DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been reading to your column for a while now and really like your approach to handling communication within a relationship. I have a question for you as both a perpetual worrier and former long-term single lady. I hadn’t been dating for the better part of the previous 3 – 4 years due to past damage from bad relationships (narcissistic partners, self-esteem and self-image issues, not feeling good enough, etc.). I went to therapy and got a lot out of it: a new job, a new apartment in the city (Chicago), a pet cat and a boyfriend all during last year. It felt like a series of huge milestones and I’ve been having an amazing time with my current boyfriend ever since.
Based on the past advice of my therapist, I tried to hold back on some of the behaviors before that lead me to be too clingy which has helped out tremendously. He has different views than me politically, which I’m trying to factor in towards trying to understand him better and appreciate his history more. (I’m a Democrat from the Midwest, he’s a Conservative from the South who moved up here for work a bit ago.) We have so much fun together and get along extremely well but now that we’re at the 6 month mark, we’re getting accustomed to being at each other’s places all the time and have been considering moving in together. (Convenient as he’s my upstairs neighbor at my apartment. I know I know, it sounds weird but we both thought about it for a while before actively dating in case it would make things weird between the two of us.)
So this is the point where my question comes into play: I get caught in my own head often due to internalized self-doubt towards a lot for things like job interviews, friendships and now this. We say ‘I love you’ regularly, have an active sex life, cook together all the time, are supportive of each other, communicate openly about what’s bothering us, my parents love him and everything. But there’s still that annoying voice in the back of my head that makes me assume the worst and that ‘everything isn’t real’ and ‘I’ll just screw it up sometime soon like I always do by being too needy, clingy, distant, etc’. It’s that awful niggling feeling in the back of your mind that insists on sowing a seed of doubt that keeps building. I wish I knew how to shut it up. I don’t want to assume it’s going to end badly or anything like that, lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy which will make both of us feel awful.
Is this a standard thing that happens after dating seriously for a while? My last long relationship ended in 2014 so I’m doing my best to break my own past habits to feel more confident and secure.
DEAR ANNE NONYMOUS: You’ve got two issues going on AN, and they’re both intertwined like mating snakes.
The first is that you’ve had some bad experiences with previous partners, and they’ve left emotional scars. The second is that you have low self-esteem and it’s causing problems.
One of the things that people tend to not realize about issues like neediness is that needy behavior is almost always based around fear. Most of the ways that people act needy in relationships all revolve around assuaging fears and anxieties. This is why, for example, someone with neediness issues will over-commit to a relationship too quickly; they’re afraid that this may be their last chance for love and so they try to lock it in as quickly as possible. Always wanting to be around their partner at all times is born out of the fear that if they let their partner out of their sight for a moment, they might meet someone better.
That’s a lot of what you have going on right now, AN. You’ve been hurt before and you have a hard time believing in your own value, so you worry that your boyfriend will realize he could do better. So on the one hand, you want to cling to him like a lovesick barnacle, lest a good thing get away. On the other, you also recognize that doing so will push him away. So you try to force yourself to not be clingy.
Problem is that the clinginess is the symptom and not the cause. Trying to suppress the behavior is good, but trying to suppress the emotions that cause the behavior makes things worse. The key to actually resolving these issues is to embrace your inner kung-fu hero. As any martial artist will tell you: it’s easier to redirect force than it is to try to stop it. The same is true of negative emotions. Instead of trying to force yourself to not feel or ignore those feelings, you need to do some emotional aikido.
When you’re feeling these emotions bubble up, start by noting and naming them. What, precisely are you feeling? Is it fear, where you’re expecting a specific outcome that you want to avoid, or is it anxiety, where you’re bothered by the uncertainty of a situation? Is it jealousy, where you worry that someone will take what you have? Is it a sense of feeling worth less as a partner than other people? This can seem weird, but simply being mindful of your emotions can help dampen the negative impact on you.
Next: pay attention to the language you use to describe how you feel. Language can be deterministic and the way you talk about things directly changes how they affect you. Don’t say that you are anxious or that you are afraid or jealous; that defines your emotional state as an integral part of who you are. Instead, say that you feel anxious or jealous; feelings are inherently transitory, after all. You never feel one way all the time. Even people who suffer from chronic anxiety or phobias don’t feel them 24/7. Telling yourself that you feel, instead of you are, is a reminder that this is a temporary issue that will pass.
Now that you’ve defanged so much of the impact these feelings have, interrogate them a little. What, precisely, caused you to feel this way? Was there a particular trigger, or did it just bubble up from your subconscious out of nowhere? If it was something specific, then look at it as dispassionately as possible. Is it possible that you are looking at it in the worst possible light because that confirms your anxieties? If your friend were to describe this exact scenario as happening to them, what would you tell them? Again: mindfulness here works to help train you to recognize your triggers and how to tell when you have an actual problem and when it’s just your jerk-brain dripping poison in your ear.
Another part of how you deal with that nagging voice? Trust that things are exactly as they appear to be. Part of how low self-esteem and doubt gets you is that they make it impossible to actually believe your partner when they tell you how they feel. “This compliment doesn’t mean anything, they have to say it.” “They’re only saying that to make me feel better.” Accepting that there are no hidden agendas, that your boyfriend is being honest with you when he talks about how much he enjoys being with you, helps dilute those little drops of poison.
And finally: accept that you’re worth being loved and have a right to be happy. A lot of those negative beliefs come from believing that you aren’t allowed to love or be loved.
One caveat: if you’re still having serious doubts and or obsessive negative thoughts? Then it may be good to go back to that therapist who helped you out before.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: In September of 2015, my girlfriend/fiancee of five years told me that she didn’t see a future for us. We talked, cried, yelled, cried again, talked again, until we finally ended things. I grabbed some things from the closet, packed them into my backpack, put my key on a shelf, and walked out of the door.
If I’m being entirely honest, this was a long time coming. When our relationship was in its infancy, I made a few major mistakes in the form of talking to other women online in a sexual manner, and even talked to them about possibly meeting up. I never did, but that doesn’t matter. She couldn’t possibly have known that we didn’t, and she would just have to trust my word on it. However, after catching me doing this a few times, that trust had understandably dissolved.
The last time she caught me was a little over a year into our relationship. To this day, I can’t say what caused me to do this. I haven’t done it since. I chalk it up to being some kind of fucked up kink.
Before I met my ex, I was well on my way to getting a lot of priorities in order. She even helped me reach many of my goals at the time. However, after the mistakes, I couldn’t muster up the motivation to do things. I stopped working out. I stopped putting as much effort into college. Hell, a lot of that effort was used to calm her down most days. Any argument, big or small, could set her off into thinking I may be cheating.
When things ended, I fell into a deep depression. I immediately went out and tried to find a rebound. I found a regretful one night stand, and then spent the next two years seeing neither hide nor hair of a relationship or anything resembling one. I spent night after night huddled onto my bed, binge watching Netflix while eating my sorrows away. I ran out of financial aid, and ended up having to drop out of college. I hopped from job to job, never finding anything that I felt motivated to work hard for, despite normally thinking that any job worth doing is worth doing right.
Then, I started seeing people again. I had moved in with some roommates, and being around them helped me muster up a bit of confidence. I started seeing people again, and found this one woman who I thought was amazing. We didn’t have a ton in common, but we really enjoyed spending time together. The sex was great, the chemistry was great, but she didn’t want to have a relationship with me. She’d get to points every once in a while where she’d say she was starting to see things happening, but then she slowly stopped wanting to see me. It hit me pretty hard, because it started off really great, but fizzled out way too fast. To be fair, we were spending the night together a lot, but it wasn’t one sided. Eventually, she moved on to another “friend”, and I faded into obscurity.
My car broke down about seven months into starting a the best paying job I’d ever had. Then, I had to quit that job, because I couldn’t make it in to work. I got a job back at a place I used to work at in college, but I ended up needing to move out into a one bedroom with a coworker who bailed on me—and our job—only a couple of months into our lease. Luckily, I had started moving up at work, and I’m now able to pay for all of my bills by myself. Unfortunately, this also means that I can’t afford to save up to get another car.
For the past few months, I had been seeing someone. She was understanding, considerate, and comfortable to be around. Unfortunately, I wasn’t that attracted to her, and the sex was mediocre. It was weird. Even though we had barely started doing anything, it felt like I was at the end of a fading relationship where the passion was gone, and it was like that from the beginning. We talked about things, and she said she wasn’t really feeling anything either. So, we mutually ended things.
It’s been about a month since that ended, and I just can’t motivate myself to date or even get myself into a situation where I could date. I’ve gained back a lot of weight, but I have no motivation to exercise or readjust my diet. I keep meeting women I like, but I have no motivation or confidence to speak to them about anything other than in a casual/friendly manner. I can’t really even motivate myself to do anything except keep up with the basics. I go to work, do my weekly chores, maybe play some video games or binge a show, then I go to sleep. I hang out with friends, but most of them are couples, and the other singles in the friend group are all guys, and I’m not romantically attracted to men. I’m not as depressed as I was, but I’m still deeply unmotivated.
I just don’t know what to do to get myself motivated again. I just turned 31, and I’m worried that if I don’t figure things out soon, then I’ll just be alone for the rest of my life.
Stuck in Neutral
DEAR STUCK IN NEUTRAL: Y’know SiN, I think you’re in a similar boat to AN up there. You’ve had a lot of shitty things happen to you in rapid succession and it’s taken its toll on you. The problem is, unlike AN… I don’t think you’ve really stopped to process or deal with everything. That’s going to fuck with you.
Now keep in mind that Dr. NerdLove is NOT a real doctor but… a lot of what you’re describing sounds a lot like the symptoms of chronic depression.
Depression is something I’ve wrestled with for most of my adult life, and it took a while for me to realize that I was having a problem with it. One of the mistakes that a lot of people make is that they tend to assume that depression is “the blues” when in reality, it’s often better described as “the grays”. It’s less feeling bad for yourself and more not feeling. You’re drifting through your life like a grey specter. You feel worthless, in the descriptive sense rather than the pejorative. It’s not that you’re bad – though that’s frequently part of it – but that you have no worth. Nothing is worth doing, life doesn’t have any real meaning and you just have no real motivation to do anything. You find a few things to fill the hours, even though you don’t take any joy from them, but otherwise, you just exist.
Part of what’s especially pernicious about depression is that you feel guilty about having it. You look around your life and recognize that hey, things aren’t great, but you really don’t have a reason to be depressed. Since you can’t point at any one thing that can justify those feelings, you feel like you’re doing something wrong. You feel like you should be able to just drag yourself out of it. But you can’t. And so you feel like a loser for feeling bad.
But I’m here to tell you from experience: you really can’t just grit your teeth and dig your way out. You need help. Sometimes that help is talk therapy. Other times that help comes in the form of CBT exercises. And still other times that help means medication. But the important part is getting that help.
You don’t need to be talking to a loudmouth with a blog, SiN, you need to talk to a mental health professional. Don’t worry if money is tight; most therapists will work on a sliding scale basis. If you can’t find someone in your area, you may want to try a service like Amwell and arrange sessions over Skype.
But get that help, SiN. That will help you dig your way out of the hole you’re in and help you find your motivation again.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)