One night, I was binge-watching Youtube videos by Anna Akana. As autoplay rolled into the next video, I looked at the screen: “Signs they are emotionally unavailable.” I laughed to myself as I thought about all the people I had dated. But then she began to list the signs: lack of serious relationships, inconsistency, avoids deep conversation about themselves, unable to describe how they are feeling, avoids labels, and not great at showing and/or receiving affection.

Suddenly, I had a realization like Michael from The Good Place: “The problem…is me.” 

I remember the first time I really liked a guy, I thought to myself: I am emotionally bankrupt, I cannot afford to deal with another person’s emotions. At the time, fair enough. But that thought has continued to persist in different forms over the years. In college, I constantly reminded myself I wasn’t going to be there long, caught between transferring colleges again and again, until senior year when graduating was the focus. 

Over the years, I had chalked it up to being a Libra and indecisive. After all, I was fully capable of maintaining deep and lasting friendships. I wasn’t a stranger to emotions, either. Generally speaking, I’m very good at reading people, comforting, and working with others.

But romantically? The last time a guy opened up to me about his parent’s divorce, his decision to change career, and his dog’s deathI fled to Canada on the day we were supposed to have our next date. (In my defense, I was asked last minute to judge a debate tournament at UBC, and I simply took the travel opportunity.)

So often, the conversation about emotional unavailability is based around men. Stereotypically, women are expected to be emotional. We’re supposed to be capable of emotional labor and, eventually, become emotionally strong. It’s disorienting to realize that maybe I’m not capable of emotional intimacy or vulnerability. After isn’t that what society keeps telling me, as a woman, that I am supposed to be good at?

Moreover, my own self-awareness around the problem has led to a new series of questions. Am I supposed to fix this? Was this something that I was simply supposed to develop at some point, but failed to? And lastly, was anybody going to tell me that I was emotionally unavailable, or was I supposed to find out from a random Youtube video?

But ultimately, the solution to emotional unavailability is supposed to come from reflecting on my fears, opening up to others, and being more attuned to my own emotions. It’s emotional work that’s not directed towards helping others. It’s not even about helping a romantic partner. It’s about helping myself. 

 In the past several years, it was always easy for me to talk about deep issues with my friends. But I was always putting their emotional concerns first. I thought I was being selfless but, in fact, I always failed to reciprocate and blocked my friends out of my own life.

The other day, one of my friends laughed as I shared this recent revelation, and admitted that they always considered me a deeply private person. For a long time, I attributed the need for privacy to protecting my family and coming from an Asian American household.

But I realize now, I’ve also been depriving myself of reflecting, discussing, and sharing my own troubles, feelings, and emotions as well. The privacy that I thought was protecting others and myself was actually hurting me. 

I’ve also had to seriously think about the fears I had before. I reflected on how I came to the original belief that I couldn’t emotionally afford a relationship, and coming to terms with the fact that it’s no longer applicable. I’m no longer emotionally bankrupt.

I’ve been able to support friends and family, and I can give the emotional investment. Maybe it’s also about realizing I’m much stronger than I thought I was. 

Emotional unavailability isn’t something that is solved overnight. But more than anything, I’m starting to understand that emotional unavailability has more to do with faith in myself.

And if others are able to trust me with their emotions, why shouldn’t I trust myself?

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  • Helena Ong

    Helena Ong is a freelance writer and journalist from San Francisco, California. In the past, she's worked at San Francisco Public Press, World Policy Journal, and NBC4 Los Angeles. She graduated from Pomona College, where she served as Production Editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life.

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