Unlovable

Lovable: of such a nature as to attract; deserving; amiable; endearing.

Unlovable: not lovable: of such a nature as to repel; undeserving; repulsive; hateful.

I imagine everyone knows what it’s like to feel unlovable, if only briefly. It is a sense of unworthiness, a belief that there is no possible way or reason you could be loved. It is a feeling, a sense, a belief I know well. Perpetuated first by shame, feeling unlovable has been my constant companion for the better part of the past two decades. It has influenced my decisions and behavior. It has stolen happiness and left wounds and saddened me more than once. And it has continued to feed that which birthed it: shame. It all comes back to shame.

Shame researcher Brené Brown defines shame as:

The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

It sounds an awful lot like feeling unlovable to me.

Why I believe I’m unlovable, my reasons for such a diagnosis, per se, has evolved over the years, following the opposite path of Dictionary.com’s definition of “lovable” as if it was a map: this way to hating yourself.

When I was unmarried and pregnant and was being shamed by friends and family and the Christian group I belonged to and my own beliefs in right and wrong, I felt undeserving of love. I felt lucky, blessed even, that the man who was both the father of my child and my rapist wanted to marry me despite my shameful, repulsive state. So I married him and stayed married to him for a long time. My family and friends who did stand by me, they were kind and good beyond all expectation and necessity because I didn’t deserve their love or support. I didn’t deserve anyone’s.

I carried that sense of undeserving  into and through all the years of my marriage. I felt that being pregnant before I was married was something I would spend the rest of my life fighting to make up for. I was already a perfectionist, but now I thought being perfect might earn back my ability to be loved. But every time I failed to be perfect, I also failed to be lovable.

And when I started a new church early in my marriage and wanted so terribly to belong, be accepted, be loved, I believed the lies my mentors told me and followed their guidance to a fault. The group was for married, Christian women with young families; the mentors were highly respected women in the church who had raised or nearly raised their children to adulthood. I felt honored to be invited to be part of the group and sure that if I did what I learned there, I could lessen my shame and be worthy of the love and friendship of the other women, and I could deserve to be part of my church.

One night we talked about sex, and the mentors told us that we were to have sex with our husbands whether we wanted to or not. They called it “sympathy sex” because we were taking pity on our husbands’ desires and needs. It was guidance I took heart, having sex with my now-ex-husband again and again, whether I wanted to or not, an act that has left me with nightmares. I believe now that if I hadn’t been trying so hard to be the perfect mom and wife and member of my church, to be lovable, I would have seen the fault in their words; I might have spoken out about them. God help the other women who believed them.

Today feeling unlovable looks different for me. I do think I’m deserving of love. Rather, why would anyone want to love me? I have a dark past. I’m anxious and emotional and intense. I experience PTSD-like responses to unexpected triggers as a result of past trauma. I’m not an easy person to have in one’s life. Some might say high maintenance. Repulsive.

And if you’re not already repelled, I’m divorced and have children. My ex-husband, the man who raped me, is still an irremovable part of my life because of my children. And if you want children, I not only don’t, but I can’t have them anymore.

I have so much that I carry with me. I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly want to love me. It doesn’t matter that I’m a good person, have a good heart, or have a nice smile. The fact that I work hard and pay my own way doesn’t improve my prospects either. I deserve love, but that changes nothing. I have come so far and fought so hard to get here, but I believe all those repulsive and repelling things cancel that out. And my shame forces me to ask, who would want to be with someone like me?

Today a man I’ve been dating, and have really been starting to care about, told me he only wants to see me once or twice a week, at most. He’s not into texting, though phone calls are okay, occasionally. He said he’s easygoing and calm and that I’m intense and emotional, and that this perplexes him. But he told me that I shouldn’t alter my behavior—that is, my desire to talk to him and see him more often, my penchant for texting, my efforts to plan ahead, my need for connection, my intensity—for him, that I should be who I am. Then he said he’s going to be who he is too and not alter his behavior either. I’m not sure where this leaves us.

I don’t blame him for needing his space and time. Everyone needs those things, and some more than others. I certainly can’t fault him for standing firm in who he is, something I’ve personally struggled with in my own life. Rather, it is the sense that he can only take so much of me that it gives, the implication that if I want someone who can give me more of his time and attention, I should look elsewhere, that is hard to cope with. It echoes my feelings of being unlovable. Did I really expect more? I want to hold on to his assurance that my caring for him is reciprocated. Isn’t it better for part of me to be loved than none of me? I’m not sure what the answer is.

I want to be loved so much. I want someone to look at me and see only me, not my faults or past or children or mistakes or tears. I want someone to love all of me. I’m just not sure it’s possible.

There is no moral to this post. I’m not writing tonight to say I’ve learned anything or grown or overcome or won my battle against shame today. I still feel unlovable. I imagine I might forever. But I’ll still get up tomorrow morning, and I’ll still try to find someone who could possibly love someone with my history and flaws and challenges, and I’ll still fall in love, over and over again, even if it means I’m likely to get hurt. So if I’m nothing else, I am at least brave.

Keeping a Handle on the Trigger

I haven’t written in while. It’s not that life has been quiet but that it’s racing past me. School has started for the year, and I can’t believe the summer is over. Vacations and work and counseling and memories and still taking days one at a time.

I am moving forward, healing, having more positive days than bad. But I’ve learned over the past months that it doesn’t matter how good my day is or how peaceful I feel or how long it’s been since I felt sad, I am still susceptible to the trauma of my past. It hides in words and faces and actions and tones and songs and voices. And, often, it’s only a breath away from being triggered.

I recently discovered the irretrievable loss of several documents as the result of my computer crashing last spring. I thought I’d managed to save all my files. It was frustrating and saddening. A friend tried to ease my disappointment by offering some advice: he told me to learn from what happened. He suggested I take a “lesson” from it. It was a harmless suggestion, merely encouragement to choose a different perspective. But it felt more like a slap that night.

I argued that I’d done nothing wrong, that I’d saved my documents, and that my computer had crashed on its own. He tried to explain it again, that he wasn’t accusing, but he used the word “lesson” a second time. I felt the shame go through me hot and fast and knew “lesson” was the word that had triggered it. I told my friend to stop using the word, shouted it. I needed to get away from the word and the feelings it caused. I needed to stop the physical reaction.

I started crying and I couldn’t breathe. I was shaking, panicking, afraid of I didn’t know what. The shame felt heavy and demoralizing. My friend became angry that I’d yelled, but I fought the urge to apologize. I focused on what was happening inside me, on stopping it before it was out of control.

Preventing, stopping, and coping with emotional and physical reactions to shame is something my counselor and I had been talking about less than a week before this happened. My assignment as I left that day had been to think about how I react to triggers, what triggers me, and how I calm down after being triggered. So how to manage my shame reaction that night was already something I’d been thinking about, and I realized through all the emotions, that I already had the skills and resources to calm myself down.

I started taking deep breaths, counting through them, a technique called box breathing. In for four, hold for four, out for four, and hold for four more. Repeat. And some time ago, I’d put together a shame first aid kit, with things to remind me that I’m lovable and a good person and worthy: a letter I wrote to myself saying these exact things, pictures of people who love me unconditionally, a rose quartz to remind me to love myself. There were also things for soothing and calming: lavender scented soap, notecards with breathing exercises, something soft to touch.

I pulled my first aid kit out that night and used it to calm myself down. I read the letter and did the breathing and looked at my friends’ faces and I relaxed. Then reason took over again: I’d done nothing wrong—I had nothing to be ashamed of. What my friend had said was just words.

After I was thinking rationally, I considered why the word “lesson” had triggered the reaction it did. It was simple: remarking that someone should “learn her lesson” is shame speak. Someone somewhere used those words to shame me.

I still didn’t apologize to my friend, but instead I explained what happed. I told him that when I shouted, I was feeling traumatized and attacked, and that I did what I needed to do to protect myself, to stop the panic and shame from breaking me down any further. I did what I’ve been slowly training myself to do. I understood that I was having a trauma reaction, and I identified the cause and got away from it. Then I used breathing and self-encouragement and loving myself to calm down, and I did it on my own. No one needed to remind me or guide me or encourage me. I took care of myself. A little less than a year ago, a trauma reaction took three days to overcome. This time, it took me thirty minutes.

I’m learning. I’m healing. I don’t do it gracefully, not yet at least. I shouted at one of my closest friends. I cried. I needed my shame first aid kit. But I did get through it.

I’ve grown from the experience. And even more importantly, I recognize what I’ve accomplished personally over the last year and a half. I know without a doubt today that I’m worthy, that I’m a good person, that I’m lovable. I know I deserve to have good, happy things in my life. I know that when the bad days find me, when the triggers are beyond my control, when I feel broken, I have everything I need to come back and be stronger than before. I believe everyone does.

If you’re doubting or afraid or ashamed, take a few deep breaths.  Look inside of you. Love yourself. Recognize that you’ve come this far. You did it. You are strong too.