DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I am 29, male, cis, of Indian descent although very much western (and was born in the US), and am trying to kickstart a romantic life that I left behind.
Now, context. When I was about 16, the first girl that I really fell for ended up rejecting me, and, while I know this sounds like a sob story (“it’s been 13 years, for f--k’s sake”, I hear you say), it’s relevant: she rejected me because I was “incompatible with her family’s beliefs”. After asking for clarification, it was exactly as bad as it sounds: her family was racist (she wasn’t, and was in tears telling me this), and I would never be accepted, no matter what existed between us. We tried to go separate ways, accidentally spent the next three years in each other’s social circles, tried addressing it a few times, she gaslit me about how she felt about me for a while, screamed at each other a lot, and then I sent a text that wasn’t meant for her when I was 20, and we went radio silence on each other. Saw her four years ago, and she spent a night getting drunk with her soon-to-be-husband, being snarky and mad at me while I bonded with her (very nice) husband over movies.
I never really…”got over it” is what I’m saying. I just kind of stopped, romantically speaking. I spent, essentially, every year since kind of just meandering, never acting, finding people attractive and never saying anything, always assuming that people don’t find me attractive (according to some friends of mine from college, the amount of times I missed that someone was into was easily into the double digits). I never really felt “deserving” of affection and there was definitely a period of drinking based depression over my loneliness in the last ten years. I’ve talked with too many people about this, including actual therapists, and I think I came to a conclusion: my brain internalized the idea that, because of who I am, affection from people is limited, and that who I am is inherently going to give a glass ceiling on what people can/are willing to offer me in all relationships: professional, platonic, romantic.
Obviously, this is not true, completely irrational, and something that I have had to get over in setting after setting. I am currently on the path to becoming a teacher, having worked in education for, now, just under a decade (despite constant parental/sibling/familial bashing on my choices), whilst being actual award-winning levels of good (framed awards, on my desk, super proud of those), and looking at Master’s programs when *gestures wildly at current world* all of this at least calms down enough for me to stop stressing about that. I have amazing friends who care about me, all of whom are people who matter to me, and are all people I miss dearly given, again, present circumstances. I am constantly in contact, and have definitely been known to talk too much, but everyone either a) doesn’t seem to mind and actually loves hearing my conversations that spin into seemingly irrelevant tangents or b) get mad at me when I apologize for thinking that I dominate conversations because they’re sick of me apologizing for things. I’ve turned my “I talk too much in a language no one but me seems to understand” into some devastating rounds on JackBox is what I’m saying.
But the romantic side is just…something I can’t get over. And I know that that is irrational, and unreasonable. Healing is a process, and my other half-hearted attempts that ended in failure over the years in between have done me no favors (processing pain while still attempting to get people to care about you is both not fun or healthy). But I find myself again and again dwelling on just how alone I’ve felt and feel and it really bothers me.
However, I have really grown absolutely f--king sick of this side of things, have determined that my loneliness and apathy towards taking action to feel better is the root cause of a surprising amount of emotional pain in my life, and have decided to give this part of me another shot, I just…can’t help but feel absolutely paralyzed. I tried just pulling up the website for a dating service months ago, and I could FEEL my breathing, I ended up closing it and cleaning my apartment instead. One of my best friends SUGGESTED that they be the one to make a dating profile for me, and I dove at that, despite all the combined guilt that hit me like a punch to the soul after. Hell, I even feel bad writing this, and have had to FORCE myself to submit this question just because I feel guilt even asking for help.
I just can’t help but feel like I should be over this, ya know? I’m 29, I look the best I have legitimately ever looked, finally putting effort into working out daily and dressing better (online fashion services did away with a lot of my shopping anxieties). I am professionally fulfilled and damn good at it, with teachers in the school I work at giving me the chance to teach guest lessons, which I also knock out of the park. I don’t make a huge amount of cash, but enough to be comfortable while indulging my incredibly nerdy hobbies (I have a mostly painted army of 40K Necron to my right).
But every time I try to think about dating, my brain screams “You’re too inexperienced, you’re too old to learn, you’re too old for people to be forgiving about both of those, and you’ve lived too much of your life alone and could never adapt to anything else. To think someone could possibly care for you how you want them to is impossible. Just learn to be by yourself”. And then I calm down, meditate, go to sleep, only to wake up and think about this all over again. Quarantine has been hell.
It feels like the only thing I’ve ever wanted is to feel a sense of reciprocal attraction, and yet every time I try and do something about it, I seize up. I don’t know what to do, how to start, how to fix this mindset, or what steps I should be taking so, here I am. Emailing you on a Monday night where these emotions have flared up again.
So, yeah Doc. I know there’s a cure, I just don’t think I have it.
Any and all ideas are appreciated.
– Need a Battering Ram for this Emotional Wall
P.S. — And in classic fashion for my paranoid self, I read this back at least seven times.
DEAR NEED A BATTERING RAM FOR THIS EMOTIONAL WALL: This is a classic case of “the problem you have isn’t the problem you think you have”, NBRTEW. Your issue isn’t needing to get started or an emotional wall that you need to break through, it’s the sheer level of anxiety you’re feeling.
I don’t think it takes Freud to say that this goes beyond just having been dumped at sixteen. Don’t get me wrong: that absolutely sucked, especially considering why she dumped you. But while that certainly may have been a traumatic event at the time, I don’t think it’s the only thing that’s causing these feelings in you. And hell, while I think that the reinforcement from the way she treated you since — getting pissy at you for bonding with her fiancé, for example — certainly didn’t help, I don’t think that is the root cause either.
I think there’re two issues at play here. The first is that it seems like you’ve grown up in an environment where nothing you did was good enough. You drop a lot of hints in your letter that give a pretty strong indication that your family life was and is one of apparently heavy criticism. While I don’t think every family needs to be a recreation of the Brady Bunch or constantly affirming everyone’s worth and worthiness, if 99% of what you’re hearing is about how you don’t measure up, that’s gonna carve a groove in your brain. And when that feeling seems to be reinforced, repeatedly, by someone who supposedly cares about you… that’s going to leave some pretty hefty scars and make you incredibly gun-shy.
The second issue sounds very familiar to me. Again, there are a lot of things you mention in your letter — apologizing constantly, having panic attacks over mundane things like clothes shopping, even forcing yourself past an anxiety attack to write this letter (and proof-reading it seven times) — that set my Spidey-sense tingling. A lot of what you describe sounds an awful lot like what’s known as Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria — something I’ve dealt with over my lifetime as part of having ADHD. Now, this doesn’t mean that I think you have ADHD; in fact, RSD tends to be co-morbid with a number of other conditions, including borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorders and depression.
Rejection sensitivity and RSD can manifest as anxiety and panic attacks, intrusive thoughts about being “unworthy” of love, friendship and relationships, constant fear that you’ve upset or angered someone or being so terrified of rejection that you end up just not doing… anything. It can make you constantly second-guess yourself or try to analyze everything you’ve done in hopes of either avoiding rejection or reassuring yourself that no, everything’s ok and your friends don’t hate you. And honestly: it’s not something you can just will yourself to get over. Trust me: I’ve tried. I found ways of pushing past it in the moment, but that low-grade hum in the back of your mind doesn’t go away.
Now the good news is that this is all treatable. There are, for example, medications that can help with the anxiety and the emotional symptoms. Meditation, therapy, even learning how to control your breathing can all help manage the panic and calm down the jerkbrain voices that all insist that you’re not good enough and that your friends don’t like you. But that’s a conversation to be having with your therapist, not with me; Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor, after all. Talk to your therapist about the possibility of RSD or an anxiety disorder and whether talking to a psychiatrist about medical options would be right for you; they’re in a better position to tell you what your options are and what’re most likely to work well for you.
But one thing I can tell you: let yourself off the hook, man. Yes, this feels like something you should have been able to “just get over”… but the truth is that it rarely works like that. Especially if other things in your life — whether your upbringing, your familial relationships, even your exes — are reinforcing those negative feelings. Your anxieties aren’t something to be embarrassed about, nor should you be kicking yourself for not being able to just “will” yourself out of it or just magically “get over it”. The truth is that you’ve been putting in a lot of work to grow and improve as a person, in your career and in your relationships. That’s all something to be proud of. The fact that you short-change it or hold it up as proof that you “should” be over this just devalues the work and progress you’ve made. All that you’ve mentioned about how far you’ve come? That’s a sign of just how strong and determined you are.
The fact that you have an issue that’s hung in there as long as it has doesn’t mean that you’re weak or defective; it just means that it may be something you can’t handle by yourself and that’s fine. It’s not failure to need help from others, nor is it a sign of weakness to reach out to ask for it. You wouldn’t blame someone for not being able to ‘will’ themselves cured of cancer; why are your emotional problems any less serious or deserving of less help from professionals who specialize in it?
The other thing I think that will help is to give yourself permission to not worry about relationships right now and to focus on your emotional health. The best thing you can do for yourself is make yourself and your well-being your priority. Dealing with these issues and finding treatments and ways of getting it under control are going to be much easier if you’re not kicking yourself for not having more relationships. As I said before: erase the word “should” from your vocabulary. You’re treating this as though you’ve fallen behind on a plan and path that everyone is expected to follow. Except you haven’t, and you aren’t. There’s no one path, no one set number of waypoints you’re supposed to hit within a certain time limit. There is only your path, your journey, and you will get where you need to go at your own pace and in your own time.
Don’t worry about love or relationships; those will still be waiting for you. Make yourself your top priority for now. When you’re ready, there will be time enough for love.
You’ve got this.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org