DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I find myself in an odd place. I struggle with anxiety and depression and I am currently attending therapy for it. I say all this to present a background to my question.
I struggle with self-confidence and self-worth. I often feel worthless and being in specific unmasculine. I feel I am too skinny, but I hate eating and am partly fearful of being fat. I have never been in a romantic relationship and am a 25 year old virgin. All these have made me feel especially insecure. That I will never be in a relationship and that if I do, my partner will cheat on me with other men who are more masculine, charming, and etc.
Logically, I understand these are untrue and that I shouldn’t allow these thoughts to dominate my thoughts, but I can’t escape them. I really don’t know how to handle them.
Not-Quite A Man
DEAR NOT QUITE A MAN: Couple things, NQAM.
First: your being a man has nothing to do with your build, your sexual history or how many relationships you’ve had. Are you a man? Then congrats: you’re masculine. You’re masculine whether you’re skinny or jacked, whether you have a dadbod or not, whether you have a beard or not, whether you’re a virgin or you’ve gotten more strange ass than a dude at a mutant donkey auction with a stolen platinum card. The sort of thing you’re struggling with is having internalized toxic and restrictive ideas about what it means to “be a man”.
One of the first things I would suggest you should do is talk to your therapist about your issues around food and eating. What you’re describing sounds a lot like the beginnings of issues with disordered eating, which is something that a loud mouth with an advice column is not going to be able to help you with. That requires working with a mental health professional, especially with how much it ties into your feelings about your body. I wouldn’t recommend trying to go on your own with this; even if you were to, say, start approaching eating from a body building perspective, that isn’t going to solve the root issues of feeling insecure and tying your self-worth into your weight or pants size. Orthorexia — focusing to the point of obsession about eating “clean” or healthily — is still a form of disordered eating.
Another thing I would suggest is that you pay attention to what you pay attention to. Part of why men, especially men in your situation, feel like they don’t measure up is because they tend to submerge themselves in forums, subreddits and YouTube videos that keep telling them that they’re failing at being men. Whether it’s the incel community, Red Pill and MRA groups or even just assholes on Twitter or YouTube, when you hear people telling you over and over again that you — or people you identify with — are somehow not manly enough, it’s very hard not to take that onboard and internalize it. I realize that it feels like you’re getting The TRVTH in all it’s unvarnished glory but honestly, you aren’t. What you’re hearing are other people projecting their insecurities and their fears about how they aren’t manly enough, externalizing it and proclaiming it as gospel because they need everyone else to go along with it. This is why paying attention to what you feed your brain can be important. Toxic and restrictive forms of masculinity only work as long as everyone buys into it; one of the quickest and easiest ways for a man to shore up his own male bonafides is to police and punish other men. People who refuse to conform and who embrace their masculinity in all its variety threaten that structure.
Cutting out the assholes who tell you that you’re Not Man-ing The Right Way is a start. Another thing to do is to see how other folks express their manhood in ways that don’t align with toxic ideals. Harry Styles and Billy Porter have consistently made waves for being willing to wear dresses (and look damn good in them at that) and to not give a single solitary f--k. The Korean band BTS, likewise, don’t reflect a hard or hegemonic form of masculinity and yet their predominantly female fanbase think they’re the hottest thing on toast. Not being built like Jason Momoa doesn’t make you less of a man, nor does it mean that anyone you date is going to leave you for someone more traditionally masculine.
In fact, let’s address that anxiety for a minute. What you’re feeling isn’t reality; it’s just your anxieties f--king with your head. You’re projecting your own worry — that you’re insufficiently manly — outward and creating a scenario that hasn’t happened… but you’re responding to it as though it has. You are, in a very real way, hurting your own feelings. But here’s the thing: anxiety is a liar. What you imagine is just that: your imagination. You are just as capable of imagining finding someone who loves dudes who look exactly like you, who wants your specific flavor of manhood. And the great thing about our brains is that they respond to those images as though they were real. Which means that you are just as capable of picturing a positive outcome as a negative… should you choose to do so. In fact, doing this — choosing to believe something that ultimately benefits you — is a great way to hack your confirmation bias in your favor. Doing so means that you’re going to be more prone to seeing things that line up with what you’re choosing to believe — which, in this case, would be that you’re damn hot and people who disagree can go f--k themselves with a rusty spoon. You’ll be more likely to see the people who do want a guy like you because subconsciously, you’ll be on the lookout for it.
Consciously reframing how you see yourself, choosing to dictate the future you imagine on your terms and reinforcing those beliefs by paying attention to the folks who don’t subscribe to toxic bulls--t ideas about manhood go a long way towards helping uproot those self-limiting beliefs and replace them with powerful beliefs about how goddamn awesome you are and how the right partner will be goddamn lucky to date you.
(And on the more practical side of things: the imaginary partner who would cheat on you because you’re not “manly” enough or whatever? You’re not going to face that scenario because you wouldn’t be dating them in the first place. As you develop your own confidence, you’ll be rejecting them when you encounter them, and the others would be doing you the favor of self-selecting out of your dating pool.)
TL;DR: start by talking with your therapist about the issues you’re having around food and body image, and get their help to uproot those ideas. And while you work on this, go on a social media diet, cutting out the sites, videos and subreddits that reinforce your negative feelings, while focusing instead on the ones that reinforce your positive feelings. Pay attention to the folks like you who buck toxic masculine ideals and take conscious control over what you imagine happening in your future with your future partners. Choose to believe the things that help you and make your confirmation bias work in your favor.
It takes time, and it takes effort. But the truth is that you’ve got a lot to offer, my dude, if you only give yourself permission to recognize it. Things aren’t nearly as awful as you’re afraid they are, and you can turn things around.
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