[Doctor’s Note: Today we’ve got a special guest post from friend of the blog and occasional contributor Karen! Today, we’re talking about how to handle the hard times, when it seems like love is only for other people and dry-spells that may last for years. How do you keep your sanity and your soul intact? Well, Karen’s got the answer for you. Take it away, Karen!]
A very few people have it (relatively) easy – they grow up well socialized and reasonably open, and naturally luck into the right people. Most people have to work some; they end up with pretty good lives. They experience some, learn some, skin their knees some, change some and come out more or less on top (even if it looks like the bottom), just like John Byrne’s NEXT MEN.
If you can’t see this happening to other people, it’s probably because you’re comparing your insides to their outsides; rest assured they’re boiling with anxiety, self-hatred, misery and social errors you can’t see.
But then there are the people who keep on trying, rolling that boulder up the hill only to watch it crash down to the valley. I’ve been there. I was one of them for 20 years. I was the single one that everyone couldn’t believe was single but no one would date.
There were times when I couldn’t get a first date and/or get laid to save my life. And the other times hardly made it better – verbal abusers, users, narcissists, men who upset me and pissed my friends off. Frankly, I did not take it well. I was not one of those people who could just brush it off and enjoy being single. I worked really hard to avoid being Forever Alone. Incidentally, this is me a few weeks ago:
This awesome man makes me so ridiculously happy there is no way to describe. If it can happen to me, a few weeks before my 43rd birthday, it can happen to you. (And there are two other women I know personally who found the love of their life / had their first marriage when they were much older than I was.) The good Doctor has already written a great article on how to avoid The Forever Alone mentality; I’m here to tell you how to survive it. (Many props to my sister, whose good advice is at the root of most of this.)
Care for yourself
Especially if we’re worried about outcomes with our target gender of interest, we can get overly focused on other people – what they think and how they feel. There are advantages to this in that it keeps us aware of how others react to what we do, but it can also drastically interfere with the person that should be your first priority: Yourself.
Quite aside from outcomes, you have needs. You need, just like every other human, to be supported, and comforted, and cared for, and applauded.
If you are by yourself, you need to step up and take that role for yourself. Since our ways can be so focused on what other people feel and think and need, few of us know how to do that. We are not set up to do basic self-caring activities like giving ourselves sympathy or cheering ourselves on, or even knowing when we’ve had a bad day and deserve a break – but who better than you is there to figure out exactly what will help you?
Think carefully about what you can do to take care of yourself, to make yourself feel good. Those nice things you wish someone else was doing for you? Practice doing them for yourself. Wish someone was baking you Muppet Muffins? Take a class and you don’t have to wait.
If you think carefully about what actually serves you, you may discover that you are busying yourself with habits that are not just not helping you, but actively getting in your way – specific feelings, reactions, attitudes and behaviors that are actually making it harder for you to take care of yourself.
One of these habits that is very common is self-hatred. Self-hatred is very easy to fall into, but also very self-defeating. This book has some excellent tips on how to correct negative thinking, but loosely: Think you don’t like yourself? That’s incorrect. There are things you don’t like that happen to be associated with your current personality. You are the boss of that. You get to change. Don’t believe me? Start small: Pick one thing you habitually do – standing hunched over, tidying up papers – and work on never doing it again. Eventually, you’ll be successful frequently enough that if you accidentally slip, people who know you will look at you funny.
Another one of these is a very high investment in failure. We are trained to be horrified of it. The kind of emotional knee-jerk seizure that happens when you take failure to heart is one example of what’s known as reactivity, and it will not only make you feel like shit, it will kill your chances of being in a relationship. But think about learning to play a complex video game such as Call of Duty – you suck at it for a while till you get the hang of it, and the thrill of succeeding is all the sweeter for all the times you accidentally shot your best friend in the back.
So don’t be reactive, be resilient – i.e., the kind of person who bounces back from failure. A very useful way to practice? Some things, like staying on a balance board, are too hard to succeed at, so you can expect to fail, just like everyone else in the room is doing. Alternatively: Some failure is funny when you watch other people do it, say singing off-key, or falling in the water while trying to rope-walk a river. If it’s funny when they do it, it’s funny when you do it [footnote: Lenny Bruce notwithstanding]. Pick a thing it won’t kill you to fail. Then go try that thing so you can enjoy failing at it.
Overall, I found it really helpful to ask myself, How does this serve me? What do I get out of it? Once I found the things that weren’t serving me, I could then work towards uprooting them before they ate me up from the inside.
Special Victim Status
There are going to be people who read what I’ve written so far and get angry. Something along the lines of “Sure, it’s all right for her, but *I’m* so much worse off.” You might feel a little wolfish bitterness that I’m talking when I’ve obviously got it so good. You’ve probably run across people like me before, who can’t possibly be justified in commenting on your situation because they have it easy.
There are even going to be people who seem to have more disadvantages than you who succeed – the obnoxious dude who goes home with the girl you wanted, the permanently broke guy mooching off his second wife. This will only reinforce your sense that you’re the mystery owner of some unique grotesquitude, and / or that you have a gold-card membership to the Tragically Wronged by Fate Club.
Yeah, well. Let me tell you a little secret: There is always someone who is worse off than you. There are many more people who die virgins or have to “accidentally” bump into people on the street to experience physical contact than you realize. Partly, it’s that insides-versus-outsides thing. I used to look at people in relationships and say, Why them and not me? Conversely, I’d look at people who were better-looking or smarter or nicer than I was who were single and think, If they’re single I’m doomed. Stop this. Either way the comparison puts you at a loss. After a certain minimum of awesome, success has fuck-all to do with how good or hot or thin or built or rich or fun you are. So stop using other people as your yardstick; all attempts fail, until one doesn’t. Those other people might be starving, just like you are. If they’re complaining about their hunger pangs, it’s because they’re hungry too. Measure your success by your own definitions, and you are making it possible for yourself to succeed
But the other part of it is a pernicious thing your brain is trying to do to you, which is give you a gold star for Special Victim Status. After years and years of fail and crying alone into your beer, part of you wants a justification. And there’s this weird thing that happens where the existence of your situation becomes self-reinforcing: If it continues, it proves you really did have a hard time before. The only problem is, in order to do this, you need to draw some pretty torturous boundaries, and continuously move the goalposts to keep your situation special and unique as others change and succeed. It’s like relationship gerrymandering.
“I’m the saddest and hardest-off person with some social skills but one quirk someone oughta find adorable who 60% of people think is hot! …Except for that guy. That guy doesn’t count. He only succeeded because his cousin helped him, and I don’t have a cousin. A cousin who is that cool, anyway.”
Stop this, too. There is no ranking for the most fail points. All you are doing is giving yourself a way to feel good about feeling bad.
Your special Tragedy Gold Star is actually costing you – not only in the time and energy you invest in describing and maintaining those boundaries, but by reinforcing your isolation – making it much, much harder to be open to new people, new situations and new possibilities. By focusing on the negative, you also become more reactive and less resilient – traits that help keep you down.
If you absolutely must compare yourself to others, it might help to think of all the things you haven’t suffered. I found it pretty comforting that no one had ever hit me or given me a disease, and that I’d never been cheated on.
Special Victim Status isn’t the only psychological strategy out there, thankfully. By asking what serves you, you can also start figuring out what psychological strategy is going to do you the most good. We control the inside of our minds, to some extent, and so we get to choose what perspective we want to take, where we want to try and guide our feelings to. Not to say it’s easy or successful! But even the practice and the effort in trying helps change things, and change – at the very least – isn’t Forever Alone.
I ended up switching between strategies depending on what I needed or what I could handle at the time. Each of the following has trade-offs. Think about what’s going to work best for you. When you start thinking about what you really need and why you want to pull, or get numbers, or get in a relationship or whatever, you may think of more than the ‘starter set’ below.
- Wallow. Very easy and satisfying and self-justifying, but it’s like when you were 6 and you got the Castle Grayskull you so desperately wanted: it’s only cool for a short while, the gates don’t really open all that easy and the stairs are the wrong size and…. Nothing will change, so you are agreeing to put up with the way things are till you are willing to stop wallowing. Also, people will find your company difficult and exhausting, and wonder whether that vibe is anger or desperation or ….well, Rorschach.
- Detach. Keep trying, but without caring about the outcome – meaning you get enjoyment out of honing your pickup skills and gathering funny bad-date stories, but since you’re not invested in whether you succeed it becomes just an exercise. However, if these things are just an exercise you won’t be giving it a lot of enthusiasm or energy or engagement, so failure can become self-fulfilling. This state is also hard to maintain and can be harder to reverse; if you are too committed to being detached you may end up missing some chances (and maybe sociopathic).
- Substitute. If you understand why you are invested in the outcome you are pursuing, you may be able to find other ways to get what you want. Want to succeed with the ladies so you’ll feel awesome? Try kung fu so you can skip straight to the feeling-awesome bit. Want conversation? There are hosts of Internet groups (which happens to be how I met my husband). Intimacy? Solutions might include making very close friends, therapy, confessional groups, etc. It’s not simple and it involves a lot of work to identify good substitutes and make them happen, but it keeps you from emotionally starving.
- Self-improvement. There is no better cure for low self-esteem than becoming better. Additionally, self-improvement improves your odds of finding someone. It’s mentally and emotionally absorbing, and gives you a positive distraction. However, it’s a lot of work, and it can paradoxically decrease your self-esteem whenever you fail to see an improvement, or the improvements you make don’t result in more success.
- Triage. There are some things that are just more urgent than dating. Say, like, keeping a roof over your head. Dealing with more-urgent things is very useful and can free up time and concentration. Of course, if nearly everything is more important you can make it very easy for yourself to kind of forget to face this one thing….
- Novelty. Newness is interesting and distracting. It lights up the inside of your mind, forces you outside of your habits, encourages openness and resilience, and exposes you to new people. It also changes all those things that weren’t working for you. The problem is, getting drunk on novelty all the time makes it hard to accept the reality of one thing and stick with it.
Anyway, happy survival – and may you end up as well off as I did.