Come Closer

On love and self-protection.

a year ago   •   12 min read

By Vladimír Záhradník
Image by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay

I started Wednesday’s day all euphoric. I was going to start the camera and record my second English video after a long spell and right after that I planned to pack up and go to my girlfriend in Košice. However, around half past ten in the morning everything changed and a storm came. I exchanged a few messages with Nely and we broke up. It surely took me by surprise. I hadn’t expected a break-up, especially not like that, over chat. No argument, no discussion, just the end of it all.

Even though I didn’t cry, it did hit me. For two days I operated in “emergency” mode. Fortunately, my workload has been lighter since the beginning of the year. On Friday, I finally pulled myself together and Nely and I started talking again. Even though I know we won’t be together as a couple, I’m happy to stay in touch with her going forward. She’s worth it, and I’m worth it, too.

Today I’d like to write about how I got through this experience. I feel it might provide several of you with some insights and food for thought. And for me, it’s a way to close one life chapter and start the next one.

First feelings

It’s quite hard to describe my first moments. I was taken aback and crestfallen at the same time. I needed to process the news. The weather was nice outside. I took advantage of the free time and went into town to take care of some business. I moved everywhere on foot, because walking makes me think well. It also helped that I talked about my break-up with Nely right from the first moment with the closest people in my circle. The worst thing I could do is bottle it or even find an activity to do so I didn’t have to ponder it at all. I decided that I wasn’t going to shy away from anything and get through it.

I uncharacteristically spent the evening reading a book. A couple of weeks ago, Nely lent me the book Come Closer by Ilse Sand. I found it odd that I would end this difficult day, when all I could think about was breaking up with Nely, with a book given to me by the woman who had broken up with me. I enjoyed the book and read it all in one sitting, finishing it on Thursday around one o‘clock in the morning.

Come Closer: On love and self-protection

I’m not going into much detail what the book is about right now, but I want you to at least have an idea. How we function in adulthood is largely influenced by the events we experienced as children.

Come Closer: On love and self-protection

I’ll give you an example: a 6-year-old Johnnie is walking to school and a group of third-graders are walking across the street towards him. As they pass, one of them trips Johnnie until he falls to the ground. While the little boy is lying on the ground with his knee bruised, the other children laugh at him, “Look at the klutz!” Johnnie decides to hold back his tears. He had been stifling it inside him all day. At school he was as if absent in spirit. In the schoolyard, the teacher asked him if everything was all right. He answered, “Yes.” And immediately he looked away and walked off. Later, when he got home, he went into his room and sat there quietly. His mother came to him, “Johnnie, is everything all right?” And then the little boy started crying. In a safe environment, near his mother, he told her everything. He was relieved, his mother nursed his wound, and in a moment, he was happy again.

Johnny deliberately suppressed his feelings and expressed them only when he felt safe. He unwittingly used an act of self-preservation. He suppressed his feelings for a time and isolated himself from them all day while letting his surroundings suspect nothing.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced incidents like this where we felt threatened as children. However, the self-defense we have built up as a way of protecting our inner selves often works in adulthood as well. As the author writes, in certain circumstances, the conscious use of self-protective strategies is appropriate. It is not appropriate to cry when you are at a social event. The problem arises, however, when we begin to apply self-protection strategies automatically, subconsciously.

Many times, we don’t even realize that we are protecting ourselves. We are operating on autopilot. What helps is naming and describing these strategies. When you read about them in a book and realize that you are behaving this way too, that’s when they lose their effect over you and come into your consciousness where you have control over them. As the author writes: “Certainly many who are reading this book are now experiencing uncomfortable feelings.”

When I read it, I just smiled. Yes, I was aware that many of the things mentioned in the book were things I was unknowingly doing for my own protection as well. However, I was also aware that even without reading the book, I had figured it out on my own over time and had eliminated these bad habits of mine. The ones I haven’t yet eliminated, I at least know about and am working on them.

My self-protection

Inside, I am sensitive, but I am also balanced. I feel things intensely, but rarely so intensely that I cry. When I first went to kindergarten, I cried the first two days. I found myself without my mom in a strange environment full of strangers. Never mind that Mom was only three hundred yards away from me. However, I quickly got over it and took a liking to the nursery.

In elementary and middle school, I was tight-lipped and withdrawn. I was a good pupil, but outside of that I didn’t lead a great social life. Right after school, I would get on the bus and travel home. I also went to a folk art school where I learned to play the accordion for eight years. It’s unbelievable that they were able to convince me to perform at various school concerts in front of people. In a close family circle, I was afraid to play and practiced in a way that I could be heard as little as possible. Today I just laugh about it.

As a kid, I was nervous about standing in front of a camera. There is one photo that shows my brothers and cousins, only not me. I refused to go out and take a picture back then. What makes it all the more funny is that today I am the one who goes in front of the camera knowingly and willingly.

I also had trouble making phone calls for a long time. I used to experience anxiety at the feeling that someone would call and I should answer. I experienced fear at the thought of calling a stranger myself. Eventually, I got over it.

University helped me.

The first few days of college were strange, but in a group of so many people, it’s easy to get lost and not stand out. Eventually, as we all studied together, I had to, willy-nilly, step out of my comfort zone.

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

A very long time ago, the thought of standing in front of a blackboard in a room with eighty people would send shivers down my spine. However, I went through that and today I smile about it.

I remember one day a classmate said to me: “Vlado, why are you avoiding my gaze? Look into my eyes.” Yes, I also had the vice of averting my eyes. I couldn’t look people straight in the eye for more than a few seconds. Overcoming that block probably took me the most time, but I shook it off too. Today, I’m able to handle this just fine.

At my first job at AT&T, I had to talk on the phone for hours in English. It was there that I got rid off my fear of making phone calls. It was difficult in the early days, but later I got the hang of it. And today I regularly talk on the phone with people and we discuss things for hours. Simply said, I grew out of it.

Radical openness

I have always been an open person. I say what’s on my mind. However, about fifteen years ago or so, I broadened this approach even further. I said to myself: “I’m going to be open with everyone. I don’t feel like remembering what to say to this person and what not to say to that person and what not to say to the next person.” You probably know the drill: you’re not allowed to say in front of one colleague that the other has badmouthed them behind his back, and you’re not allowed to tell your colleague that she’s somehow put on weight. For me, it’s a waste of my brain capacity. I have long since abolished that filter, and if you don’t want me to say something to someone, the best thing you can do is not even tell me about it.

This radical openness has worked well for me. Those who want to spend time with me and enjoy my presence accept me as I am. And I don’t need those who don’t like it as friends. With such openness, I also entered into my relationship with Nely. I openly told her everything that was going on in my head. I have no desire to play games with anyone like “she says this, but she really means something completely different.” What I liked about our relationship was that Nely agreed to this openness as well.

Toastmasters

When I joined the speaker’s club, I began to step out of my comfort zone even more. As a result, my comfort zone kept getting bigger and bigger over time, and today I think I’ve gotten a lot further than most of the people I know. I no longer have a problem speaking at a conference where there are 500 people. I no longer have a problem presenting and defending my views publicly, no matter how unpopular they are. I stand behind everything I write or say.

Still, despite my growing confidence, I have received valuable feedback. Not everyone is willing and able to accept my open expression without censorship. I am now gradually learning to refine it. Not to suppress it, but to say things differently, more diplomatically. If I want to reach a wider audience, there is no other way of doing it.

The beginnings of blogging

Several of you don’t know this, but up until about three years ago, I had written almost nothing publicly. I wasn’t ready to put my neck on the line. I was protecting my life and living in my bubble. It changed suddenly. When the debate opened up about the amendment to the EU directive, which in my view threatened the freedom of the Internet, I couldn’t resist voicing my opinion. The pressure not to be quiet was greater than the need to protect myself.

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

At that time, I also wrote an e-mail to several Slovak MEPs, whom I usually see on television. This was the first moment when I realised that the sun was still rising, that nothing had happened to me and that I had expressed my opinion publicly. Gradually, the first posts appeared on my blog and I also started to be active on social media. I got rid of another self-protection mechanism.

When I published my first post in January, where I summarized the past year and described my plans for this year, two of you wrote to me that the post was too personal. I don’t think so. Simply, I’ve gotten farther than my two friends and I don’t mind letting people get closer. I hope you appreciate this honesty and that I, in turn, will establish more valuable relationships with you where we don’t play games.

Romantic relationships

As far as romantic relationships go, I’ll admit that I’ve probably had a block there the longest, and consciously. I move in a predominantly male environment. I’m not fond of workplace relationships and I used to follow the motto, “Don’t shit where you eat!” In other words, I didn’t want to start a romantic relationship at the company I work for because if it didn’t work out, it would be awkward at best to meet my ex-girlfriend in a hallway somewhere. Dating doesn’t appeal to me because I realize that I’m not looking for just anyone and I have no desire to go through dozens of relationships looking for a girlfriend that I get along with. At the same time, I keep an eye on what’s going on around me. I see the divorce rate skyrocketing, people don’t know what they actually want, and things aren’t looking rosy with society. These were the reasons I didn’t get into a relationship.

But I told myself one thing: I wasn’t going to resist the relationship. Even if I’m not actively looking for one, I won’t pass up an opportunity if one arises. This one occurred at Toastmasters. Unlike dating, Toastmasters Club gatherings did the natural filtering for me. You’ll find people there who want to better themselves, move forward, and expand their comfort zone. If I ever have a girlfriend, I want us to share these qualities. It’s a good foundation for us to build on. That’s how I met Nely, too.

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

I’ve regarded her as a good friend for a long time, but I still didn’t ask her out. I had my head full of other things, especially work. And at the same time, I was aware of how hard it is nowadays to have a long-term relationship that doesn’t fall apart after a couple of years. Part of what helped me overcome my nerves was the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. We’re heading into so much uncertainty and insecurity in the next few years that I might as well take risks when it comes to relationships. If it works out, we will get through these difficult times together. And if it doesn’t, we’re in for much bigger problems than one broken relationship.

This was probably the last block I had. Now I feel balanced and ready for the hard times ahead. I’m not afraid of challenges and I’m ready to tackle any problem I come across.

What gave me time with Nely?

I’ll end this post with what those less than two months with Nely gave me. First and foremost, time with her allowed me to slow down. I live a fast-paced life, I work a lot, and being around her has allowed me to sit, sip tea, and think. I found it useful enough that I will continue to do so.

Further, Nely has opened other horizons for me. She has shown me books that can help me move forward in life. I realized the importance of emotional intelligence and that I need to read other types of books than those I have been reading so far.

At the same time, I discovered what it’s like to have someone next to you who loves you and how much more joyful life is.

And last but not least, I experienced hurt. The hurt of a relationship that didn’t work out. But I’m still thankful for it. I went into this relationship with that risk as well. I was aware that I had never experienced the pain that others experienced and I couldn’t put myself in their shoes. I can do that now.

When I look back at that time, I see a lot of positives. I have moved on a huge amount and I believe Nely has too. I’m glad we have remained close friends and I’m happy to help her when she asks me to and when I am able to do so.

And what next?

I don’t have a desperate need to dive right into another relationship. But I’m not resisting it either. I’ll keep my eyes open, and when I see an opportunity, I’ll seize it. At the same time, I know that I’m not looking for just anyone to join me. It’s very important for me to understand each other on a mental level. I have no need to go into any relationship just to start a family. I’d rather be alone.

I’ll end on a positive note. A new decade started a few days ago. It’s time to let go of old things and start new adventures. I’m going to change careers again, create digital learning courses and who knows, maybe that next relationship of mine will come so fast before I won’t even know it. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the future. It’s not scripted and it’s up to me what it will look like.

I wish you to have your life and your values arranged this way too. Reading the book Come Closer could be your first step.

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