(This post is a follow up to How Bossy People Ruin Lives, and will make best sense if read sequentially.)
When I finally crushed my own soul by pulling the plug on a relationship in which I’d literally invested everything – emotionally, financially, geographically, socially – I thought, “Holy shit that was hard. But it was that or live the rest of my life a depressed zombie. Probably just a few weeks… okay, maybe a month or two until I’m ‘over it’ and finally back to my normal self.”
During the first weeks, while I met the demands of extracting one’s life from an adopted country, I also spent a lot of time sobbing uncontrollably. While saying goodbye to friends, I broke down into 20 minutes of tears at a Sushi restaurant. I went to not-our-house-anymore and got rid of all my possessions so my partner wouldn’t have to be reminded of the girl who dumped him every time he turned around, and then I laid in not-our-bed-anymore and cried for an hour while clutching a shirt of his I’d fished out of the laundry. On last runs among landscapes I’d come to love, I avoided the worried glances of fellow pedestrians, tears slowly rolling down my face.
Thankfully, I managed not to cry while closing bank accounts, canceling engagements, and letting new friends know I wouldn’t be around after all…
Then I left my adopted country. When I booked the tickets, it was a month-long trip. But now turned out to be for forever.
As I bounced my way across the globe, I basically ignored myself, which is easy to do when you’re in countries full of signs you can’t read and systems that aren’t intuitive to you. I went to the dentist in Thailand as planned, I visited friends in the Netherlands as planned, and I cheered on a childhood friend while he got married in Portugal… as planned.
Finally, I tossed my east-bound ticket in the garbage and boarded a west-bound plane to my homeland. I already felt a thousand times better than I’d felt for the last year. Now bring on the woman I used to be! Get this wah-wah, empty, depressed crap out of my system. Let’s go, people!
Not So Fast
By the time the plane’s wheels touched down on American soil, two months had passed since the day I told my partner that I had to stop being in a relationship that was only positive 7% of the time. I thought I had already come to terms with the heart-wrenching tragedy of relationship-loss. So imagine my surprise (and horror) as I discovered that was not the case as I passed through U.S. Immigration and Customs.
Even after that episode, I still foolishly believed it would take just a few settled weeks – free from country-leaving chores and fast-paced travel – to recover my former vigor for life that had been missing for the last 20+ months.
The weeks passed, and every day I was happier and more buoyant than the last. But considering where I’d come from emotionally, it wasn’t exactly the progress I’d hoped for.
It turns out saying goodbye to most of one’s identity – my home, my friends, my daily routine and habits, my adopted country, its landscapes, its culture, and all plans for the future – isn’t something you just “bounce back” from.
Aaaaaaany Day Now…
Now that I had escaped the autonomy vampire, why wasn’t I right back to leaping tall buildings in a single bound? How come Facebook still featured so prominently in my daily routine?
It’s not that I hadn’t improved. I had. I was much, much, much, much better. And getting better every day. I must have thought a few hundred times, “Wow. Yesterday, it seemed I had most of my old-self back, but today…. golly! I didn’t even know what I was still missing!”
So, yes, I was better than I’d been in the two years of teaming up with someone who inadvertently obliterated my autonomy. But I wasn’t back to the goal-crushing, ravenous-for-life woman I’d been.
Over the course of a year and a half, I puzzled and puzzled. I had lots of wins. I also stared forlornly at lists I’d made months ago that the old-me would have smashed in a matter of a few days. I went through highs and lows.
Then, the thing arunning this site that I love doing so much that I voluntarily live below the poverty line to do it… suddenly became a miserable proposition. I became an internet zombie sucked into a vicious cycle of sell-out blogging. Disgust overwhelmed me. I quit the internet.
My frustrated brain screamed, “How did this happen?!”
I spent a lot of time thinking while I had no Facebook, news articles, email, twitter, or internet chores to distract me.
And I finally realized my gratuitous error.
Habits Die Hard
In my attempt to return to the woman I’d always been, I eagerly relegated my “should-have-known-better” relationship to a special part of the past. The part where you pretend things actually didn’t even happen.
The problem is, you can’t spend two years not living your life the way you want and then pretend it never happened. Why?
Because doing the same thing day after day forms… habits. I’d gotten in the habit of being too worn down to stand up for what I want. I’d gotten in the habit of acquiescing to externally dictated demands.
The latter habit seeped into every corner of my life. Without knowing it, I’d gone from consciously choosing my work activities to habitually allowing messages (i.e. the demands of others) to direct my pursuits. Suddenly, I started showing up for work and saying “Okay boss, what do you want me to do?” when for my entire life I had always been the boss.
Since I’d failed to realize that my relationship caused me to develop really awful habits, I also failed to realize I was doing the most foolish thing in the world: sitting around waiting for those habits to go away.
Habits are formidable beasts. They do not “go away.” I couldn’t undo two years of living as a zombie just by breaking up with an autonomy leech and then longingly anticipating the day I’d come back to life.
Habits require pro-active attention. Habits depart only when you replace them. Habits rest on the foundation of other hard-won habits.
Example: a habit of going to the gym in the morning requires the habit of getting up when your alarm goes off. And also the habit of thinking about whether or not you have clean gym clothes before it’s too late to do anything about it. And also the habit of making sure you’re in bed early enough that your gym alarm doesn’t feel like a hot needle being stabbed through your eyeball. And also the habit of filling up with gas before you’re unable to drive anywhere but to the gas station. And also the habit of setting your keys in the same place every day so you don’t burn ten minutes of your workout-time searching frantically. And maybe the habit of checking in with your partner & teammate about how your absence will affect your household. And maybe the habit of packing the kids’ lunches the night before, since you won’t be home in the morning. And therefore maybe the habit of going to the grocery store before the fridge and pantry are destitute and vacant.
End in Sight
Did it feel like a punch in the stomach to realize how many “successful habits” I’d lost to my autonomy-draining relationship?
Quite the opposite. Rather than despair, I felt relief and hope.
Knowledge is power, and finally I knew why I’d been stuck in a purgatory of mediocrity sprinkled with occasional bursts of motivation.
Finally I knew how I’d fallen victim to the jaws of the internet-behavior-manipulation monster against whom I’d previously held an undefeated record.
I read a cool article that explained how the dopamine produced by achieving goals that take hard work can – and does – trump dopamine achieved by scrolling facebook like a rabid squirrel. To get back to the level of ongoing success that produced a dopamine high that once made people accuse me of being on meth, I would “just have to build” the foundation required. Again.
So, now I’m on a mission to rebuild my former glory habits – a slow but highly formulaic process. And a nerd like me loves a good, logical, dependable formula. Really, it’s just commitment to mundane repetition and the patience to wait for the rockstar results at the end of the tunnel.
Mundane Repetition Mission #1: is setting up internet boundaries. It’s the common thread in modern life. Until I get back the momentum of dopamine derived from a lifestyle full of good habits – habits that withered when I lost my autonomy – I don’t think I can fully trust that I’m impervious to being sucked into the behavior manipulation machine for weeks or months.
I said before that I’d publish my anti-internet zombie strategy, so that’s up next on this journey.
Wish me luck?! ♣
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