Expanding my comfort zone, part 2: 2012 personal reflections

NOTE: This is the second, and far more personal, part of my 2012 reflections. If you’d rather hear about my experience with coding class, read Part 1.

Aside from taking my first coding class, this year I dealt with several more personal excursions outside my comfort zone.

The biggest one was triggered by the abrupt and painful ending of a three-year relationship I’d treasured, which happened this summer — just a couple weeks after I moved from Oakland back home to Boulder.

I won’t delve into the details of my breakup, but it deeply shook my confidence in people, as well as in my ability to gauge the character of others — although it did reaffirm to me the quality and steadfastness of my closest friends.

One difficult realization was the way I contributed to how painful this breakup ended up being for everyone involved. Over the course of the relationship I’d slacked off on some basic communications maintenance, for the sake of savoring comfort and avoiding awkwardness and conflict. I hope to never forget that lesson again.

Anyway, that’s how — this year, for the first time in my adult life — I found myself without any intimate partners at all. So I had to learn to embrace being “single” in the conventional sense, not just solo.

This was a huge step outside my comfort zone.

Ever since I began living alone in 2010 (yeah, I’m a late bloomer), I’ve been surprised to discover how much I enjoy the solo life. I didn’t think I would like it. At first I expected to often feel lonely and sad — because that’s what society says women who live alone should feel like, and I’m as vulnerable to cultural programming as anyone else.

But during that transition I did have a good, steady, emotionally invested, and otherwise fulfilling and rewarding relationship with my boyfriend. We typically only spent time together once a week, but with our full lives and other commitments that was enough for us. The time we shared truly did rock, in every sense.

While he and I were together, I was still very much solo in the sense of being personally autonomous; but I wasn’t single in the sense of being totally unpartnered. Now, I’m both. And now, several months after that breakup, I’m realizing that I have expanded my comfort zone to include singlehood. Not just that: I enjoy it, so I’m taking time to explore it.

Yes, sometimes I do get lonely — but I also value solitude and the gifts it brings me, the mental and emotional space it affords me. And of course, everyone gets lonely. Being in a relationship doesn’t immunize you against loneliness. So it’s better to learn how to be good at being alone; and how to reach out to friends and community in good times and bad.

While I miss having partners (yes, plural — I’ve long been poly, so I’m open to having more than one honest relationship at a time), I truly don’t want another significant intimate relationship right now. I am dating a bit, but in a low-pressure, no-agenda way.

That’s not because I’m still licking my wounds from my bad breakup. (Even though, honestly, I’m not quite fully healed yet. That’ll take time. I’m getting there.) It’s because I’ve discovered that being single as well as solo is a precious opportunity to pay attention to and honor my own feelings, needs and priorities. I don’t want to trivialize or discard this opportunity. I’m getting a lot out of it.

When I’m in intimate relationships I give a fair share of my focus to what’s going on with my partners, and how well we’re treating each other. That’s good, and right, and natural, and I’ve gotten pretty skilled at it — something I credit polyamory for, although it’s not the only path to that skillset. But I don’t need to be in a relationship to be happy or fulfilled.

Right now, my life is great — in fact, better than it’s ever been. That’s no accident. I’ve worked very hard for a long time to craft a life that suits me well, and dammit, I intend to enjoy it for as long as I draw breath!

I’m sure, when I want new intimate relationships, I will be able to find them. I enjoy relationships, I’m good at them, and I relish that they really are completely configurable. Love was never one size fits all.

Still it’s good to know through experience that I really am totally fine and can be very happy whether or not I’m in a relationship. I wish more people could experience this. Many people I care about soldier on in dead, destructive, even poisonous relationships. Sometimes that’s for economic or family reasons, but often it’s because they fear being alone. I say that with compassion; for a lot of my life, that was my story too. There are far worse things than being alone.

I dread making big changes in my life. That’s always terribly uncomfortable and disorienting for me, even when they’re good changes that I want (or at least, I know they’re right for me), and when I deliberately work to make them happen. For instance, last winter I decided that although I loved many things about my time and friends in Oakland, it wasn’t my home and I didn’t want to keep living there. So I returned to Boulder, Colorado.

Since my move ended up coinciding with my breakup (although it wasn’t the cause of the breakup), it was especially wrenching. But all things considered, it also provided a level of comfort, certainty and even distance that I especially needed in light of my breakup.

It’s much more pleasant being single in a place that I love, where I have many old friends and where I’ve been making many new ones since my return. Here I have my precious mountains, which feed my soul and challenge my endurance. I have easy access (walk, bike, transit, and carshare) to all the kinds of places and activities I love, without having to buy a car. Hey, I even went indoor rock climbing last week!

More importantly, since I’ve returned I’ve been pleased and relieved to find that the local poly community became quite robust and welcoming while I was away. In fact, it feels stronger, more fun, and more supportive than any aspects of the poly community I encountered while living in the alternative-relationship Mecca that is the Bay Area. I’ve made many new poly friends here, and the regular Boulder poly meetup is one of the highlights of my week.

So while I’d been bracing for my interstate move to be yet another unadulterated dose of discomfort (albeit with a big eventual payoff, that’s why I did it), it turned out to offer the kind of comfort I needed to balance my far more discomforting transition to singlehood. Also this move unexpectedly provided me with the opportunity to focus on gaining some coding skills, knowledge, and context. That’s a huge bonus.

Pieces of my personal big picture keep falling into place. Apparently, it’s an outsider art installation comprised mainly of found objects. Every day I notice a new detail — either something that fits, or that doesn’t.

Here are my favorite parts of this picture: I’m grateful to have a healthy independent career, an apartment that (while small) is cheerful and cozy, my health, my cats, and most of all the love and support of my family, friends and colleagues near and far. That includes my former spouse, who remains one of my closest friends — which goes to show that breakups aren’t one-size-fits-all either. Some are actually relationship transitions.

I wouldn’t have much (or perhaps any) of these wonderful things, if I hadn’t gotten used to — and rather accomplished at — expanding my comfort zone by venturing beyond it and sticking around. Of course, this isn’t a binary; you don’t have to be totally comfortable or totally uncomfortable at any given time to do this. In fact, I’ve found it’s healthier and less stressful to blend significant discomfort with some comfort, where possible.

Most days I feel useful and happy and energetic. The days I don’t, I get through them well enough. Even when I sometimes need to cry or whine or scream or rant, that’s okay. All discomfort, and comfort, passes. If you get too attached to either, you’ll miss the big picture.

Enjoy 2013, folks. Even more importantly, embrace the parts you don’t enjoy. Expand your comfort zone however you can. Trust me; it’s worth the effort.

Had some fun with my hair this summer. Yet another comfort zone expansion.

Had some fun with my hair this summer. Yet another comfort zone expansion.

PS: Not all excursions outside my comfort zone this year have been a big, serious deal. For fun, this summer I cut my hair short — and this week added some bright red highlights. I’m really liking the look. I never thought I’d be comfortable with short hair, or funky color. Well, there you go. Things change. And I’ve also rediscovered that I love to sing, and shoot pool. I’m integrating them back into my comfort zone. I also want to expand my comfort zone to include dancing. Who wants to join me?

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