Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’ve been a reader for a few months now and I have had a…bizarre break-up recently that has left me with worsened problems.
I’m sorry that all of this happened to you, OBS. And honestly, your letter could easily have been written by me, back when I was in high-school. I had a lot of the same crap happen to me, down to dating someone – someone I met online, before online dating was even a thing – who ultimately ended up dumping me to get back with her scumbag ex.
And needless to say, I’ve had numerous dating “adventures” in college, some of which would have been enough to make me run screaming from the very concept of relationship like all of Hell and half of Hoboken were after me.
So here’s what I wish someone had told me about dating, especially when I was in high-school and dealing with all the attendant drama.
And that’s this: dating in high-school is bullshit. The people who tell you that high-school is the greatest time of your life either peaked early and it’s all been down hill, or they don’t remember what high-school was like. High school is, hands down, the most terrifying and confusing time for someone. You’re always tired because you’re not getting enough sleep, your body is a toxic stew of constantly churning hormones that mean you’re the emotional equivalent of Space Mountain and everyone’s in the middle of the worst identity crisis of their lives. And it doesn’t help that kids are trying to sort out hierarchies and social dynamics based on concepts that they only barely understand, but are being executed with a ruthlessness that the Borgias would admire. Everyone’s terrified, nobody knows what’s going on, and folks are lashing out at everyone around them because it’s easier to hurt someone else than it is to admit that you are completely and utterly lost.
All of which is to say: the things that happened to you in high-school suck… but you need to let it go. All of the drama you went through, all of the heart-ache, all of the pain and the humiliation? None of that counts. None of that matters. So very little of it comes from a legitimate place, where people have made careful, rational decisions. It’s all monkeys throwing shit and screaming because they’re crammed in a cage with a thousand other monkeys and the loudest monkeys seem to at least have an idea what’s going on. The problem is that you’ve absorbed so much of what happened as valid – that this was at all about you and not the hellscape that is modern high-school – that you want to prove them all wrong. You want to show that you’re a sexy badass who’s loveable and deserving of love. And as a result: you tend to fall hard for people because… well, you want it that badly. You invest so heavily because you’re trying to prove to the world and the jerks you grew up with that you’re better than they said you were or could be.
Trust me, I know. I’ve been there, done that and based an entire career off of it.
Now, I’ll freely admit: it’s easy to say “just let it go”, as though you could just snap your fingers and things wouldn’t hurt any more. But part of why it still affects you is because you hold it close to your heart. You’re still picking at the scab the more you dwell on it. You don’t just say “yeah, that sucked, thank Zod I’m out of there,” you say “That was the worst time of my life and I’ll never get past it.” You say “This is the wound that can never be healed,” as you make Being The Guy Who Was Rejected in High School part of your identity. And honestly: that’s not you. That’s only who you are because that’s how you’ve chosen to see yourself.
You are long out of that situation. Which means you have a blank slate. You have a chance to start over and define yourself anew. You can decide that the things that happened to you are over, that they no longer count and now you’re on a journey to decide who you are and where you’re going from here.
And yeah: you’re going to get hurt. The world’s full of sharp corners and steep drops, sometimes you’re going to run into them. Dating is no exception to this. Assholes are gonna ass, you can’t avoid that. But while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. And part of how you avoid suffering, especially as you avoid people who would just use you like your ex did, is that you learn to maintain and enforce your boundaries. You have to stand up for yourself, instead of just accepting anything that comes your way in the name of having a relationship. You have to be willing to say “this isn’t acceptable, and I won’t be treated like this” to bad behavior, even if it means losing the relationship. You have to be your own first, best line of defense.
But more than anything else: you have to let go of the identity that you’ve adopted. You have to let go of the fear that’s holding you back. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, even though you’re afraid, because you can’t date without making yourself vulnerable. You can protect yourself, sure; you don’t invest emotionally in someone immediately. You give it time to get to know them and see if they can show they’re worth investing in, just as you’re showing them that you are worth investing in.
At the end of the day though, there is no reward without risk and dating is about taking risks. You minimize the risks as best you can. You prepare for the worst, even as you expect the best. But you have to decide that the risks are worth the potential rewards.
And trust me: when you find someone who’s right for you, who you just click with? Who makes you feel like you’re coming home, even though you’ve only just gotten to know one another?
Then you’ll find it really is worth it.
Doctor, I need your help.
I have an issue stemming from my past relationship. My ex-girlfriend cheated on me and lied to me in the worst ways possible, and I’ve never gotten any closure.
I’m with this new girl now. She’s really very nice and all. She’s exactly my type. However I can’t help but feel super anxious with her. For example: when she doesn’t respond to my texts for hours and says she’s busy with her new friends she made in school, I kind of lose my mind. I’d ask her to at least tell me about it but she feels that it’s controlling to make her tell me her every single move.
I also do get occasional anxiety attacks where I feel that she’d leave me anytime for someone better, like my previous girlfriend did. But, honestly. I know the problem lies with me as she’s never done anything to make me doubt her. She’s even introduced me to her sister, as well as her close friends as a way of reassuring me. But I still can’t get rid of the anxiety attacks and being clingy for her texts. It’s like I crave for her attention and when I don’t I get all weird and I wanna stop this so bad. Please help me.
– Stuck In the Past
Here’s the thing about anxiety and neediness, SitP: it’s not about what the other person is doing, it’s about how you feel. And the reason you feel the way that you do isn’t just that your ex cheated on you, it’s that you took her cheating on you as a referendum on your worth as a person. And honestly? The fact that she cheated has very little to do with you and damn near everything to do with her. It wasn’t that you weren’t good enough, it’s that she was callous with your feelings. She hurt you, not because some better guy came around, but because she was an asshole. We don’t take the opinions of assholes into consideration, especially not assholes who have no problem hurting the people who care for them.
So the first thing you need to do is give yourself closure. Look at your relationship with your ex, look at how she treated you. Accept that the way she treated you was her fault. She didn’t treat you badly because you deserved it, she treated you badly because she was an awful person and she chose to hurt you. Take all that in. Let it into you. Accept that this was on her, look at the remains of your old relationship and say “She was awful and thank God that’s over.”
Now look at your current girlfriend. Not only is she not treating you like your ex did, she’s going out of her way to talk you back from the ledge when you have these panic attacks. She has, been proving to you that she’s trustworthy and kind and gentle.
This is important because you’re going to have to do your part here. You know that you’re being an insecure bag of slop right now. You know that she’s right: demanding that she account for her movements throughout the day is unreasonable. But you also know that she’s not given you any reason to not trust her. You know that she’s been straightforward with you. You know that she cares, that she even has shared intimate parts of her life with you.
These are the things that you need to remind yourself of when you have these panic attacks. NerdLove’s First Commandment of Dating is as follows: Thou Shalt Handle Thine Shit. This is your damage, which means it’s on you to take care of it. It’s ok to ask for some reassurance on occasion when you’re being an insecure bag of slop, but you need to be the one who takes control of your emotions here. When you feel these panic attacks coming on, when it feels like she hasn’t texted you for hours, you need to take stock. Look at all the ways she’s shown you that she cares. Look at the ways she’s shown you that she’s trustworthy. Ask yourself which is more reasonable: that everything is fine and your girlfriend has her own thing going on? Or that something’s wrong and your relationship is in danger?
You know and I know that it’s the former. You just need to take a deep breath, relax your muscles, slow your heart rate down and remind yourself about this. She’ll get back to you when she’s less busy.
You’ll be ok, my dude.