I should have seen the signs. In the middle of our relationship, he wanted to step back and date casually until he found someone closer to him (we were long-distance).
I still can't shake this. What's your take on the whole First Love thing: that you never feel love like your first love, and they always hold some special place in your heart? Is it hogwash? Does it even matter?
It feels silly as I type, but I feel out of the time frame to be that “special person” to anyone, and that — among many other things that happened in our relationship — has made me feel unlovable and broken. I’ve had professional help for years. Is there anything else that could help me get over this feeling of inadequacy, and allow me to fully trust others and my character judgment again?
— Still Heartbroken
Still Heartbroken: My take on “the whole First Love thing” is to leave it.
It’s a story. We like to tell ourselves stories. Maybe more accurate: Our minds process experiences as stories. We take random events and impressions — or shattering, heartbreaking ones — and filter, sort, massage them into arcs that make sense to us. We also give testimony as “eyewitnesses” that is often garbage, and tinker with our memories so much that many are fiction by the time we’re boring them into our grandkids. Writes Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist and memory expert: "[A] person’s perceptual and memorial systems do not passively record and store information from the environment. … People are selective about what they pay attention to in the first place and selective about what they store in memory, and they differ in the extent to which they are susceptible to suggestion” (from her book, “Eyewitness Testimony,” 1996 edition; here’s her TED Talk).
So what you hold in your memory as a crushing First Love could be storytelling that backfired — and maybe your experience actually wasn’t exceptional. To fall harder for someone than he fell for you, and to have that run its course, is a notch less standard than breathing. Not to diminish your pain, but put it in perspective. It happening to you at 20 vs. 17 or 33 is also squarely within the range of breathing.
Another challenge to the narrative: We don't know your ex spent your entire relationship unsure of his feelings for you. That could have been the conclusion he drew, retroactively, from his own mental massaging.
I’ll tell a generic story: A is really into B, then A’s attraction fades naturally, then A agonizes whether to stay with B, then A opts to break up, then the breakup feels uncertain and awful, then A looks back on a fuzzy gray process and sees flawless crystal clarity: “B was so wrong for me! I should have left months ago.” Multiply by millions. That last step can be part truth, sure — but also part emotional defense to help A feel better for suffering and causing pain — and it can bend to outside suggestion. Then, that revised appraisal can change A’s current perception of past happy days with B.
I've spelled out this analysis to help you see the rewriting on the wall. Since your brain (and his) and experiences had some role in editing the story as you now know it, that means you can retell yourself the story in a way that's no less factual — honesty still required — but now more useful to you.
For example: You had a normal relationship. You chose someone based on the information you had — he was your friend and he was interested in you, too. (Yes, he was.) You were more interested than he was, which is tough and sad but also common. He sensed this and vacillated, ultimately deciding you two weren't a match — then formed a narrative (also subject to mental airbrushing) to explain the breakup. Any cruelty in his choices was his fault, not yours.
This is a process almost every person who dates other people goes through, many times over. The palimpsest effect is protective, as we mentally write over old loves and experiences with new ones so that pains get reduced, replaced and outnumbered. You're not inadequate; you're just stuck in an unworkable first draft.
First step: Redefine normal. You’re it. Second: Erase all uses of “should.” Third: Hereafter address First Love by his other name, Practice Guy. Fourth: Bet on yourself. That’s all trust is — trusting that you’ll be okay.
Then get out there and love-hurt-heal again, and again, and again.