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For a long time, “single” did not feel like the best way to sum up my relationship status. “In a relationship” was patently false and “it’s complicated” implied too much.

After several disappointments in love over the years, I was feeling pretty hopeless. I resented advice to “get back out there” and “make an effort.” The unintended implication of these comments was that my relationship status was perfectly within my control. However, I was feeling increasingly out of control: despite making a concerted effort to keep an open mind and talk to more guys, none of these flirtations had gone anywhere. This well-intentioned advice had the opposite of the desired effect and left me feeling discouraged. While this advice implied being single was a choice, I felt like it had been imposed upon me.

So, instead of “trying harder” to find a romantic partner, for a year or so I tried to tune in more to my instincts. This exercise taught me that it takes time to heal from past hurts—even small ones. It can take awhile to become available again. Even if the single “status” can be reached overnight, becoming open on an emotional level can take more time. I learned a lot about this process over that formative year and am still learning (and re-learning) important lessons from it every day.

Letting go of the timeline

It was not until I let go of some of my former dreams for my future (to marry someone I had known at least during college, if not before) that I realized that I had been keeping myself on a strict timeline to hit major life events. I felt that if I did not achieve certain goals or milestones in a certain time frame, I would fail at the Game of Life.

This could not be further from the truth. Not only were many of these items out of my control, the very premise—that by having my work published in a certain publication, getting that promotion, or reaching some life event, I could achieve “success”—was flawed. Happiness consists in a life well lived, not a well-organized Facebook timeline.

Through careful reflection and the support of close confidantes, I am learning how to be more patient with myself. Exercising patience in the little things can translate to big changes. For example, I have set limits on how many items I place on my daily to-do list. Instead of chastising myself each day for what I have not accomplished, I am opting to focus on what I can achieve—and learning that it’s okay to push an item to the next day when life gets busy.

These smaller adjustments have slowly but surely helped me to let go of the unfair expectations I had for myself about dating and marriage. A relationship is not a project with deadlines—which is part of what makes it so valuable, not to mention exciting!

Learning to trust myself

In addition to learning how to manage my expectations, I also had to re-learn how to trust myself. I will be the first to admit that sometimes my gut is wrong. (I get lost very easily when driving, usually because I was far too confident I knew where I was going!) But I’ve come to realize that, on the whole, I can rely on my instincts. And no one else can decide when I’m ready to date or whether I’m interested in someone.

Trusting yourself can be especially difficult after heartbreak. After falling for a guy who turned out to be completely wrong for me, I doubted my own self-knowledge. Because of this lack of trust in my instincts, I begrudgingly agreed to go out with an old acquaintance largely on the recommendation of a family member. I was dreading the date: it came at a stressful time, and I knew I was not interested, but I let myself be persuaded to give it a chance because of my own feelings of self-doubt. While the date went smoothly on the surface, I spent the next day in tears. As it turns out, ignoring my inner voice all night had been exhausting. It took going on a date against my better judgment for me to realize that I needed to trust myself more, not less.

The upside of trusting your gut is that it translates into self-confidence. Eventually, you will regain your sense of emotional availability. A few months after that date gone awry, a guy I was interested in asked me out, and I accepted. I remember walking towards him for our date that night, feeling surprisingly calm. Usually, I am incredibly nervous talking to guys. But that night, I felt comfortable and relaxed. I had a good feeling about this guy, and more importantly, I trusted that feeling. (And sure enough, the date was wonderful!)

Knowing when to give yourself a break and when to push yourself

Cultivating more trust in myself went hand in hand with getting back in touch with my emotions. For me, I experienced two phases after the heartbreaks of college. First, I needed to give myself space not to try anything new—I needed to recover and process my emotions. Then I really wanted to try new things, to further develop my identity after and apart from the romantic encounters of the past.

After arriving at the realization that things were not going to work out with a long-time interest, I remember coming back to my childhood home in the summer in dread of anything novel. So I spent those summer months focusing on activities and friendships that felt warm and familiar, like re-watching favorite movies and scheduling quality time with old friends. Those months helped me to rediscover the heart of who I am through the stories and the people I love most.

Eventually, I felt ready for—even excited about—meeting new people and trying new things. If I was going to move on, I needed a change of scene. So I made a point of visiting friends who lived farther away in the city, who introduced me to new people and new parts of town that in turn became a part of my regular routine. If you are ready to explore new activities and relationships, this is a great way to learn more about yourself and gain even more confidence.

It can take time to heal—to grow in patience, self-knowledge, and eventually, to expand your horizons—and become emotionally available again. But while it’s difficult, it’s not impossible. Going from “it’s complicated” to “open to a new adventure” is a journey I’m glad I’ve started. 

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