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How to be human: how to be happy and alone in New York City

Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column “Ask Leah” ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is a Senior User Researcher for Slack, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Dear Leah,

Eight months ago I graduated from a university and moved to New York City to chase my dreams. In the process of doing so, me and my girlfriend (of 18 months) broke up, despite the fact that we were both graduating and moving to NYC at the same time. It was her decision, not mine.

Her stated reasons were that she wanted to enter this new stage of her life unhindered by a relationship. She wanted to be able to focus on her career and just live a totally independent life in a new, big, wonderful city, and being in a relationship would be a detriment to all of that. I, at least to some degree, understood this. But still, I would have moved heaven and earth to be with her at the time, no matter how difficult it would have been, and I had trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that she didn’t feel the same way, even though she stated that she truly did love me.

Our breakup was a long, protracted, emotional ordeal — we tried being friends immediately after, had a relapse with her on Valentine’s Day, etc., the classic mistakes — but months later I’m doing a lot better. I’m all settled in this huge, difficult city, things are moving in the right direction career-wise, and our break up no longer affects my day-to-day happiness.

There’s just this one thing: I’m very fucking lonely a lot. The feeling isn’t pervasive, but still, it’s there, gnawing at me. I have friends, I’m very busy, I have a lot of hobbies, but I still find myself missing the level of companionship that I had with my ex — a void that something like getting drinks with buddies hasn’t been able to fill.

The remedy to this seems simple. Get back out there and date, right? But the issue is that I still feel way too fragile to invest myself emotionally in another person. I’m not prepared to potentially go through all that hurt again. I’ve had quite a few casual / no-strings sort of things since my breakup, but they’ve felt sad and hollow in comparison to what I once had. So I’m stuck in this limbo of wanting more intimacy but not being able to actually do what is required of me to get there.

I feel like I’ve been doing a good job at doing all the things you’re supposed to after a breakup, but I still feel like I’m floundering. What do you think of all this? Can a person be totally satisfied being alone? If so, how do I get there? If not, how do I work up the nerve to actually date seriously again?

Best,

Z.

Hey Z.,

The other night in my yoga class we did a balancing pose that, if you were someone who didn’t do yoga and saw us doing it, probably wouldn’t have seemed much like a balancing pose to you. Our teacher guided us into the pose, then told us to lower our shoulders, lengthen our spines, open our chests. There I was, down on one knee, wobbling and trying not to fall over, surrounded by other people similarly trying to stay upright, when our teacher reminded us to breathe. “Your heart needs support so your heart can open to your breath.”

I took a long breath all the way up into my chest and felt my legs steady a little. “Oh. Right,” I thought. “That’s it.”

Do you ever think about the balancing you do, Z? The balancing we all do. I mean, sure, you probably think about work / life balance, or maybe the caring for others / self-care balance. But what about the balancing act of emotions and experiences, or even of competing emotions? Sometimes when I ride the train into San Francisco on my way to work, when it’s not too crowded and I have a place to stand, I look around and I think about everyone riding with me. All those people, all wobbling and trying not to fall over, everyone out in the world just trying to stay upright.

It’s this balancing act I’m thinking about with respect to your heart, Z. You lay it out pretty clearly. On one side, you want to love and be loved by someone. On the other side, you’re still healing from heartbreak. In fact, you’re so close to heartbreak that the risk of experiencing it again outweighs any reward. As you get farther from the breakup and from your last real contact with her, you’ll adjust your balance. Maybe stand a little more firmly in the middle, with occasionally backward wobbles. You’re about six or seven months out from the Valentine’s Day wobble, so I can see why you want to get out there but are afraid.

So how do you get your heart to open? Over the past months you’ve provided it with a lot of support, and I want to commend you for that. You’ve done the things I suggest people do when they’re trying to get over heartbreak, all of which seems to have helped you move forward. Plus, you’ve been listening to yourself: You know that the casual encounters you’ve had don’t feel right, but it also doesn’t feel right to be without a romantic partner. You also know you’re not in a good place to really get close to someone, which means you (hopefully) haven’t given anyone the impression that you’re all in when you’re not even a little in. All good stuff. Well done.

I want you to shift your perspective a little bit about supporting your heart. Think about two things for me. First, think about the feelings you’re trying to balance. Over here is your loneliness. When it gnaws at you, what’s that about? Is it actually you still missing your ex but not wanting to admit that? Is it a fear of being alone, or a fear that whispers “Yeah, but what if you never find someone like her again?” Is it a feeling that without “someone special” you secretly wonder if there’s anyone who is really there for you, deep down? Or is it simply you realizing that you truly love being in a relationship?

Whatever your loneliness is about — it could be one or none of those, it could be all of them — is totally fine. You might not even be able to sort it out, in which case you can mutter, “For god’s sake, Leah. I don’t know. I’m just lonely.” Okay! But trust me, your heart is asking for some support.

Next, look at the other side of the balance. You’re avoiding intimacy so you can also avoid getting hurt again. What do you mean when you say you can’t emotionally invest in anyone? Do you feel like you don’t know how to trust that you won’t get hurt? Are you clamming up around people or feeling like you can’t enjoy anyone’s company? Do you worry you’ll “choose wrong”? Support this part of your heart too.

You see, Z., this is how I think you get back out there. You examine both your desire to find someone and your need to stay closed off, and you work on finding your balance between the two. But remember: finding your balance is a constant practice, with lots of unexpected wobbles even after you think you’ve found it. Balance isn’t all or nothing. It’s everything, all at once.

Expand your options beyond investing fully in a committed relationship or closing yourself off altogether. Be okay with getting to know someone over time, letting intimacy and trust build bit by bit. I hate to sound old-fashioned, but maybe just date for a little while: Have fun, go to cool places, explore your amazing city, talk about things that interest you, and hold back on the deep emotional and physical intimacy for a little while. Supporting your heart might mean recognizing it wants to open, but it needs to open slowly.

Before I send you off, let me answer your other question. Can a person be totally satisfied being alone? Z., I don’t even know if a person can be totally satisfied, period. Okay, maybe some people can be. Or, if not satisfied, then at least can make peace with who they are and where their lives have taken them. But many people — god, I don’t know, probably most people — are never totally satisfied. I think it’s part of the human condition of constantly wobbling around, balancing our present with the what-ifs of our past and the wild unknowns of our future. I think part of being satisfied is having the capacity to recognize this balancing act. There will always be moments when you don’t feel satisfied, when you doubt or feel unhappy or wish for whatever is the opposite of what you currently have, and you have to ride that wobble out. Maybe even fall down and get back into the pose.

As for being alone, it’s important to recognize that “alone” and “lonely” are not the same thing. Being alone — by which I think you mean being single — has the capacity to be deeply, wonderfully satisfying. Some people love, love, love being alone. Plenty of people also hate being single and take no satisfaction in it. I try to remember how painfully lonely some relationships can be. Aloneness and loneliness come in many forms. Some of us are just kind of lonely people, and we don’t always find a person or a place where we feel at home and at peace.

This is why I get frustrated that society treats singledom like the lame factory default setting on a new phone, and everyone has to install the IN A RELATIONSHIP app as quickly as possible. Look, romantic relationships are wonderful! I am very pro romantic relationships! But being partnered often takes precedence to such a degree that being single does, in fact, mean you’re alone — regardless of whether you’re single by choice or whether you lose your partner. If you’re not in a tight-knit community or part of a large, extended family, and if all your friends are partnered, what does your social / support network look like? Who will be there for you and take care of you if something goes wrong? God, there are more options for “how do you want your eggs” than “what are the relationship options for an adult who wants to feel loved, supported, and like they’re not going to die totally alone.” I think this is why some people stay in relationships that make them unhappy. It’s also why being single can be scary, too. There’s no easy answer to any of this.

All I can tell you is to pay close attention to what you’re drawn to and what you’re afraid of, in equal measure. Work on your balance. Support your heart so your heart can open to your breath. In other words, Z., support your heart so your heart can open to the thing that gives you life.

Lx


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