I had a dream last night that featured an abusive ex. I kept walking too close to him, or he would get too close to me – closer than the restraining order allows. In one part of the dream, I said, “I love you.” It was like word vomit, it just came out, and immediately I felt guilty and anxious. I was trying to explain that I didn’t mean it, and that the words meant something else. I changed the intonation of the words, so it sounded sarcastic.
I have begun to look to my dreams as expressions of myself, in the language of metaphor. Interpreting them has led me to extensive insight about myself. I see every character or object in my dream as part of myself.
From the very start, I didn’t like him, I just could not bring myself to say no. With every new advancement of the relationship, I did not say no when I wanted to. From being exclusive, to him staying with me, to moving in with him, to buying furniture, to having the bills in my name – all of it. I wanted to say no.
But I was paralyzed because I liked and hated him at the same time. I felt comfortable in the anxiety and fear and suffering and despair. I liked the despair. It was familiar, and I didn’t feel guilty feeling it. It took a long time for the pain of changing grew greater than the pain of staying the same, but when it did, I left.
I have seen the pattern of love intertwined with fear, despair, and suffering many times in my life. I have (re)created it in every romantic relationship up until my current one. It mimics an unresolved relationship that is/was very important to me, and that I want to resolve. I have created that dynamic and tried to fix it – fix the other person, to have the relationship that I really wanted.
To experience love and guilt/shame at the same time is very uncomfortable. It stems partly from abuse – the conflicting realities of something that is “bad” feeling “good”. I loved the man, and I felt fear around him at the same time. I desired his affection, and I walked on eggshells when I was with him.
Having experiences with him that provoked a peculiar anxiety and “wrongness”, and physical pleasure at the same time, developed a dichotomous dilemma inside of me. When I was older, and I found out how “wrong” those experiences were, I nurtured enormous guilt and shame for liking them. I became riddled with anxiety about someone finding out who I was. Because I felt physical pleasure in those experiences, my identity became the narrative that describes that type of abuse. I am perverted. I am dirty. I am wrong. I am bad. I am shameful. I should be punished. And I became fearful of pleasure and sweetness.
I felt guilty in my dream about saying “I love you,” because in retrospect, I often regret loving him, but more so, what he represents in my dream – the abusive part of myself. The part that belittles me, guilts me, and keeps me in shame. I have a brutal Inner Critic, and a persistent ED voice.
I am beginning to see these as survival/rescuer forces, and toying with the idea of being able to love them. I must have a limited understanding of love, because I sometimes associate love with compliance/submission/agreement. However, these are parts of myself, and I am seeking radical self-love and self-care. So…the critic is concerned with survival – don’t do that, do that, don’t be that, fix that – and it speaks with such urgency. The ED voice is a rescuer – you don’t have to feel that feeling that’s coming from Inner Critic.
ED is so clever – it projects the uncomfortable intangible things onto tangible things: food. Don’t eat that and you won’t feel anxious. Do eat that so you won’t feel guilty. It makes sense that food is an effective vehicle for this purpose, because the discourse about food suggests that food is bad. This is not the case everywhere, but in magazines, on TV, on billboards, etc., the overall message is that we are good if we resist the pleasure of food.
Food is a guilty pleasure, sinfully delicious, so we better buy the low-calorie option. Skipping on sweets is resisting temptation. I picked up a box of crackers that boasted a “guilt free” label the other day. Does this dual existence of “good” and “bad”, “delicious” and “sinful” sound familiar? How perfect to pick this battlefield – the tangible, material one. The problem is, that the real conflict is intangible and abstract. The anxiety is not reduced by hiding our appetites. The guilt does not go away by eating “guilt free” crackers. My shame is not controlled by only drinking diet soda (sweetness with nothing to regret). And my self-esteem does not have an inverse relationship to the number on the scale.
The discomfort of harboring conflicting feelings about something about ourselves cannot be solved in the material world. We must work to love all of the feelings in us because all of them come from parts of ourselves. We cannot heal by accepting our comfortable feelings and the parts of ourselves that we have deemed “good,” and disowning our uncomfortable, inconvenient ones—the “bad” ones—guilt, anger, sadness, shame, fear, disgust, loneliness, anxiety, sometimes sexuality. If we do, we will always feel rejected, abandoned, and neglected. Radical self-love shown by radical self-care is the path of healing, even when it is unbearably painful. Struggle is nature’s way of strengthening, and none of us were given a battle that we cannot handle.