“Bravery is leaving a toxic relationship and knowing that you deserve better.” ~Unknown
When my marriage ended, it left a huge void that I desperately needed to fill, and quickly.
Along with my divorce came the unbearable feelings of rejection and being unlovable. To avoid these feelings, fill the void, and distract myself, I turned to dating. And it turns out, it was much too soon.
What seemed like a harmless distraction soon became what I needed to feel wanted and loved. This was a way to avoid doing the harder work of learning to love myself instead of needing outside validation to feel good about myself.
The online dating scene was a complete circus that I didn’t know how to navigate with all of my wounding. I ended up falling for a guy—let’s call him Steve.
Steve seemed nice enough when I met him. He was quiet and seemed like he may have been a little too passive for me, but he was really into me, so I kept coming back for more. It was nice to feel wanted again.
We had some things in common, and he was handsome and sweet. We had fun together, and he was always texting me to say hello and chat—again, that made me feel wanted.
Eventually, Steve grew more distant. When I brought it up, it only seemed to get worse. But at this point, I was addicted to the feeling of being with someone again. I was addicted to feeling wanted and loved, so leaving wasn’t an option I was willing to entertain.
The unconscious programming in my brain that would do anything to avoid rejection kicked in. I began to justify everything that should have been a red flag. I found myself constantly doing whatever I thought I needed to do to keep Steve from rejecting me, but it never seemed to be enough. I became unconsciously obsessed with being who I thought I needed to be to win his love and approval.
Steve and I had both been through divorces and were both dealing with mental health issues. The relationship became very codependent, and I began putting my own needs aside to be his caretaker. He would never return the favor unless it was convenient for him, so I would just try harder to get him to want to return the favor.
It never worked.
As each day went by, I was becoming less and less of myself to be loved and accepted by someone who would never be able to give me what I wanted or needed. He just wasn’t capable of it. There was no possible way that I would ever be enough for him.
He ended up breaking up with me, but shortly after we resumed our relationship on a casual basis. Deep down, I didn’t feel this was showing myself respect, but I allowed it to happen because again, I was trying to be who he wanted me to be—a casual friend-with-benefits.
Our relationship eventually started to get more serious again, and it seemed we were headed back to exclusive relationship status when I found out he was dating other women behind my back. I’m so thankful I found out about this because it was the singular event that made me stop and get intentional about respecting myself.
I realized how completely I had lost myself in this dysfunctional, codependent, and toxic relationship, where my only concern was avoiding feelings of rejection and being unlovable. It was the last straw for me, and I decided I was done tolerating it. I was done abandoning myself to get something he was never going to give me.
I cut off all contact with Steve that day.
You’d think that it would be easy to leave a relationship that is toxic. I mean, who wants toxicity? But the truth is, it isn’t easy.
Why do we get into these tricky situations in the first place?
My divorce had left me in so much pain, feeling rejected and unloved, that I was willing to do anything to avoid those feelings. Instead of being discerning and heeding the red flags that were, in hindsight, obvious, I jumped in and continued the pattern of proving that I was worthy of love.
When you’re always trying to feel loved and accepted, you’ll ask yourself questions like, “Who do you need me to be to love me?” You’ll shape-shift to fit someone else’s needs and abandon your own. You may over-give, or shower your partner with gifts and affection, all in an effort to win their love so you can feel loved.
The end result is similar to being rejected because you end up feeling alone—except this time it’s because because you’ve abandoned yourself and your truth.
You lose yourself, which, in the end, can be just as lonely as feeling rejected and unloved. That’s how it was for me. I spent so much time trying to prove my worth that I lost sight of who I was and what I deserved.
I didn’t realize at the time that I needed to come home to myself first and love and accept myself before anyone else could ever give that to me.
It turned out that leaving that relationship was an act of self-love and the beginning of finding peace.
Was it easy? No. There were so many feelings that came up for me when I left the relationship. There was embarrassment that I had chosen him over myself so many times. There was the loneliness and pain that go along with the end of any relationship. And, of course, there was fear that I would never find that love and acceptance that I craved so desperately.
So how did I do it? How did I find inner peace after leaving that toxic relationship?
What it really came down to was finding peace within myself.
When there is a void of some sort, we naturally want to try to fill it with something else. But when you try to fill the void with something external, it never works.
If I had kept looking to fill that void with things outside of myself after my relationship ended, I would have likely bounced from one toxic relationship to another until I learned to turn inward and fill myself up from the inside.
So how do you turn inward? Part of the reason you’ve gotten into a toxic relationship in the first place is that you don’t know how to do that.
The act of leaving the relationship was the first step for me. It was a huge step. The feeling you get when you decide you’re no longer going to pretend you’re someone you’re not in order to gain someone’s love is empowering, and gives you a little boost of confidence that you’ve got your own back.
It’s an act of love toward yourself.
At the time, I didn’t think of it as an act of love, but in unpacking it later, I can see that it was. It was the first step in rebuilding my relationship with myself.
The next part of the process for me was to reconnect with myself.
We tend to get our identities tangled up with our partners’, and it’s easy to forget who we are without our relationships. That happened to me after seventeen years of marriage, and bouncing right into an unhealthy relationship didn’t help. I spent so much time worrying about who I was being and if I was good enough to be loved that I totally lost sight of my true self.
Reconnecting with myself meant spending a lot of time with myself. I had become great at staying busy to avoid loneliness, but I knew I needed to learn how to sit with the discomfort of being alone in order to heal.
I spent a lot of time connecting with nature. I started taking myself out on solo dinner dates and I went to movies by myself. And when the loneliness didn’t feel good, I sat with it while I cried tears of sadness, learning how to show myself compassion for what I was feeling instead of pushing the feelings away.
For someone who has spent a lot of time avoiding rejection, being alone can be difficult. But it’s a necessary part of reconnecting with your truth, and you will learn, like I did, that it’s really not that bad. It’s actually refreshing and beautiful to have time with yourself.
I also reconnected with my support system. When I was in the relationship with Steve, I didn’t make my friends and family as much of a priority as I once had. In my quest for feeling loved, I became so focused on the relationship that I not only abandoned myself but also some of the most important people in my life. I made some questionable choices when I was being who I thought I needed to be for him, and after leaving the relationship, it was time for me to reconnect with my true support system.
But the most important thing I did to find peace after this toxic relationship was to learn to love myself.
I started with a list of all of the reasons I didn’t deserve to be treated the way Steve had treated me, written with dry-erase marker on my bathroom mirror. Every time I looked in the mirror, I was reminded of why I deserved more. I also kept a list of all the things I wanted to believe about myself. I wrote a new list each day and eventually, one by one, I started to believe the things on that list.
I made the decision not to date for a while so I could focus on strengthening my confidence in who I am without someone else. Through therapy and working with a life coach, I learned that my self-love issues were rooted in perfectionism, so I worked to lower the expectations I had for myself to a more realistic level.
I learned that I was much happier when I was just focusing on enjoying the moment being an average human. In fact, I adopted the idea that we are all just average human beings. We all have unique gifts and talents, and there is no need to compete with one another to be exceptional. Average is a fine place to be, and I found embracing this attitude helped me navigate life with more compassion toward myself and others.
The most important step I took toward self-love was learning how to surrender and accept the present moment as it is. If I was feeling a lack of self-love, I learned to sit with it and send love to the part of me that was feeling that way. I learned to not get hung up on the what-ifs and to appreciate who I am being in this very moment, which is all I know I have for certain.
The journey to loving yourself is the most important one you will ever make. Self-love is a work in progress, of course, but knowing where you’re headed helps to know who you are, know your worth, and remind you to always choose yourself unapologetically.
While the relationship with Steve was traumatic in many ways, I am grateful for it because I learned and grew so much from it. Needing to heal from the codependency and toxicity of the relationship created a beautiful space in which I was able to ground myself and find peace in knowing that no matter what, I always have my own back and I will always choose myself.
It’s a serene feeling and I wish this for you too.