Tip: Take responsibility before you push everyone away.
My first ever “relationship coach” was this incredibly cool woman named Erin. She exuded everything I felt like I lacked: confidence, feminine embodiment, warmth, love, and kindness.
She was the kind of woman that everyone wanted to be around. Everything appeared to come naturally to her. She had such an effortless magnetism.
When I got the opportunity to choose my one-on-one coach during my coaching program, she was who I eagerly requested.
My first call with Erin was approaching, and I suddenly found myself increasingly nervous.
I kept trying to talk myself down. “Molly, you wanted to work with her. You like her, you admire her. What’s the problem? She’s not scary, she’s really loving, remember?”
We started having our calls and I’d see her in person once a month, but it never got easier. I still felt incredibly shy and awkward around her while simultaneously wanting to be in her presence.
Erin was pure love. Pure joy. She really could do no wrong. Her essence was unconditional, judgment-free, full of love, kindness, and acceptance.
As someone that’s experienced a lot of trauma and dysfunctional relationships I didn’t have a lot of experience with honest, no-strings-attached love and compassion. I didn’t know how to be kind to myself either.
My inner dialogue was always vacillating in extremes—either I was the biggest piece of crap in the universe or I was the best at everything and untouchable. An intense superiority complex was hiding a deep well of shame, but Erin was like a breath of fresh air to my soul. She was someone who ended up being a big part of my healing journey.
One day, she saw me and said, “Molly, I love that coat!”
This? It was only $20 at TopShop!
I immediately tried to get the attention off of myself and also invalidate that my coat could possibly be nice—it had only been $20.
See, receiving compliments was challenging. A lot of focused attention on me, even just for a minute, sent me scrambling for words.
Could it be that perhaps someone didn’t think I was a giant piece of crap like my internal dialogue was so convinced of? Someone admired something about me?
It was a whole internal spiral I was sent in every time someone paid me a compliment.
The opposite of internal freedom.
This time not only was it a compliment, but it was a compliment from Erin, someone who I knew deep down really meant it and who really cared about me. It made it 10 times more vulnerable.
She very lovingly said, “Molly, even if your coat was 99 cents, it’s still very lovely and it looks really good on you. Let some of the love in, okay?”
In that moment I was slowly dying of embarrassment. She had called me out and I knew she was right.
I started to take stock of all the times I did something like this—deflect attention off myself or reflexively argue with the person trying to give me love or affection. There was fundamentally something inside me that needed to prove I couldn’t possibly deserve kind attention and that I needed to go to battle with them.
It was hugely illuminating as to why all my romantic relationships were exhausting and unfulfilling.
I couldn’t even let someone love me when they were actively trying!
A few months later, a boyfriend of mine told me, “Molly, when you don’t open and receive me, I don’t have anywhere to put my love, and I feel crazy.”
It was a heartbreaking realization.
I was my own worst enemy, blocking and pushing away the thing I wanted most: love and loving attention from a loving partner.
If you’ve experienced a great deal of trauma, abuse, or dysfunctional relationships early in life, it’s likely that opening to receive love or trusting and believing you deserve unconditional love and kindness will be difficult.
It doesn’t mean you should hide away in isolation or avoid all forms of intimacy.
Yes, maintaining healthy relationships may be more challenging for you and take more work than the average, non-traumatized person but there’s some simple steps you can take to ensure that you have a real shot. You’re worth investing in to have the love you want and deserve.
It Starts With Self-Awareness
When Erin pointed out my knee-jerk reaction attempting to invalidate the love she wanted to give to me, it opened a whole new world of awareness. I’m grateful she so skillfully helped me to see this behavior.
What happens when someone tells you you’ve done a good job? Do you contract and withdraw? What does it feel like in your body? Tight, nervous, stiff? Or are you able to stay conscious and say, “Thank you!”
If your go-to immune response is to say something like, “Oh no I actually got help from so-and-so” or “Oh, thank you, but this took me no time at all,” get curious. Small comments like that don’t actually let the compliment all the way in. You downsell yourself.
When we have more awareness in our everyday relationship dynamics, we can start to take personal responsibility for them.
Our awareness will allow us to “frontload” and have a conversation with a current or future partner that could sound something like this: “Hey, just so you know, I’m not always the best at receiving love and attention. It’s something I’m working on. It’s not that I don’t care or want and desire attention, love, and affection, it’s just that I need to go slow so I can actually stay open and remain present. If I receive too much at once, I may ‘check out’ or go ‘unconscious,’ and that isn’t good for either of us. My commitment is to communicate when I feel that happening and let you know what’s going on. You may need to be patient with me. I’ll do my best to call myself out and to stay open, but I also welcome you to say something and speak up if you feel like it’s happening too.”
When our partners know more about us and how we operate in our most intimate moments, they are better set up to win with us instead of feeling confused or hurt if we’re stuck in one of our patterns. It gives them a chance to open a dialogue and stay connected with us through the spot together.
Learn and notice when you’re starting to feel ‘full’ and what you’d need to digest
One year my very well-meaning boyfriend planned a big birthday weekend for me. Having the small capacity to receive love that I did, in combination with disliking my birthday and birthday attention, he was set up to fail.
After an entire day of preplanned activities, thoughtful gifts and notes from friends he helped arrange, and even an in-person surprise party with a custom cake, I was totally at my max for receiving and letting love in, but the weekend wasn’t over. He still had yet to drive me up to Santa Barbara for a night at a hotel I’d been wanting to stay at. He pulled out all the stops, but by the time we got to the hotel, we started bickering and arguing. I was finding problems with everything about the room, the night, our drive, and him.
The truth is, I was actually too full of love and attention and I needed to empty out and digest before I could let anything else in.
I made the mistake of not having enough attention on my system and not taking the necessary steps to empty out and take space. Everything he was doing was so loving, and I felt guilty for not being able to take it all in. I didn’t know how to communicate all of this to him and as a result, he became the target for the irritation my system was experiencing.
We’re so conditioned in our society to think that more is better, but actually, getting “too full” on the good can be a bad thing. It can be counterproductive to what you’re trying to achieve. In my case, too much good left us with a night of arguing instead of enjoying a loving birthday celebration weekend.
We’re also conditioned to think we have to graciously receive everything well-intentioned that people do for us, but sometimes the kindest thing you can do is say thank you and then take the space or communicate the boundary you need.
The goal is to catch yourself before you get “too full” and express what’s going on. It requires that you have a really keen awareness of your own experience and internal system.
In all honesty, hours before we left for Santa Barbara, I should have said, “Babe, this has been the most amazing day. You are so thoughtful and loving and have made this day so special for me. I don’t want to start an unnecessary fight, so I think I need a little space to digest all this love before we leave for Santa Barbara.”
Maybe for you, you start to experience this on day three of a family vacation when you realize you’ve had too much time everyone. It may occur as irritation and wanting to blame everyone else but likely you’re just “full” from all that time together.
Or perhaps it’s on hour two of a date and you’re feeling “full” from all the attention, questions, and time at the restaurant, and you start to feel antsy and want to go.
Start to get curious and notice when in an experience you start to feel a “peak” and what it feels like you need in the moment.
For me, I need space. I need alone time from who I’m with or I need to do something to move the energy out of my body. It might look like going for a walk, doing a workout, or journaling.
Something great you can do is to call a friend and ask if you can share about your trip or date to literally verbally digest and process the experience with them.
Or maybe it’s yard work, dishes, or cleaning.
Whatever it is, it’s your responsibility for handling your own system and doing what you need instead of taking it out on your partner because you’re at your capacity.
Awareness is key, and learning what activities help ‘empty you out’ will make you better at receiving and letting more love in instead of feeling like you need to push people away.
Create and engage in a routine of practices that will enable you to expand your nervous system
Opening your capacity to receive or let love in is essentially a practice of expanding your nervous system. Receiving love, attention, and affection is an experience of allowing increased sensation into your body.
Something like mediation or any mindfulness activity is a great first step. Meditation is a practice of training yourself to stay with yourself through whatever experience you’re having during a sit. It’s a slow and nuanced process of learning to remain in your body even if you’re having an uncomfortable thought or feeling.
Yoga is also a great option. The art of learning to breathe and stay through a difficult posture or when you’d normally want to fidget.
You can even create an agreement with your partner to share one uncomfortable truth every day and agree to stay connected no matter what gets said. The push to express yourself more overtly when you’d otherwise remain silent should allow you to experience more edges and depth than if you withheld.
Remember, learning to receive love and allow others to love you is a lifetime practice. It’s important to remain patient and kind with yourself if it’s an area you struggle in.
Self-awareness is key. Learn to take responsibility, share with your partner, and integrate mindfulness practices into your life, and watch as your capacity for sensation expands.