Revisit, redress, restart, or: being complete within oneself.

Lately, I’ve been revisiting places that are connected with a lot of past pain. My intention wasn’t to test myself, although that was a happy side-effect, given the positive outcome. They’re just good places to go hiking, to have coffee and a piece of cake, or a burger and a beer, or a Glühwein–’tis, after all, the season. The pain is, predictably and in the most banal of ways, connected to a certain person of the male persuasion–but this is not about that story, which I’ve written elsewhere. This post is about the places. And the joy. And the ability to exist within yourself, with company or without.

It’s also about that most elusive of human goals: contentedness.

So, let me make myself comfortable, light a scented candle, and tell you all about it.

I went through a rough time last year. I’m not complaining – I’m rather lucky, after all. I had a great support system: a husband who loves me to pieces (although his high-functioning autism makes life hard sometimes), children who are a joy (although their anxiety or hyperactivity is often burdening), parents who accept me unconditionally, and friends who were there when I needed to talk. And, boy did I talk. You’ve heard of Dimitra. Several times. She’s the guest star of my life, really. She was always there when I needed her. What more could I want?

The answer is, time to myself, with myself, for myself. That’s what my therapist stressed, time and time again: you have to feel comfortable within yourself. You have to value yourself. You have to, yes, even love yourself.

“You have to travel alone,” Dimitra said. She was more right than she thought. Get to know yourself. It’s time well spent.

I genuinely love people. I have many friends, and they’re all special in their own way. It’s such a joy to be with them, share experiences, food, stories, walks, thoughts. But you need a good relationship with yourself to begin with, otherwise your self-criticism, self-loathing, self-deprecation, whatever it is that makes you less than infatuated with yourself, poisons all relationships with those around you. I’ve seen it happen. It happened to me.

When I took my therapist’s – and Dimitra’s – advice to spend time alone, something changed. First of all, I had some peace and quiet. Then, I realized I wasn’t bored at all. I could always find something to occupy myself with, be it books, writing, coloring, drawing, walking, swimming, or just plain lying around and enjoying some well-earned rest. And, finally, I realized that all my rejection sensitivity that makes me dread interactions with others is a reflection of how I see myself. So, I had to change my view of me. to look at myself in the mirror and be able to say, honestly and with conviction, “you’re absolutely fine the way you are.”

This is not selfishness. It’s basic common sense. We might think the expectations we have of ourselves are not the same as those we have of others, but that’s not entirely true. Expectations morph our understanding of the world. If you dislike, loathe, or disparage yourself, it shines through. And we all project, to a certain extent. Our relationship with ourselves dictates how we interact with others. If I hate my body, for example, I feel uncomfortable when eating, or when swimming. How can I fully enjoy myself and engage with my friends, then, at the restaurant or at the lake?

My friend Chet wrote this brilliant piece about joy. Joy by seeing your reflection in someone else’s eyes – that’s poetry! But, if I’m honest, this never expressed me, even in my days of self-loathing. The reason is clear: I never liked my reflection either.

These days, my joy comes from the inside. It comes from serenity. It comes from lying on wet leaves in the forest, alone and out of breath because I’m not fit enough to hike uphill, and looking at the sky through the foliage, and being at peace within my mind, because I accept. I accept I’m chubby and have no stamina, and that my body can’t cope with relatively simple things, and so I have to just lie there and enjoy the sky.

Joy also comes from sitting in a cafe with my friends and listening to their chatter, all the while feeling like I belong there, no matter if I have something to contribute to the conversation or not, because I am, finally, okay with myself. See, you can’t really have peace if you don’t make peace with all the parts of you that whisper to you how unlovable you are, or how objectionable your behaviour is, or how brash you are, and how not okay this all is.

Okay, maybe your parts don’t whisper that. In that case, you’re lucky. But mine did. The good news is: not anymore.

Revisiting places that are connected with pain doesn’t hurt me at all. Even when the pain was fresh and the wounds raw, the places didn’t hold any of the hurt. How could this be?

I think it’s because, somewhere within all that drama I put myself through last year, I learned to enjoy things with an eye turned inwards and a mind to savor all the joy in my environment. Today, I put this theory to the test: I returned to a place that is a landmark of last year’s pain.

The place is a small lake, and the last time I found myself in its vicinity was in January. To be precise, it was Saturday, January 16, and I went for a hike around it. It was frozen. The sun was shining. The landscape was an unbroken, otherworldly white, the air was frigid, the sun sinking between the trees holding an eerie quality in the silence. I walked and tried to reach that place within myself where whispers of you’ll be all right become true and convincing. But on that day, I wasn’t all right. Still, I learned something: I enjoy hiking alone. I enjoy it a lot. I could envision a day, after all the pain had dissipated, when I’d hike alone and I would be abolutely and unequivocally all right.

That day came ten months later, on the day I lay in the forest unable to hike uphill.

And what about today? Today, I didn’t hike alone. Sara and Christiane were with me, and it started snowing – big, fat, languid snowflakes – and we had a blast. We took photos. We ate and drank hot beverages. We froze while sitting there, at minus temperatures. We agreed we’d soon come back to that magical place, drink more warm drinks, eat more sweets and fries.

And what about the pain?

I’m glad to inform you, the pain has exhausted itself and left me to prowl for other victims. Because it never had anything to do with the place. Because I can and will be steadfast within myself, wherever I am, whoever I am with. Places can’t impose feelings on me.

Here, look at us three, enjoying ourselves in the cold!

Rejection

Have you been rejected? Do you know how it feels?

How about feeling rejected all the time, day and night, during every interaction? How would your life be if your brain interpreted every question, every hint, and the body language of everyone around you as a statement of their dissatisfaction, criticism, and, yes, rejection?

This has been my life for the past thirty years. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you,” a friend would say, and my brain would interpret this as, “I don’t want to spend another minute with you.” This can make communication with people rather cumbersome. You pull away, you try not to get hurt. Or you get angry or sad, bewildering your loved ones, who can’t see a reason for your overly emotional reactions.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria resembles Borderline Personality Disorder, and sometimes the two coexist, although RSD, I’d think, is more widespread in some way or form. Most people can understand to some degree the symptoms of RSD, and they can relate to the insecurities that produce it and stem from it. This is not what happens with BPD: in my experience, BPD is so exotic that most people just don’t get it. They keep bringing logic into the mix, not getting that reason is simply not accessible to the person having a borderline episode and that the faulty wiring in their brains can’t be circumvented by sheer willpower, calming down, and logical thinking.

My own experience with RSD is that I consistently skew the world around me to fit the self-negating convictions that got cemented in my brain early on. I don’t know what caused this: I do exhibit some borderline traits, but they’re mild, all things considered, even if they look rather intense to the layman. My mother, loving though she was, was also critical and concerned with appearances. I was a very emotional child, and this was discouraged. Don’t react like that! People see you! she’d say. In short, heed others, don’t heed your own needs. I learned to be ashamed of myself early on.

The perception of others’ rejection fuelled by one’s own bad self-image is hard to beat. If you feel unworthy, then pretty much everything others say or do can be warped to mean something negative. Even if someone says, “You’re nice and I like you,” as soon as you say something you perceive as dumb ten minutes later, you think, “Ah, that’s over. They’ll hate me now.” It’s a very unhealthy way to be in your brain. And I lived like that for ever.

This was compounded by my academic life. The PhD and then post-doc life is a string of people finding themselves in new environments, quickly building support systems, then going on their way to their next academic appointment. I never partook in all of this because I was literally unable to live on my own. Due to mental health problems, I’ve never been truly independent. I had my husband, who was there to provide a safety net. He still is, now that I’m officially taking care of my and my family’s mental health. My occupation right now is, strictly speaking, ‘housewife’. So I didn’t really enter the student communities I found myself in to the degree others did. I did, however make friends, some of whom stayed in my life in some form or other even when they moved away, and some of whom just didn’t. My default way of thinking was: people don’t keep in touch. People abandon me. When I made friends with other post-docs, I was careful to have low expectations: people just aren’t like me. They don’t devote a lot of their time or mental and emotional energy to the friends in their life. I’m just not as important to them as they are to me. Which, if you think about it, is another form of rejection.

Let us not dwell right now on how devoting too much mental and emotional effort to friends can break you in unique ways. The point is: was my assumption true? Does everybody leave me?

I had a long hard look at my relationships these past couple weeks. What I found when I approached the matter with as much objectivity as possible is the following:

I have three good friends in Greece. There were more with whom I tried to keep contact through the years, but they weren’t responsive. I don’t know why. Life? We’re all busy, I suppose. If you asked them, they might tell you they love me and truly want to catch up when I’m in Athens. But I don’t see any effort on their part. The way I think about it, you can’t claim to love someone and not send them a text in ten years. But: there are three people who I consider close friends. That’s a lot. There are also some with whom I reconnected after years, and I daresay some of those I might end up meeting again. Also nice. All in all, not as negative as I pictured it to be. Those three friends I trust completely, and I’m not exaggerating.

There are some from my Germany and France years, not all of them close, but nevertheless keeping sporadic contact. And then, there are some I’ve met through social media, and who are now important in my life. Of those, I talk with three pretty much every day, although two of them are in the States and I’ve never met them in person, and there are a couple more I’m fond of. The most important among those people is Dimitra, who’s been in my life for eight years and was the one that guided me through the long, drawn-out process of healing after my breakdown, mental-health-wise. I’m talking almost a decade of care here. What does this say about my claim I’m always being rejected or abandoned? Most people don’t have a free personal life coach on call, someone who loves and cares for them this much.

And then, there are the people I lost touch with. If I see this objectively, it wasn’t really always their fault. I’ve told you before: I’m a difficult person. Often, I’ve outgrown people (maybe they’ve outgrown me, it’s all relative). I don’t care to connect with them anymore. This happens. It happens to others, too. Just because I have a knack for perceiving lack of communication as rejection, it’s not necessarily true. Just because I always give (too much!) energy to many people outside my family, it doesn’t mean that it’s right. I did crash badly last year, after all. The burnout was definitely exacerbated by my tendency to help everyone with everything, even offer help when I was already too busy.

Well, I’m not doing that anymore.

In short: Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria makes you see the world in a warped way that doesn’t really correspond to the objective reality–or what could pass as objective reality in a world where everything is relative. Humans also have the tendency to gloss off wins but focus on losses. Minimising loss is the main focus of our brains (I recently read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Kahneman, which explains, among other things, how our brains perceive loss–wonderful book!) and it’s also the mother of several fallacies.

I don’t know if this helps you in any way. This was a personal account of what happened in my life. I’ve only been able to recognize the truth after serious help from loved ones and therapists. I don’t have a recipe to treat RSD. The only thing I can say for sure is that it needs time. After three decades of this, I’m still learning.


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“That, my friends, is a great book.”Rebecca Hefner, author