Dear New Romantics,
You’re sitting on the couch, smiling to yourself while you scroll through bisexual TikTok. In your relationship with a cis, straight man, you’re feeling a lot of queer FOMO. Online, you find folks who are living out and proud — and hilariously — creating content that helps you feel seen. Your insides feel warm and gooey, like hot chocolate with marshmallows on a winter day.
Your partner walks in, wondering where he put that one red, button-up shirt, and instinctually, you put your phone face-down on the coffee table. You wouldn’t explicitly call your partner homophobic, but how he shows up for your queer identity isn’t exactly affirming: Mostly, he just “doesn’t get it” and conceptualizes bisexuality as a fun, quirky fact about you, like that summer you spent in New Zealand.
When you try to talk about its centrality in your life, he shrugs it off, dismissive. And sometimes he expresses outright discomfort, like how he’s cool with you agreeing that Selena Gomez is a babe, but your flirtation with female friends feels like a threat.
And so, to help him feel more comfortable and less threatened, you hide your bisexuality — like you’re hiding your phone. You stuff it for the benefit of your relationship — don’t we all have to compromise a little bit for love? But it’s nagging at you.
De-selfing, a term coined by clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner in her book The Dance of Anger, has developed into a broadly accepted mental health concept that explains the process of giving up core parts of ourselves (like identities, values, and desires) to maintain important relationships.
It’s when we make ourselves a little smaller for the comfort of someone else.
De-selfing doesn’t only apply to sexual identity, although that’s a great example — and something that a lot of bisexual, or otherwise queer, people struggle with, especially in relationships with straight, cis partners. You de-self any time part of yourself “is ‘negotiable’ under pressure from the relationship,” writes Lerner.
Meaning: You de-self when you stop hanging out with your friends to meet the time commitment needs of a new partner. You de-self when you stop bringing up the idea of non-monogamy because it makes your partner uncomfortable. You de-self when you give up on your career in sex work because your partner feels jealous. You de-self when you get quieter about your otherwise loud politics when talking to your partner.
And this especially comes up in relationships where one person holds social power where the other is oppressed. One of the (many) reasons why it can be difficult to be in intimate relationships with your oppressors is because your marginalized identity can feel contentious to them. So you compartmentalize, putting that part of yourself away, to restore harmony.
It’s why many white folks, for instance, believe their relationships with people of color to be all good and well when the topic of race is never brought up. In reality, that relationship is, to some extent, unsafe for the person of color. They don’t bring up race with their white friends because it isn’t comfortable to do so. They de-self for self-preservation — and often, for the white person’s comfort.
And that’s why the term de-selfing sounds so painful — like peeling away your own skin. Because it’s a harmful psychological process wherein you dissolve with no benefit to your self.
We can feel the difference between compromise and sacrifice somatically, and we can also detach them intellectually: Compromise can be disappointing, but it’s relatively fleeting. In compromise, we’re having some of our needs met, while someone else’s needs are also being partially met. Neither person gets all or nothing. It’s an agreement made between two people — imperfect, but balanced.
Sacrifice, on the other hand, can leave us feeling rejected, resentful, and angry. When we sacrifice something for another person, even if it feels autonomous or we technically agree to it, we’re left empty-handed while our partner has their way.
It’s a compromise to visit your parents every other weekend instead of weekly, or to agree that your partner doesn’t have to come along each time. It’s a sacrifice to stop visiting your parents, or to greatly reduce your time with them, when that’s not what you want, just because that’s what your partner wants.
It’s a compromise to agree not to start a political argument with your partner’s Uncle Joe because your partner has family trauma and doesn’t want the extra stress. It’s a sacrifice to be relegated to a “snowflake” every time you voice an opinion your partner doesn’t agree with.
To compromise is to meet someone in the middle. To sacrifice is to forfeit something important to you for the comfort of someone else. De-selfing is sacrifice. And it can — rightfully so — start to make you really angry.
De-selfing hurts because it’s a denial of that integration. Rejection of a part of ourselves means we can never be our whole selves.
We all want to experience what Carl Jung explains as individuation: self-actualization through integrating all parts of ourselves, including those which we’ve let fall asleep, into our active lives. We feel discontent when we compartmentalize pieces of who we are; we feel in the right relationship with ourselves (and others) when our full, complex, authentic selves can be seen, affirmed, and celebrated.
It can be hard to recognize when we’re compromising (making concessions together to settle a disagreement) and when we’re sacrificing (giving up something important for another’s benefit). And because we’re taught (thanks, toxic monogamy!) that losing parts of ourselves for the sake of a romantic partner is normal, we might not notice when we’re de-selfing.
Here are some questions to reflect on:
- What parts of yourself are you hiding in your relationship? Take stock of what parts of yourself you can’t fully integrate into your relationship. Pay special attention to your marginalized identities and experiences: Are you able to talk about being trans? Is there room for you to be proud of being disabled? Can being fat be celebrated? Or are those parts of you dismissed or only met with the bare minimum? Notice how hiding or shrinking those parts of yourself makes you feel.
- If you were living your best, fullest life, how would that look? Imaginehow you would be living if you could do so authentically. What would be your best-case relationship scenario? What are you afraid to do now that you would be doing joyfully? How does it feel to have the freedom to be your whole self? And then: How different is that from who you are now?
- Is it possible to reconcile this in your relationship? If you’re noticing that important parts of yourself are being locked away in your current relationship, and that you feel like less of yourself because of it, pay attention to that! Is this something you can discuss, work on, and change in your relationship? Would couples therapy be helpful? Or is this maybe not the right relationship for you?
It can be hard to think through who we are, who we want to be, and what (or who) is holding us back. But if we want to live an integrated life — and re-self — we may have to reevaluate what is segmenting us in the first place.
The beauty of human connection is that different parts of ourselves are illuminated by different people. But that doesn’t mean that any part of yourself should be left in the dark.
You deserve to live fully and authentically — brazenly! brashly! — no holds barred. So start today with a commitment to come back to your capital-S self. Because that is the most important relationship to maintain.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.