When I was younger, I was a mess. I know, shocker. But when I say a mess, I mean a mess. I was apparently so awful that ten years and a war later, a high school frenemy of mine tracked me down to tell me all about it. Except, lacking the courage (some things never change) to insult me directly he did so through his wife. Who informed me that I was not only a worthless sack of shit, but also a terrible writer. I’m guessing Mr. Right never told her that I was “mean” to him because he tried to rape me.
Fifteen is ancient history to me, now, if not to that particular complete stranger. When I was eighteen, and finally able to control my own destiny, I made some changes. First and foremost, moving away from the parents who abused and neglected me and the extended family who covered for them. They, too, harbor a grudge. And admittedly, yes: sometimes I do wonder why. Don’t they, all of them, have something better to do with their lives?
I think the reason I’m not still present in my teenage years is I can’t be. I had to let go of the abuse, to survive. Sometimes growth is a choice and sometimes it’s what happens to you while you’re doing something else. I struck out on my own and immediately made a lot of mistakes. I had, I discovered, a pretty good handle on how to survive some scary shit and absolutely no real world coping mechanisms at all. Torture? Check. A store not carrying the jeans I wanted in the right size? I’d never even gone clothes shopping on my own before. I’d never even owned new clothes. I cried.
I made some friends during that time, and I lost them. Why? Because I wasn’t ready. Not to be a friend and, therefore, not to have any friends. Because the golden rule really does teach something important: if you don’t have any really close, really good friends, then that’s probably your fault. Do you need a lot of friends? No. But when you literally can’t keep anyone in your life for longer than a certain period of time…you have to question that.
I realized, eventually, that I was too involved with myself. Doing necessary work, yes–but not recognizing just how much effort that work entailed, and how unavailable it made me. There’s a reason AA tells you to get a plant. Not friends and certainly not a significant other, a plant. Because the lion’s share of existing in the world is giving, rather than receiving. And most of us…we think we’re doing a lot more giving than we actually are.
If you aren’t in a position to give, then…it’s not about whether you “deserve” to receive. Everyone deserves. Rather, the question becomes, can you? Those friends of mine, back then, they cut me off. Some right away, others over a period of time. Some gave me chances, some didn’t. One failure, though, in particular, stands out. I’d gotten really close with this girl, and she was great. One day, though, we got into a fight. I honestly can’t remember over what. But I was mean. And that was that.
She told me, “I’m not friends with people who make me cry.” At the time, I remember feeling victimized. Why couldn’t she give me another chance? I didn’t come to understand, until years later, that I’d been barking up the wrong tree. This wasn’t about what I’d done, or not done, and it wasn’t about how I perceived myself–or my impact. It was about her, and her right to create a world that made her whole.
Our presence in others’ lives is a gift. Grasping that concept, though, in some esoteric sense is a different beast entirely than actually implementing it in some practical way. I also learned, as I–finally–matured, that this wisdom is a double edged sword. Now I’m the one cutting people off. Which of course I hate, because I remember being on the receiving end. The last thing I’d ever want to do is inflict even a fraction of the hurt I’ve experienced. So I have to remind myself: I grew. I had a choice, every time I messed up. And my choice, again and again, to learn something from the experience is why I’m here.
You can turn honest feedback–and cutting someone off is certainly that–into “boo hoo, I’m such a victim.” Or maybe, “everybody lets me down” or “nobody stays.” Or you can ask yourself: what am I doing wrong, here? What could I be doing differently?
Everyone has an angle. And you can’t please everyone, because of that. At the end of the day, you can control one person’s opinion and one person’s only: yours. Forget how this person, or that person feels about you. How do you feel about yourself? You have to stand up for yourself, or you’ll end up wasting your life on a bunch of side quests that get you nowhere. You have to have a goal: not just for what you want to achieve, but for who you want to be.
As Lucius Annaeus Seneca observed: “if one does not know to which port one is sailing, then all winds are favorable.” Make sure, very sure, that you’re not taking advice from someone you don’t want to be more like; find out where they’re sailing, before you climb into their boat. That might feel safest; wandering up and down the shore might feel even safer. But you risk ending up so unfulfilled in your life that you become defined by your hates, rather than your actual meaningful impact on the world around you.