Some people don’t understand how broken they are until it’s too late to do anything about it.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I crashed early enough in life that I was forced to face who I really was. Up until my early 30s, I thought I was the Golden Child who would change the world. I had been successful and praised and envied.
And then I crashed. I failed. And the fall was hard.
I really was everything I had thought I was. I was brilliant, talented, driven, creative, empathetic, insightful. Those were the things I put on display. They were the things I wanted everyone to see. I impressed people. I made them love me or envy me or hate me. But I was in denial about the broken parts which I barely acknowledged to myself — the parts which I hid from the world.
At the core of my brokenness, there is a desperate need. A hunger. I can acknowledge it now, but for years, I was so ashamed of my deep hunger for love and attention and approval that I covered it up. I’m sure it showed at times, but I did everything in my power to hide it.
That desperate hunger is still there today. Most of that brokenness will never heal.
I need attention. I crave attention. And approval. Understanding. Acceptance. Not just a little bit, but a lot.
Everybody needs these things to one extent or another, but they are crushingly important to me. In tiny ways which I hate admitting, I am obsessed with being loved and accepted. I’m obsessed with whether I feel “good enough” to be loved.
Growing up with a narcissist made me this way. In a lot of ways, I’m brittle, because I need your approval — and your criticism shames me.
I don’t like any of this, but I know that I have to talk about it — to protect myself and others. I’m more likely to be manipulative when others don’t understand the attention I crave. This is related to the way I was taught — as a child — to treat people in everyday life. I learned by watching my narcissistic father.
I was constantly selling people on me. I was constantly selling to my father to stay out of trouble — reading his moods and wants and whims — and I applied the same skills to everyone else, trying to get the approval which I learned to strongly crave.
It wasn’t until after I crashed in my 30s that I realized any of this. Even then, the understanding was vague. I thought I just needed a bit of quick therapy and then I’d be back to being the Golden Child I’d always been.
It took me years to realize I had never been that perfect Golden Child. It took even longer to realize that I never would be. And it took even longer to understand that I would always have broken parts — and that I needed a partner who was also broken to help me navigate through a meaningful life.
The weakest people I know are those who can’t be vulnerable enough to show the parts of themselves which aren’t perfect. People who have not yet failed or crashed are often the scariest people to know. It’s often easy to see their broken parts — things which they’re still in denial about — and they almost never have a chance to find real happiness and meaning until after they fail.
Until they fail, they blithely continue through life in denial — secretly terrified in their honest moments that they’re unworthy of genuine love.
When I fall in love with a woman, I fall in love with her emotional potential — what she could be — and with the broken parts that I know can be complementary to my own brokenness. I started doing this instinctively about 20 years ago, but it took me awhile to understand why.
I don’t need a partner who’s broken in the same ways I am. I don’t need a partner with the same strengths I have. I need a partner who has strengths where I am broken — and someone who can allow me to be strong in the parts where she is broken.
I’m not especially interested in a woman’s potential for worldly success. That’s nice if it’s there and it’s something I can be proud of, but it’s not that impressive in the long run. I’m talking about potential for emotional and psychological development.
I tend to see a woman as I know she could be in the developmental sense. I have a strong unconscious tendency to assume that others are just as interested in psychological development as I am, so I tend to assume she will be just as excited about becoming what she can be as I am in improving myself through self-examination.
Sometimes, that turns out to be true — and that is a satisfying journey to take with someone. Other times, it turns out that the person is perfectly happy remaining emotionally shallow and undeveloped — and even though I see what she could be, she remains completely out of touch with that part of herself.
My expectation that everyone will be interested in pursuing such development is a flaw in me, not in her, which I have to constantly remind myself. She doesn’t have any obligation to grow in the ways I believe would make her happier, but when she doesn’t choose that path, it’s difficult for me — because it’s hard for me to give up on something I know could be great for both of us.
And when a woman makes that decision — either directly or passively — I have to accept that and move on. I can’t force someone to grow in ways she doesn’t want to grow.
Everybody has a superpower. Mine is understanding people — seeing them as they really are, cutting through their defenses and truly knowing the person.
I recently came across an old email from an ex-girlfriend who had written to me to explain some things going on in her life that nobody else understood. Even though she had moved on — and married someone else — she still craved the understanding she had once gotten from me. In this email, she poured out her heart about some things and then she ended it with something I consider a compliment.
“I know you understand,” she wrote. “Somehow, you always understand. How do you do that??”
Is my desire for a woman’s love and understanding just another manifestation of the broken need I have for attention? No, it’s something different. The only time that dysfunctional need for others’ attention goes away is when I feel loved.
Without the right kind of love, I suspect I will always go through life obsessed with gaining attention and approval. It’s a horrible way to live. It makes me very unhappy, because that means I’m living in my ego.
I’ve come to realize lately that the parts of ourselves that we most strongly identify as “us” are actually the least valuable parts of us. They’re the parts most likely to lead us to ruin and hurt and a million other calamities — and they’re also the parts most likely to cause pain and heartbreak for others.
It is only the parts of us underneath that fragile and volatile ego which know how to love and understand how to accept love.
But almost all of us live exclusively in that childish and arrogant ego, afraid to ever see that most of what we are — and most of what we can be — lie completely underneath that. It’s easier to say, “This is just who I am,” and go right on leaving a trail of barely disguised hurt and unhappiness in our lives. It’s not a rational or wise way to live, but few people realize there is any other way.
I am broken. You are broken, too.
Each of us is broken in his or her own way. Until we experience failure of some sort — and get honest about the broken parts — we will believe that we can fake our way through life hiding those parts of us.
But once we crash and burn — and accept who we really are — we can start taking steps toward making the best use of our strengths and finding ways to compensate for the places where we’re broken.
The best way I know to do that is to have a partner — a real partner, not just someone who lives in the same house — who offers strength where we are weak and has weaknesses where we are strong.
A loving partnership born out of the vulnerability required by this kind of honesty can change everything.
By myself, I am never going to be successful making use of all that I could be. By yourself, you will always stumble because of some flaw or weakness, something obvious or something hidden.
People who complement each other can be real partners — and each can find happiness and success and meaning in being part of a more powerful whole.
But that can never happen unless you crash and accept your hidden brokenness. And that’s one of the scariest things you’ll ever have to do.