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
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 bullshit. 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 “fuck 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 unfuckable 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.”
Hello Dr. NerdLove,
My best friend (let’s call her Alpha) and I became friends because we “dated” as kids. Over our preteen and high school years there were a number of times that we starting “dating” on and off many times, and even went on a couple of acutal dates during university.
Despite all of this we were never seriously dating or even got physical in any way, and somehow through it all we ended up becoming extremely good friends. Since that time, I have had a couple of more serious relationships, but generally have found myself extremely unsuccessful in dating, despite a serious relationship being something I’ve always wanted.
This next little bit might seem tangential to the question, but I think its important background for my situation.
I spent a lot of time working on myself, realizing that I was doing something wrong. I started making sure I was taking better care of my body, dressing better, and so on. Most importantly, I’ve been working on being as kind as possible as much as possible (none of us are perfect), and generally being a more supportive person to everyone in my life, whether I was interested in dating them or not. The positive from this is that I made a lot of friends, probably a lot more than most people my age have. But despite being set up with friends-of-friends, talking to a couple of women at bars and having an occasional touch of luck in online dating, I didn’t have any real success with the changes either. With my continued loneliness and a new feeling of hopelessness with respect to self-improvement, I started to feel extremely worthless and at times even suicidal. I recognized this was extremely unhealthy, so I started seeing a psychologist. I continue to fight those feelings today, but I feel they’re important to point out since Alpha was, and is, fully aware of them and their extent.
During the therapy sessions I came to the realization that I had had extremely strong feelings for Alpha for many years. When I confessed these feelings to her, she was very understanding and kind, but she let me know that she did not share those feelings with me. Since then I’ve found myself really struggling to handle our friendship, and knowing everything about her, including her new romantic prospects, and feeling so close to her yet somehow so far. We’ve talked about taking a break from our friendship, but I don’t think either of us handled the possibility very well, and I’m worried if I bring it up again it will end our friendship permanently.
But its been months now and I cannot stop thinking about her, I struggle to be a good friend for her, and I think that despite both of our efforts, I’m becoming a toxic friend towards her, not responding well when she talks about her love life, getting disproportionately offended by friendly teasing and just in general not being there for her in the way that I used to be. I’m also afraid that she won’t say what she needs to say to me, because she knows about my less-than-ideal mental state.
I guess I’m just wondering what to do. We’ve talked about it a lot and she’s extremely understanding, but I don’t honestly know if I can continue our friendship, as its hurting me and I worry that by extension I’m hurting her. What can I do in this situation? I don’t know if I can go on losing my best friend, and I know that she also would be devastated if that happened. I need something to change, but I don’t know what it is. Time isn’t helping, and I feel like as long as we keep sharing absolutely everything about our lives with each other, more time won’t help either.
Any ideas you might have would be appreciated.
Friends Falling Further
There’s a good reason why you’re not getting better, FFF: you’re not letting yourself get some distance so your feelings can adjust to the new circumstances on the ground. You’re trying to pretend that nothing has changed and that ain’t working. The context of your relationship with Alpha is entirely different now, which means that your friendship is fundamentally different. It’s understandable that you two are trying to act like nothing has changed, but it has. Specifically, you have. And that means that your friendship has changed too.
The issue the two of you are having is that you’re both trying to pretend like the feelings you have don’t exist, and that just doesn’t work. You’re just constantly hurting yourself by not addressing things, which is leading to resentment and bitterness.
Now what I usually tell people who’re dealing with a broken heart is that they need to get distance. You can’t expect to get the perspective you need on a relationship if it’s always right there up in your grill. But you don’t want to do that; you’re trying to have the exact same relationship you had beforehand. And if you’re not willing to step away for a while — not forever, but for a little while, so that you can adjust and grow and heal — then you need to change your friendship so you’re not constantly being hurt.
So to start with, you’re going to have to set some boundaries, FFF. You’re going to have to tell Alpha that you don’t want to talk about her love life because right now you it hurts you to hear about it. You’re going to have to let her know that some kinds of teasing are just off the table for now. And that’s going to have to go both ways; you can’t just use her as your sounding board for your feels when you can’t bring yourself to listen to her about her relationships.
Now you may have noticed that this means that you and Alpha aren’t going to be as close as you have been. That’s by design; it’s an unfortunate, but necessary change in your relationship. The fact of the matter is that if you’re going to still insist on being this present in each other’s lives, then for the sake of your friendship you’re going to need to dial it back. As you’ve noticed: she’s not saying the things she needs to say, and you’re not being the friend she needs right now. So you’re going to have to accept the different level of friendship for now until you can get over your heartbreak.
But I’m not gonna lie: the longer you’re around her, the longer that’s going to take. Part of the reason why I tell people to take The Nuclear Option of muting, unfriending and unfollowing on all social media when it comes to healing after a heartbreak isn’t because “YOU WON’T LOVE ME AND SO YOU’RE DEAD TO ME”, it’s because you can’t heal when you’re constantly reopening the wound. If seeing her is always going to be a little knife to your heart and a kick to your soul’s nuts, then either you’re going to have to stop seeing her or start recognizing that keeping the wound open is how it gets infected.
And it’s already starting to get infected, chief.
The best choice you have if you want to save this friendship is to put it on pause for a while. You’ve been friends for literally all of your lives together. A friendship that strong can stand a little radio silence. But if you’re going to insist on still being present in each other’s lives, then you’re going to have to make some necessary adjustments to protect both yours heart and your friendship.