After a breakup, how do you rediscover the activities that you enjoy and make you you?
does not want me
it is not the end of the world.
if i do not want me
the world is nothing but endings.
— nayyirah waheed
For myself, I spent several years in a relationship where I slowly let my own needs, wants, and desires be subsumed by those of my partner’s, and what I anticipated to be his needs, wants, and desires of me. Explicitly and implicitly, I lost myself in becoming who (I thought) he wanted me to be. After we broke up I was left with a profoundly distant sense of self. The last time I’d felt truly myself I was living at home (and that wasn’t a strong confident self). I was nothing like the person I became… or was I?
What followed has been an attempt to rediscover a sense of self and a sense of strength. I retried things I’d enjoyed with my partner in different contexts, and with different people (alone or with new friends), to derive new meaning. I needed to know if I truly enjoyed these activities or if I was only doing them because of him.
Something simple like making a bucket list helped me make real what I care about. Why would I want to go to one place instead of another? What sorts of things do I want to put on my list, activity and location-wise? How do I prioritize myself enough to get to go to those places and do those things? This also helps me tap into the sense of freedom and unpredictability in life, but in an ordered way (because that’s how I roll) that helps me discover my “true self”.
A bucket list also helped me think through shared goals, hopes, or dreams. How can I let go of a dream, or hold onto it, knowing that they might still hold that dream too? How can I travel to certain places without being reminded of them and a future I thought we’d share? How can I separate my dreams from those that we shared, created and dreamed together? Maybe I can’t. But that doesn’t mean I have to give them up. I can assess them, and see if I want to keep those goals, hopes, and dreams in my new life.
I worked to find comfort and strength in art and poetry. I asked a friend of mine for some poems about “living your best life”. I wanted some spiritual salve to learn how to remake myself after the relationship ended. She sent me poems like “My Dead Friends” by Marie Howe, “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe, and “The Journey” by Mary Oliver. I went to art museums, lingering amidst the modern art from Germany, a longtime favorite.
I also revisited things from before we started dating. I had to test things that I once cared about (to see if they still mattered to me). I’d neglected them or moved on from them or never gave myself the chance to fully commit to them. For me that was things like climbing, and going to concerts, or out dancing. I’ll attend my 100th show next month, and I recently got back from the Flash Foxy women’s climbing festival. I found myself again in the familiar experiences of going to shows, and in the community of climbing.
The crux of this process has been learning to feel like myself and like I know myself again.
With a stronger sense of self, I’ve started dating again. This is hard. (All things involving people are hard). This has led me to think a lot about what makes people compatible, and what qualities are important and which ones cannot be compromised on.
I saw author Kim Culbertson speak at a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival, and she said:
“Lots of people are uncomfortable when they hold themselves up to another person and the edges don’t match.”
That’s a lot of what dating feels like (that’s a lot of what talking to other humans feels like, honestly). One inclination to ease that discomfort is to disengage—this person is different from me, so I won’t talk to them (or share much of myself with them), or befriend or date them. Another way to ease that discomfort is to soften my own edges so that the mismatched edges are less apparent. And that’s where this essay comes in.
I had to re-sharpen the edges that make me me. Now I’m working to remind myself not to soften my own edges, but instead work to find a way to appreciate mismatched edges. I don’t need to find a person that perfectly interlocks with the edges of myself to find joy, happiness, intrigue, and personal growth. I do need to find someone that appreciates my edges (and whose edges I can appreciate).
With that in mind, what does it mean to be compatible with someone? Is it the mutual appreciation of edges, or something else? I think there are various levels of it.
- The surface level compatibility that provides the initial intrigue—you find each other attractive, there is some chemistry, you started talking about a shared interest.
- A deeper level compatibility when you share interests or passions. It’s easy when someone shares my music taste, or shares my appreciation for music. It’s harder to appreciate the edges of someone who doesn’t like music as much as I do.
- The more fundamental, deep levels of compatibility reveal themselves as you get to know someone. You start to learn whether or not your communication styles complement each other or conflict with each other. Maybe you each communicate feelings differently, or miss each other’s “love language” signals. Maybe you want to discuss deep, introspective, existential questions over lunch, and your partner just wants to eat.
The edges of the people I meet and date won’t match up with me perfectly, but part of knowing where my edges are is knowing which edges of mine need to line up with those of someone else, and which ones can be different. (I’m still learning this, and I probably always will be).
That knowledge can help me keep my edges intact as I get to know someone. There is a distinct difference between learning to appreciate or respect the interests and passions of someone else and adopting those interests and passions wholesale for myself. I’m trying them out to see what they’re like. As I experience the interests and passions of others, I might be adding new facets to my edges.
But I’m also learning that it’s okay not to share the same interests and passions as the person I’m dating. It’s enough to appreciate that they have those interests and passions. As a perfectionist, I often try to not just to be perfect, but to be perfect for someone. So I have to take a step back (often) and remind myself that other people are flawed, that I’m also flawed, and that not everyone will appreciate raisins in baked goods, or disco music, or staying up late. And that’s okay.
We’re all human, we all have edges. Keep yours sharp, and admire those of others.