Valentine’s Day is only a few weeks away, and we’re being inundated with heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and cards in stores. The message for this holiday seems to be that if you keep an open heart, you’ll attract love, friendship, fulfillment and fun.
However, as we get older, it can be more difficult to keep an open heart. We’ve been burned by lovers, friends and even employers. We’ve pledged our undying devotion to a partner, friend or company, only to be disappointed and find we can’t stay with that person or in that situation for a second longer.
After having survived a few relationships and worked at several different companies, I have come to realize there’s not always a fairytale ending to a story. I landed my dream job in journalism several years ago, eager to prove myself in a fast-paced newsroom. The seductive combination of competitive pay, time off for holidays and a seemingly unlimited supply of resources lured me to this large company. It was fun, exciting and challenging, like the early days of dating someone new. But after a few years, the reality of lay-offs, long hours, office politics and growing demands with a shrinking staff started to wear me down. I realized, even a big, well-recognized company can’t offer unlimited security and fulfillment for the rest of my career. It was time to take better care of myself and move on.
Later I worked for several years for another company that didn’t exactly entice me with its pay or glamorous assignments, but it offered something I desperately needed during the recession: A steady paycheck. It was like my rebound relationship after leaving the newspaper industry. I was also attracted to what seemed to be a collegial environment with a sense of family. After a few years with no raises and watching long-time colleagues get laid off, I realized despite the familiarity, I was just another dispensable reporter, working for Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde. My good rapport, strong work ethic and professionalism didn’t mean anyone was looking out for my best interests or showing me the respect I knew I deserved.
Friendships can be as disappointing as jobs and romantic relationships. I’ve met friends who tugged on my heartstrings with their angst, open talks about relationships and seemingly limitless loyalty. It seemed we were platonic “soul mates,” who would defend each other to the death and I’d always have their ear for fun and serious conversations. But sometimes after one of them switched jobs or got into a serious relationship, they “ghosted” on me, leaving me feeling used and confused. Another friend seemed to be addicted to drama and hooked on negativity, leaving me feeling drained like I was bitten by a vampire and questioning my own self-worth. The friendship was one-sided, and I was taking on the role of unofficial therapist/cheerleader/substitute girlfriend for him. As I realized with some of the companies I worked for, it was time to move on and take care of my own needs.
Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize it’s not always easy to sing “Kumbaya” and join hands with a new date or friend when I’m feeling skeptical. But I have found it’s good to keep an open mind. No matter how old I get or how many disappointing experiences I have had, people can always surprise me. Surprises can be good, like finding the inside of a chocolate has a delicious peanut butter filling.
Politicians like to say they are “cautiously optimistic,” but I like to think of welcoming new people into my life as being present in the moment. When I meet someone new, often they will remind me of someone I knew in the past. But the truth is I really don’t know this person and what they’re thinking or their values, goals and experiences. I try to really listen and pay attention to my thoughts and that nagging feeling, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent in my heart, and sometimes I discover a fun surprise about a new acquaintance.
A few years ago I met a woman in a meetup who was fairly quiet and not as animated and eager to embrace or latch onto me as women I had met in the past. I thought maybe she wasn’t friendly or just not interested in me, but over time I realized she’s a very genuine, slightly introverted person who likes to get to know people before jumping in. She’s become a great confidante and one of my biggest emotional cheerleaders. I’m glad I took the time to get to know her and I have a great, new friend.
I don’t want to forget about my previous experiences with friends, boyfriends and companies, even if some were bad. They’ve helped me to notice red flags so I can avoid a potential disaster and protect my heart. But I realize I can’t expect the same script to play out that did in my past relationships.
Timing can be everything, whether it’s involving a new relationship, friendship or job. As I grow and mature, a person or company that might not have excited me in the past might be calling my name this time around. For instance, now that I’ve realized I’m not sure if I want to have children, I’m open to dating men who also haven’t decided whether they want to take this big step in their lives. In the past I might have chosen to ignore any potential dates that weren’t already fantasizing about domestic life with a little one.
I might not walk into dates or potential friendships with the doe-eyed innocence and high expectations I had in my 20s or even early 30s. I bring some cynicism with me, but as long as I show up, listen and truly experience being with new people, I might find something even better, richer and more lasting than my heart could have ever imagined. It might even be better than chocolate.