I came out as a lesbian when I was 21 years old. Yup, I went from dating men for six years to openly dating women, all while dealing with the most crippling confusion and insecurities of my adult life. What could go wrong?

Coming out is such a dichotomous process. You make this declarative, honest statement — “I am gay” — but in spite of that transparency, you’re faced with the unrelenting fear and confusion about how to properly behave. You’ve spent most of your life wrestling with your identity, but when you finally feel secure enough to claim it, you pass months tossing it back and forth in your hands like hot coal. When I first started to date women, I was excited to be my true self but terrified and uncertain of who that self was. I didn’t know how to date women, and therefore I constantly chose women who were wrong for me.

There was the first girl (they say you never forget your first, which is just a nicer way of saying that your first is the one who lands you in therapy), who had been out for a decade yet still had self-hatred, planted in her by her parents, brewing. She claimed to want commitment and love, but not before she was able to heal and accept herself. However, in her own process of cultivating self-love, she lashed out at me, and my need for approval and understanding increased in response. She and I lasted for about a year and a half, but we were on and off throughout, and there were others in between and after her. Our cycle of sad attempts at love, complete with callous dialogue and her infidelity, paved the way for several other toxic relationships.

There was the girl who was so good to me she must have been the lesbian community’s Mother Teresa, but she wasn’t out, so she wouldn’t commit to me beyond what closed doors and secrecy could grant us. And then there were the women who were out, comfortable with, and sure of themselves, and therefore understood that I had much more brick to lay on my path before I could even grasp how to make them properly happy. Yet these women and I still tried. You know the story: We’d break up, make up, try to reason with each other and ourselves about how much we cared for one another in spite of our behavior to the contrary, and cry (a lot). I spent days trying to convince myself that the one good day a week, or even a month, was enough reason to stay. Mostly this cycle involved my partner doing their part to foster a healthy relationship when it was convenient, then picking fights or dropping off the face of the earth when reality got to be too much. When they’d come back, I’d recall those few good days and fall right back down the rabbit hole.

Over this two-and-a-half-year period, friends constantly told me that the women I chose to date were toxic. “They don’t deserve you,” they would say. “Why would you want to be dating women who go full days without talking to you? Who are downright mean to you? Who won’t hold hands with you in public? Who won’t take you home to meet their parents? You’ve come too far for this.” And in many ways, my friends were right. These women were toxic to me. But what I began to notice, in addition to their toxicity, was a pattern, a pattern that was all mine. I had dated five women in a row that, for all intents and purposes, were “toxic.” I thought this was cause to self-reflect. So, I got to thinking: Were these women the only toxic ones? Or was I an accomplice?

I want to tell you that I meditated, went on a yoga retreat, or did something that would point to clear introspection, but instead, I wrote, thought, and took a break from dating. Over this period of self-reflection, I found I was more than an accomplice. I was toxic, too. Now this is a hard truth to admit, but it’s an important one in breaking a pattern. When I came out, I was desperately searching for love, approval, visibility, and validity, all of which I was convinced I would receive in a committed relationship. I yearned for someone to see, affirm, accept, and love me.

Upon reflection, I’m shocked that I expected to be perfectly understood when I barely understood myself. In many ways, I was searching for this in society at large, and in a microcosm, I was searching for it romantically. However, I realized I was trying to force these women’s hands on my heart when they were also just learning how to hold their own. I expressed my needs and, in their own ways, they all gave me examples of how incapable they were of providing these things. They said “I can’t commit to you” or “I can’t give you that,” but instead of believing them, I waited until they felt bad, asked to go away together for the weekend, offered me a drawer in their dresser, or suggested they meet my family, and latched on. Rather than letting these women go or adjusting my expectations of them, I chose to be strung along and continued to press my wants and needs on them, all while disregarding theirs. Were they innocent? Of course not. But neither was I.

Coming to terms with my own toxicity began a much-needed journey toward self-love and acceptance. It’s an ongoing process, but I’m already infinitely further than where I started. I’m in a healthy, happy relationship, one filled with all of the acceptance, love, and understanding I was searching for when I first came out. I am now able to receive these things from another person because I gave them to myself first.