'I Fell Out of Love and Broke My Own Heart!'
You won't cultivate deep connections until you learn to make your tender, fearful core self feel loved and safe.
Barn (1926) by Georgia O’Keeffe
A few months ago I started dating someone who was a close friend for eight years or so. She had a boyfriend but everyone knew our chemistry was electric. I respected her boyfriend so did not make any advances but kept her as a casual friend.
Her boyfriend cheated on her a lot, they broke up, and I finally asked her out last year but she said she didn't want me as a rebound. Suddenly this year, she approached me for a date, which was a lot like hanging out with old friends. She said it was the best first date of her life. I believe it because I have never seen anyone look at me with that much adoration, which I remember seeing when just hanging out with friends.
But in the one year since I asked her out, I finished up school and developed a crush on someone else—also inaccessible because she has a boyfriend whom I do not want to harm, so it goes. I was going to wait to tell her about the new crush on the second date because I thought the potential for our early passion was still there. Had I changed in two years to someone else unrecognizable? But maybe she caught on because the texting slowed down and she suddenly lost interest. She said she had to find herself. I felt somewhat awkward about the date myself and was physically reserved to the point of rudeness.
I talked about people I was jealous of. I didn't listen to her explain her hobbies. I didn't reflect on the times she thought I was funny and charming, nor remembered it very well. I was my worst self, and now this is solidified in her impression of me, which is now mine, which must be pathetic, not even worthy of a reply, a 180 from the good graces I took for granted.
But a first date was for calibration and a second one was for more collaboration.
A few weeks later, I messaged her, but was blocked. Now I spend most of my days trying to escape incessantly berating myself for everything I said and did on the date, and the texting of the following days. I am in a constant state of confusion with intrusive lapses of nauseating anxiety and flashbacks of the date and good times over the years. I am paranoid of everyone in our social circles. It is nearly impossible to wake from bed on time. Tears assault me while driving or shopping.
I picked up drawing to help me cope, since I previously admired it in her. I know it's childish but I secretly hope she comes across a drawing online one day, realizes how bad I feel, or falls in love, or at least sends a message to be friends. I really wanted it to work and truly do not know why she left. Now I am wondering if she saw a lack of self in me as well.
The extended Hail Mary and a decade of latent expectations has folded in and collapsed on itself. I don't feel as if I will love again. I don’t know why my passions are so counter to my convenience, or how one of my more rewarding adult friendships could suddenly break.
How can I possibly stop feeling guilty about that and move on?
Can’t Let Go
Dear Can’t Let Go,
You need to forgive yourself for being a regular, flawed, fragile human being who is at once hungry for love, ego-driven, self-protective, and dismissive. You like to fixate on unavailable people because you have a hard time showing up and feeling your feelings in the moment. This self-loathing in the wake of her blocking you is both a side effect of your conflicted, jittery, insecurely attached self and a cause of your inability to be present in the moment and take an interest in other people and also notice their needs.
But let’s put this in perspective: She broke up with her boyfriend and then waited a whole year to return your interest. You developed another crush during that time, sure, but I’m also going to guess that you developed some self-protective defense mechanisms that downgraded her value inside your mind. When she turned around and suddenly showed interest in you, there was the initial flush of excitement and enjoyment of her adoration on the first date, and then all of your self-protective, avoidant feelings caught up to you.
When someone like you, who fears connection, is presented with someone who’s unabashedly adoring, you question your feelings and back away. Sometimes a longtime interest in that person will make the sense of being alienated from your own feelings even stronger. That’s how intimacy issues work: the more you care, the more fearful you are! The more invested you are, the more numb you become! Instead of diving in and building your connection to her without fear, some insecurely attached part of you becomes extremely interested in devaluing her, because caring so much feels threatening and unsafe.
If you look at this at face value, it actually makes a little bit of sense: She wasn’t interested for a long time and suddenly she’s in love? Some subconscious part of you said THIS FEELS DANGEROUS! That’s completely natural. But ideally, it would be better not to make such a sharp turn away from something you cared about for so long. Obviously it’s easier for you to develop a sustained interest in unavailable people because they’re never threatening to overwhelm you or confess their undying love for you. You can cultivate your wild desires without ever feeling distant and panicking.
Right now, there are two important things I need you to understand: 1. You’re not just being an asshole! That distant place is a fearful place. Your superior, remote attitude is a manifestation of your inner child fleeing in terror. 2. There is no essential “lack of self” at the center of this problem. There’s a very clear, defined self in there who craves love desperately, wants to trust someone and connect with them, but also wants to survive.
From what I can tell, one of the things that sucks about being a man is that every time you become emotionally confused or distant, some little voice inside your head starts saying shit like OH NO, I’M AN ASSHOLE. I’M EMPTY. I HAVE NO SOUL. ALL I WANTED WAS SEX THIS WHOLE TIME. I DON’T EVEN CARE ABOUT HER. I’M NOT EVEN CURIOUS ABOUT HER HOBBIES. I WAS DISTANT! I WAS PUT OFF BY HER ADORATION! I AM A SHELL OF A HUMAN!
This story becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a story I could easily tell about myself, a similarly insecurely attached human who has a long history of becoming confused, distant, and self-protective in the face of human connection. It’s not that easy for people like us to just show up for whatever is THERE and stay present to it. We’ve got a little judge and jury inside our heads, looking for flaws, or telling us that a second date is the perfect time to tell our brand new girlfriend about the year-long crush we’ve had on yet another unavailable woman.
I MEAN, WHAT? WHY?
That little courtroom takes over without you noticing. And after the judge and jury have busted in and fucked everything up, your fearful, insecure, “I don’t have a self!” self wanders in and cries himself a river over the whole thing.
So this situation is just a combination of numbness and bad decision-making in the moment and bad storytelling after the fact. The cure is this: Learning to show up and stay present. Learning to tell the court inside your head to stfu. Learning not to judge yourself and everyone else so harshly. Learning to be a soft, scared, broken person out in the open sometimes, where trusted friends can see you.
That probably sounds terrifying. And look, one of the reasons you became fixated on this particular woman is that she would never show her ass like that. Look at how she reacted to one bad date, after years of being admired and adored by you! She bailed, didn’t ask you any questions about how you felt, didn’t express her disappointment, and THEN SHE BLOCKED YOU FOREVER.
That’s extremely dismissive, self-protective behavior, and honestly, it’s no way to treat a friend after one bad night. You could argue that you’ve been living in a fantasy world for a while and that you prefer fantasy to reality? Because you like crushes more than real people who are right in front of you? But dude? She’s living in a fantasy world, too. She had this idea in her mind that you’d be utterly smitten and worshipful from your first date until the end of time, and when you strayed from that, acted like a flawed human, said a few words about jealousy, didn’t listen that closely? She hit the road.
At the very least, a secure person would call you and ask what was up. This woman isn’t secure. She wants something better than reality.
And I mean, fuck it, who doesn’t, really?
But here’s what I want you to understand, and carry with you moving forward: You’re a very sensitive person with strong feelings who merely needs to learn how to show up and enjoy those feelings in the moment. You need to learn how to connect vulnerably with other human beings, in ways that are sometimes atypical for a man. You need to cast off some of the vestiges of dignified, manly behavior and grow organically into who you are instead.
I’m gendering this problem because I have observed this panicked “I’m an asshole! I’m empty!” thing in men so many times before, and I really worry that a lot of men are just… Okay, back up. I’m not that worried about men, compared to the little problem we women have of, oh, I don’t know, having our bodies and our futures controlled by the state, like we’re living in some kind of fucking Orwellian nightmare realm? I mean who the fuck beamed me back to the sixties? Because if I’m going to be some kind of subhuman half-person, I at least want a few cinch-waisted dresses, a pale yellow convertible Cadillac, and a smoking hot pool-boy lover on the side.
But once I’ve stopped worrying about women all over this country and also worrying about my pool-boy lover… (Where is he? Is he lonely? Is he hungry and naked and shivering somewhere, looking for me?) (I need you to understand that my pool-boy lover is definitely pushing 40 at least. I’m not a ghoul! Youth is not that exciting to me! I like a little wear and tear on my innocent, needy, ravenous, pool-skimming mens!) (FYI “mens” is a word that indicates “man” “many of them” and “only the foxy ones.”)
Okay, let’s try that again: Once I stop being so preoccupied by my rich fantasies and allllll of the delicious and delightful adventures I deserve in this life, which is PART OF BEING A HUMAN WHO CAN FEEL, BY THE WAY, that’s when I have a tiny bit of feeling left over for men and their bad habit of defining themselves in limiting ways. You’re a human being. You’re flawed. We all are. You’re learning how to feel your feelings. It’s terrifying. You want to seem better than you are to everyone around you. And you want everyone around you to BE better than THEY are.
I’m going to gently suggest that you learn to live in the real world with real people instead. I’m going to gently nudge you to notice the beauty in vulnerability, in adoration, in ugliness, in awkwardness. You’re not a true lover of beauty and truth until you can see what’s sexy and dirty and perfect about normal, everyday, available human beings with needs. You’re not a real artist until you can create something special NOT FOR THIS AVOIDANT CRUSH TO NOTICE, but for someone real, standing right in front of you, wanting to connect with you, to notice.
Your current state of despair is a side effect of wanting the world to adore you and believe that you’re perfect. Do you see that? Do you see how wanting to create something that makes your crush want you back is part of that? Do you see how just being a human fills you with dread and makes you certain that all of your friends think you’re pathetic?
The choice is not between being perfect and being pathetic. The choice is between being real and feeling amazing, and hiding and feeling like shit. The hard work in front of you is all about figuring out how to stop seeming better than you are — figuring out how to stop seeming at all — and just being vulnerable and flawed out in the open.
That’s where the most feeling lives: inside tender moments of connection with real humans. You admire someone and then you learn who they are and you see their worries and fears clearly. That’s the most exquisitely mesmerizing and seductive thing in the world. But you only become capable of seeing what’s exciting and delicious about worries and fears and big flaws after you reckon with and accept your own. You learn to accept your hideous, ravenous self first, and then you learn to slow down and really FEEL the tasty goodness of the hideous, hungry, very afraid people around you.
So find a therapist and get to work, and stop building up crushes inside your head. Get to know some real, secure, available humans. Learn how to slowly love and appreciate them, while showing them who you are — the real you, the self that’s hiding in there, deathly afraid of being seen.
Today, draw a picture of that self. Make it tender and afraid. Focus on what makes that tenderness and fear interesting, exquisite, engaging, delicious. Attune yourself to your own flawed beauty. It’s so important! It’s such a key piece of showing up for your feelings, even when they’re jittery and distant. Give yourself the right to be flawed, to want things, to exist in your current, partially dented, gently used form.
This moment presents a rare opportunity. It’s not about the crushes. It’s about learning to enjoy and take pride in your bewildered mind and nervous heart. Because you’ll always be like this, even once you’re more secure. Some part of you will always be tender and afraid. That’s not sad, it’s exciting and special and lovable. Embrace it and celebrate it, and look for similar softness in other people. This is your path to your new, far more romantic life.
Mmmm, I love a far more romantic life, don’t you? And it’s not that hard to get there! You just have to be honest and notice who likes it and who doesn’t. You have to stop trying to make the people who hate honesty LOVE IT, and you have to sidle up to the people who FUCKING LOVE HONESTY and notice how cute they are. I make it sound easy because it is easy! With years of practice, it is! Okay, let’s discuss this in comments. I have to mow the grass but I’ll get there in a few hours. In the meantime: Consider new, creative, weird ways you might find or invent to celebrate who you are right now, flaws and mistakes and regrets and all.