I’ve noticed something about myself in recent months.
Something that is so different about me, compared to how I was when I was a younger woman in high school and college.
Different from when I got my first salaried job at 23, or when I became a wife at age 24.
Different from when I was going through my divorce at age 25. Different from when I started graduate school at 26. Different from when I woke up determined to be sober after a drunken 27th birthday celebration.
In reality, I’m very much the same person inside and out. Many parts of me remain largely unchanged. I crave my solitary time and am prone to giving much too much of myself to others. I love to write, I claim to love to read but don’t do it nearly often enough, I have an instinctive drive to do well and perform above my own standards.
And yet, still, I sit here feeling like a different version of the young woman I’ve always known myself to be.
It feels a bit silly to say (or write) aloud, but what I notice most is the amount of personal strength I’ve gathered within myself over the years. I am less willing to let people walk over me, cross my boundaries, or generally treat me (or others) with less respect than is deserved.
I was, for quite some time, a big and ornate doormat. A people pleaser. A yes woman. In relationships, I tried often to bend myself into the shape of what I believed my partner would want me to be. I found it hard to draw the line in the sand with people. I never wanted to hurt feelings or make too much of a ruckus. I was proud of my own ability to mediate conflict between friends and family members.
I still don’t want to hurt feelings or make a ruckus. I like to operate in the background much of the time. I’ve taken to a career as a mental health therapist, where I can impact lives on an individual basis, but where I can also work my magic somewhat in the background. I still give too much of myself to others sometimes, I am patient to a fault, and I can often be too trusting for my own good.
But this idea of greater personal strength as a developing attribute is an interesting one to me. Not only does it help me maintain my own sense of self-confidence and resolve, but it helps me draw thicker, clearer boundaries with other people without feeling quite so bad. I’m not quite sure where it came from; it’s something that has grown over time, strengthened by sobriety and my personal journey through graduate school. Some of it may be age. But more than that, my strength is somewhat of a mystery to me in its full form; it’s something I need to spend more time actually learning about and figuring out where it came from.
This strength has made it easier to be sober. Easier to be a partner. Easier to speak my mind. Easier to recognize how I respond to other people when I’m hurt, angry, sad, or frustrated.
What’s more, the stronger I feel within myself, the more I notice how people respond differently to me now, as well.
In particular, I’ve noticed how men respond to my strength, and it’s such an odd thing to be witnessing the stark divide in male responses to a woman with intent.
On the one hand, I’ve noticed that my current partner acknowledges both my vulnerabilities and my ability to overcome them and find my own path in life. He loves me no less for either of these things. He often kisses my forehead and listens to me rant about what-the-fuck-ever, and tells me that he knows I can figure these things out. That he trusts my intuition and my judgment. That my quiet and caring nature is often something that less confident or insecure men might mistake for weakness, and my resolve often undercuts their opinion of me as a shy, vulnerable, sad woman.
On the other hand, there are men who see in me the only what they want to see: the image of a woman they’d like to mold into someone docile, even labile. When I don’t act the way they wish I would, they react with disdain, anger, manipulation.
There are two men in particular I can think of who have reacted this way to me, though I’m sure if I thought hard enough I’d come up with several more.
One, an ex-partner of two months, who had formed a whole identity for me in his mind, who put me on a pedestal and declared I was his destiny. No kidding. When I realized he viewed me as someone completely different from who I actually was, I broke things off. He proceeded to first beg, then plead for me to come back. He asked me to help him through the pain. When I wouldn’t respond, he started stalking me, online and in person. He openly wrote disparaging things about me on social media. He called me crazy, paranoid. He started running past my house at night. I refused to give him what he wanted of me, and his only reaction was revenge.
I was angry beyond belief with this man. Despite being 7 years older than me, it felt like he was acting like a child. I was an inch away from filing a restraining order.
Two, a recent encounter with an older man (40+ years older than me) from the creative writing group I run. This man felt the need to chastise me for my current relationship (with a man who also happens to be from the writing group) because I had turned him down for a coffee date over a year ago. He wrote me several long messages to stir a sense of guilt in me for dating my current partner, who he claims is completely untrustworthy and manipulating because he got a DUI several years ago–a DUI which I am very well aware of and that my (2+ years sober) partner has talked with me at length about. This man felt the need to “protect” me from being victimized, stating that I am oh-so-clearly prone to depression and vulnerability, and said that he cares about what happens to me. When I told him to stop contacting me and blocked his number, he went on to attack my partner. When that didn’t work, he publicly shamed my partner and I to several members of the writing group, and then “outed” my partner to these members as having received a DUI. He violated not only my privacy and stuck his nose into my personal life in an attempt to guilt and shame me, but he very publicly violated someone I love and made several innocent bystanders very uncomfortable in the process.
I am angry beyond belief with this man. Despite being 40 years older than me and a so-called mental health worker in his past career, he showed that he had nothing else to do but try to insert himself into my business to try to change my behavior — to try to make me feel bad, or to benefit him. When I didn’t act the way he wanted me to, he lashed out. When I refused to step down and concede to him, he revealed himself as the insecure man he really is.
When my husband first threatened to divorce me, I was desperate to do anything I could to change his mind. I changed how I acted, how I dressed, how I interacted with him. I shied away from conflict and tried to give him what he wanted, and in the process, I shriveled up a little bit more each day, parts of me dying along the way. One day it hit me: with every complaint he had about me and every request made for me to change, there was no end-goal of peaceful reconciliation for him. He wanted me to be someone completely different. He didn’t want me for me, he wanted me to be someone new, someone else. No matter what I did to please him, there’d always be something else to complain about. There would always be something I wasn’t doing right.
I tried a little bit longer after that, but eventually, I accepted the reality for what it was. I wasn’t what he wanted. Our marriage wasn’t going to last. So, on our final night together when he stared at the patio floor and told me he couldn’t do it anymore, I ceased to fight him. I nodded and in an angry stupor, I told him I knew.
Ever since that moment I have slowly and steadily laid the bricks of my foundation of strength. It is what keeps me going on my most frustrating days, it is what keeps me sober and stubborn, it is what pushes me to be the kind of woman insecure men want to control, but can’t, no matter how hard they try. It’s what courses through my veins when I’m overcome by determination, it is what makes me a compassionate and caring therapist to my clients, even when they can’t or won’t be compassionate and caring with me.
Strength like this is one of those weird things you don’t notice until it has some major impact on your life that wouldn’t have been possible before. It doesn’t happen overnight. Things as good as this rarely ever do.