Some years ago, a friend of mine broke up with his girlfriend. They had been together a matter of months and, to him anyway, it clearly wasn’t working out. When he told her it was over, what seemed to upset her most was that she had only that week changed her Facebook status to In a Relationship and now she would have to change it back to Single. While at the time I was quick to ridicule her superficiality and emphasise how firmly her reaction underlined how right he was to finish with her, thinking about it now I can definitely sympathise with how she felt.
Obviously, being in a relationship is about rather more than a Facebook status and if one’s boyfriend is more a trophy, a symbol, a way to define oneself, than a soulmate, then the relationship will never be a deep and fulfilling one – but in many ways that is beside the point. What was at stake for this girl was not so much love and companionship as the integrity of her self-image. She had invested in having a boyfriend, rather than in the reality of the man, and when he took that away from her it shook her because suddenly she was no longer what she thought she was, a girl with a boyfriend.
I’ve talked about self-image on this blog before but I thought it was worth mentioning again because sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between what we genuinely believe others think of us and what, in fact, is what we think of ourselves. Unless we’ve done a lot of work on ourselves, our self-image is no doubt heavily influenced by our early parent figures but it is nonetheless how we see ourselves rather than how someone else might see us. The reason it’s important to draw this fine distinction is that we have the power to assess and change our own view of ourselves.
It’s useful to remember that different people see the world in remarkably different ways from how we may see it ourselves and that, to a huge extent, other people take us at our own valuation. The newly single girl may have imagined her friends would sneer at her failure to hold on to a relationship (is this what true friends do?); she felt shamed and expected those around her to be as hard on her as she was on herself. I may be projecting here but it’s a common enough phenomenon. I also suspect her need to be seen to have a boyfriend may have been more about meeting social expectation than genuinely wanting a man in her life, or anyway that man.
Never mind the labels, the pigeon holes, the cultural norms. Be the you you really want to be. If someone doesn’t like it, they might not like any other face you present either and, in the end, it’s your life, not theirs. But most people will respond favourably to the positive, authentic you. We can’t expect others to respect and love us unless and until we respect and love ourselves.