That moment of awareness when the light bulb goes off and change happens.
I was having a conversation recently with a friend I’ve known for many years. We were reminiscing about our past when a painful memory popped into her mind.
She stopped talking and got one of those looks on her face, you know the one - where someone is thinking of something deeply personal and holding back the feelings triggered by those thoughts or, in her case, the memory. I stayed quiet for a moment, allowing her the grace to get through the moment privately without worrying that I would judge, nudge or prod. (Sidebar: I didn’t know how to stay quiet during those moments, and would often push someone to talk as a way for me to feel comfortable, but that is a lesson for another post).
So, back to my friend.
When she came back to the conversation, she shared the memory and the feelings it triggered. It was a painful memory from her childhood. Something that happened to her. Something that was beyond her control. Something she was too young to understand. (In case you are worried, it wasn’t violent or inappropriate). As she shared a bit more about what she learned from that experience and how it changed her life, it immediately conjured up an image for me of someone standing at a proverbial cross in the road. Only in the scene playing out in my mind, as soon as they started down one path the other path disappeared, as if it was never there. I think in pictures and sometimes find it challenging to find the right words to express those thoughts. But, in this case, the word pivot came to mind and it felt like just the right word.
It wouldn’t be appropriate to share my friend’s name, memory or thoughts. So instead, I’ll share an memory I experience recently that triggered a series of emotions in me.
I Couldn’t See It At the Time
Toward the end of my junior year in high school, my boyfriend broke up with me. I still remember the moment. He seemed calm and level headed, while feelings of intense hurt and devastation were creeping into my head. We started dating when I was a freshman and our relationship was very serious right from the start. I loved him deeply and believed he felt the same about me. Looking back, I genuinely believe our relationship might’ve ended in marriage if we had been older. It was that serious.
I was crushed. Less than a month or so later, he started dating someone else. I was devastated. I believed we were destined to be together. I told myself that he just needed time (because that is what he told me when we broke up). So, I waited. For several years, I went on dates, but never considered a relationship. I trusted that, in time, we would get back together.
Fast forward to my Sophomore year in college. I (finally) realized that he wasn’t coming back. I was free to find a new boyfriend. It took a few months, but I eventually met someone and we dated for almost a year. Only this time, it didn’t feel special. Sure we spent time together and had fun, but the connection didn’t feel very strong. After we broke up, I started to worry that I was doomed to be alone, and that was frightening. There was a lot of negative self-talk in my head, stories about my looks (I’m ugly), character (I have none), confidence (or lack thereof) … and so on. It was exhausting. I thought I needed someone to feel whole. I thought being alone meant being lonely.
Fast forward. It was the start of my senior year. Classes hadn’t started yet and I was hanging out with a girlfriend at a local jazz club that was a popular college hangout spot. Not sure why, but I started to notice that many of the women seemed to be more focused impressing other women by on cooing over their dates, as if to say 'I'm special because with this guy, while you sit there without a date." For whatever reason, it triggered an immediate reaction. I thought to myself “I don’t need a man to validate who I am.” And that’s when it hit me. I don’t need a man to validate me.
That was my pivot point.
Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self. ~May Sarton
I realized I had been wasting time worrying about him and hadn’t invested much time working on me. So, just like that, I got over my ex. I started walking down a different path and the other path quickly faded away.
At first, I was almost embarrassed that it took me so long to come around. Then I realized that maybe, just maybe, time was part of the lesson. I’d “survived” four years without a serious boyfriend and I was doing just fine. I was financially stable, doing well in college, and had met new friends along the way. By the time I was ready to pivot, I realized I am strong, smart and fiercely independent. I was my own living proof. Why the hell was I fretting over my ex? His loss.
Although I was alone (as in single), I wasn’t lonely. I had friends, colleagues, work, hobbies, school and a promising future. It was time to spend time on myself, pay attention to my needs. So, that is exactly what I did. I was finally free of this idea that someone else would make me whole. I started to live on my terms and do what made me happy. I was grateful for the experience because it taught me that I was strong, resilient and worthy. And the most amazing part is that once I was comfortably, confidently, unapologetically living my single life, that is when I met the love of my life. Just last month, we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.
So, if I happened to be that friend you were talking to, the friend who fell quiet when a distant memory popped up and triggered unexpected emotions, my face would’ve gone from sad, to frustrated, to disappointed, to happy, to grateful.