Lost woman
After a fight with her authoritative father, an 18-year-old freckle-faced, redheaded girl is kicked out of her parents' Southern California home. While crying on Venice Beach, she meets a man who asks, "What's the problem?" She hesitates. She knows not to talk to strangers, but she's also intrigued. After just one small conversation, she feels like he knows her thoughts. That he understands what she's going through. That he's on her side. He tells her he's on his way up north to the woods and that she could go with him. She decides to go and live with him; she doesn't know why and doesn't really care.

A 30-something single, successful woman—passionate about her career and active social life—meets the man of her dreams. He loves spending every minute he can with her. At least that's what she told her friend at the lunch before she dropped off the face of the earth six months ago. Now, all her time is spent making dinners for her boyfriend, watching his stepdaughter on the weekend while he's playing football with his friends, and not replying to any of her mom's phone calls, her friends' e-mails or her colleagues' Facebook status updates.

Do these women sound like anyone you know? Or perhaps, you are the repeat love offender—falling hard and fast for a man—instead of gradually allowing a relationship into your life. If you feel like you've lost touch with the woman-you-once-were in your relationship-that-now-is, then you may be familiar with Disappearing Woman Syndrome. Beverly Engel, psychoanalyst and author of Loving Him Without Losing Yourself, describes it as "losing track of what you believe in, what you stand for, what's important to you and what makes you happy."

Neuropsychiatrist and author of The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine gets to the root of the problem: "The anterior cingulate cortex is a whole system in the brain that allows for critical thinking—it's the reason why you'll buy one brand over another or shop at one store over another—that part of the brain is turned off when you're falling in love with somebody." So part of the reason it's so easy for a woman to lose herself is because part of the process is to lose yourself?

"When it comes to falling in love," Dr. Brizendine says, "part of the wiring in the female brain is that she will start to see the world through his eyes, and she'll buy it hook, line and sinker."

To uncover why a woman loses herself, we need to take a step back and look at her environment. "Culturally, it's still true that women are trained to be dependent; boys are given more freedom," Engel says. "We don't worry about boys getting hurt as much as we worry about girls getting hurt." A parent's protection can delay the development of a young girl's pride and self-confidence if she isn't given the freedom to accomplish something. While a young boy is learning to act out his aggression by tackling an opponent on the football field, his sister may be encouraged to apologize for not being nice to the babysitter who ate all the ice cream. "Boys are taught to fight back, and girls are discouraged from doing that. Instead, they learn helplessness," Engel says. Repeat this pattern long enough, and she'll learn to simply to go along with whatever situation she's in. You may think you have a perfectly well-behaved daughter now, but you may be setting her up to fail as an adult.

For parents in unhealthy relationships, things get even worse. "Girls learn how to be in loving relationships by watching their mothers," Engel says. "And, unfortunately, there are still far too many girls who have role models that are allowing themselves to be abused."

Women, as it turns out, are also biologically hardwired to value connection over confrontation in relationships. This means that rather than standing up for herself, a woman will try to smooth things over or bite her tongue to keep the peace. Engel elaborates: "She'll pretend to agree when she doesn't really agree, she'll go along with things she doesn't really believe in, and if she does that long enough, she'll no longer know what she feels."
Lynette Squeaky Fromme
Photo: Walt Zebowski/AP/Wide World Photos

Remember the young, freckled redhead from the beginning of the story? Her name is Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, and that man was Charles Manson. In an excerpt from her memoirs published by Time magazine, she writes of their first meeting as if it were the beginning of a fairy tale. On August 14, 2009, Fromme, the first woman to attempt to assassinate a president—Gerald Ford—was paroled after serving a life sentence. A member of Manson's notorious "family," she earned the nickname from Manson for her high-pitched voice.

During Manson's trial for the Tate/La Bianca murders in 1969, Fromme—brandishing an X on her forehead—protested the proceedings against her lover. The world learned her name in 1975, when she put a red cloth over her head and pointed a .45 Colt pistol at President Ford. Her reason? Fromme wrote in a a 2005 letter to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "I came to get life. Not just my life but clean air, healthy water and respect for creatures and creation."

But could she really be blinded by love for a psychopath almost 40 years later? She wrote recently: "Manson told me he could give me a natural world. ... He told me that money should work as hard for people as people work for money. He was talking about air and water, land and life."

Dr. Brizendine explains: "When you fall in love with someone, you are hyperempathic with that person. All of your circuits are firing at full speed. It's like a mother with an infant. The same brain circuitry that's wired for mothers to have empathy for nonverbal infants is part of the same circuits linked to the process of falling in love. So, basically, feeling the feelings of another person is part of the mirror neuron system. Every little thing that happens, every sound or light or change in temperature, the mother is almost feeling it for the child so that she can predict and protect that child. So then there's Squeaky, who has probably been in that mode of protection—channeling blind love and empathy for this man—for almost 40 years. But nobody else in society can understand because we're not blinded by the love she's blinded by. Her identity became one with him, and she's seeing the world through Manson-colored glasses."

  • If the people you love and trust are telling you they think you're a disappearing woman, then it may be time to take the blindfold off and listen to what they have say. If you know you're the kind of woman who has fallen for the wrong kind of man every time, and you are ready to stop the pattern, find a trusted friend or family member to help you out. A therapist can help you identify your patterns of behavior, but it's really more important to have the support of family and friends, because they're the ones who are going to be with you.

  • Give yourself some space away from your partner. Most women who've lost themselves have disconnected from their friends and family. Isolation can be an enemy because it makes you more dependent on your partner. And if there's any abuse, that will make it easier for your partner to manipulate and control you. Stop the behavior of dependence. Reconnect with your family and friends—be with people who will help empower you.

  • Take some time to be alone. Some women get so focused on their partner in their minds—what he's doing and what he's feeling—that even when they're by themselves they cannot find solitude. Disconnect your phone. Turn off the television. Find a quiet activity like journaling or meditation—whatever will give you time to connect with how you're feeling and what's important to you right now. This is the way to rediscover what you really want out of life.

  • Don't be afraid to get angry. Most women who've lost themselves have lost the ability to connect with their feelings, especially anger. In order to find your voice again, you might need to work on overcoming your fear of expressing your emotions, even the ones that seem negative. Anger will empower and help you separate from your feelings of dependency.

  • Look for healthy relationships that encourage you to have your own life. If you meet a new man and he wants to be with you every night and drops his friends in order to be with you—that's not a good sign. It may feel really good as your brain starts to put on the rose-colored glasses, but if he seems needy now, he may become controlling in the end. You don't want needy, even if you feel like you do!

Marlene Kelly is a senior producer at Oprah.com. She has lost herself in love before.

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