DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I am a 20 year old student going into my second year at the University of Ottawa, and let’s just say that I have a bit of a troubled history when it comes to romantic relationships. I am very much a socially awkward and socially anxious person who has a fairly hard time working up the courage to talk to people and trying to find the right words to say in a conversation. This, combined with my difficulty understanding certain social cues and tendency to get obsessive about the people I have romantic interest in, can make it difficult to talk to the people I’m attracted to and to enter romantic relationships. Though it’s rather embarrassing to admit, I have not been in one single relationship ever in my life, even though I’m 20 years old. Both of these problems (the social awkwardness and the tendency to get obsessive) impacted my first 2 semesters at Uni this year, which I will go into more detail below.
I have no idea why I had a crush on one of the girls who was in my psychology class during the 1st semester. We met at the global climate change protest march this past September. We travelled as a part of a residence group, but we didn’t hit it off or anything and we never talked to each other after the march. We were mere acquaintances at best and we didn’t seem to have that much in common. Nevertheless I developed this massive obsessive crush on her in the middle of October and I could not stop thinking about her until the end of the semester when I finally confessed my feelings to her via Instagram (she wasn’t interested and seemed a bit angry). It was really really bad and although I didn’t do anything inappropriate, I feel terrible because I creeped her out a lot. I probably should have slapped myself so I could wake up from my delusions and realise that she was not interested. To this day I am quite ashamed for how creepy I was during the 1st semester, because I don’t like or wish to make anyone feel unsafe in my presence. It was terrible and I’m trying my best to make sure that I don’t act that way again.
I really shot myself in the foot when it came to my relationship with a girl I was interested in the second semester. Unlike the person in the 1st semester, who I had a definite one sided crush on, this girl and I seemed to have a lot in common. At least in the beginning we seemed to have reciprocal feelings for each other. We were both involved in the board game club at school, we both like to read, we both enjoy biology, we both like visiting bookstores, and we both like listening to music outside of the mainstream. We had different upbringings as I was brought up halfway across the world in the suburbs of London, and she was brought up in the suburbs of Toronto. Other than that we had a fair bit in common. She had actually been quite friendly in the 1st semester as we shared an English class together and she talked to me in the residence, but it was only during 2nd semester when I joined the board game club and saw her at the Toronto bus station that we truly hit it off. We then went to a bookstore near the university although it was a disappointment when we found out that it was an academic only bookstore.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit and everyone was sent home I really started missing her and I sent her messages on Instagram chat to try and talk to her. She got really annoyed with me and said that she didn’t want to talk to me anymore because I was invading her life and now I’m really convinced that I’ve shot myself in the foot because she was the first girl who ever openly expressed interest in me. To be honest with you I probably came across as a bit desperate when I was talking to her, which really turns women off.
Do you have any tips as to how to stop myself from obsessing over people and how to stop myself from shooting myself in the foot when it comes to potential relationships?
DEAR THELONELYBRIT: Let’s start with the most obvious, TLB: you’re twenty. There’s nothing unusual or shameful about having not dated anyone yet. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t really regard most high-school relationships as being terribly significant. They get played up by pop culture, because the YA and teen audience has disposable income and time on their hands, but in the scheme of things, they’re ephemera. But part of the problem is that you’ve let yourself get twisted up by this supposed lack and I strongly suspect this is part of what’s driving you. It sounds to me like much of what’s going on is that you — like a lot of guys — are trying to make up for lost time.
Except the truth is that you haven’t lost anything, you haven’t “missed out” on anything and, frankly, there’s nothing especially magical or significant about relationships in your 20s that isn’t just as magical and significant about relationships in your 30s, 40s or onward. A lot of what people romanticize about young love is mostly limerence, new relationship energy and a hell of a lot of “I have no idea what I’m doing.” And as someone who has been there, done that and had more heartbreak than I care to think about (and even more shitty relationships) in my teens and 20s… honestly, people have a tendency to sand off the rough parts of what those relationships were actually like.
What I’m saying is that nostalgia is a hell of a drug.
Now the first issue you’re running into is that, frankly, you’re seriously over-investing in people. I mean, let’s look at your first crush. You literally knew nothing about her except that you found her attractive. That’s not the basis for… anything, really. Certainly not for making a huge confession about your feelings. I mean, on a strictly practical level, what’s there to be said besides “I think you’re pretty?”
However, I will give you this: sending a DM — singular — over Instagram isn’t the worst thing in the world. A little intrusive, a little presumptive and weird, but not intensely creepy or something to flagellate yourself over. Almost every female or femme-presenting friend I have gets randos in their DMs whenever they post pictures of themselves, and most of the time, they forget about it as soon as they delete the message. So I think you can let yourself off the hook for this one. It’s not a great look, but it’s not the sin that can never be forgiven. I’d say “just don’t do it again,” except… well, you did.
Your second crush is where you went overboard. Messaging a friend to talk is one thing. Messaging them over and over again, especially if they’re not responding, is intrusive and makes people uneasy. It’s a sign that you don’t have high emotional intelligence, or that you’ve started to fixate on someone in a way that makes them deeply uncomfortable. And while you know and I know that you didn’t mean any harm… your friend didn’t. And to be perfectly frank: I kind of suspect you were rounding up the amount of interest she might have had for you.
The second issue is the way you’re going about things. I am not a fan of “big confessions”, especially where romance and attraction are involved. While I get that those big, dramatic confessions make for great drama in shoujo manga and YA novels, in real life, they have a tendency to go over like a lead balloon. In a very real way, what you’re doing when you make a “confession” like that is that you’re dropping your feels in someone’s lap and asking them to do something about it. I’m a much bigger believer in being proactive and taking ownership and responsibility for your own feelings. So rather than confessing — whether in person, over text, a note or a DM — it’s better to ask someone out on a date. Not to “hang out some time”, not to “get together”, but a date. One that is very clearly a date. Not only is this more direct and active, but it also tells the person you’ve asked out that you’re interested in them in a non-platonic manner; folks very rarely ask someone they don’t like out on dates.
But frankly, all of these are secondary issues. These aren’t the issue that you need to focus on. The overlaying problem — the one that’s at the core of all your other issues — is that you seem to have some form of emotional disregulation going on. It sounds like a lot of your life comes down to “you’re at a 10 and you need to be at a 2”, and it seems like you struggle with keeping things at a reasonable level. This might be a comorbidity with another issue, it could be a chemical imbalance, or possibly even a behavior you’ve over-learned over time. Now, as I’ve said many times before: Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor, which is why I think the best thing you can do is talk to an actual mental health professional. Considering that this is a common occurrence for you, I think your first step should be finding a psychologist and talking with them about your issues. Considering that you’re currently a university student, you should take advantage of the resources your university has to offer; if there isn’t a counselor in the student health services, they can almost certainly provide you with a referral. And while I realize COVID can make it difficult to get in-person appointments, most therapists do assessment and sessions via telemedicine these days.
Talking to a psychologist will help you get a handle on what’s going on, give you some direction on how you can help manage your emotions more effectively and possibly recommend courses of treatment that’ll help get things under control. I’d suggest you start there; if you don’t treat the underlying causes, you’re not going to have much success dealing with the symptoms.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org