The Emotional Footprint

25 Feb

Relationships are a lot like dwellings. Some are as transient as an evening on a friend’s futon, while others are homes you own and live in for decades. You enter them, shelter in them, maintain or neglect them, and one day leave them behind–having changed little, improved a lot or left a legacy of mess and waste.

Ecologists talk about reducing the size of our carbon footprint (the amount of nonrenewable energy we use) in our homes and lives. In relationships, the dents and abrasions we leave are emotional. Clearly one should strive, in the delicacy department, to be Tinkerbell, not Sasquatch, in our intimate connections.

I have acquired this belief by doing the opposite. There was a time when I didn’t understand the concept of less is more, especially when applied to relationships. For me, more was not enough. I wanted to express all my feelings and needs whenever they arose. Perhaps this was a reaction to being somewhat repressed and exposed to strictness as a child. It might have been an inappropriate response to years of psychotherapy, in which all my demons were encouraged to emerge and unburden themselves. This exorcism was meant to begin and end in a danish recliner beside a tissue box in the therapist’s office, never to be brought home and used as a weapon. I guess I was day dreaming when the therapist explained all that.

For a shy young lady with a soft voice, I had a pretty heavy tread at times. My emotional footprint went through the floor (and sometimes the ceiling). I don’t mean that I was nasty. I just could not repress any hurt or fear and I had a very hard time letting things go.

Even when I started dating at mid-life, with insight from three longterm relationships, I was clomping and stomping my way through many awkward attempts at intimacy.

Crying was one of my specialties. Not the light tin-roof rain of pop ballads, but heavy showers of emotional release. Sometimes I was so touched by actually being invited on a date, that I wept on the phone with gratitude. If a man lost his temper or raised his voice, I would start to sob and sputter with pain.

My worst gaffe was certainly when, after a few too many cocktails, I invited a date to stop by my house. Settling into the living room couch, I ignored my suitor’s advancing hands and the carnal glow in his eye. Instead I reached for a stack of photo albums of my exes, which I thumbed through, weeping as I went.

But wait, there’s more!

Forget losing a guy in ten days. I could dispatch any prospective love interest in ten minutes, or seconds, with a dose of my wounded diva’s righteous indignation.

I called at least two fellows after dates to inquire why in the name of Tom’s Toothpaste they had not kissed me goodnight. I rationalized this to myself as a form of healthy honesty and a learning experience. I could improve myself or my choice of dates after doing the research on the kiss thing. Problem was, each of them offered a mumbling defensive “I dunno, it just didn’t seem right” and probably added me instantly to their call blocking and spam lists.

You may be wondering, what was she thinking? I was not thinking. I was emoting– leaving a big messy muddy imprint. It was not a good impression.

All of these stumbles were nothing in comparison to my outbursts of ire.

My date rage was sometimes pathetic, occasionally delusional, even hallucinatory. My pique tended to be the squeaking, sputtering semi-polite variety. I took umbrage rather than taking no prisoners. Still I could fashion a pretty mean insult out of words like “player” “liar” “heartless” and “man ho”.

The rites of online dating seemed to push my buttons in particular. They struck me as unreasonably tactless, even cruel. For instance, if I noticed that a man was back on the matchmaking website after asking me out or right after our date, I did not give a darn about the cyber dating convention that we were all supposed to be shopping around. Instead I felt personally insulted–and let him know it.

At times my anger was simply, well, crazy. I remember having a tearful fit of pique when, one evening in a bar on an ocean liner, a man hit on my gal pal and not me. An hour later I was laughing at myself when I recalled that earlier in the voyage the same man had put the moves on me–and been dispatched by yours truly.

It was becoming clear that Incidents like these were putting a crimp in my love life. It seemed that major behavioral change was in order.

So, here’s what I did.

First, I decided that unbridled emotional expression, while 100 percent natural, was too much for a fledgeling relationship to bear. I had to deal with my own feelings, almost entirely, at first, and only gradually and cautiously let my suitor in on the emotional side of me. I didn’t sit on my feelings or deny them. I confided in myself. I cried, I ranted, I paced. I let myself in on everything. Writing things down was useful. Coffee with a girlfriend also helped.

Strong reactions were another trouble spot. I decided that when I started to feel piqued, I would not reach for my nuclear briefcase. I would refrain from launching a missile to respond to an apparent first strike. Instead I took myself by the hand, sat myself down and, like a kindly parent, discussed with my diva the details of the insult. I suggested alternative interpretations. Together we weighed courses of action.

Finally, after much hand searching and soul wringing, I lit upon an approach that could serve me in all situations requiring me to lighten up. It was so simple I could not believe I had ignored its magic for so many years.

I did nothing.

When something bothered me, I just stopped in my tracks and waited for something else to happen. I handed my anxiety over to my Higher Power, prayed and waited.

The results were amazing: When I did not react, sent prayers to the Universe instead of clever insults across the ethernet, astonishing things happened. Most thrillingly, the man in question often did something that completed wiped out my concerns. Even when I felt crushed by an obvious rejection, skipping the rejoinder and simply disconnecting helped me heal a lot faster than if I had fired off endless emails and received endless nothing.

Falling silent and motionless felt strange at first. It is odd in a coffee-fueled world of twittering, texting and multitasking, to do nothing. It seems, well, practically un-American, like something a monk from far away Tibet would do.

Well yes, exactly. Think of the inspiring charisma and earthy appeal of the Dalai Lama. Who doesn’t adore His Holiness? Outside of a few malevolent politicians who have territorial designs on his country and his people, the DL is loved universally.

The Dalai Lama appears incapable of putting out a bad vibe, burdening others with messy emotions, getting reactive or paranoid, making snap judgements or snappy comebacks.

He is the world’s best role model for treading lightly.

All you need to do is put one foot in front of the other.


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