I fell in love for the first time many years ago with a girl from my same high school. I liked her and she liked me. We shared music CDs and countless hours on the phone. But I didn’t know how to express my feelings for her, and when I eventually did, it was too late: she could only see me as a friend. I felt quite embarrassed about it, but worst than that, she hooked up with another guy in our friend circle.
One day we all went to the cinema to watch a popular teen romance. The kind of movie you don’t really want to see with the girl you like and her boyfriend sitting around you. When the movie ended, as we made our way out, I saw them kissing. I felt a rush of shame take over my body and I wanted to vanish. Afraid that others would see me weak, I kept it for myself.
Life moved on: I was hurt, but not discouraged. A few years later I started my first love relationship: she was beautiful and confident, and I was completely hooked. I’d wake up thinking about her and go to sleep still thinking about her. We had a great time and I felt alive like never before.
But a few months into our relationship, things started to creak. The excitement faded, replaced by an anxious drive to meet her expectations. Expectations that I inevitably failed to meet, no matter how hard I tried. Again and again, I felt inadequate, unwanted, unworthy.
Like most teens, I lacked any sort of introspective tool to manage or process my emotions. I felt overwhelmed by doubt and fear, like a man on a raft at the mercy of a rough sea.
After a few cycles of getting close and breaking up, she decided to end the relationship. I felt helpless and enraged and I wanted to break down in tears, but I didn’t. I don’t recall exactly what happened in my brain, but in a split second I pushed down the emotion, refusing to suffer. I went back home, took our pictures down the wall, and acted as if nothing happened.
I spent the rest of my twenties mostly on my own. When grandma would ask me if I was still single, I would hesitantly say ‘yes’. When colleagues made jokes about how successful I must have been with ladies, I nodded with embarrassment.
Over time I managed to ‘forget’ that I was ever in pain, and I started to believe that I simply couldn’t find a partner. The few girls I liked were either already taken, living on the other side of the world, or impossibly out of reach. I hoped that one day I would meet someone special and everything would be fine. But that never happened.
After many years the lack of a loving partner by my side was starting to take a toll on my mental health. I came to realize that if I let things unfold on their own nothing would have ever changed. I saw myself growing old, reaching the end of my days still unable to be in an intimate relationship. I couldn’t let it happen. I had to do something about it.
So, reluctantly but firmly I decided to ‘go back in the arena’ to confront my fears. I knew that only through action I could get more clarity, so my plan was “simply” to get out of my comfort zone and intentionally engage with women. I also decided to keep track of my thoughts and feelings by writing them down or recording them on camera to help my progress.
Other than that I trusted the process to teach me exactly what I needed to learn. This time I was ready to listen.
It was around the time I moved to Bali that I started to take my healing journey seriously. Luckily over there life is buzzing with social events and opportunities to meet new people.
One evening I went to an art exhibition with some people I had recently met: it was a nice event and there were many girls I could go talk to. I knew I had to act: just introduce myself, start a conversation. However, as the night went by, I kept procrastinating, engaging in more comfortable conversations with the people I was with. For one excuse or another, it was never a good time to act. I waited and waited, until eventually the group decided to leave and I left with them.
As I got on my scooter to go home, I felt deeply disappointed in myself: I had sabotaged my progress and now I was feeling sorry for myself. I had chosen to stay in my familiar misery rather than take the risk to open up and feel vulnerable.
The truth hit me hard: if I were to make any progress in my journey I had to intentionally make an effort to face my fears. No one was coming to help me. I could only help myself.
Around the same time, I developed some feelings for a girl that lived in my same household, just on the other side of the courtyard separating our rooms. When I initially noticed my interest in her, I thought it didn’t make much sense: she was younger and less mature than me. But since I was indeed attracted to her, I trusted the process and asked her out.
Soon enough we started to hang out and shared some cool moments together, but every time I tried to get closer, she pushed me away. Determined to win her heart, I kept trying: when she needed to talk I listened to her, when she needed support I was there for her, when she wanted to have fun I went out with her. But despite making slow progress, she kept closing herself off telling me that I was wasting my time.
My past was haunting me again: despite trying my best it seemed that I couldn’t succeed in finding love. What was I doing wrong? I still couldn’t understand it. Defeated, I stopped trying.
Life in Bali was great after all. I went to pool parties, ecstatic dances, and exciting adventures around the island. I kept going out with girls and I had a few interesting dates. I felt like I had already made some progress!
One morning I was having breakfast on my terrace. Dragon fruit, peanut butter toast and a cup of coffee, the usual thing. The birds were singing and the sun was shining. I felt truly blessed, until the worst nightmare unfolded before my eyes.
The girl I liked, the one living in my same household, came out of her apartment with another guy. They had spent the night together and they were now relaxing on her balcony. As I watch them sitting at their table, my body instantly filled with shame. Afraid to be seen weak, I felt the urge to hide inside my room. But in a split second, just before I started moving, the thinking part of my brain went online. Years of meditation paid back all at once.
“Wait a second — I asked myself, observing the emotion pervading every inch of my body — How can this shame define who I am? How can it make less of me?”
I stayed a few moments with it, befriending it. I realized how pivotal the moment was: the emotion I had repressed for so long was now surfacing. For the first time in my life I felt like I had agency over it.
A shocking thought came to mind: “What if go say hi to them? Just for a minute, then I leave.” It would have been iconic: a simple yet powerful action to stand up for myself, despite how vulnerable I felt. I decided to go with the excuse of filling my water bottle in the kitchen halfway. I slowly stood up and went back to my room to pull myself together and quickly use the loom. Scared as I was, my penis looked incredibly small. I smiled, took my empty bottle, and went to their place. We chatted for a minute.
Then I went back to my room and started crying.
With some of the weight off my shoulders in the following days I started to connect some dots. Most importantly, I realized how immature my way to seek love had always been, not just in the previous months but throughout my whole life.
No one had ever taught me how to love responsibly, not my upbringing, not the movies. My template to seek connection was always to please and accommodate my partner’s needs while completely overlooking mine. I pleased and pleased, seeking approval to feel good about myself. However, since I pleased so much I also felt entitled to be loved back. And when that didn’t happen, I felt helpless, angry, and resentful. Just like a scared child unable to take care of himself.
After several unpleasant experiences in my adolescent years I started to despise myself for being so weak and needy. Incapable of assertively stand my ground, I turned the unease into self-loathing. I believed that something was wrong with me and I didn’t deserve to be loved. I believed that for so long that I thought it was true. But no matter how familiar, a lie is still a lie and now I could finally see it.
I didn’t need to wait for someone to come and save me, or to tell me that I was worthy of love. I was safe already, fully in charge of my own emotions.
A few months later I left Bali and continued my journey in Lisbon, the sunny capital of Portugal. As much as I wanted to think I was healed, it took me more trials and errors to regain some sort of psycho-emotional balance.
A part of me still wanted a relationship just as a cover-up of my insecurities around intimacy. As in, if others think I’m happy, my pain would disappear. When I initiated relationships for this reason I only ended up hurting the other person.
I had to start asking myself questions such as: “What is the purpose of a relationship? What kind of relationship do I want to have?” I found a lot of wisdom in a quote from the book The Truth by Neil Strauss that says:
"A healthy relationship is when two individuated adults decide to have a relationship and that becomes a third entity. They nurture the relationship and the relationship nurtures them. But they’re not overly dependent or independent: They are interdependent, which means that they take care of the majority of their needs and wants on their own, but when they can’t, they’re not afraid to ask their partner for help."
Since I had no references in my experience of what a healthy relationship looked like, I tried to imagine how I would feel if I had a partner to come home to, go to a cool restaurant with, or to travel together. I also took inspiration from couples around me in cafés or in the street. I tried to feel what they felt, imagined myself in their shoes.
Eventually I did meet someone whom I started a beautiful relationship with. During one of our first trips together we rented a van and went exploring the little towns and beautiful landscapes of Portugal’s coastline.
As I got home, after three days of pure joy and connection, I was deeply touched. I almost could not believe how good the past days had been, how much love I allowed myself to experience. The love I finally thought I deserved.
Then a deep sadness surfaced, too. For so many years I had denied myself of something so beautiful and so precious for no good reason. For far too long I deemed closeness with a partner as dangerous and threatening to my wellbeing, when in fact, it’s what I needed the most. Had I not done the work I might have lost it forever.
In his book The body keeps the score psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk says that:
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
Our most pressing duty then lies in healing our wounds around intimacy and taking responsibility for our emotional landscape. The process is a difficult one: it requires patience, persistence, courage, and a lot of mindfulness. But it’s vital to live fully.
I shared my healing journey with the hope to inspire yours.