It was fall, and I was walking with a girlfriend between brownstones in New York as she told me about this guy that she was crazy about.
Smart, handsome, generous. He was the perfect guy.
“He’s just so much better than anyone I’ve ever dated,” she said as we weaved around a tree on the sidewalk. “And so I want to be really strategic about this. I just don’t want to come on too strong.”
I don’t know about you, but I can relate to that feeling.
I’ve been in a lot of relationships where I’ve held parts of myself back…
- I let him call me
- I ended conversations first
- I let him initiate times for us to hang out
- When I had big feelings, I didn’t like to really show them to him. I might show him a little bit of my sadness or anger or hurt, but I certainly wouldn’t let it all hang out, the way I would with my friends or my mom.
- I wouldn’t bring up little things that he did that bothered me, because I didn’t want to seem whiny
I was sure that if I called him as much as I wanted to call him, if I talked for as long as I wanted to talk, if I suggested that we hang out whenever I wanted to hang out, he would get tired of me.
If I really told him all the feelings I had, all day every day, he would realize how emotional and crazy and a mess I am, and he wouldn’t want me anymore.
I also often felt like I couldn’t say no – to hanging out, to social events, to intimacy, or whatever – as much as I’d liked. Not that I was ever forced into anything, but I just sometimes didn’t quite feel like doing whatever it was, and didn’t feel like I could say so without causing a rift in the relationship.
In the end, it came down to: I was convinced that if I showed up authentically – if I said yes in as big a way as I wanted to say yes, and no in as big of a way as I wanted to say no, if I was emotional and volatile and moody in the way that I truly am emotional and volatile and moody, he wouldn’t be able to handle it. And our relationship couldn’t handle it.
And, let’s be clear, this wasn’t a terrible strategy. There were lots of guys in my life who couldn’t handle it.
The brilliant Med School/Ph.D. student who is going to be a wonderful neurosurgeon but couldn’t handle my feelings when I’d had a bad day, the sweet and generous Russian investor who just couldn’t handle the time alone that I needed. And there were the other relationships, where I never really tried to show up authentically with my strong and argumentative opinions or my existential thoughts, because I could just sense that they couldn’t handle it.
So there were some relationships that were failures, and many more relationships that should have been failures, because I said “no” when I meant “yes” or “yes” when I meant “no.”
Eventually, I decided that I was exhausted by all this time not being myself, and needed to find a better way.
Ironically, at this time I met a guy who frightened me by how honest he was. On our first phone call, his first question to me was, “What’s important to you in life?” But I figured that I had nothing to lose by being honest in return.
That was the beginning of a two-and-a-half year relationship that has changed everything that I thought was possible about relationships.
When he’d ask me about my day, I was used to just saying “good.” But when I really thought about it, I realized that wasn’t true.
What was true was well, I had a nice morning but then work was stressful and I started doubting everything but by the afternoon I took a walk outside and everything felt a lot better and I had pizza for dinner so that was definitely a highlight.
I feel comfortable being as messy and sad and angry and confused and happy and delighted with life as I truly am. And since he sees the “real” me, I feel more supported and heard and loved than I’ve ever before experienced.
This isn’t a fairy tale. Our relationship is still very much a work-in-progress, and I don’t know how it will turn out. But it was the first time in my life that I made the decision to show up as I truly am, and it has been one of the greatest gifts for my life.
So at the end of the day, here’s what I know:
You get to make the choice, and some people don’t want a super “authentic” relationship. But it’s important to think about what you’re choosing when you hold some of yourself back. What happens when you choose not to expose who you truly are in a relationship because you don’t want to be “too much”?
It’s important to be clear about what you lose and what you gain, and to be okay with that.
And so, here’s what I said to my friend, who is warm and intuitive and generous and accomplished, as we walked on that fall day in New York City:
If you never let yourself be yourself with him, you’ll never really know if he can handle you.
You’ll always kind of wonder if, yes, maybe you are just too much. And then you won’t see that the real problem is that he is not enough for you. A guy who can’t handle you – all of you – might be a great guy, but he probably isn’t the perfect guy for you.
And is that really a way you want to live?
On the other hand, if you show up as yourself – as big and overwhelming and too much as it is – you’ll know for sure. Some people won’t be able to take it, and yes, you might lose that relationship. But you’ll also know for sure when you’ve found a good one.
Over to you: Are you really showing up authentically in your romantic relationships? What would have to change in order for you to do so? I’d love to hear from you, and cheer you on.