If you are like me (and most women around my age), the memory of Carrie Bradshaw giving up her entire life to move to Paris with Aleksandr is a bittersweet one. I was so hopeful when she first arrived in that beautiful hotel in the city of lights to start a new life with Mikhail Baryshnikov. As I'm sure Carrie was, too. I was also already worried and the admonitions of Miranda Hobbs echoed in my head.
Then, in the final episode, when Carrie gives up going to the party thrown in her honor in order to take care of Aleksandr at his opening, I almost lost it. Thank heavens she came to her senses when she found her "Carrie" necklace hidden beneath the silk lining of her favorite vintage purse. I cheered her on as she ran gracefully in heels and a swirl of tulle across Paris. Then I felt the sting of her shame upon finding the empty bookstore and the copy of her book with its cover marred by the wine glass stain.
Ouch. That moment for me just felt all too real. I fantasized for days afterward about what would have happened if Carrie had just gone to her own party instead. I mean, sure I was happy that she had wound up in the arms of Mr. Big but missing that party...that nearly killed me. Now, over a decade later, I think I finally understand why.
Because in that scene when Carrie chooses to give up her own party in order to take care of Aleksandr, she sacrifices who she is and her own needs in order to maintain a relationship she thinks she needs to be whole. Of course, that was just the climax that began with a multitude of other smaller and more innocuous choices that slowly chipped away at Carrie's sense of self, which is how it happens for all of us. Carrie slowly stopped showing up in her own life and eventually gave up her job, her apartment and her entire life in order to move to Paris. Finally, in that moment when she chose Aleksandr's party over her own, she lost herself entirely. And she did this all for the sake of a relationship.
Carrie Bradshaw is not alone. It's no wonder that Sex and the City was a worldwide hit because women everywhere identified with her life. I know that I did! And that moment in the bookstore in Paris when she found the wine glass stain on the cover of her book...I am all too intimate with that kind of remorse. The kind that left me reeling in shame and asking myself, "What was I thinking? How could I have done that?" I have all too often been guilty of giving up what I wanted and losing touch with my own identity for the sake of keeping a man.
But we don't just lose ourselves in our romantic relationships. We will also sacrifice ourselves for our jobs, our family and our friends. Why? Primarily we do it because we think that we need some external thing to make us valuable. Although we are not even consciously aware of it, what we are actually telling ourselves is that we need this thing - whatever it is - in order to be worthy. We need it because it makes us feel safe. Unfortunately, our brains are wired to choose safety even when it's not really safe or healthy for us at all.
If you are like me (or Carrie Bradshaw), however, you might not even be aware that it's happening. That's why I've put together this short list of signs to watch out for. If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, then you may be losing yourself in your relationship.
1) Do you find then when you are talking to other people that you always say WE instead of ME?
This was a huge one for me. During my first marriage, every time I was hanging out with friends or chatting with co-workers, I almost always used the pronoun "we" instead of "me." For example, "We love to eat Mexican food" or "We're bleeding heart liberals." It was like I felt that my own thoughts and opinions weren't valuable enough on their own and I had to substantiate them by including the fact that my man shared them. Obviously, sometimes it is appropriate when you are actually speaking on behalf of your coupleship, but I challenge you to stop making "we" your go-to pronoun and make a conscious choice to speak for yourself first.
2) Do you rationalize their unethical or inappropriate behavior?
A couple of years ago, I began working with a client who was an absolute wreck from working in a soul-sucking job that she just couldn't bring herself to quit. She was a lawyer and working for a company that consistently engaged in unethical behavior. She regularly found herself going against her own moral compass and often ended up in tears over it. Yet, she was terrified to quit her job. She was convinced that she would not be able to find another job because no other company would have her. I have come to believe that the emotional and mental dynamics that keep a woman in an abusive job are shockingly similar to those that keep a woman in an abusive relationship. I've met many women who would never tolerate emotional or physical abuse from a man but choose to stay in a job that does just as much damage to their self-esteem for the false sense of security that their regular paycheck brings them.
3) Did you give away all your stuff when you moved in together?
Guilty again. When my husband and I decided to move in together, I was so desperate for the sense of security that I thought cohabitating would bring me that I just gave all my stuff away. I literally just sat most of it out on the curb and gave it all away for free. Looking back (with regret), I can clearly see that this was a reflection of how I felt about my own value. On the surface, I was saying that everything that my husband owned was more valuable and more important than what I owned. Deep down, however, I was saying that my husband was more valuable.
4) Do you feel overwhelmed and resentful towards your family because you never have time for yourself?
When did being overworked, stressed out and guilt-ridden become the national pastime for women? When did saying no to others in order to take care of ourselves first become a mortal sin? We have been told for years that we have to take care of ourselves first before we can take care of others and, yet, most women seem completely incapable of doing it. I totally still struggle with it and have to renew my commitment to myself on a regular basis. Why? Because we collapse under the weight of our guilt and our addiction to doing as opposed to being. Because we have to deeply discount the value of our own needs in order to sweep them under the rug. Because, deep down, we don't value ourselves as much as we value others.
5) Do you ignore that tiny voice in your head that is telling you that something is wrong?
This is the big kahuna in terms of losing yourself -- and your integrity. The most recent episode of my life is a classic example. I knew that something was going on with my husband. That tiny voice in my head was shouting out that something was seriously wrong in my marriage, but I didn't want to listen to it. I was too afraid to ask the hard questions. I chose, instead, to keep shoving my head in the sand and focusing on anything and everything else but what was really begging for my attention. Me.
The bad thing about shoving one's head in the sand is that eventually you will start to suffocate and be forced to pull your head out and take a look around. One Sunday afternoon in early March, I discovered proof of my husband's transgressions that I could no longer deny. Fast forward to today and my husband and I are committed to each other and to our individual recoveries. The tricky part for me has been how to maintain my own sense of self while being an equal partner in my marriage.
In order to save my marriage, I have had to learn how to speak up for myself. I have been pushed to live what I like to think of as an "unfiltered life." I have to ask the questions that I'm afraid to know the answers to. I have to tell my husband that he has hurt my feelings or pissed me off even though I still harbor a secret fear of abandonment. Yes, I still find myself pushing through the fear that my husband, who is ever so grateful for my choosing to stay in our marriage, will leave me if, heaven forbid, I actually admit to having feelings or needs and wants.
So, as a nation of what I like to call "lost girls," how do we find ourselves again? How do we become whole again? Well, first, we actually have to know what our needs and wants are before we can ask for them. I'll bet, however, that if you ask yourself, "What do I need in order to take care of myself today?" that you will draw a blank. We're not taught to do this because the answer will often be in conflict with the long list of things we need to get done today. It takes the daily practice of being still and asking yourself what you need and then listening patiently and without judgement. Yes, to yourself. Tomorrow morning just lie in bed for five minutes after the alarm goes off and ask yourself, "What do I need today?"
Second, one word: boundaries. They're not just for toddlers anymore. They are for husbands, sisters, girlfriends and bosses. Once you've established what you need, you have to ask for it. From yourself, from your husband, from your job. You have to be willing to draw a line in the sand about what you are willing to live with. For most of us, it is a lot less than we think. And, just like you would with a toddler, you have to assign a consequence for the failure to adhere to a boundary and stick to it. You have to be able to live with yourself and letting others run your life is no way to live at all. Just say no.
Finally, you have to take personal accountability. You have to own that your life is (most often) the result of choices that you've made. Don't like your life? Make a different choice. Start by choosing to heal the most important relationship of your life...the one you have with yourself.
I'm not saying that any of these practices are easy but they are essential if you want to stop losing yourself and your integrity in your relationships. If you practice them on a regular basis, they will get easier. The long path towards wholeness may not be easy, but the more you demonstrate to yourself that you believe in you, the more you will begin to flourish and thrive.