I had a good childhood, so why is love so hard for me?
This question used to keep me up at night, rattling around relentlessly inside my head. I felt like a fraud. I had loving parents. Nothing traumatic happened to me that I could recall. Yet I constantly felt myself struggling with romantic relationships, seemingly much more so than my friends.
I still vividly remember the bottomless void of depression and loneliness I felt after my first major heartbreak. I was 19 and he, a year younger than me, had just left for college. He decided he wanted to be single for this new chapter, and I felt the most overwhelming hopelessness I’d ever felt in my life. I was listless. An empty shell of myself. Life had lost its color.
My parents and friends tried their best to support me, but my depression was incorrigible. I could barely eat. For a while, this fit inside the realm of normal heartbreak. I received all of the compassion you’d expect after ending a multi-year first-love relationship. Yet my grieving process seemed to go on endlessly.
“Lauren, you’ve got to move on,” my best friend told me lovingly after I cried to her about the same feelings for months on end.
And eventually I did, but only by getting into another relationship. And then another. Yet each breakup would feel almost equally devastating. It would take me months, even years to feel like I was truly over the person. I was haunted by my pain and the constant, shame-ridden thought, I had a good childhood, why am I SO messed up? I knew other people had it much worse, and they seemed okay, so what was wrong with me?
My shame was worsened by a lot of the standard breakup advice:
The best way to get over someone is by getting under someone else.
It takes half the amount of time you dated someone to get over them.
Distract yourself so that you don’t have time to feel sad.
We’re often pressured by our emotionally constipated society to stuff or bypass our difficult emotions. Grief and despair are not openly discussed. Loss and death are often swept under the rug in place of easier-to-digest, copacetic platitudes.
Needless to say, none of these strategies worked for me. The thought of “getting under someone else” after a breakup made me want to throw up. I was always sad well past the “recommended” grief deadline. Distracting myself felt like trying to put a band-aid on a broken bone.
After a couple more soul-shattering breakups, I realized that I couldn’t keep living out this pattern. I stopped dating and started to delve into what was causing me to feel so egregiously not okay when I was alone. I was really hoping for a silver bullet. Perhaps something that would reveal itself during therapy or some forgotten memory that my subconscious would spit up during meditation. But I never found it.
Instead I learned, with patient persistence, that it doesn’t always take a Trauma with a capital T to inflict damage on your sensitive little self’s psyche. It was okay, normal even, to feel a slew of difficult emotions without an obvious Traumatic Event in childhood. When I read this from Gabor Mate, a trauma expert, it felt like a breath of fresh air, a validation of the struggle I had questioned for years:
“Trauma is not restricted to horrific experiences. It refers to any set of events that, over time, impose more pain on the child than his or her sensitive organism can process and discharge. Therefore, trauma can occur not only when bad things happen, but also when the parents are too stressed, too distracted, too depressed, too beset by economic worry, too isolated, etc. to respond to a sensitive child’s emotional need to be seen, emotionally held, heard, validated, made to feel secure. Such is the reality behind many a story of ‘happy childhood’.”
This understanding was monumental in allowing me to access a lot of difficult emotions that I had pushed down with the flawed belief that I shouldn’t be so upset over “nothing”. For me, that “nothing” turned out to be having an alcoholic parent, my nanny skipping town and never returning when I was two years old, and my younger twin sisters commanding my parents’ attention away from me.
These had always seemed like nothing to me, because I didn’t consciously remember these events and because they seemed like small fish compared to other people with “real problems”. But when I realized how these same pains of abandonment, loneliness, and being forgotten about replayed constantly in all of my romantic relationships, I understood how deeply I’d been affected. I came to accept how hurt and confused Little Me must have been while living through this.
Your trauma is probably much different than mine. Maybe you had a Trauma with a capital T and maybe you didn’t. Maybe your trauma happened a long time ago or maybe more recently. Maybe your trauma is from your family or maybe it’s from a soul-shattering breakup or other loss. But trying to assign a magnitude to your own trauma in order to determine how deeply or for how long you should be allowed to feel upset is inherently flawed.
We are all entitled to our emotional experiences, regardless of what caused them. Emotions aren’t up for debate, they just are.
The truth is, you may never make logical sense of why you are the way you are. Your emotions may never fit inside a schedule. But what if you can still accept yourself anyway?
The best decision I ever made for my emotional health was to just accept where I was. Accept that yes, I am still feeling a little wounded over that breakup a while ago. Yes, I still sometimes miss my dog that died five years ago. Yes I’ve cried over minor rejections. Yes I feel the crushing weight of loneliness at times. I stopped judging my emotions or trying to shoo them away for being of inappropriate magnitude.
Instead I started listening and getting curious about what my emotions were inviting me to heal. What I keep finding is just a wounded child, begging to not be cast aside. To be listened to and validated. To be told that it’s okay to feel what she feels for as long as she feels it. Once I gave myself permission to just feel how I already felt, I noticed that the despair and darkness started to pass through me, rather than staying stuck. I realized that the welcoming of all parts of yourself is what true freedom tastes like.
Finally, I was able to answer that relentless question— love was hard for me because I was shutting myself out. The moment I stopped, I saw that love was there waiting for me all along.