DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve had an occasional history of depression and anxiety, and in the last few weeks, these feelings have become a lot more common. I’m a 26 year old virgin who’s never had a girlfriend, so I want to improve socially to the point where I can eventually get married. However, I’m a college student who works two part time jobs, and much of my time will be devoted to this, as well as preparing myself for a future career. I did read your book New Game +, which has lots of information, and while I want to improve socially, I’ve got a very busy schedule.
The problem is, however, outside of my family, I don’t have much of a support network of friends. I moved to where I live three years ago, and I’ve met people here and there, but we’ve largely lost contact. Part of it’s because I’ve been busy with college and work, part is because they’re not as much my personality type, and I live about half an hour away from most of them. I will start seeing a therapist soon, and plan on joining a few MeetUp groups. However, when seeing people around my age who are in a relationship, I get nervous and jealous, and it negatively affects my mood, reminding me of what I don’t have. There are young couples in quite a few of these Meetup groups, and I don’t want this to affect me from going out.
I’m also worried about even after I get help, my depression and anxiety will flare up at the worst possible time, thus negatively affecting my social life and potential romantic prospects. I’ve had things like this happen in the past, which has, needless to say, led to some very awkward moments.
I’ve just got so much on my plate and on my mind, and any help would be appreciated.
DEAR OVERWHELMED: First of all, I’m proud of you for the steps you’ve been taking. You’re doing everything right – both to improve your social life and also to address your anxiety and depression. One thing I want you to keep in mind: there are many ways to treat anxiety and depression, and some will work better for you than others will. Remember: the ones that work for you are the ones that work for you, regardless of what form it ends up taking. If your therapist recommends any medication, this isn’t a sign that you’re a failure or someone who couldn’t muscle their way through it. All it means is that this is a therapy they think may work best for you. Many forms of chronic depression and anxiety are chemical in origin; the right medication can help correct this. As someone who’s been on Zoloft, I can tell you: it can absolutely make a difference for you.
And while it’s no substitute for working with a trained therapist, I’m also a fan of learning how to control your own mind as a supplement to whatever else you do. Yoga and meditation may sound crunchy and new-age-y, but they really can be a great way of taking control of your brain when it tries to gallop out of control.
But don’t forget: while many forms of treatment DO take time to take effect, don’t ever be afraid to advocate for your own needs while you’re working with your therapist. If they recommend medication and you have side-effects that make things harder, you have the right to tell them you’d rather try something else.
Now, let’s talk a little about managing those anxieties while you’re building your new social life. The envy you feel around happy couples is understandable; they have something you wish you had after all. However, the mistake is letting that sense of “but why not me?” take over and leave you feeling bitter and resentful. That’s a mindset that can leave you even more lonely than before – and end up cutting you off from potential friends and potential lovers in turn. After all, while they may have something that you wish you did, new friends may well be the people to introduce you to single people who want to date you.
So how do you get around this? Start with noting and naming your feelings. Words have power after all, and the stories you tell yourself become part of how you actually feel. So rather than describing yourself as being envious, observe your feelings. “Huh… I guess I feel envious of that couple over there.”
Notice very carefully that I phrased that as “I FEEL envious”, not “I AM envious”. The latter defines envy as an integral part of who you are – envy is a core to your identity. The other describes a feeling, and one that’s temporary at that. Not only does this create a layer of abstraction between you and those negative feelings, but it reinforces your control over them. You’re reminding yourself that feeling a particular way is an option, not destiny.
Once you’ve noted and named those feelings, then reframe them. The fact that there are young couples out there doesn’t take anything away from you; neither of them represents a loss to you. What they do represent is that love is real and out there, and if they can find it, then so can you. In a very real way, that love means “hope”.
As weird as it may sound, telling yourself that you’re actually happy for them helps you on the rebound. In a very real way, attitude is destiny; a positive outlook on life makes you more successful in everything that you do. Having a positive attitude and outlook makes you more emotionally resilient. You may fail at times – and that’s fine – those failures are something that you can learn from. They’re something you can bounce back from and – importantly – overcome. And having a positive outlook, particularly when it comes to socializing, makes you more popular. People don’t like spending time around negative people. But the guy who’s generally cheerful and upbeat, even if he’s still striving for the things he wants? That guy is going to be pretty popular. Attitudes are contagious, after all and people feel better around positive folks. That, in turn, makes them want to spend more time with those same people.
So yeah, you may feel a little weird and uncomfortable around them at first. But the more you reframe the situation – that they’re proof that what you want is out there and attainable – then they go from being a negative to a positive. They’re not your opponents, as it were, but aspirational figures. Relationship goals, as it were.
Plus, as an added bonus: seeing couples in happy and successful relationships also provide role models for how relationships can work. Obviously not every relationship style is going to work for you, and every relationship is going to have it’s quirks. But being able to look around and see how other people make it work can give you an idea of how things can work for you, too.
Oh, and one more thing: even under treatment, you can have flare-ups of anxiety and depression. I still have times when my depression weighs pretty heavily on me. But having worked with therapists and learned my own triggers, I know how to handle them. As you work through your own treatments, you’ll find the things that work for you too. And while you may have those moments when everything is dark, poison arrows fall from the sky and the pillars of heaven shake, you’ll be able to look it square in the eye and say “Bring it on. I can take it.”
It seems like a lot, but you’re strong and you’re on the right path. You’ve got this, Overwhelmed.
All will be well.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Some people are natural artists and end up in the Louvre next to the Mona Lisa. Others end up with glitter, crazy paint and spaghetti noodles and still create abominations. It’s the same for me and dating, I read you and a few other awesome blogs to try and upgrade my skill set. I do a pretty good human impression but I have this one terrible quality: creepers and abusers are magnetically drawn to me and please for the love of gods, teach me how not to be the approachable gal! I’ve tried headphones, strategically place books and endless hours of cats or archaeology…
I gave up on being nice and accommodating a long time ago but I do have a very wide circle of friends with various quirks and issues. I’ve been slowly removing the Nopes: the missing stairs, creepers and boundary toe-stompers from my circle (like the large guy who was going to kidnap and assault me in his unregistered car “as a joke” that caused me to have a nervous breakdown and have to leave university for the semester). What’s worse is teaching people around me about rape culture like my mum who has no boundaries and just doesn’t get why guys swooping in to save you against your will (even if they are your older professor friends is creepy and gross). My family is screwed up but loving that’s a whole other letter, Doc.
Me trying everything from dressing modestly to resting bitch face and headphones everywhere, it doesn’t stop me from being stalked by men and women alike (everything from a random local community dude creep, to a girl cyber stalking me in a uni class to do her work and then creepy abusive guy I most recently dated for 3 months but ended things hard is now using mutual hobbies as a way of seeing me, so I quit gaming and advertising where I’ll be until after I’ve been there). Pre last creeper, I had to live cautiously and hide my existence and I was only just recovering my sense of safety and freedom when he turned out to be gross.
Last creepy guy sabotaged my academic work, ignored me for 8-10 hour online games, outrageously lied and stole from me to leverage his way back into my life, abused me and gaslit me, had weird kinks he wouldn’t negotiate until mid coitus, left sh*t stains on my sheets that I initially thought were one of my cats having been sick, thought cutting finger nails and reciprocal foreplay was not a thing he had the do, and then threatened suicide when he wouldn’t get his own way. My housemate years ago was found dead by me so I really didn’t want to come home to his bloated corpse in my cute little flat.
I’ve tried all the no contact and blocking to the sun with this last disgusting guy and victim support counseling because the stress brought back my OCD since that guy was a hoarder and had a stench like a dying whale and rotten teeth. I’m addicted to sniffing mothballs, listening to T-Swift’s “Clean”, I just got 5 bottles of perfume for my birthday and I’ve just stopped washing my hands 34 times a day. But I missed gaming and the friends I made in it.
So, I personally engaged actual qualified professionals help to negotiate my return to our role playing club and other gaming hobbies (think two personal psychologist sessions especially devoted and victim support counseling to coming back) and our gaming group wanted us to go through *mediation* without specifying what it was they wanted of me and he has done nothing to talk to them so I left the hobby altogether because they had no victim support policy and didn’t enforce any consequences on him and they wouldn’t ban him from games despite his refusal to talk at the table.
I’m not being part of a club that pushes me out and expects me to do all the mature compromising at my expense for this creepy dude. The thing is, this guy was deemed unsafe by Team Me, but he hogs all the games and there’s no effing justice so I miss out on everything in case he is there, can’t create or confirm plans because he shows up uninvited and I have to avoid a lot of cool things I’d like to do in case he’s there. Leaving gaming was one thing, but I’m tired of missing out on medieval faires or games, the free comic days or the cons in my city or geek themed pub quizzes.
So what do I do to keep away the creepers like this one and since I’ve emerged from my rock, what do I do if I see this guy? I already have mental health disabilities and he makes me both anxious and full of rage. I have taken up poetry and improv since and now I’m going back to university to study in July after the breakdown.
Life On Mars
DEAR LIFE ON MARS: I’m sorry all that happened to you, LoM. You’ve done a lot of things right – from kicking the guy to the curb, to focusing on your self-care and doing what you need to do to be healthy and safe.
Now, let’s dig in a little to what you can do next – both in dealing with this guy, with your former social groups and avoiding future creepers.
First and foremost: boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. You have the right to enforce your boundaries at all times, to any degree that you wish and by god you should do so. Establishing firm boundaries – including a willingness to call dudes out on their bad behavior you’re being irrational, right then and there – is part of how you keep creepers and predators out of your life. Yeah, it’s scary and intimidating. There will be guys – and their (occasionally even well-meaning) enablers – who will push back against you for having boundaries or enforcing them. They will tell you that . Well, a) f-ck that and b) you’ve had enough bad experiences that your Spidey-sense is going to be more sensitive than others’. They will tell you that it’s unfair because he doesn’t mean it or know better. Tough, because it’s pretty easy to see when a dude only behaves like that to women and anyway even goldfish can learn. They will say you’re being a bitch. Fine. BE a bitch. Be Queen Bitch, First of Her Name, Empress of Back Off Or Pull Back a Stump.
Being “nice” is great, but “nice” also is what a—-holes will leverage to get to you. Sometimes you’ve got to be a mean motherf-cking soldier of love guarding your own security. You’ve been hurt, abused and violated by people before. You have to be the strongest advocate of your own safety and interests. So put up those boundaries, and let the people who’re worth letting in prove it by respecting them.
Next: your social circle. Unfortunately, y’all got a bad case of Missing Stair paired with an equally bad case of Geek Social Fallacies. A lot of geek communities are averse to “drama”. Unfortunately, they tend to blame said drama on the person who points out that it exists, not the person causing it. It’s easier to pretend it doesn’t happen than it is to actually address it and admit that maybe the person they like is a creeper and they need to do something about it. It’s easier to get the person saying “we have a problem” to be quiet about it than it is to actually do something.
Now, you can consider approaching some of the members of your old group individually and giving them the download on what this dude has done. Taking this on a one-on-one level might get people to listen in a way that a group setting might not, especially if there’re many, drama-enabling “Let us REASON together” who drown out all other voices. It may be easier to divide and conquer and keep those individual friendships even if you can’t be with the entire group. And hey… get enough of those together and you’ve got a new group entirely. But if they, as a whole, are going to focus on the idea that there’s some middle-ground to be had… well, I refer you back to the Boundaries Boundaries Boundaries paragraph.
And, bee-tee-dubs: boundaries also means “tell me if this dude is going to be at the event too” or saying “I can’t be at this event if he is going to be there”. Yeah, you’re asking them to draw lines and choose sides. Which sucks, but your right to protect yourself overrides “be reasonable”.
And finally: if you do have friends you can go to Faire with or cons or pub-quizzes, do so. Let them be your shield, your linebacker, your tank. They can run interference if homeboy sees you and tries to make contact. They can be the ones to get you out of the room if you start to have a panic attack or need to get out before he triggers some form of PTSD. Don’t think #squadgoals, think #brutesquad.
It sucks that sometimes assholes win. But if you want to continue enjoying the hobbies you love and the others won’t consider safety over Social Fallacies, you may have to carve out your own space instead.
Dr. Nerdlove is not a real doctor. Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)