No map. No familiar landmarks to help with perspective or direction. North could be south, and south north. There’s no breeze to stick a licked finger into either. You can’t even remember how you got where you are. It’s unclear how far you’ve traveled. And the point at which you went from found to lost isn’t clear. A stranger passes, finally, and you ask for directions. The stranger asks, “Where are you headed?” You say, “Where? You tell me. And while you’re at it, tell me who I am.”
That’s the experience of children of alcoholics in an intimate relationship. Lost.
WHERE DID I GO?
We become lost in intimate relationships. We’re not sure exactly when it happens. Yet, it does. If our partner were to say, “Where are you going?” you’d likely say, “Wherever you’re going, wherever you want me to go.” Well, perhaps actually asked that question, you wouldn’t answer it that way. But, subconsciously that is the answer we give – it’s what we do. That is a state of ‘lost’ not just in your relationship, but in yourself. You recognize it physically as a feeling of being disoriented, fuzzy in the head, unsure of what you want, where you want to go, or even who you now are.
For children of alcoholics to have success with intimate relationships it is absolutely necessary that we don’t lose ourselves. It’s absolutely necessary that we know who we are. If you know who you are, you won’t get lost – you’ll always be “here.” You’ll be at home inside yourself, more centered, more whole.
It’s not surprising that children of alcoholics lose themselves in relationships. And it’s a reason why many of us shy away from relationships; the sensation of losing one’s self isn’t pleasant. And getting it back takes some work. Alcoholics require attention and mirroring, they need to be the center of attention, so it’s hard for their children to get away from that puppet behavior and develop new, healthy behaviors — to find it comfortable to be with a healthy person. It’s not our fault that we were raised that way, but it’s our responsibility to untangle it and retrain ourselves.
If your problem is losing yourself in relationships, you can try two things: one, find yourself and two, don’t let yourself go.
If you’re reading this, you probably don’t know yourself as well as you think. Start a list (not a mental list, a written list) and write down your five favorite books, movies, albums, foods, restaurants, outdoor activities, hobbies, your ideal day to yourself, you ideal vacation, your ideal road trip, your favorite type of architecture, art, language, font, car, shoes, era is history, etc. Don’t think about what you’re supposed to like, but what you truly like.
That’s the first step to getting to know yourself. The second is to try new things – new experiences and new skills. Try a sport you haven’t tried. Try a dance class. A music class. A writing class. A technology class. Go to a free lecture. Listen to a new type of music. Read about a period of history about which you know little. Try new things. Ask a neighbor if you can walk her dog. Volunteer with the elderly, or kids. Get out there. Discover what you like!
FIND “YOU” AND THEN HANG ON
When you get into a relationship, don’t let all that go out the window – keep exploring, keep developing your self. If you’re currently in a relationship, start doing these Finding Me activities (with or without your partner) and don’t stop.
If you’re in a relationship right now, doing these Finding Me activities will help you recognize the healthiness of “you” in the relationship: can you do them? And when you do, does your partner support it? What is the effect on you, and him or her? Pay attention to that. Even in a healthy relationship you might find it hard to ask for this time to yourself, and that may be hard. But if you can manage to do it, you’ll be that much healthier, self-confident, and centered.
As this is new for you, your partner might be surprised to see this new you – and might need a tad bit of help understanding why you’re trying new things. It’ll be useful to give a reasonable amount of, “I love you but I’ve got to do this for me,” reminders. Not, “I’m sorry, but,” and not, “I can do it tomorrow if you want…” None of that. Be assertive. Be kind, but don’t apologize about doing a good thing for yourself. If you feel guilty doing this for yourself, talk to a counselor. Getting to know yourself is essential to healing your self – no apologies.
If you are really out of touch with who you are and what you like, try pretending that you’re an amnesiac. Use that fantastically nimble ACoA imagination and pretend that you just woke up, and don’t know who you are or how you got here. How do you find out? Study yourself! Look around your living space and assess what you see and what it means about you. Step outside and take a walk – observe yourself, how you walk, how you stand, whether you look others in the eye, and take notice of the types of activitiy and objects that you notice, and think about what your observations indicate about your personality and natural interests.
You could also call friends or relatives whom you trust and ask them to describe you as if you were a reporter doing a story about you.
As you go, be sure to tell others about the fascinating ideas you’re learning about and the interesting activities in which you’re engaging, and always reveal your true self to others.