All the things going on in our minds -- art by Brazilian street artist Anonimundo Art
As an author, I'm known for writing about people who prefer to be single rather than settle in less-than-satisfactory relationships ("quirkyalones" is the word I coined for these people back in 2000). When people sign up for my mailing list, I send them a message asking them to tell me about something they are struggling with. This is one way I like to get to know my readers better. I hear about all kinds of things, you could not imagine the diversity, and I love getting the messages.
Recently, Laura, 49, wrote me a short message about her struggle. Laura is divorced and has been dating. She recently gave up on dating and is settling into a life on her own. Her message stuck in my mind and reminded me of three words that had recently gelled in my mind: "Single Inferiority Complex."
The Single Inferiority Complex describes the often-nagging feeling that single (and sometimes childless) people have that their lives, and even their very selves, just do not measure up to those who are in partnership (or who are parents).
"Hi Sasha, Convincing married people that I'm just as good as them despite the fact I never found anyone to love me despite my flaws, unlike they who did. I know this is not my job but sometimes it feels like an unspoken task. Laura"
I loved this email. Thank you Laura for articulating this. When I followed up with Laura to ask her more (I was curious about her situation), she wrote, "I just get annoyed at all the married people that tell me to make myself happy and then some guy will want me. Hey, I already do make myself happy but a) does being married make them so happy? And b) if I'm happy why would I want to ruin it with a guy? Sorry I just probably gave you more conflicting info but I guess there in lies the big question. To be single and hopeful or be single and resolved."
That of course is the quirkyalone paradox, the challenge to comfortably inhabit the space in between contentment and opennes to love. Sitting in that precarious place, it's easy to think the world is judging you as inferior. In her thought that it is her "job" to convince married people that she is as good as them. Or that she needs to appear "happy" enough to attract a man into her life.
I don't know Laura's friends, so it's possible that they really do judge her, or believe that's the only path to fulfillment. I also suspect for Laura -- and most of us -- we tell ourselves that we are not as good as our married friends. We take on an unspoken task to convince ourselves that we and our lives as just as good as theirs.
It's easy to feel defensive in a traditional culture where marriage is seen as the path toward adulthood, parenthood is seen as the ultimate path to mystery, maturity, and a deeper capacity to love, and being single or not having children is seen as lesser or immature.
But let's be clear: Being single does not mean inferior. It means you don't have a partner. Married people are not automatically more emotionally mature, fulfilled, or happy. Single people are not automatically immature, unfulfilled, and unhappy -- or lonely for that matter. Anyone can be emotionally mature or immature, fulfilled or unfulfilled, or happy or unhappy, and that can vary day to day, minute to minute too.
This topic of the "Single Inferiority Complex" is a close cousin to the "Single Shame". Single shame is the deep-seated feeling that something is wrong with you and no one will want you because you have been single for a long time (usually years, sometimes a lifetime).
Many of my coaching clients talk to me about single shame. I have lived with this issue of single shame myself, feeling "wrong" that I have not had the long-term relationships that most women of my age have had, and come to understood how much my single shame was preventing me from being vulnerable and deeply connecting. I was rejecting myself before I gave anyone else the chance to know me. In fact, this issue of single shame is a significant thread in my memoir-in-progress Wet.
The first step with overcoming this unworthiness that prevents connection is awareness. Proper diagnosis. If we can say, oh, there is this thing called the Single Inferiority Complex or Single Shame and it's infected our consciousness, then we can be aware of it and pick it apart, and start to question how we see ourselves. Perhaps it's not so true that our friends are judging us. Perhaps it's not true that we are inferior or that we have anything to explain or defend. Perhaps there is no way of really measuring happiness or maturity and we are all on unique paths, determined in part by how we show up in life, in part by circumstance and luck.
If you identify with the Single Inferiority Complex or Single Shame, what I've learned is this is totally common among quirkyalone types... you are not alone. Second, it's totally possible to turn this around. To fully embrace you and share you are right now, to own your personal history as well as your desires for connection, whatever they may be.
Sasha Cagen is the author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics and the lead coach in Quirkyalone Together, a group where people learn to enjoy their single lives, release their single shame and know their worth so they're ready for the right person when he or she comes along.