On opening to love (again)

On opening to love (again) | SusannahConway.com
As this is the second time I’ve done this — replied to a letter from a reader with a blog post — it might just be the beginning of an occassional series. Sometimes I have more to say than a quick email reply can hold. Turns out I have a LOT to say about this particular topic…

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Dear Susannah

I am alone for 8 years now, and last Christmas I decided to start looking for a partner. It did not last: after two nights out I realised I was not attracting men, other women were so much more beautiful than me, and most important, I didn’t like the superficial atmosphere and people discussing shallow subjects. In my years alone I had started to appreciate myself, love myself, and after those two nights I started being nervous again, and strangely, I started feeling like something was missing in my life (prior to that I had succeeded in seeing myself complete and enough). So I stopped going out and stopped dating and now I feel better, but this way, how can I meet someone?
 
Michelle

Dear Michelle

I feel your pain, honey. I believe to be contentedly and consciously alone — single in a world that prioritises coupledom — we have to shut our hearts down juuuust a little. Not a lot, mind. We still love our family, our friends, our selves, our pets, our passions and our purpose, but in order to not lose our minds when yet another wedding invitation arrives or another acquaintance announces her pregnancy, we have to power down the “relationship” portion of our heart. It’s protection — and a sanity-preserver.

So when we feel ready to get back out there and find our mate, we must open our heart to possibility again, and that hurts. It only takes a little knock to want to shut down and declare “it’s not for me”. But it’s like going back to the gym after a few months away. Your muscles ache for days because you’re out of practice, but after a few sessions you ache a bit less and muscle memory kicks in. It gets easier. The aching is less severe (but still there if you’re doing it right).

It’s the same with our hearts.

We crack them open again and they ache. We put ourselves out there and they ache. We get shot down and we ACHE. After a few knockbacks we have a decision to make: Do we trust our heart’s resilience or do we shut back down and stay safe? I did that 18 months ago after a big disappointment and decided to take a break from dating. I consciously powered down the relationship portion of my heart and sank back into my relationship with me. Wisest thing I could have done.

So here I am on my third attempt at opening my heart to love. The received wisdom seems to be that he’ll show up when I least expect it — but as I say to friends, I’ve been least expecting it for the last 10 years! Working from home makes it harder to bump into eligible men so once again I’ve turned to online dating as a way to get some practice.

And yes, for those of us who are used to spending quality time alone, stepping out into social situations filled with small talk and superficiality can be a challenge. Why are we even bothering, we wonder to ourselves, as yet another evening is “wasted” in the company of yet another mismatch. We could have been at home reading ;-)

And yet. Maybe it’s all the meditation I’ve been doing, but this time around I’m approaching dating with a much calmer and philosophical head. I’m staying open to meeting different sorts of people and managing my expectations better than ever. For example: last week I managed to write myself down off the ledge in just under an hour. Dating triggers all my vulnerable stuff, as it does for most of us, but as I’m feeling more centred I’m able to notice when the old stories flare up. Rather than believe they are the Truth I’m able to shine light on what’s really going on — FEAR. It always comes back to fear.

After journaling out the stories and my reactions I kept writing, and it was this next sentence that I’ve now underlined ready to be employed the next time this happens:

“Remember who I AM, not who I am not.”

It’s so easy to wish we were someone else. That we looked different or “better”. That we were more out-going, or quieter, or whatever it is we mistakenly think we “should” be to be more desirable or successful or accepted or [insert desire here]. I have done so much work around this, and yet it only took a few weeks of online dating to be swept up in the should stories… until I realised what I was doing and stopped myself.

The right person for me will fit me as I am, not me as I wish I was. He won’t be perfect, he’ll have his own stories and issues, but somehow we’ll help each other feel more like ourselves.

Last night I helped my step brother set up his dating profile. As we filled out the details and did a few cursory searches, the conversation turned to what he’s looking for in a partner. My bro is a sweet caring guy who works hard, keeps fit and loves his family. He definitely wants to have kids and feels ready to be in a relationship again. Reading through one girl’s profile we noticed she was into the theatre.

“Do girls expect you to do all that?” he asked, “because it’s not something I’ve ever been into.”

“And that’s okay!” I said. “She’s just not the girl for you.”

We found other profiles that were a better match, including one girl I INSISTED he write to, she sounded so great. Hearing D share his concerns was such a gift, because it reassured me that men worry they won’t measure up just as much as we do. “You’re looking for the girl that fits YOU,” I told him. “And I’m looking for the guy that fits me. We only need one.”

And that, I feel, is the key. We’re not looking for a string of Mr/Ms Rights. We’re looking for that one person who feels like home — and who doesn’t make us feel crazy. Even better: their crazy complements our own.

So the challenge remains to dial our expectations down while staying wide open to possibility. We have no control over how and when we will meet our match but we can make sure we’re in a good place in ourselves when they arrive. Every date is an invitation to meet another human being where they are in their journey. I continue to learn more about what I want in a partner — and what I don’t want, too — with every date I have. Every time I want to close back down I think to myself: “Open heart! Open heart!” and picture a rose opening in my chest. I may have to do this several times a day when I feel impatient with the process.

I accept that there will be some discomfort and I know that it will ultimately be worth it. I know I can survive rejection, heartbreak, disappointment and pain. I know that I am deeply happy on my own. I also know that by opening myself to a new relationship I will find my world expanded in ways I’ve forgotten are possible. I welcome that with my whole heart.

So that, dear Michelle, is how I’m surviving the dating game. I’ve been on some lovely dates with some great guys who might not ultimately be a match but it was still fun to get out the house… and I wish that for you, too. Play the long game, knowing that you’re going to have to kiss a few frogs and endure some stilted conversation along the way. There will be disappointments and dramas, missteps and mistakes, but remember that we are here to experience life as fully as we can, and this new-fangled path to love is a key part of it.

Trust that your guy is looking for you too, and that the only way you can meet is by bravely taking your open heart out into the world. Trust that it will be worth it.

Yours from the dating trenches,

Susannah xo

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The real inner circle

The real inner circle | SusannahConway.com
I always know I’ve been spending too much time online when the chatter in my head is not my own. I’ve been umbilically attached to my computer since I discovered blogging back in 2006, and while having access to this extraordinary global connectivity has been truly life changing, as an introvert with hermit-like tendencies, it’s far too easy to feel like I’m interacting with the world when in fact I’m hiding out behind the screen “researching”.

The internet is a noisy place. On days when I feel vulnerable and porous, this is what being online feels like:

Outside noise | SusannahConway.com
As the highly scientific diagram from my journal shows, it’s like being boxed into a tiny square while  ricocheting in all directions. It’s disempowering and draining and makes me doubt myself unnecessarily — a self-perpetuating cycle of crapness. I’m well aware that no one is to blame for any of this other than myself. It’s not so much what I’m consuming online — it’s more about choosing to do it when I’m not in the right headspace. That’s when it becomes toxic.

On the days when I feel centred and on top of my game, being online can be incredibly inspiring and motivating. On those days I feel less inclined to see what everyone else is doing and just get on with my own creative work. I look after my heart emotionally and digitally. In fact, I don’t have to wait until I feel centred to do this — I can centre myself by remembering (and practicing) the things that connect me back to me:

The real inner circle | SusannahConway.comI drew this diagram as the antidote to the first (mad drawing skillz, I know). Once I’d identified the unhelpful things outside of myself I jotted down everything that truly fed my insides — the stuff I DID want to consume savour. The circle represents my inner world and I get to choose what’s inside there.

Some days I forget to tap into the circle but lately I’ve been paying closer attention to the pattern of centred days and porous days. In her book, The Optimised Woman, Miranda Gray shares the four different phases of our monthly cycles and how we can use them to our advantage. I knew there was more to my month than just PMS days and non-PMS days but it’s so helpful to get really specific. Like knowing that Day Five of my cycle is the day I get REALLY down. It happens every. single. month. and knowing this means I can prepare for the dip and plan accordingly. Ditto that block of five days when I’m on creative FIYAH!

Being self-employed helps, of course, but even just knowing what’s going on helps me navigate the difficult days. Awareness is the first step towards making meaningful adjustments — and frankly checking out the moon’s cycles helps too. I’ve never been much for astrological things, but I can’t deny how synched I am to the big white ball in the sky.

This year I’m making a conscious effort to get out the house more. To be around actual living human beings more. To seek out nourishing community. To experience the world through ALL my senses, not just my eyes. And part of this nourishing mission is knowing when to reach out and when to retreat. Working WITH the rhythm of my cycle, not against it.

How I learned to live in my body

How I learned to live in my body | SusannahConway.com
“It saddens me to think that trip was the last time I truly felt connected to my body. In the in-between years there was a love that set me alight, his eyes, his touch accepting, loving every part of me, a gift I have never fully understood until now. I look in the mirror and wonder who could love me like that again. And that’s when I hear it, the call to be my own lover, with my own appreciative eyes and touch, to see my body as whole and perfect exactly as it is. It was easy to bask in his gaze, to feel at ease in my skin because he adored me so, but it didn’t come from within me. It was not of my own making. I mourned for his touch as much as I mourned for him, but all these years later it’s my own acceptance I crave now. Relying on another to make us feel good only works as long as they are here: better to find it in yourself.”

— From This I Know, page 105

The words above were written sometime in early 2011, no doubt while I was munching on a bar of chocolate. After a couple of years of creating my business and not wanting to leave my desk — so much to do! — I’d put on a considerable amount of weight. At the time I chalked it up to aging. I was conscious of how I was eating more to “give myself energy” but didn’t cotton on to the fact that it wasn’t possible to burn off those extra calories just by thinking non-stop.

The chapter in my book that deals with the body is the one that feels most incomplete to me because I was still at the beginning of that healing saga. I was at my heaviest, I was exhausted and I thought I had to just put up with it as I slid, inelegantly, into my 40s.

Now I know this wasn’t the case at all.

My path back into my body makes sense to me as I reflect on what’s happened since then, but it’s still a pleasant surprise to discover I really do live in my body now. After a lifetime of disembodied living, I now inhabit every square inch of myself. The bits I like, the bits I like less — all of it. It’s all me. It’s all I have, in this lifetime, anyway.

How to get back into your body? I don’t have the definitive answers and anyone who says they do needs to be regarded with suspicion, quite frankly, because it’s different for each of us. All I have is what feels true TO ME so I’m going to share the following timeline with the understanding that you are capable of finding what feels true FOR YOU. Of course, breadcrumbs and signposts help in the quest, so maybe there’s something here that sparks a line of enquiry for you…

— 1973 – 2005. Lived quite unconsciously in my body. Wished parts of it were were thicker/narrower/flatter. Had a slew of digestion issues but never worked out how to fix them. Outward appearance was very important; inward appearance was largely ignored. My preferred form of exercise was sex with someone I adored. Bereavement put a stop to that.

— 2005 – 2008.
Drank all the wine. Smoked all the cigarettes. Slowly began putting life back together. Connecting with my body was last on the list — had to find all the pieces of my heart first.

— 2009 – 2011. Created a business without meaning to and had to learn how to run it with integrity and love. Basically didn’t leave the house for two years and got my groceries delivered. Ate all the food. Wrote a book.

— Spring 2012. Started dating and had heart trampled on. Lost appetite for a while. Started smoking again (definite low point).

— Got sick and tired of feeling sick and tired all the time. Hated that I couldn’t walk up a hill (Bath is very hilly) without getting out of breath. Went to Morocco with friends and discovered the discomfort of inner thighs chaffing against each other in the heat. This had never happened before.

— Decided to start going for long sweaty walks in the park. Dreaded them but something forced me out the door every time. Exhausting but occasionally enjoyable, especially when the sun was out.

— Bought some girlie dumbbells off Amazon and started lifting them when I got home from the sweaty walks. Began to see a bit of improvement in my arms. This was encouraging.

— Summer 2012. Went to North America for 3 weeks on my book tour. Was so out of my usual routine when I got home I finally felt ready to move back to London. It was time.

— Autumn 2012. Travelled to Italy and then back to the USA and despite all the glaring signs I did not realise I was sliding down into depression. I did far too much that year. My poor under-loved body was not able to keep me afloat.

— October 2012. Moved back to London and sank into the depression. Took me three months to realise what was happening and look for help. Went back on antidepressants and fought my way back to the surface.

— January 2013. Started making some big changes, albeit slowly and quietly. Found a therapist I liked and began working out with a personal trainer. On a whim I cut out gluten and discovered this is what had been fucking me up all my life. Within days my body felt less like my enemy and more like a cohort. This was definitely a turning point.

— Started noticing that when my therapist asked me where I felt something in my body — an emotion, a feeling, a reaction — I wouldn’t be able to give her a definite answer. Got curious about this.

— June 2013. Wrote a post called The exercise-hater’s guide to loving the gym. Started to enjoy feeling strong and having more stamina. Bought new exercise clothes and felt confident enough to walk to the gym in leggings and a vest.

— Autumn 2013. More dating. More vulnerability. More disappointment. Decided to get braces and go to the doctor to discuss why I was experiencing so much pain in my abdomen. These two things, seemingly unrelated, were sure signs I was listening to, and looking after, my body. It’s around that time my meditation practice began in earnest.

— January 2014. Turned out the fibroids I’d had diagnosed many years ago had grown and were now a problem. Got referred to a specialist and awaited my appointment (god bless the NHS and it’s insane waiting times *ahem*)

— May 2014. MRI scan showed my fibroids had taken over half my body. Slight exaggeration but that’s how it felt. They’d been growing for all those years but it was only now that I could hear what my body had been telling me.

— Summer 2014. I read something about how we are embodied souls and a lightbulb went off in my (no longer disembodied) head. I finally understood that my soul does not exist outside of me, somewhere “out there” but is embedded into every single cell of my body. My body is temporary, yes, but it is wholly me while I’m here. It became clear how every gym session has been grounding me back into my body, how meditation was helping me sink deeper inside my own flesh. When my therapist asks me where I feel something in my body I’m able to give her answers — she notices the change in me, too.

— Summer/autumn 2014. Spent five months photographing London for my next book. It was utterly exhausting but there’s something about all the steps I took that mirrors the path back to myself. There’s no way I’d have been physically able to take on the project two years ago.

— November 4th 2014. Smoked my last cigarette. I’d only been smoking one or two a week but my body had had enough. Haven’t had one since. Feel suitably virtuous.

— January 2015. After a lot of waiting, but oh so perfectly timed, I have open surgery to remove 14 fibroids weighting one pound in total. Despite the pain and discomfort — or maybe because of it — I have never loved my body more. I marvel at how it can heal itself. I swear I will never take it for granted again. For better or for worse, this is the only body I have. We are a team.

— February/March 2015. Healing slowly, listening carefully. It’s impossible to overeat when I’m so full of stitches and scars so my eating habits have been shifting. I realise that lightly cooked vegetables suit me better than raw. Suddenly I’m noticing how dairy makes me feel like shit (and completely bloats me out). I’m enjoying eating simply and my body responds by letting me know what it prefers. And yes, I still call my body “it” but that’s okay. I trust the wisdom of my body, wisdom far beyond anything my narrow mind could conjure on its own. NOURISH is indeed the perfect word for this year.

— The future. A yoga immersion. Reiki I. More enquiry, more listening. More kindness, more compassion. More giving myself a break when I need it. Less expectation. More love.

***

If meditation feels like a line of enquiry for you, come explore The Sacred Alone with me xo

The myth of perfection

The Myth of Perfection | SusannahConway.com
Lately I’ve been noticing more and more media spewings about the perfect body. About erasing dark circles and wrinkles. About controlling what you eat. About the 50 Hottest Women in the World! About actresses who “look good” for their age. About the Beautiful People and who they are procreating with. About fatness and thinness and shades of skin colour as if the body is all there is.

I buy magazines to cut up for #creativityreboot fun and suddenly notice how young the women in the pages are. How a feature about anti-wrinkle creams is illustrated with close-ups of teenage faces that have probably still been retouched. I read about actresses getting digitally slimmed and perfected in films and my heart just hurts.

It’s all so preoccupied with the external.

I know so much of it is animal instinct — it’s sex, basically. Women want to attract a mate so they want to look appealing to catch the attention of potential suitors. That basic instinct is woven through our DNA. We’re most fertile when we’re young, so youthfulness becomes most desirable. Then we wonder about our competition, so we become interested in who’s more appealing and where we land in the desire-ablity charts. Our genes want to be replicated — it’s all about survival. It’s about immortality and the fear of death.

I spent a large chunk of my young life wanting this perfection and feeling cheated that I didn’t have it. How I LOOKED was more important than anything else. The surface of my body was how I measured my worth and most of the time I found it to be lacking. I wasn’t photogenic, the holy grail I wished for for my first 30 years. I didn’t have the self-awareness needed to look deeper than my skin and begin healing my hurts, so I became obsessed with the pieces I could see with my eyes. All of this external preoccupation wasn’t caused by the media but it was certainly exacerbated by it. As women we were told we’re second class for so long it got absorbed into our collective psyche. And now that bras have been burnt and we edge towards a society filled with equals? We’re hit again in our tenderest of places — we’re judged on how we look by the harshest critics of all: ourselves. Has there ever been a more effective way of keeping people down? We’re so busy worrying about how we look there’s no time for anything else. We could probably take over the world if we weren’t stressing about fitting into our skinny jeans.

I’m making sweeping statements here, of course, and on the other side of this there is so much amazingness in the world. Possibility and freedom, knowledge and progress. Art and music, inspiration and joy. And love, there is plenty of love. I see it and I feel it and it fills my heart. And yet there are still too many mornings when I look in the mirror and make a split-second judgment on my attractiveness. It’s as automatic as taking my next breath. Since hitting my 40s the unspoken judgment is most often “I look tired” even if I feel rested, and though I no longer voice it, I can still feel the chilly backdraft of “not good enough”.

I feel as frustrated with all of this as I did the first time I read The Beauty Myth and started becoming conscious of how I was disempowering myself. The older I get the easier it is to see what’s really important but that doesn’t mean I’m now magically immune from wishing I was more classically beautiful. Writing that in public really shines a light on how meaningless that desire is and how so much of all this was written into my blueprint when I was younger. I don’t believe we can rewire our thinking to the point where such desires are erased, but I do think we can hold the light AND the dark of who we are. Awareness is where it’s at. I am aware of my desire AND I know what’s more true for me. I can be gentle and loving with the part of me that still believes I should look a certain way AND celebrate the fact that I have a fully functioning body that houses a beautiful soul.

I imagine it’ll take generations to filter out this messed up perfection-is-everything ethos. As sentient creatures we’re still so very early in our collective development. We still kill each other. We still wage wars over an unseen man in the sky. We’re still so unbelievably self-destructive, like toddlers who put their fingers in electricity sockets to see what happens. So maybe it makes some kind of weird sense that we still make lists of who’s the Richest or the Most Beautiful or the Most Clever as if those things have any bearing on how to live a worthwhile life. We are still learning. We’re only just graduating from evolutionary kindergarten.

This post isn’t what I intended to write when I opened my laptop this morning, but it’s been burning a hole in my head for a while and clearly needed to come out.

Despite all the screwed up crap in the world I still believe in the magic. My most fervent belief is that if we heal our own hurts so we don’t pass them on, the world could change overnight. If we dared to look beyond the external to find out what’s truly going on inside, our way of being in the world would transform. So I’m going to continue remembering who I really am, and sharing what I find, and making stuff that helps others do it too.

This pin sums it up for me. xo