DEAR CAROLYN: My boyfriend and I are in our early 20s and in a long-distance relationship for 1.5 years. He's my first major love and relationship. We compromised our future plans to align with each other's. Now our current (tentative) plan is to move in together after my PhD is done and his business settles. He's very supportive and I'm happy with him. However, I'm not sure if I'm ready for a relationship. I've lost myself as I put so much energy, time and effort into our relationship, instead of investing in myself. I'm emotional and not as productive or disciplined as I was. I don't know how to balance myself, as this is my first relationship. I'm not sure if a relationship is good for me or if I'm ready to be in one, since I'm starting out my career/life and now I'm so distracted. I want to focus and invest in myself without his influence, because I'm scared of losing myself even more. My boyfriend knows this problem and wants to be supportive, but we are so clueless. What's the best step for myself? Break up or find a balance? Is there a way to be in a relationship and still be your most productive, career-driven self in your 20s?
J.: There is a way, yes.
But it hinges on having enough self-knowledge and confidence not to be easily shaken by outside forces.
You're always going to feel some pull toward pleasing the people you love, of course. That isn't even a bad thing.
But that pull can be overwhelming if you aren't secure emotionally. It takes confidence in who you are, what you need, what works for you, what doesn't work for you, where you can afford to compromise without compromising your core self, and how to get yourself back on course when someone or something diverts you. That's when you will be able to keep other people's needs in perspective relative to your own.
Here's a simple example: A loved one bugs you to spend more time together, when you have a big project you want to focus on. If you feel secure in yourself and that relationship, then you might not even see repeated invitations as pressure — just as someone eager for your company, yay — and comfortably say, "Thanks, I'll call you after my project."
That's when you know you don't owe people attention you don't have; know you'll be OK even if they're upset with your answer; know you'll do better at your project if you stay focused; know you'll be happier with yourself if you prioritize this project temporarily over your social connections. It's self-knowledge on several fronts.
If you interpret it as pressure, though, and feel you owe other people more than you owe yourself — or aren't even sure what you owe yourself — then you might make plans even though you can't spare the time. And not enjoy yourself. And this might spin into resentment of the person for pressing.
As for your relationship now and your relationship skills in general: Start trusting yourself. "I want to focus and invest in myself without his influence, because I'm scared of losing myself even more." This is loud and clear. Heed it. If you want, therapy can help you understand yourself better from there.