I was talking to a girlfriend last night about moving on. Though we never like to phrase it this way, she was looking for affirmation or apology from people who would never give it to her, and when it became clear that she was only going to bang her head against the wall in an attempt to get them to understand or listen to her, she blocked them from her online life and stopped engaging. I told her that this was the right thing to do, that it was a small example of the battles we fight every day to get people to hear us, but I admit that I have a hard time doing it in practice. While I could admire her ability to accept futility and turn away from it — even if she struggles with it, as we all do — I imagine it will be years before I’ll ever really learn what it means to willingly let go.
There are people who spend their whole lives going to the empty well of a distant parent, or a cruel friend, or an ex from whom they’ve never really moved on. There are whole relationships constructed around one party’s constant fight for approval, and one party’s goalpost-moving determination not to fully give it. When something great happens to me, I know that there are certain people from whom I’ll always wait for a word of congratulations, even if I know that it will never come. Somehow, the limited joy of hearing “good job” from a person who doesn’t really love you is maddeningly more satisfying than the unconditional embrace of someone who truly does. “Sure,” I think, when my parents or my boyfriend surround and support me, “But they always do.” Only if I force myself can I really stop to think about what that implies. Their love is as present as oxygen, invisible and irreplaceable.
I think a lot about what it means to be giving in relationships, whether with friends or partners or family. I want to give them reasons to stay with me, to feel like I’m a good person and that they’ve made a good choice to support me. But it’s always difficult to see the boundaries between being a giving person, and constantly making a case for being lovable. So many of my relationships in life — when I was more insecure, when I didn’t like myself, when I didn’t think I deserved much — have been about proving, over and over again, that I am okay. I remember being so desperate for a “cool” friend’s approval in high school that I would construct intricate webs of lies to make my own life look cooler, and more tailored to his tastes. I remember pretending not to hear a boyfriend’s cutting comments about my appearance or my lifestyle because I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t grateful that he stuck around. Once you have accepted the cycles of “love me, please” into your life, you’re never sure that you’re not doing it again.
The problem is only compounded by the fact that life is filled with this kind of longing for approval — from coworkers, from friends-of-parnters, from people you know online. From just outside my friend’s predicament last night, I could see how silly it all objectively was, and how her decision to disconnect was the only logical solution, but when you’re the one in the thick of things, nothing is easy or logical. To accept that a community you have invested in will never give you that welcoming feeling of reciprocity, to cut your losses and move on, goes against much of human nature. Who doesn’t want to be part of a tribe, or to choose someone and have them choose you back with just as much vigor?
Desperation is an ugly thing, but we’ve all felt it nipping at our ankles while chasing after someone who will never slow down for us. There’s an inelegance to it, an imbalance of power that makes onlookers cringe and eviscerates pride. When my friend told me that she had to disengage, and did, I thought of all the things in my life I’ve held onto in spite of my mental health and self-worth. I thought about the people who have moved on from our relationship and will likely never think of me again, because respect for me never impacted them in the first place. Accepting that they didn’t need me, no matter how much I tried to make them, is an embarrassing thing. But one day I will be confronted again with a tribe who does not welcome me, or a “friend” who looks at me with disdain, and it will be up to me to decide my own limits. And no matter how small it makes me feel in the moment, accepting that not everyone will love me will give me more time to focus on the people who always have.