Recently, a client named Abby reached out to me with a relationship issue I've encountered time and time again as a therapist:
"When I am single, I enjoy my life fully. I say yes to plans with friends, and I actively pursue my interests. I just got out of a long, turbulent relationship where I completely lost myself. Now I am getting to know myself again, I am learning to enjoy the simple things."
Abby is not alone in the experience of "losing herself" in a relationship. How many of us have heard something like this: I'm great when I'm single, but don't know how to preserve myself in relationships? Most of us, I'd imagine.
When we spoke, Abby wrapped up her thoughts by expressing doubt about future romance: "Thinking ahead to a new relationship, I have this belief that my fun will have to stop. I can't have a partner while also maintaining my own social life and interests. I feel like I must change and be more subdued, proper, attentive, and agreeable or else they will not love and respect me."
Her concluding question (which I'm sure many readers will share) went something like this: How do I approach a new relationship with the intent of keeping myself fully intact?
First, here's where I observe the presence of self-limiting beliefs in Abby's train of thought:
- As long as Abby believes that she "must change and be more subdued, proper, attentive, and agreeable or else they will not love and respect me," she will continue to abandon herself in relationships to "earn" love.
- By extension, it's essential to differentiate between love and validation. If you have to give yourself up to "earn" love, then what you are getting isn't genuine care. Remember: approval isn't the same thing as love. Why would you want to be in a relationship if you are not valued for who you really are?
Now, let's tackle the second portion of Abby's concerns: her goal of keeping herself "intact" in her next relationship. I'll begin by saying that even though Abby believes staying "intact" is her goal, it isn't her true intent. I'll explain further:
- The key word here is "intent." As long as Abby's intent is to have control over getting love and respect — rather than loving and respecting herself enough to not give herself up, she will continue to lose herself in relationships. Until she is willing to lose her partner rather than lose herself, she will continue to abandon herself to try to get approval.
- For anything to change, Abby needs to shift her intent away from earning love from a partner to loving herself and being able to share her love with a partner. When Abby explains her belief that her fun will probably have to stop in her next relationship, and that she won't be able to maintain her own social life and interest, she is providing clear examples of self-abandonment. After all, she is certainly not loving herself when she gives herself up to be more subdued, proper, attentive and agreeable.
Abby likely is operating from a very common false belief: that getting love and having control over getting love is what will make her feel happy, worthy, safe and secure. And that this is required in order to be in a relationship.
This is a conundrum, because we can never feel happy, worthy, safe and secure when we are abandoning ourselves. Because, once again, what's the point of a relationship if you have to deny who you are to get someone else's attention and approval? Relationships thrive when each person is fully who they are and receives love and support from their partner for all that they are.
So, back to Abby's question: how do you approach a new relationship with the intent of keeping yourself fully intact? The process is comprised of two basic emotional shifts:
1. Make a solid decision that giving yourself up is no longer an option.
You have nothing to lose by deciding to continue to be fully yourself in your next relationship and see what happens. Period.
2. Shift your intent from trying to get love to loving yourself.
You will have a much better chance of attracting a partner who loves himself or herself enough to not want to be with a partner who gives him/herself up to get love.
Now, the last question we face here is about the actual meaning of self-love: what is self-love, and how do you practice it?
Learning to love yourself enough to not lose yourself in the face of rejection, or the fear of rejection, is a major key in creating a loving relationship. Loving yourself means the following four things (among others):
- You practice mindfulness so that you learn to move out of your thinking mind and into your feeling body, so that you can be aware of your feelings.
- You decide you want responsibility for lovingly learning from and managing your painful feelings rather than ignoring them, judging them, avoiding them with various addictions, or making others responsible for them. You move toward your feelings with a desire to learn, rather than moving away from them.
- You open to learning about the false beliefs that lead to giving yourself up, and work with your higher self to receive inner support in being true to yourself.
- You practice being fully yourself with everyone in your life, so that when you are in a relationship, you've had enough practice to no longer give yourself up.
Loving yourself is the magical key to creating a loving relationship!
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