you're enthusiastic about? Does it mean that you're 100% dedicated to that career, never have doubts about whether it's the right thing to do, never find any of it boring or frustrating or repellent? Because if that's what your brain's telling you, it's setting the bar unrealistically high; almost nobody's in that position, including many people who are dedicated to and enthusiastic about their careers. There will always be some doubts and worries in whatever goal you decide to pursue - but that doesn't mean you have to hold off on pursuing it until you've eliminated them.
posted by Catseye at 11:18 AM on April 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is just one tiny suggestion, but maybe you could volunteer with children in some way? Even just reading books at a kindergarten once a month. I think it might help you to open your heart if you knew that YOU could be the person someone vulnerable relied on, if YOU could be a person who was a GOOD influence in a child's life, and if YOU could be the person that someone needed.

I think a lot of your experiences, especially as a child, cast you in the role of someone whose needs were (epically) not met, someone who had nobody to rely on, etc. I think being that person for someone else, even in a small way, would help you to feel secure in the fact that you can be that person for yourself, too ... and that other people can be that person for you, too. Relationships require you to be vulnerable, and I think it's asking a damn lot of someone who went through what you went through to be that vulnerable. So I think it may help you to be the strong person for someone in need and let you BE the kind of adult who should have been in your life. That may help you learn to open your heart up to be vulnerable as well as strong.

Or possibly I'm talking out of my ass. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:43 PM on April 10, 2010

Sounds like you're doing good work. Even though you've overcome the worst of it, keep going. The bad news is that there's no trick to magically be done. The good news is that all this hard emotional work you're doing will give you great strength, resilience, and depth. If you keep it up, you'll end up finding a life that really makes you happy. Hang in there.
posted by salvia at 2:02 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

You say "Every single person I have ever trusted has let me down -- every one. I know there are billions of other people in the world, and I try to keep my heart open, but it's very hard."

You're definitely not alone in that feeling. And now you're super cautious about opening your heart to anyone.

I've been going through that for a while now with family and friends, etc.. I don't talk to them anymore and they don't call me.

I still have faith that there are reliable, caring people out there but like you said there are billions of people and we have a limited circle of interaction with people.

In my opinion, most people are NOT there for you when you need them no matter how nice they seem on the outside. Even if you've been there for them.

The only analogy that makes sense to me is that not everybody can be a doctor, lawyer, astronaut. Those people are relatively rare, even though there are lots of doctors, lawyers.

So are truly solid and reliable and real people. (I'm of course not saying that doctors, lawyers, etc are any better at that than the general public, its just an analogy).

There are just not that many people really emotionally aware and clued in.

So you don't really get them and they don't really get you. And worlds clash.

I agree with the one poster that its good to be specific. Really specific about things you want.

I'm moving forward from my messed up last 3 years but its a struggle for sure.

I'm just going to meet tons of people as friends but only let my heart fully open with people that are 100% on my wavelength.

Its only ended in frustration and clash of views otherwise.

About your relationship woes, just a suggestion to start reading more about relationships (not some magazine) but real books on what makes relationships work. Maybe there are a few things that are happening that you don't know and that's why they are not working out. I always try to accept that I might be wrong about my relationship views and am always willing to listen/read about a view even if I don't agree with it.

Sorry for the rambling.

I hope you feel a little comfort that other people are going through some of the same feelings as you.

At least it helped me a bit when you posted you question.
posted by simpleton at 2:23 PM on April 10, 2010

Fresh view, Great Idea!

Re-examine your degree with your current needs/wants, if it's something you can make a career with and be satisfied with your income, look for jobs in that field. Writing this stuff down btw helps a ton!

Since you are friends with your previous boyfriends, ask them to tell you unfiltered why they ended it. Because you will never know where you were unless you find out.

Start from these, you'll get more curious and it should be a snowball from there.

You're welcome.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 8:24 AM on April 11, 2010

Recognize how far you've come, how much you've learned, and the tremendous obstacles that have been in your way. Try to develop some compassion for the damage your parents likely suffered in their own families, and the fact that they have untreated mental illnesses. It will help you as you move on.

Most colleges have career services. Do some career-based testing. Work on your people-networking skills. It's a crappy job market, but you can prepare yourself for when the market improves.

As far as relationships, I'm crap at that, so no advice from me.
posted by theora55 at 1:05 PM on April 11, 2010

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