DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m writing you on my 31st birthday, which I’ll be spending mostly alone. In 31 years on this good green earth, I have dated -maybe- three people in brief stints. For most of my life I’ve been a fat, shy, anxious nerd with weird interests and a lot of stress between my home, school, and work lives. As a result, there’s never been room for a love life.
I have a lot of issues with self esteem and confidence. It kinda hangs on you after a decade of being a failure at life, but in the last five or six I’ve managed to hold on to good jobs, finish my Bachelors, and start to resemble an adult.
This hasn’t changed much about my outlook on myself. I’m still fat. I’m balding. I’m an awkward weirdo. I’m in a long distance relationship with a woman my age who has been an absolute gem to me, and we’ve been keeping it going for about two years now.
The feeling I can’t shake, that keeps lingering like a fart cloud over every bit of progress in my life, is “You’re not worth it.” This feeling of being worthless to anyone in any romantic capacity. I’m unattractive. I’m awkward. I live at home. I have a low on totem pole job. I bring nothing to the table in a relationship besides a desire to see my partner happy.
What I guess I want to ask, is what can I do to work past this feeling? I hate hating myself and want to feel moderately normal in my own skin. What am I missing that will make me feel like someone worth being around?
Bad Company in Boston
DEAR BAD COMPANY IN BOSTON: Y’know, BCIB, I get a lot of letters like yours, each with it’s unique-but-very-familiar tale of how you’re in your 20s-30s-40s and this sense that somehow you’ve crossed this ineffable boundary that means that you have somehow failed at dating, adulting or generally just being a man. So many of these letters hit the same note: overweight, a not-great job, living at home, losing their hair, few to no dates or relationships and not really bringing anything to the table. In fact, I get so many letters like this, each so very similar to one another, that I could practically write a form response and just plug in the relevant names and have it be an evergreen response.
But of all the similarities that you and these other folks have had in common, there’s one that’s the most important. One that, if you recognize and address it, you will put yourself on solving all the problems you’re having.
You are assuming that you’re stuck exactly as you are. That “you” as a concept are carved in stone and there’s nothing that you can do from now on.
And that, frankly, is bulls
t. The truth is that “you” are a fluid concept, capable of making changes so profound that people would never believe that your past self and your new self are the same person.
The trick is that you have to change your outlook on your life as a whole and who you are as a person. And you start that by changing how you refer to yourself.
Here’s something that poets and wizards have long known: words have power and we must use them carefully. When we label something or someone, we are attempting to sum them up so completely that this label utterly describes the four corners of its existence. So when you label yourself as “a loser” or “an awkward weirdo”, you are in effect cutting yourself off from your potential. You have declared the absolute limits of your existence with those simple words, and in doing so, blocked yourself from ever growing, changing or improving. You have, for all intents and purposes, locked yourself in a box and welded it shut.
But just as words can confine you, those same words can liberate you. And it starts very simply: you change how you refer to yourself. You aren’t “a failure at life”, you “feel like a failure at life”. You aren’t “an awkward weirdo”, you “feel like an awkward weirdo”. The difference here is small but profound. The former is definitional: these are the exact limits of who you are. The latter is emotional: these are feelings that are afflicting you, not reality as we know it. To quote Marcus Aurelius: “If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now.” Or to put it another way: feels aren’t reals. You are making an incorrect assessment about your existence based on your feelings in the moment. And if you can accept that your feelings aren’t reality but based on incorrect observations and conclusions, you can change those feelings.
Let’s start with “I’m a failure at life”. Well, how, exactly? I mean, you’ve made it to 31 and you’ve got a solid job, you’ve gone and gotten a degree and a relationship. All of those are pretty strong indicators that you’re doing pretty well. I mean, right there you’re showing that you’re more than capable of living life on your own. That’s hardly a failure, that’s you making a judgement based on emotions — emotions that are based on comparing yourself to somebody else’s standards. Except those standards are based on somebody else’s life and somebody else’s circumstances, not yours. You can’t live your life based on what other people have done for the simple fact that you aren’t them and they aren’t you. You have had experiences, advantages, hardships and setbacks that they haven’t, just as they’ve had ones you haven’t. All you’re doing is making the assumption that they have some quality that you should also have and thus in comparison, you’re a loser.
And as a wise man once said: comparison is the thief of joy.
So many of the qualities you bring up are equally based on emotion rather than fact. You’re reacting, not to the facts on the ground, but how you feel about them. You’re balding? OK. And? If it bothers you that much then do something about it. You can either start looking into the minoxidil/finasteride combo to preserve what you’ve got and regrow what you’ve lost or you can say “f
k it”, shave your head and decide to be bald and beautiful. Similarly, the fact that you’re fat — and let’s be real, “fat” is such a moving target that this could be anywhere from 10 lbs overweight to 100 lbs — doesn’t mean that you’re an unf
kable homunculus. It just means that you’re overweight. As with your hair, you can do something about this. You can decide to adjust your lifestyle and try to lose weight, you can accept yourself as a Big Handsome Man or you can do a combination of the two.
You’re unattractive? Again: that’s an emotional judgement, not a fact. Attractiveness has far more to do with presentation and grooming than it does about your physical looks; you can completely transform yourself with a hair cut and a change of clothes.
You live at home? So? A full quarter of millennials still live with their parents, but that’s not a permanent state either. You can start saving money to find a place. You can find roommates to split the rent. Your current position isn’t terribly high at your company? You can work towards getting a promotion or actively search for a better job elsewhere.
You have weird interests. And? The amazing thing about the Internet is how much it’s brought people with “weird” interests together. If furries can get together for massive conventions and parties, then you can find other folks who share your interests — likely without having to go very far outside of your own town.
You don’t bring anything to the table? Then go out and start cultivating things. Learn an instrument. Take some dance classes. Try new hobbies and find social gatherings that’ll give you the chance to experience new things.
The fact of the matter is that you’re not missing anything. Your problem, more than anything else, is that you’re mistaking feelings for unchangeable facts. Change those feelings and you change your outlook. Start with how you describe yourself, so that you can free up all the boundless potential that you have. And from there, start to take concrete steps to changing your circumstances.
You don’t have to make giant strides. You don’t need to transform yourself overnight. Just recognizing that you can change and improve… even if those changes are learning to accept yourself for the amazing bad-ass you are, instead of trying to be somebody else’s version of “success.”
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)