DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been reading your columns on and off for about ten years now. I’ll admit that I often sneer at some of the advice because it seems so far-fetched or inapplicable to myself. But I think maybe it’s time that I actually see if you had any thoughts about my situation.
I’m 34 years old. I have had one girlfriend in my entire life. We dated for 18 months ten years ago, and broke up. I was an insecure wreck of a person, and I am fairly sure my own insecurity and insistence that there was no way she’d ever stay with me is what pushed her away. She was way out of my league, and could do better, but was in a lonely and vulnerable position in life and I was convenient I guess. Since then, I haven’t even so much as asked a girl out.
I spent a long time after that in college and in grad school. I come from a family that was never super well off. I’m the first person in the family to ever go to college let alone obtain a masters degree. I felt for years and years like if I am going to accomplish something, it better be something big because being an obese, bespectacled nerd from a lower working class background was something that would always stand in my way if I wanted anything good in my life to happen. Particularly if I wanted a partner or to have kids.
Full disclosure, and I know this sounds nuts to most people so I keep it to myself, the idea of having kids is important to me because there’s no one in my family left at this point with my name, and I feel like if my name is to ever be redeemed I have to pass whatever social mobility I have achieved onward. This is something I was ever conditioned really to believe in my upbringing, but something that I believe with an almost fanatical zeal.
Within a year of graduation from graduate school, I worked my first political campaign. I was hired on as district director for the legislator I helped get re-elected. Within a year after that, I was elevated to chief of staff. I am now in the process of running for local office myself, and working toward the goal of forming a political consulting group with a few other like minded individuals to elect progressive candidates in suburban seats. The amount of acceptance I have found makes me…uncomfortable.
I feel, essentially, like all of this could be taken from me at any moment once someone realizes I’m not nearly as talented or skilled as they thought I was. I find myself wondering why none of these people can see through the facade and understand that beneath being able to make things happen I’m a fundamentally broken person who can’t even do simple things that everyone seems to be able to do (like ask a girl out).
Over the years, my interest in dating has actually shrunk because I have been alone for so long now that incorporating another person into my life seems like it would be a huge chore. But at the same time I still have nights where I wish there was someone who I could share my life with. Outside of work (which is not much because I’m always working) all I do is drink, play games, watch stuff, and smoke. It’s not pretty, and I’m not a looker either. But it’s the only way I ever really feel alive in any meaningful sense of the word.
All of my friends think I sell myself short. My family nominally loves me, but clearly resent me for going to school and trying to make something of myself. My mom definitely, definitely resents the fact that the good looking son (my brother) is openly gay and will give her no grandchildren, and her only card left for that particular outcome is her obese son that “thinks he’s smarter than everyone and acts all superior.” I don’t, by the way, but my family are, for lack of a better way to describe them, insecure around anyone who has achieved anything higher than what they have.
I guess the thing that bothers me most is that while all of these things have happened that I never thought I could have, and never thought I deserved to begin with, I still feel basically empty and unaccomplished. Like I am my job and my skillset, and nothing more. Disconnected from the human part of my life. Back when I was still a loser in college living at home with a dead end job I would think “One day, I’ll have a better job, and my own apartment, and then I’ll be worthy.”
Now I have all of that, and I’m not. I’d still rather shave an entire layer of skin off my whole body than approach a woman or flirt.
What do you think?
DEAR THE WORST: I think you need to change your signoff, TW, because the last thing you need is to keep dragging yourself like this.
Here’s what’s going on: you’ve taken on and internalized all the s--t your family has given you. All that resentment, that “how dare you succeed where we didn’t,” and all the ways that you get smacked around about things like your weight… this is the sort of behavior that people indulge in when they want to try to “keep someone in their place” or “keep them from getting a big head”. They may even tell you that it’s “for your own good”… except, how, in pluperfect f--kery, is insulting you, negging you and otherwise undermining you good by anyone’s definition?
Unfortunately, one of the problems with the human condition is that if we hear s--t over and over enough, we tend to start to believe it. For example: constant exposure and repetition is one of the ways that people get dragged into QAnon or anti-vax conspiracies. If you hear the same thing constantly — especially from people you trust or who you interact with regularly — there’s a part of your brain that goes “well, if so many people are saying this or people are saying this so confidently, there must be something to it,” and it starts to seem a little more reasonable. That first crack makes it all the easier for you to take the rest onboard. And if it also corresponds with the things that you already believe, particularly if it involves negative feelings you have about yourself, then it’s that much easier for those words and beliefs and feelings to dig in.
This is a classic case of the mahout and the elephant. An elephant is raised from birth by its mahout, who for the formative years of its life, is larger and stronger. But it doesn’t take very long before the elephant is much larger and much stronger than the mahout… but it doesn’t realize it. In its mind, the mahout is still a giant and still wields authority over it. You are larger and stronger and more full of potential than you realize… but your family has convinced you that you aren’t.
Small wonder you have issues with insecurity; you’ve got your jerkbrain whispering in your ear with all of these myriad voices from people who are supposed to love you and support you and have your back.
And the worst part is: you’re not entirely wrong. Just not in the way you think. Yes, it was almost certainly your insecurity that pushed your girlfriend away. Nobody — and I mean nobody — is going to stay in a relationship where you call them a liar every time they tell you that they love you. It may be cute at first. It’s easy to mistake for playful teasing. Then there’s the impulse to show that no, it’s not a lie, they really think you’re the bee’s knees and the badger’s nadgers. But if you push someone away enough times and for long enough, they’re going to take the hint and, y’know. Go away.
Because the truth is very simple TW: you were in her league. If somebody likes you and wants to date you, no matter how hot, successful or unattainable they may seem, you are absolutely in their league. The only person who couldn’t see it was, well, you.
And that’s a damn shame because it seems pretty f--king clear that you have a lot to offer. I mean, c’mon, my dude, look at what you’ve accomplished! First, there’s being the first person in your family to not just go to college but to get not one but two degrees! That in and of itself is really goddamn impressive. But even more than that, you’ve built an amazing and inspiring career, brick by brick and success by success. You, my friend, are an okapi — a rare beast that most people didn’t believe existed until explorers found one in 1901. Except you are an example of actual upward social mobility, something that seems completely out of reach for… damn near everyone, really!
And the reason you can’t see this is because you’ve got your family doing their crabs-in-a-bucket s--t, trying to pulling you back down because they resent you succeeding where they didn’t.
Here’s the thing: the vast majority of women out there aren’t going to give a flying f--k about coming from a working class background. The only ones who might are snobbish assholes and, frankly, life is too goddamn short to care about what assholes think. Similarly, overweight and glasses? That’s your disqualifier? My dude, there are many, many women out there who like them some big burly dudes. Despite what your jerkbrain tells you, women aren’t exclusively interested in one of the Marvel Chris’; there are more women than you can believe who like a guy who looks the way hugs feel. I mean, not to put too fine a point on it but there’re lots of men who range from chubby to fat who are not just married and happy but are some of the sex-gettingest men around.
You need to realize that these beliefs you have are just that: beliefs. They’re not facts. They’re your brain trying to protect you from negative experiences you expect by keeping you from even being in the position to experience them. You are, in a very real way, afraid of being afraid. Those fears and anxieties lie to you and create a space where you feel like you’re safe. Safe from rejection, safe from feeling like you did when your girlfriend left and safe from ever having to face the possibility of being deserving of love, affection and success. You may not be happy, but you’re “safe”.
This is how you end up rationalizing your choices out of existence. You say that you’re so used to being alone that you couldn’t fit another woman into your life… but then barely a sentence later, you say that all you do in your time off is drink, smoke and play games. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m nowhere near an expert in time management — far from it, as wife and my editor could tell you — but even I could figure out how to work going on dates and building a relationship into that schedule. It’s not that you can’t fit a theoretical relationship in, TW, it’s that you’re afraid to try. And so your anxiety, in an attempt to protect you, convinces you that you can’t when the reality is that you choose not to.
And look, I get it. You’ve got a nasty case of imposter syndrome. It’s clear as day, especially for anyone else who has it. That fear of being found out as a fraud is a classic symptom. But here’s a secret that only folks who’ve wrestled with imposter syndrome know: the people who are actually qualified are the ones who get imposter syndrome. They’re the ones who are aware of what they know and — critically — what they don’t know. That awareness of what they don’t know makes them afraid that they’re not qualified because shouldn’t you know everything to be where you are?
I hate to break it to you, the only ones who think they know everything they need to know are often the least qualified. To quote Bertrand Russell: “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Your worry that you aren’t qualified is a form of perfectionism. Because you’re trying to prove yourself to your family — who keep trying to drag you down — you feel like you have to be perfect. It’s a way of avoiding shame and doubt, which really only causes more doubt and shame.
(And hey, could be worse: you could have the “what, you think you’re good enough to have imposter syndrome?” version and THAT is a motherf--ker, let me tell you.)
So, what do you do about all of this?
Well, first and foremost: you need some strong goddamn boundaries with your family. Yeah, establishing boundaries and enforcing them can be scary and difficult, especially with family. You need to tell them that you aren’t going to tolerate them treating you like this, and you will refuse to talk to them, visit them or interact with them as long as they do. And you need to hold firm to this; they get one warning and then poof, you’re out. If your mom, for example, gives you s--t when you’re on the phone, make it clear: if she keeps doing this, you’re hanging up. If she does it again, then you hang up. No warning, no “I told you”, just “beep”, gone. Same with seeing them in person. If they treat you like this while you’re there in person, they get one warning and then you leave. No, you won’t be reasonable. No, you won’t calm down or “be an adult”. You gave them the terms under which you were willing to spend time with them, they violated them and now you’re gonna bounce. Your continued presence in their live is entirely contingent in how they treat you. If they’re going to continue to neg you, they can do it without you being there. If that upsets them, then tough s--t. You aren’t their punching bag and they can go screw.
Second: eliminate the shame by embracing being authentic, vulnerable and imperfect. You may strive for perfection, but failing to reach it doesn’t mean that you failed; it means you’re human, same as everyone else. You don’t need to be perfect, my dude, you just need to be the intellectual badass you already are.
At the same time, embrace how far you’ve come and how hard you’ve worked. Maybe you’re not brilliant or the most talented, but you sure as s--t got where you are through hustle, determination and hard work at the very least. You fought like a goddamn demon for every inch you gained and by god you earned it.
Third: you know what I said about how hearing the same things over and over again makes you believe them? Well, you’re going to use this to your advantage. You are going to choose the beliefs that serve you best and hack your confirmation bias until you believe it to your core. As silly or absurd as it may sound, you’re going to write down your strengths and your achievements and you’re going to read them out loud to yourself, every day. Every. Goddamn. Day. And you’re going to do so using second-person language: “you are an incredible worker”, “you’re successful because of all of your hard work and talent”, “you earned your success and you’re capable of more”, “you are incredible, you are desirable and you are worthy of love“. Doing this in the second person — saying “you are” instead of “I am” — is important. You’re giving yourself distance, you’re replacing the voices of your family that tell you that you aren’t those things and most importantly: you’re treating yourself like your best friend. If you wouldn’t let your best friend run himself down like this, then by God you can do the same thing for yourself.
Fourth: you, my friend, are going to talk to a therapist. Affirmations, embracing vulnerability, enforcing boundaries with your family… these are all important and will go a long, long way to helping. But you also have wounds that need healing, my dude, and those wounds need to be examined and disinfected before they can close. You’re very clearly dealing with a lot of pain and trauma, and that’s not the sort of thing that just goes away. Working with a therapist is going to be important because they’re there to help you unpack those self-limiting beliefs, push back against the shame and perfectionism you’ve built up as a defense and help you exorcise the ghosts of your past. They are going to give you the tools and the vocabulary you need in order to heal and thrive.
And here’s the thing: you will heal and you will thrive. I know this because, like I said: you’re a phenomenal bad-ass just to have come this far with the emotional equivalent of a broken leg. You’ve done things that most people would swear on a stack of Bibles to be impossible. You’ve built an awesome career, you’ve achieved goals nobody else in your family could and that’s just barely scratching the surface of your potential. You are capable of so much more, if you can only accept your power.
It’s time to let go of your fears, heal from your past and make it clear to your family — and yourself — you’re not gonna take this anymore. It’s time to embrace your true potential and realize how much you have to offer… including to the women who would be lucky to date you.
You’ll be ok. I promise.
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