I can still remember being in an AA meeting, sitting in a damp, drafty church basement, and hearing the speaker say: “If I cut you out of my life, it’s probably because you handed me the scissors.” For years, I believed this to be true because it allowed me to remain naively sanctimonious and absent of blame for the demise of any relationship in my life. However, the older I get and the more wreckage of friends and family I leave behind, I can no longer deny that I have been equally culpable for cutting people out of my life.
I have noticed two distinct self-destructive patterns that continually sabotage my relationships, and my mental wellbeing in general. For starters, I push people away when I perceive they are getting too close to me. Moreover, whenever I need help most, I have a tendency to retreat into isolation, and that inevitably exacerbates the problem. I decided to dig a little deeper into to what, if any, patterns are at play in my retreat to isolation.
Without a doubt, my behavior to push people away is governed by a defense mechanism that we all have, but one that takes a more dominant role in certain people’s lives. This can be demonstrated with an example we are all familiar with. A child is running and trips and scrapes her knee. The mother rushes to her side and picks her up in a reassuring embrace. Often, that child inexplicably lashes out at her innocent mother and hits her. Why? As an adult, when I react in this way, it is from a place of vulnerability, and often those feelings are enmeshed in shame and embarrassment. When I’m emotionally fragile, I react like a wounded animal — I want to crawl into a hole and be left alone. Sadly, that’s the time when I should be reaching out to that helping hand, not burying my head.
Another pattern behind this behavior is the sense of control, no matter how illusionary it may be, I get from pushing you away. If I take stock of periods of my life that were most chaotic and out of control, these were the times I actively made my social circle smaller. Connected to this behavior is a “secret test” of which you are an unwitting participant. By pushing you away, it’s as though I were testing your loyalty to me by determining if you’re willing to fight to keep this relationship alive. This is a vicious cycle that has characterized my toxic relationship with my mother for years.
At risk of sounding like a reductionist, I have to admit that if I delve deep enough into any problem in my life be it either self-reflective or interpersonal, I invariably find the ugly face of shame hiding in the shadows. I’ve been writing a lot about intimacy the past few months and the bedrock of trust, patience, and empathy upon which it is built. The parts of me that I hide from you are at times, too painful for even self reflection. These are the feelings that lie deep within, fester, and bubble to the surface as rage, inadequacy, and fear. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “If you only knew the real me, you’d want nothing to do with me.” These intense feelings can appear overwhelming and insurmountable, and historically I’ve needed professional help to knock down these walls I’ve constructed to keep you out.
If I’m to nurture a more fulfilling life based on authentic connections with a broader circle of family and friends, I believe there are a few challenging questions I need to ask myself before deciding to end a relationship or push someone away. First, am I reacting out of a bruised ego or an affront to my self-esteem? Whenever shame enters the equation, the cards are stacked against fostering any hope of a sustainable relationship. Next, have I incorporated trust and established healthy boundaries in this relationship? Finally, am I allowing trauma I’ve experienced in my life, leave me trapped in a groove or a rut? Just because I’ve reacted in a certain way in the past, there is no reason I need to perpetuate that destructive and isolating behavior. Most importantly, I must always remember to learn from my past, but not live in my past.