DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a 21 year old guy just about to finish college. During my freshman year, I met this wonderful girl (call her Alpha) – beautiful, smart, funny, everything one could hope for. She was in a relationship when we met, but it ended soon after. She was available, we got along swimmingly, and I found signs she might even be interested romantically. I just wanted to give her a couple weeks of space for her to get through her previous breakup first. So I did, and when I felt ready to ask her out, she was…with someone else.
This completely and totally crushed my self esteem. As someone who hadn’t really had much experience with dating in high school due to extremely restrictive parents and just general lack of self esteem, I felt amazing that finally, someone I was so attracted to seemed really interested in me. But when Alpha got with another guy, I felt totally opposite – how is it possible that we could have connected so well, yet she didn’t want to be with me? Clearly, the answer must be that I was ugly or otherwise unattractive, which spurred lots of positive life changes like fitness that eventually changed my life.
…Now, I know this reaction was highly disproportionate to what happened. Certainly, the problem was my lack of self-worth and inexperience, and the unhealthy extent to which I sought her approval. Since then, even though I haven’t been in a full fledged relationship, I’ve had a bit more experience and really good people have been into me (it hasn’t worked out purely for timing reasons but that’s a question for another day). No situation with another girl has affected me so badly since, and no situation will ever again.
But for some reason, the Alpha situation still does. Alpha and I have been good friends on and off throughout college, and she was in a relationship for the bulk of this time. Every time I’d see her around with her boyfriend or when she even mentioned him, I’d get these involuntary feelings of stress and anxiety and just general bad-feelingness.
Since September or so, Alpha has been newly single and has decided not to jump into a new relationship. I’ve since lost feelings for her after learning about some particularly negative qualities of hers throughout the years (even though I still think she’s hot as ever). We hung out a few days ago at her place and this hangout was…a bit more intimate than we’ve ever been before. We didn’t explicitly do anything sexual, but there was a lot more touching and cuddling than normal. This isn’t me being hopeful that she’d want to do something serious – again, no interest in dating her – but something casual seemed on the table. Then a couple days later, she tells me she made a Tinder and matched with my old roommate – one of those, tall, lanky, unreasonably confident types who literally stole everyone’s girl in high school. All of a sudden, the exact same feelings of stress and anxiety came flooding back, to the point where it hurts my head cause I’m constantly on edge.
So how can I understand why I still feel this way, Dr. NerdLove? I don’t have strong positive feelings for her, but I do experience strong negative feelings of jealousy, stress, and low self-esteem when I see any implication that she might be interested in or doing things with other people. I can’t really escape her because we have lots of common friends and are in the same major. But even if I could, I’d much rather diagnose why I have these feelings, why they cause me so much visceral stress, and how I can face them head-on to get rid of them instead of escaping or bottling them up.
I still struggle with self-esteem from time to time, but I definitely have a much higher opinion of myself now than I did back then. This is due both to external validation at times from other women and a better internal sense of worth and confidence. So I really feel like I’ve taken all the steps one would to get rid of these feelings, but they haven’t changed at all over the course of these four years. If I could get rid of these feelings, I think my self-esteem would skyrocket and I’d be 100% ready to enter the next phase of my life. I would be forever indebted to you if you could help me get there.
Prisoner of Love
DEAR PRISONER OF LOVE: This one’s easy, PoL. You feel the way you do about all of this because it’s not actually about Alpha. It’s about you. Not in a self-centered way — or at least, not the way most us mean when we talk about being self-centered — but in what Alpha represents to you. You said it yourself: Alpha represented the first time that you were close to someone where it felt like you two had this incredible and amazing connection… and yet she went and dated someone else. In hindsight it’s pretty obvious what happened here: you had a connection that felt romantic to you, but she either didn’t feel the same way or got tired of waiting for you to do something about it. She had a romantic or sexual attraction to this other guy and — incidentally — he did get around to asking her out, so she ended up dating him.
But that’s not how it felt to you. To you, it felt like you had this moment when the universe aligned just so in order to set you up with someone you thought was perfect, only to yank it away like Lucy with the football. And because you didn’t have much relationship experience under your belt, you felt like this was some sort of referendum on you and your worth as a person. It was equal parts your not being “good enough” for her, even when it seemed like you two were perfect for each other and resentment for her not seeing that you were perfect for each other. She was handed her perfect partner and tossed him away for some random Studly Goodnight. You were hurt and you internalized that hurt and she’s come to represent all of your anxieties and your sense of having been “cheated” out of something that was supposedly yours.
No, it’s not rational. And no, I don’t think you’re consciously thinking these things. But it’s something I think you’ve been holding onto all this time, especially as you keep hanging out with her. Even if you aren’t actually clinging to the idea that maybe this time you two will finally get together, it’s very clearly part of the background radiation of your relationship together. It’s an open loop, like a snippet of a song that gets stuck in your head. It’s a wound that’s never healed because you keep picking at it instead of letting it close up for good.
Now I’m pretty clear on my stance on closure: most of the time, our desire for closure is a desire to relitigate the relationship and be told that yes, we were right. Closure is something that other people can’t give you; it’s something you have to ultimately give yourself. Sometimes that comes from letting go of old hurts and just accepting that they happened but they’re over. Sometimes that comes from deciding to finally let go of old relationships that aren’t serving our needs — and likely haven’t for quite some time.
But sometimes closure can come from talking things out with someone… provided you actually still have a relationship with them. It’s one thing if it’s a High Fidelity situation where you’re Johnny ThatEx showing back up in their lives years after you broke up. It’s another entirely if you two are still in contact and are actually close with one another… like you are with Alpha.
In this case — this specific case — I think you might actually be in a position to close this particular loop in your life by talking it out with her. I think you might actually benefit from saying “Hey, I’ve been wondering: remember back when we met, Freshman year? Was there a point where we might’ve hooked up, or was that all in my head?” This may give you a little insight to what actually happened and let you finally close the book on that incident and realize that it was never about you “being good enough” or in some sort of competition with the guy she dated. But if you do this, then you have to come to it from a position of “let me recontextualize this” rather than “well let’s correct this mistake now.” Looking at this as your chance to finally get with Alpha — I know, you aren’t interested in dating her now; I also know how many times I said that over someone I clearly wasn’t over yet — is a mistake and will ultimately just leave you even more upset than you are now.
But whether you decide to examine this moment from your mutual past or not, the closure you’re looking for is ultimately going to have to come from within. That means being willing to accept that your relationship with Alpha wasn’t what you thought it was, that it’s ultimately an opportunity for you to grow from and move on. The point of your history isn’t to be welded to it, it’s to be the thing you grow beyond.
Holding onto this hurt is keeping you from growing. Time to let it go.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com