When your hard things can’t compete

I’ve been through a lot in the past year, but you probably wouldn’t know it if you spent time with me.  In fact, I doubt anyone knows all of it.

We don’t exist in a vacuum.  While your life is going on, there are 7 billion other lives simultaneously happening.  When you’re going through hard things, there are always people around you who are also going through hard things.

This is a problem for me.  This year, when I was going through hard things, so were a lot of other people.  I’m a very sensitive empathetic person, so I pick up on a lot.  Everywhere I looked, there were people going through things that were bigger than mine and people who were more vocal about their hard things than I was, which is pretty easy since I don’t talk about my things.  To everyone around me I probably seem annoyingly bright and chipper all of the time.  I’m not.

I try to be a positive person, to be someone who provides a spot of calm in peoples’ chaotic worlds.  Since everyone I knew was going through hard things, it was my job to be happy and try to bring sunshine to the people I came into contact with.  Everyone was already floundering under the load of their own stuff plus the stuff of the Really Deserving People and the Really Vocal People, so no one had room for my hard things.  At least that’s what I told myself.  I still don’t know whether or not it was true.

So I didn’t ever talk about my things and I fell through the cracks.  This happens to me a lot.

If you thought I was going to have revolutionary advice on how to deal with this, this is the part where I tell you that you’re wrong.  I still haven’t figured out how to handle this.  Sometimes the hard truth is that other people have harder things than you.  Sometimes people have things that are easier than yours but they are needy enough to get all of the attention, and that sucks.  Sometimes your friends support you, but your hard thing keeps lasting and lasting and lasting far past when you know people are sick of it still being a thing.

All I know is that this leads to a lot of resentment.  It’s hard, so hard, to feel like everyone around you gets support while you’re invisible, even if it’s your own fault.  It’s hard not to know how to talk about things because you have a deep-seated loathing of seeming needy or attention-seeking.  It’s hard when you try to open up to people who have good intentions but have no clue how to help you feel better and end up only making it worse.  It’s hard when you’re afraid that no one can handle having to deal with one more person’s struggles and that opening up will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for your friends.  It’s hard feeling like you have to be the strong, secure one when inside you’re anything but.

Sometimes everything is just hard, and while I still don’t have any advice about what to do about it, one thing I know is that you are always allowed to have hard things.  Other people’s hard things don’t neutralize yours, and just because someone else is going through something “worse” than you doesn’t negate your experience.  Your feelings and experiences aren’t contingent on anyone else’s.

Just knowing that and validating your feelings can help a lot.  One thing I’ve learned is that you have to admit that things are hard, even if it’s just to yourself.  That whole thing with trying to be positive at all times to everyone?  I have no idea whether or not it worked on everyone else, but it didn’t work out so great for me.

But that’s all I know.  I still don’t know what else to do when I feel like my hard things can’t compete (which, for me, is pretty much always).  I know that there are a lot of people like me out there who struggle but go unrecognized because they keep quiet and don’t want to add to all of the turmoil and pain in the world.  This post is for you – you’re not alone.  I see you, and sometimes being seen is just what we need.

So to those people: your hard things are still hard.  Don’t try to compare them to other peoples’ – it’s apples and oranges.  Every single individual is so unique that your hard things wouldn’t affect someone else the same way they do you and vice versa.  The combination of you and your situation makes your struggles completely unique.  Don’t downplay that.  Your hard things matter.

And to the people who feel that they have a support network or at least that people know what you’re going through: you might not know it, but you’re one of the lucky ones.  Be on the lookout for the people who aren’t so blessed.

Here’s a little secret: no one is happy all of the time.  No one.  Even when everything is going great in their lives, all people will have at least the occasional bump in the road.  So if you know one of those people who is always, always bright and cheerful, they’re probably one of the quiet ones who downplay their difficulties to keep others happy.  It’s a huge sacrifice that typically goes unnoticed and isn’t sustainable in the long run.  Let them know that you care and that you’re there if they are ever going through a hard thing.  Even if they aren’t at the moment, and they really might not be, they will appreciate having somewhere to turn when the hard things do happen.  And if they should happen to open up to you, listen without offering advice (unless specifically asked) and without comparing it to your personal experiences.  Believe me, if they’re at the point where they’re talking to you, they’ve probably already thought of any advice you could give them, and no one wants to feel like their struggles are being marginalized in comparison with your past struggles.

So really, I guess this whole rambling thing has a little bit of advice to people on both sides.  Quiet people: acknowledge and validate your feelings, even if just to yourself.  Vocal people: make sure you pause occasionally to listen to the quiet people.  They need it more than you know.

When you feel like your hard things can’t compete, just remember: they don’t have to.  

Your things are allowed to be hard all on their own.

Love is not a verb

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I found this quote on Instagram quite a while ago and I feel like it goes perfectly with the thoughts I have about this post.

We’ve all experienced them: the sermons, books, lectures, and online articles about love as a verb.  They tell us that true love is an action, not just a feeling.  They say that long after the euphoria wears off, we must choose to love every hour and every day, even if we aren’t feeling particularly loving at that very moment.

These thoughts are well-intentioned and carry a lot of truth.  The issue comes in when people use them in the wrong context.

These posts or sermons are usually aimed in one of three directions.  By far the most common is the application to marriage, where the author or speaker tells us that love extends beyond feeling and includes staying committed and acting lovingly even if we aren’t feeling it at the moment.  Secondary applications that I’ve seen are either in reference to our relationship with family or to our actions towards people with whom we may be having conflict.

One area that this topic is not intended for is a dating relationship.

In my world, at a relatively conservative Christian college, most people take dating seriously.  We aren’t casual; we “date with a purpose”.  In general, this means that most people are proponents of not dating someone you couldn’t see a future with.  This can absolutely be a good baseline – I mean, who wants to waste time with someone that you don’t feel compatible with?

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that in this high-pressure, marriage-oriented bubble, many people, especially girls, start to treat dating like marriage.

I know because I was one of them.

The problem is that dating is not marriage and was never meant to be.  When you’re dating someone, you should be with them because everything feels wonderful and perfect and not because love is a verb.

It took me a long time to realize this.  I stayed in a wrong relationship for way too long because love is a verb, right?  I made a commitment to this person, right?  I should stick with this even if I’m not feeling it, because love is an action.

Right?

He was a good person with a lot of great qualities.  He checked all of the boxes on my theoretical checklist.  He was smart, funny, and a great catch by anyone’s standards.  Everyone thought we were perfect together.  People asked me regularly when we were going to get married.  He’s a good person, I told myself.  He’s a great catch, I said.  I could have a good life with him, I said.  I love him, I said.

It didn’t feel quite right.

Don’t dwell on it, I said.  No one is perfect, and I myself am very imperfect.  I’m lucky to have someone like this, I said.  There is no such thing as a perfect relationship.  I could have a good life with him.  I could make this work, I told myself.

Love is an action, not a feeling, I said.

I started to get sad a lot.  I was anxious a lot.  I had giant swings in how I felt about the relationship from day to day and even from hour to hour.  It occupied my mind all of the time.

You’re lucky to have someone who puts up with all of this, I said.  You’re falling apart but he’s holding you together, I said.  If this ends, who else would want to deal with you?  You have a lot of problems.  You’d fall to pieces.

Something feels wrong, but I can’t articulate anything.  I’m being paranoid, I said.  I love him, I said.

And love is a choice, right?

So I chose.  I chose to stay, and stay, and stay.

This relationship wasn’t saving me.  It wasn’t holding me together.

It was shredding me, and I let it, because no one is perfect and love is a choice.  Love is a choice.  Love is a choice.  I can’t tell you how many times I repeated that to myself, over and over, until I was sad and numb and confused and I spent another day and another week and another month deciding to stay.

Until one day, I realized that it was all a lie.

Love in dating shouldn’t be all about commitment and choices and careful rationalization and deciding to stay.

It should be about being insanely, giddily, head-over-heels in love with some unbelievably perfect person who seems to incredible to be real.  It should be about deep happiness that overshadows everything else when you are with that person.  It should be about quiet contentment and feeling safer with them than with anyone else.

It shouldn’t be about anxiety and depression and fear of failure or of falling apart or falling out of love.  It shouldn’t be about making it work and putting your shoulder to the grindstone and riding it out.  I mean, sure, you could do that, but do you really want to?  Do you want to spend the rest of your life having to force yourself to choose love day after day and week after week and year after year?

It shouldn’t be about having a pretty good life.

It should be about having a great life that exceeds your wildest dreams.

He was a good person, but he wasn’t my good person.  He checked all of my boxes, but it turns out that there are more important things than box-checking.  He was smart and funny and good-looking, but that couldn’t make it right.  Everyone thought we were perfect, but I outgrew the relationship.

He could have given me a good life.

It took a lot of courage, but I finally decided to choose a great one.

I’m happy most of the time now.  It was strange at first.  I had forgotten what it was like to be happy, every day, for no particular reason.  I had forgotten what it was like to feel excitement about my future instead of dread.

I had forgotten what it was like to be me.

So that’s why I feel that it’s so, so important for girls like me to hear this message.  Don’t stay stuck in a dating relationship out of obligation.  Dating comes before marriage for an enormously important reason.  Don’t skip out on that or turn it into a pseudo-marriage.  Don’t stay in a relationship where you feel ambivalent, because that shouldn’t be where marriage comes from.

Don’t settle for “good enough”.

I chose to search for a great life.

Will you?