Dear Sara: I have been divorced for a little over 6 years now. My daughter wants me to start dating again, which I’m very fearful of doing. I have had a few relationships since my divorce, but the last relationship left me broken and fearful of ever getting back out in the dating world again.
My relationship with this guy was on-again off-again. I fell pretty hard for him, and to be honest it was a horrible relationship. I was alienated from my family and friends, which you could say I allowed to happen only because I was so deeply in love that I couldn’t see past him.
Over the course of three years, I became someone I didn’t recognize anymore. When I finally had the courage to leave him for good (without going back to him), I wasn’t the person I used to be. I had become so self-conscious of my body. I didn’t like what I saw when I looked in the mirror anymore. Now when I look at myself all I can see is all the things that are WRONG with me (that I believe are wrong) and wonder who would ever want someone who looks like this?
The guy had never laid a hand on me in a harmful way, but mentally you could say I was definitely abused. Now, all I feel when I think of my body is shame and disgust, that I will never be good enough for any man. I’m always telling myself no man would ever want to see me naked when I don’t even like looking at my own body. It’s not just about my body. I don’t believe I’m pretty enough for a guy to want to date me. To put it bluntly, my last relationship really screwed me up, and has me so scared to get back out and date again. My question is: How can I learn to date again, when I don’t believe there is a guy out there who is willing to truly love me and look past all my imperfections? I’ve had people tell me you have to love yourself first, and I understand that, but I just don’t think I can ever get past the way I see myself now to really love myself. Please help. — M
Dear M: I’m so sorry to hear you’re having such a hard time now and, given your experience, it’s understandable that you would be reluctant to put yourself in a dating situation. But I do think there is a way to get past this, so here are my suggestions.
First, forgive yourself. You fell in love with someone who treated you badly. That sucks, but you know … a lot of us have done that. Who knows why we fall in love with people, especially the ones who are bad for us? It’s hard to look back on, but it’s an also an extremely common experience so don’t be too hard on yourself about it.
You said that after you got out of the relationship, you were no longer the person you used to be before you were in it. That’s true, but you’re also no longer the person you were WHILE you were in it. Unlike then, you’re now able to stand outside of that relationship and see that it was a mistake. That’s very important progress, so please honor it.
It sounds like he really did a number on you, and it may take some time to work through that stuff. Hopefully you have a good therapist, friend, clergy person or meditation instructor who can help you through that process. But even if you don’t, I think there is a lot you can do.
I’ve never been a fan of people telling people to “love themselves”—it seems phony and weird, like you’re supposed to look in the mirror and tell your reflection how magnificent you are. Instead, I would suggest the advice of psychologist Kristin Neff, author of a wonderful book called Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself.
The problem with trying to love yourself is that we usually equate that with thinking highly of yourself. “I’m beautiful!” “I’m special!”
Instead, try just being nice to yourself. Talk to yourself the way you would a good friend. For example, when you notice that your mind is playing the old tapes about how you’re not good enough, not attractive enough, etc., stop for a moment and take a breath. Remind yourself: Those are his words, and I don’t listen to him any more. I’m not perfect, but I’m a good person and I’m worthy of love.
Or something like that. You might want to talk to your daughter and other supportive people in your life about developing a script that resonates for you.
Those feelings of unworthiness won’t go away overnight. It will take time. But each time you catch yourself buying into that old narrative—each time you say to yourself, “Oh, there I go again, believing his story”—you’re changing your relationship with that story. You’re calling it out for the fiction that it is, and you’re giving yourself the chance to set the record straight.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her questions here.