I’ve been away from Portugal for a week now, currently sitting in my 84-year-old father’s new home in suburban Philadelphia after a week of helping move him (no easy task) from the last home he and my mother lived in before she died almost 14 years ago.
Dad’s doing well for his age but it was time to down-size, and my sister—who lives close by with her family of four kids, three of them teenagers—found him a nice, big townhouse in an over-55 housing development to live out the rest of years peacefully. It’s also a lot closer to her house so she can more easily pop by whenever he needs help.
Being with family—especially a dysfunctional one away from whom I had to move as far as I possibly could to be my authentic self—always makes me feel a bit reflective and, to be honest, a strange mixture of both secure and depressed.
I know these are the people who love me and to whom I can return no matter what, even at my worst–and they kind of have to take me back because, well, you know, that’s what family is for.
But in a strange way, these are the people who at once know me the best but also don’t know me at all. They don’t really know what I do day to day or for a living, or know my friends or my daily life. Hell, they have never even visited me where I live in Portugal even though I’ve been there for more than eight years.
They do, however, know the personality I formed when I was young and can relate easily to that person, and we can chat and bicker in a familiar way. Still, it’s a weird existential space to be in, even for a short time–the whole moving-house dynamic and going through old memorabilia of my parents’ life together adding an even more surreal vibe.
When I come to my father’s, I often take yoga classes at a studio in a nearby town—the one in which my mom was born and raised, in fact–to help keep my sanity and keep my yoga practice active.
The other day in the class, the teacher said something about how one of our greatest wishes as human beings is to be “known.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially away from the life I’ve built myself in Portugal—what I consider my home now—and immersed in the life that made me who I am today but which resembles very little the person I’ve become.
Who really knows us? How well do we really know ourselves? And really, is it true what they say–that the most important relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves?
The relationship mirror
Before I left Portugal for this two-week trip, I had another shake-up in my relationship–one that affected not only the relationship I have with my boyfriend, but also the one I have with myself.
During a frank, honest discussion we were having about the relationship and the state of things between us, my boyfriend said this to me: “You’re not happy. You’re one of those people who is looking for someone else, for a relationship, to make you happy.”
Of course I immediately and vehemently defended myself and told him I had been happily single for many years before he came along. But later, privately (and not-so privately), I had a bit of an existential breakdown that led to some intense crying and releasing a lot of apparently pent-up emotions for about a week.
I had to take a hard look at myself in that total mind-fuck of a mirror that an intimate relationship can be and realize, damn it, he was kind of right.
In the week that I turned this over and dealt with my own codependency and tendency to be more happy only when validated by a significant other, I also pondered whether this relationship and all the work that’s gone along with it was worth it.
A friend tried to make an analogy to food–something I can always understand–to help me decide, asking me what my favorite food was. Without hesitation, I said, “Pizza.” (Isn’t that everyone’s??)
So she asked me if I thought whether my boyfriend was a pizza or maybe just a really good sandwich. The idea here is that even if he was a really good sandwich—the best ever—it still wouldn’t make him a pizza, which is what I am really seeking in a long-term partner.
What this discussion led to and made me ultimately realize is this: no matter if you’re single, married or in a relationship, no matter if you’re with the right person or the wrong person, no matter who you are or what your relationship status is—ultimately, you have to be your own pizza.
In other words, you have to be the best version of yourself you can be–the ideal person with whom you yourself would actually like to be in a relationship. And that, I think, is what is going to make any and all relationships that you have in your life all the more satisfying.
Codependent no more?
My boyfriend—whether he’s my pizza or not—isn’t relevant to this particular discussion. But what my conversation about the state of our relationship did make me realize is that my whole life I’ve been one of those people thinking I was just going to find someone to be in a relationship with and then suddenly I wouldn’t be lonely anymore.
Suddenly I wouldn’t feel insecure or anxious or uncomfortable in my own skin anymore. Suddenly I would just be feel complete validation and confidence in the person I am and not have a worry in the world anymore.
Well, that’s complete bullshit. And it’s this erroneous belief that’s probably been sinking every intimate relationship I’ve had for the past 30 years or so.
But in relationship after relationship, I bought into this idea. I thought the other person and their love would make me happy.
You can guess what happened. After that first glow and rush and new relationship wore off, I started to get resentful when my anxiety and insecurity returned. Nothing they could say or do would ever convince me they loved me enough.
I started to blame them for not making me happy anymore and started to criticize them for the things I found annoying (like, everything) or that I felt they lacked instead of appreciating the lovely things they did for me or brought to the table in the relationship.
Of course none of these relationships worked out—who wants to be made to feel like nothing they do will ever satisfy the woman they are in a relationship with? I don’t blame any of those guys for no longer being in my life.
I see now that what my current boyfriend was reacting to in our conversation is that I’m starting to fall into this pattern again, constantly being unhappy and asking for more from him instead of just appreciating what he has to give.
To be fair, it does take two people in a relationship, and I know I have good reasons to want more from him sometimes. But the fact remains that there is a very definite pattern to my relationships and, whether I decide to stay with him or not, changing that to make all of my relationships more positive is on me.
The thing is, although I realized it in an intellectual way, I never really integrated it into my personality that a relationship is only a distraction from my own stuff for a little while. And then it brings all that stuff raging to the forefront again in a way that screams for it to be dealt with like only an inner child can throw a tantrum.
So what I’ve been working on and thinking about a lot on this trip is how to be my own pizza. How not to let whatever happens with my family or in my relationship—or whether or not I have one at all–affect my own sense of self-worth, peace of mind and happiness.
And this stuff is not easy. Not easy at all.
Human beings are wired for distraction—anyone with even a lazy eye for observation of the human condition can see that. It’s hard to focus on yourself and your stuff and not want to be diverted away from it by an activity, person, place, thing or alternative feeling.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
I don’t expect I’m going to learn this lesson in the two weeks I’m away from Portugal and in the middle of my usual black-sheep family dynamic. To be honest, I’ve struggled with anxiety, worry and a general sense of unease since I’ve been in Pennsylvania. These feelings always revisit me when I spend any amount of time around my family, even as it somehow also is really nice to be with them.
But instead of trying to distract myself from this feeling, I’ve been kind of embracing it. Instead of taking it out on my boyfriend for not writing me messages enough or being there every time I need to vent to him, I’ve been going for runs, or doing yoga, or accepting the feeling and continuing with routine activities until it passes.
I’ve also been trying to be more present and less distracted when I am with my family and engaging in the usual activities it takes to move a rather large house. I’m trying to focus on how I can be of service to my family, and to the positive aspects of having my father still alive and in good health. I’m also marveling at the wonderful people that my nephews and niece have become as they’re growing into teenagers and young adults.
What I’ve learned so far from this practice is this: the best thing about being your own pizza–no matter if you’re in a relationship or not–is that you are in control of your own destiny.
If you aren’t worrying about whether your current partner is a pizza or desperately trying to find a prospective new one, you aren’t dependent on anyone else for your own happiness. And if pizza you have in front of you doesn’t have all the toppings you usually like, you can just put those toppings on your own pizza and make it all the more tasty.
Even better, being your own pizza is the only way you can actually evaluate in any discerning way if the pizza in front of you is the right pizza, or if you should just go back to eating and enjoying your own for awhile before trying to find a new one to spend time with.
OK, maybe I’ve gone too far with the pizza analogy, but you get the idea. Being your own pizza—or essentially your own best friend—before investing too heavily in another person is probably the ideal situation for having healthy relationships in all areas of your life.
Unfortunately for me, it’s kind of too late for that, and I find myself navigating an intimate relationship as I’m also wrangling with long-time codependency and immersed in the family dynamic that created that codependency in the first place.
Still, it’s never too late to start loving yourself more and practicing self-care, and I’m hoping that this practice will be the key to solving any future relationship problems—or deciding with more clarity which type of relationship is the best one for me.