On the (F)utility of Missing Someone
Have you ever lost someone you loved or cared deeply about? Have you ever had to move away from your family or friends? -ever been in a long-distance relationship? -or maybe had something come up in your life that forced you to have to be apart from someone you cared about for a while?
Until recently, I had never really questioned or considered the “utility” of missing someone (or its futility, for that matter). I simply viewed the condition of missing someone as a painful yearning that we sometimes experience as a result of our circumstances.
But just a few weeks ago, something happened that took me by surprise and shifted my perspective. Here’s what went down.
I was working in a coffee shop on an uncharacteristically cold and gloomy morning in Boulder, and I found myself missing my boyfriend, who had recently moved 1800 miles away. So I reached out via text message to tell him I missed him. And - long story short - I quickly discovered that my act of reaching out and sharing my feelings with him had made him feel bad...an outcome that left me utterly perplexed.
From my perspective, when someone I care about reaches out to express that they miss me, it tends to make me feel good - valued, appreciated, loved, cared for, and thought about. It signals to me that I’m on their mind, and I appreciate them sharing their feelings with me. Consequently, I’d assumed that reaching out to let my partner know I missed him would make him feel the same way.
However, after some back-and-forth, I learned that when I’d shared this sentiment with my boyfriend, it had made him feel guilty for having moved away. He’d interpreted my message as me being in pain - a pain that he felt like he’d caused. Instead of perceiving my words to be representative of my caring, he took them as an expression of wanting, of lacking, and of dissatisfaction with reality and the way things were.
Now, as a coach who works in the relationships space, I can tell you that there’s a lot to unpack there...but going through that particular exercise is not the goal of this article. Rather, I’d just like to hone in on my partner’s viewpoint - this idea that when we express that we miss someone, it comes from a place of scarcity and lacking.
Because I think he’s right.
And, if you’re at all like me, you may similarly have not been aware that not only is engaging in the act of missing someone an exercise in futility, but it could actually be hurting you.
Coming out of that conversation with my guy, I felt disoriented - like I’d lost my center of balance. I had just learned that I’d naively been engaging in a negative and unhealthy behavior for the past three decades of my life. My mind was a bit blown.
And, sure, like me, there are probably plenty of other people who roughly equate the words “I miss you” with the phrase “I love you”. And personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling someone you miss them.
But that isn’t the real issue.
The issue that warrants attention, from my perspective, is that I’d been engaging in this behavior - this act of prolonged yearning - for years, without ever really reflecting more deeply on its implications.
When we allow ourselves to dwell in a negative emotional space, it doesn’t serve us. Moreover, when we approach things from a place of lacking or neediness, we are not our best selves.
And in this moment, in the wake of that confusing conversation, I found myself realizing something that felt pretty obvious and fundamental: it isn’t healthy to dwell on missing someone.
Sure, the idea of pining away for the one you love is romantic (I mean, see basically anything penned by Shakespeare). But it’s not constructive. And it can even be destructive.
Now I’m not saying that we should be emotionlessness, invulnerable, or transform ourselves into full-blown stoics. To miss someone is human. And we shouldn’t seek to suppress our emotions.
But it also doesn’t help matters to dwell on something that you can’t fix. Dwelling on things in our lives that we lack the power to change can be maladaptive. And engaging in this behavior more often than not leads to other negative emotions, such as frustration, anger, depression, and feelings of helplessness.
So what options are we left with? We can’t prevent ourselves from ever missing someone again. So what should we do?
I certainly don’t possess the definitive answer to this question, but I did formulate an approach to take that I personally believe in - one that I’ve been practicing and have found to be helpful in the weeks since I recognized the futility of dwelling on missing someone.
With that disclaimer, whenever I find myself missing someone, here’s what I now try to do:
1. Acknowledge the situation
(a) Your emotional state
Recognize - do not discount - these emotions when they come your way. Allow the feelings to wash over you: the sadness, the loneliness, and/or your longing for that other person. Recognize those feelings as simply being evidence of how much you care about the one you miss - how much you enjoy having them in your life.
Then exhale, and let those feelings go.
(b) Reality // the state of things
If you are unable to do anything to change the current state of things (or if you think that it’s best to allow things to remain as they are), then accept them as they are. Attempting to deny or fight reality will not accomplish anything. It will only serve to make you miserable.
Instead, embrace reality for what it is and accept what you cannot change.
Adopt a different perspective. The next time you find yourself missing someone, as opposed to dwelling on what you don’t have or what you are lacking, focus on what you do have.
Again, nothing good can come from fixating on something you want, but can’t have. Concentrate instead on what it is you do have and be grateful for it.
3. Take action
It’s not possible to effect change without taking action. So as soon as you’ve acknowledged your emotions and the reality of the situation and worked to reframe your perspective, I’d invite and encourage you to act.
Go do something you enjoy. Engage in an activity that lights you up. Surrender your attention to something that makes you happy.
Take control and put yourself in a more positive place.
It’s not abnormal or unhealthy to miss someone. On the contrary, at its core, missing someone is an expression of your love and caring for that other person.
However, dwelling in the negative emotional space that comes along with missing someone - in that place of unhappiness, emptiness, and lacking - isn’t healthy. And while dwelling there and investing time and energy in that space might be romantic in a tortured sort of way, it isn’t love - either for the other person or for yourself.
The good news? I believe that this, just like any other bad habit or negative behavioral pattern, is something that you can change if you’re willing to try.
So test out these steps. And let me know if my approach works for you, or if you have any other thoughts or suggestions based on your own personal experience that could potentially benefit others.
But let’s put an end to the torturesome exercise of prolonged “missing” and instead start loving ourselves and each other more fully.