I’ve always been independent, as far as I can remember.
When I was young I would say I was a lot like a cat. I loved to be loved. But I loved to go out and hunt and do my own thing. I had the domesticated, relational side of me, and the side that didn’t need anyone else to affirm or participate in something that I was interested in — I’d do it regardless. And I was in a family that facilitated this. I was well connected and loved in our family, so I felt safe to go wander out and explore the world alone. I was independent, like a little lioness on the plains, returning to my pack at the end of each day.
And I can clearly see now that even when I was a young kid I had a strong reaction against manipulation (my definition: trying to get someone to do something without being straightforward; coercion; trying to force a desired outcome through unclear, threatening, or illogical means).
photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via photopin cc
I recall one of my childhood friends and I having the same situation play out several times. Her move to try to get what she wanted was a simple threat. Manipulation 101. “If you don’t do _____, I’m not going to be your friend anymore.”
And there’s this part of me that remembers these instances so clearly it still makes me react inside. “Fine.” I’d say, resolutely. “Don’t be my friend anymore.” And I’d go outside and play how I wanted. While I don’t think she ever meant her words, I meant mine. As a child I would rather lose a friend than be manipulated by one.
There’s this defiant voice inside me that says, “you will not get what you want out of me that way. You will not. I will not play that game.”
Have you ever seen a cat who just doesn’t want to be held anymore? And the person holding him keeps holding on, trying to pet him? What happens? His ears go flat back. His tail starts to wag. His claws come out, and he tries to get free. That’s how I feel sometimes — like people get past the point where this is enjoyable for both of us — and then it’s one sided — the person petting the cat continues to pet him because the PERSON wants to love (or control) the cat, not because the cat wants love. So the cat, independent creature that it is, claws their way out of the situation.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that the term for giving into demands like that for fear of actually losing that friendship is called codependency.
I’ve begun to see, though, that this defiant streak in me — the anti-co-dependent me — is driven by something cat-like, and it’s perhaps equally as unhealthy as codependency.
I think it’s semi-normal to not want to spend endless time with the same person without a break. I think breaks are good. They help us keep our individuality and our individual lives. They are healthy to protect ourselves from becoming so enmeshed in a relationship that you don’t even know what you as an individual enjoy or dislike anymore.
But for me, I get relational claustrophobia. I feel confined. Like there’s not enough air. Not enough room. Not enough availability for me to do what I want. Like I’m being tied down (not in the domestic way, but in the Aslan on the altar way).
This last month I’ve started to see that it’s not my independence that drives this. It’s my fear that people won’t let me be independent anymore. It’s not that these things are actually happening, but I have a fear of being caught. Stifled. Tied down. Have my wings clipped. And as I’ve started to think about it, I’ve begun to be honest with myself: This is my greatest fear. And it always has been.
You try to manipulate me, I’m gone. You get clingy, I’m out of there. You want to spend time with me and do all the things I do, and I feel like I’m going to lose myself. You love me too much, and I worry it’s a trap.
Because we’re all human, I’ve seen people who I know authentically love me, and then I start to see their needs come out and color their “love” — I start to see that their motives are not love, they are selfish. Which should be a sign to me that they need more from me. But instead, an alarm goes off in my head that says, “This isn’t love. Run.” I’m the cat in the lap being held for too long and I start doing whatever it takes to get down. It’s a fear reaction at its core.
I respond really well to direct communication, because that’s the only way that this alarm in my head doesn’t go off. But in recent years, I’ve known smart people who I felt like I was communicating blatantly with, and now that I’m out of those situations, I see that I was being blatantly manipulated. I was duped and hurt irreparably, and it happened right in front of my eyes. So now my walls around my heart are taller and thicker, and my anti-manipulation instinct is even stronger.
And here I am, willing to admit it for the first time in my life (and willing to sadly admit that I was not always this way): I’m scared of commitment. To Jobs. To apartment leases. To roommates. To plans. To new relationships. To the Church.
Because despite my strong instincts that have protected me from being “caught” for most of my life… it happened. I was duped. I was hurt. And I just don’t know if I can live through that again.
And because of that, I’m like a skittish cat. The one that used to be a friendly pet. But then was hurt. The one who got abused, or scared, or something, and that changed everything for now.
I can feel people trying to woo me out. I see them putting the food out for me. I hear them calling for me to come out of the bushes. And while they may just want to be nice and provide for me and love on me, I’m still the cat in the bushes who waits until no one’s around, then I’ll dart out and eat the food and dart back before anyone can catch me. They probably would just pet me. But I’m terrified of being caught.
I want to trust people. But I want them to be trust-worthy. And I’m in the chasm in the middle of those two right now.
In my efforts toward bravery, I keep leaving the metaphoric bushes. And I stay out of them a little longer each time. But at the end of the day, I’m still distrusting. I still cut conversations off before they’re finished. I still leave early. I still RSVP tentatively. I still don’t like letting people know my schedule or my plans.
And I don’t have a bow to tie around this story. This is me just being honest and ugly and wrestling with my crap out loud, because my story is one of the few ways that I’m still willing to risk vulnerability over and over again. Because I believe there is the potential for healing in the act of sharing stories — healing for me, and maybe for others too.
If you’re one of the people who has reached out to me in this season of life, I am so, so grateful. I apologize for my sometimes skittish nature. And I apologize if I’ve hurt you when I’ve left situations and relationships too soon when you were really just trying to love me. Really.
Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
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