I’m a cis/het male age 30 living in a really booming region of the USA. I have a great job that I’m proud of, my own place, and a small group of close friends of both men and women. As far as hobbies, I’m super into Latin dancing after first picking it up 4 years ago. I attend at least 1 social and 1 class every week. I attend writers’ groups, pub trivia, dinner/drinks groups, hiking groups, hockey games, and lift weights 4x a week among other things. I cook a new recipe every Sunday. I see a therapist twice a month to help with depression. I’m told by just about everyone that I’m good looking and I shouldn’t be worried about people not liking what they see. By most metrics, I’m killing it, socially and life-wise. For the 6 months I tried online dating, I went on 8 first dates. I’ve also never had a girlfriend or had sex due to severe depression and body dysmorphia through my 20s.
However, whenever I meet a women who I’m interested in (as in: I’m actually spending time around her and interested in her, not “ooh she’s pretty”), I get a sinking feeling in my stomach that’s followed by thoughts like “she’s better than you/she doesn’t have to pick you/she can get someone better than you”. It’s really counterproductive and when I actually ask them out, I get some form of no and that voice tells me “told you so”. I think the problem is that once I decide I’m attracted to someone, I place them on a pedestal and I feel crushed under the standards and expectations that I IMAGINE she has, not that she actually has. The reason I listed out all those things in the first paragraph is to illustrate how much I have going on in my life but that voice tells me it’s still not enough to make me “in demand” the same way I often imagine the women I like are.
I need to be comfortable with me as I am right now and not worry about what I lack. I know I shouldn’t build that on top of other peoples’ approval, but is it not a reasonable thing to want? I contend with a lot of negative self talk and worry that 30 is too late. I do a lot of gratitude journaling, meditation, exercise, noting small victories, but it feels like a form of settling for less rather than a (admittedly narrow) definition of success.
I don’t know what to do about these feelings of inadequacy. I have a social life, I get out of the house all the time, I do internal work, I don’t know what else I can do.
Thanks for doing what you do,
You have a very common issue that a lot of guys who struggle with women have, DF, and this comes, in no small part, because you – and the other guys – are telling yourselves the same story. You (general you, not you specifically DF) have composed a story in your heads about these women – women you frequently barely know, if you know them at all. You’ve taken the little you know about this person and expanded it into a sort of Dating Cinematic Universe, full of twists and turns and plot developments and character arcs… and it all has about as much relationship to the real world as Elon Musk has to Tony Stark.
(In other words: saying something over and over again that is demonstrably not true because it feeds a need for validation and if you say it often enough maybe other people will believe it too.)
Now, if you’re a long-time reader, you’ve seen me talk about the value of stories and how the stories we tell ourselves affect our lives, for good and for ill. It seems crazy, I realize, but when you get right down to it, stories are part of how we interpret knowledge and how we interact with the world around us. We can take a set of facts and, by virtue of how we choose to interpret them or what context we choose to apply to them, utterly change what those facts mean. Facts may not care about your feelings, but your feelings don’t give much of a shit about facts either and will massage them into whatever direction we want.
If you look at it one way, the story of The Karate Kid is the story about a young kid overcoming bullying, developing some self-confidence and finding a surrogate father figure while also wining a martial arts tournament. If you look at it another way, it’s the story of a habitual line-stepper who insists on needling and antagonizing folks who’d otherwise leave him alone, picks fights with a kid who’s already dealing with a toxic and abusive relationship and then enters a contest he has no business being in and ultimately wins with an illegal kick to the face. Yes, Larusso’s kick is explicitly against tournament rules and he nails Lawrence square on the chin with it, don’t @ me.
The thing is: both of these stories are true. Both of these rely on the same facts. The difference is which way we choose to look at those facts… and which story we choose to tell.
(Well, and also a YouTube/Netflix series that explores the aftermath of said facts, but that’s another story nevermind.)
So what you have, DF, are two sets of facts… and two sets of stories. The first set of facts are the ones you laid out for us at the top of your letter: you’re in a really good place right now, you’ve got hobbies and a fairly active social life, a bunch of diverse interests and you’re a fairly good looking cat. But the story you’re telling yourself is that those facts don’t mean much. Your hobbies are unimportant or not interesting enough, your body isn’t “good enough” and people couldn’t possibly find you interesting, desirable or enjoy your company enough to want a relationship with you.
The second set of facts involves the women you’re getting to know. You know they’re physically attractive and you like them, you know a little about their personality and their interests and… well, that’s really about it. But the story you’re telling yourself is all about how effortless their lives are, how much better they are than you, how much they have being offered to them and that their value so eclipses yours that you couldn’t possibly have meaning or importance to them.
Now here’s an important question: where are these stories coming from? Who or what is telling you that these stories are true, vs. the stories that say you have a great life and a lot to offer and that these women are hot and all, but they’re not somehow “above” you?
The immediate answer is obvious: you’re dealing with depression and body dysmorphia. Your brain is telling you lies about yourself and coloring your view of the world in the most negative light possible. You are seeing something in the mirror that literally nobody else sees, and depression drips poison in your ear, whispering to you about how your anxieties are completely true and real and that’s why nobody could like you. And part of what makes depression so very insidious is how it lies to you in your own voice – it’s the sound of your own thoughts, your own experiences, being warped and twisted and fed back to you while sapping your drive and ability to feel positive emotions.
But that’s only a partial answer and we don’t give credit for partial answers.
Another answer is also equally obvious: society has taught all of us – guys, gals and nonbinary pals – that women who most closely meet specific (usually Western/European, almost always Caucasian) beauty standards are inherently better and more valuable than other people. You see this come up a lot when folks bring up phenomena like The Halo Effect: the idea that the more physically attractive you are, the more people ascribe positive attributes to you. If the women you’re into are conventionally attractive, then you’ve got a lifetime of cultural indoctrination telling you that people who’ve won the genetic lottery are just better and not, y’know, just really lucky to have met an arbitrary and artificial standard. But at the same time, this is also an incomplete answer. While beauty privilege is a thing, that’s a societal level issue and not one that automatically translates to your personal feelings of inadequacy.
Well, you might say, doesn’t combining the two give us the whole answer? Well… yes, and no. While yes, both of these do, in fact, combine in a way that acts as a force multiplier for your insecurities, anxieties and depression, that’s not the entire answer either; there’re still other issues out there.
One thing you – and the other men who also tell these stories – often miss is comparison. You’re comparing yourself to others, in a multitude of ways, and then deciding that you’re being found wanting. Now, there’re a lot of ways this comes about – check the number of folks who’ll tell you that you need to have X, Y or Z to date women, but one of the biggest and most influential are… other people’s stories. Or, more specifically, social media.
While it’s unquestionably true that depression, body dysmorphia and eating disorders and social and cultural lessons have been with us since primates developed theory of mind, social media took all of that and force-fed it steroids like the 1984 Russian Summer Olympics team. Instagram in particular, is one of the top mediums by which we tell stories about ourselves, showing a vision of our lives to the world. And while, yes, you’ll occasionally find someone whose IG or TikTok is performative misery… more often than not, what we’re seeing is the most carefully curated, carefully crafted story people can tell about themselves – ones that have been poked, prodded and polished to within an inch of its life.
And what we’re seeing the most often are people flexing; they’re showing us how amazing their lives are and how badass they are and how much cooler they are than everyone else. And this has an effect on us, no matter how much we try to pretend it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter how much of an inconoclast you are, the fact that you see these images that say “this is the peak of human performance, this is how to live your life” over and over again does seep into your head. You are being told, over and over again, that these folks are how you should be. They are literally selling a story to you, in order to sell you ads and products. It’s quite literally why the most popular are called influencers.
And trust me: you’re not immune to propaganda, nor to being influenced by social media. The best and brightest engineers created and refined a product to be so addictive, so compulsive that folks come back to it despite how much it hurts them and makes them feel bad about themselves. And it’s not as though this were speculation; even Facebook acknowledges the harm that Facebook and Instagram has done and continues to do.
But even if you’re not comparing yourself directly to, say, the human Potemkin village that is someone like Dan Bilzerian, you’re still comparing yourself to other folks in your network – the folks you see out having a great time with the boys, the folks you see out hanging out with all the ladies, the people who got their (incredibly Facetuned and warp-tool-adjusted) perfect bodies and faces with no effort so why can’t you? In many cases, you’re not even seeing their highlight reel, you’re seeing a damn movie designed to make them look like a hero– emotional slight of hand, with the bright shiny over here to distract you from the fact that this is a pretty front over a space held up by two-by-fours and a coat of paint that would fall apart if you sneezed hard enough.
So, you’re getting it from two different directions. You’re seeing your supposed male peers living the superstar life, which makes you feel like your own “meager” daily routine just doesn’t measure up and you’re seeing women at their most polished and all the folks throwing themselves at them. So not only are you being told that you’re not good enough, but also that the people you’re into are so much better than you that the very fact that you breathe the same air as them is almost an insult. It becomes all too easy to see yourself as less than human because you’re watching a reality show version of someone and being told that this is the baseline that you’re expected to meet and to see the women you like as being beyond human and to be both the thing you’re meant to attain but also that only the BEST OF THE BEST ever will.
Small wonder, then, that you’re putting women you like up on a pedestal. Not only do you have depression whispering to you like Wormtongue feeding lines to Theoden, but you’ve been fed stories about your own failure to achieve a particular baseline and that these women are practically goddesses made flesh.
So what do you do about all of this?
Well, you’re doing a lot of things right. Much of what you talk about in your letter are things I highly recommend folks do. But part of what’s holding you back is that issue of comparison – why the story you tell yourself is that none of this is good enough. And the other part is that you’re elevating these women to something beyond human. You need to address both of those in order to stop telling yourself these negative stories.
Now, you say you’re gratitude journaling. That’s good. One thing I would suggest is that you start also doing regular journaling as well – writing down your thoughts, feelings, random story ideas… just using a journal as a log of your mind. Do this as a means of replacing social media’s importance in your life; while yes, you don’t get the sweet, sweet dopamine microdose that comes from likes and shares, cutting back on social media – especially Instagram – will go a long, long way towards improving your sense of self-worth. It’s a lot easier to disregard the negative messaging when you don’t have a constant drip feed of “you should be like thiiiiiiiis….” in your head.
Think of this as a way of getting to really know yourself and your own mind. Keeping a journal, especially if you’re keeping track of things like your moods or what gives you energy and what saps your energy, helps you not only learn more about yourself, but also where some of the secret energy sucks and demotivators are in your life, the better to excise them. Similarly, it shows you the things that truly add value and meaning to your life and feed your soul; these are the things you want to increase. I realize “decrease the bad, increase the good” is not exactly a stunning insight, but that’s still a necessary thing.
So that’s the first step: cutting off the sources of negative comparison telling you that you’re not good enough.
The next step is: get to know these women better. Make friends with them. Be the person who they can talk to about their struggles and difficulties and be both real and vulnerable with, without fear of judgement. Not because this is your way of getting in with them but because what you want is to demystify them. There’re a lot of reasons why putting women on a pedestal is bad, but one of the biggest (for your purposes, anyway) is that you make them less than human. They’re not people, with all the attendant complexities and complications, they’re blank slates, statutes, things without agency or lives. You’re assigning stories to them, rather than listening to their actual stories.
Now here’s the thing: getting to know the individuals as people demystifies all women. It’s almost impossible to see someone as a goddess or someone so much better than you when you hear about the time they accidentally farted during an important presentation or you see them scratch their butt or pick at a zit. You re-humanize them when you hear about their shitty dates and the dumb bullshit they face on the dating scene and see the deluge of shitty messages they get from those Chads on Tinder (or, even better, sliding into their DMs on Instagram). You’ll see that the dudes they date aren’t that much different than you and in some cases, may seem to have less to offer. You start to realize that yeah, these women’re hot… but they’re still just people. They put their panties on one leg at a time, same as you.
(Unless, I dunno, you tie your underwear between two chairs and leap into it. You do you, king, but I hope you don’t atomic wedgie yourself.)
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you don’t have female friends, nor am I saying that you’re only treating these women like potential dates. That’s not the case. What I am saying is that you’re letting those stories you tell yourself warp your sense of reality, and the answer to that is to make a point of listening to their stories. Internalize them, realize that men and women aren’t so different as it turns out.
And as you do so? Tell yourself a better story about you. Even if you’re not drowning in dates and swimming in Saturday night adventures, the story you tell yourself about yourself should be the one about being awesome and looking for someone who’s worth your awesome… instead of the bullshit story about how you’re not good enough and never will be.