Ask Polly: How Do I Stop Obsessing Over My Former Enemy?

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Hey Polly,

About two years ago I fell pretty damn hard for a guy, and we were sleeping together for a few months. To make a long story short, at the end of those few months he got back together with his ex unbeknownst to me, and cheated on her with me. (He was also sleeping with other women during the time we were supposed to be sexually exclusive, which I found out later. Real winner.)

When the not-so ex found out, she flipped. Sending me nasty emails, calling me fat, stalking me online, creating a fake OKCupid account just to message me and let me know that I was unlovable. You know that tiny voice at the back of your mind that points out everything that’s wrong with you? It was basically as if that voice came to life and was emailing me. It got to the point where I was looking into a restraining order.

And Polly, that voice hasn’t left me for two years. This girl (who stayed with the guy) and I have a lot of mutual friends, so I see her online presence a lot. She stopped emailing me (I think; I blocked her email) but occasionally does weird little things like liking an Instagram photo of mine, or looking at my LinkedIn profile. I get shaky and upset whenever this happens, partially because it’s a reminder of how awful that time in my life was, and partially because it makes me sick knowing someone hates me that much.

I think I also have some guilt, too, because while I genuinely didn’t know she was back with this guy, I willingly ignored the signs that something was up. I know it’s his fault in the end, but it makes me feel mad, sad, and guilty that I let this situation happen, and I hate that I was so foolish. I also want to point out that I was less than graceful about handling the situation initially. I sent her some accusatory emails, too, and it was a rather undignified textual catfight for a few weeks. (I hate that two smart women let a dude cause all this.)

But I am ready to move the fuck on, and have been for a very long time. The only thing is, she somehow frequently manages to worm her way into my life and, more important, my thoughts. That nasty voice in my head will just not go away. I would love for her to be happy and move on, but I know that’s not my responsibility. So now I’m just trying to figure out how I can be happy and fully move on.

I have my social media on pretty decent lockdown now, and I don’t ever look at her accounts, even after a few glasses of wine. So I have taken some steps. But how do I let myself let go of this entire situation? I’m sick of it eating away at me.

Hearing Voices

Dear Hearing Voices,

That tiny voice in your head that criticizes everything you do was there before this woman came along, so it’s no surprise that it’s still there now that she’s gone. You needed some way to acknowledge and address that voice, and this woman did you a giant favor by bringing it to life. Imagine hearing that tiny voice and molding your behavior around what it tells you for decades, but never knowing how tight its grip on your psyche had become! Surely you know people who seem to be controlled by their inner critics: You can’t say one wrong thing without them exploding. Often they’re very successful people, overachievers thanks to that tiny voice that jeers them into running faster, getting more extra-credit points, working longer hours, climbing higher. It’s never enough. They never feel at peace. That tiny voice tells them they’re still fat, still unlovable, still nothing.

You’re lucky. This woman has become your imaginary enemy and given a shape to your self-immolating tendencies, tendencies that attracted you to this two-timing dipshit in the first place. Of course there’s a reason she was so fixated on you: She’s still with that two-timing dipshit. Imagine the shame and the pain of that! You remind her of her worst decisions, and cue her own tiny voice that says, “You’re with an untrustworthy guy and it’s only a matter of time before you go through the same hell again.”

There’s also a reason you’re still obsessed with her: Your soul wants you to address that tiny voice inside of you, mostly by grabbing it by the throat and smashing its skull into a brick wall over and over again, your soul’s homage to Tarantino’s oeuvre. Your soul wants to save you a lifetime of behaving compulsively and unthinkingly in blind allegiance to that tiny voice’s whims. “You are unlovable,” it tells you. “Work harder to become lovable!” “You are fat,” it says. “As penance, make sure that eating is joyless and guilt-ridden!”

Be grateful for this day of reckoning with that tiny voice. You could’ve kept hunting and tracking two-timing dipshits indefinitely. You could’ve set about drinking yourself into a stupor. You could’ve fixated on some other imaginary path to salvation: If not career success then a finely tuned superiority complex, if not true love then the eternal pursuit of emotionally unavailable humans, if not self-destruction through drugs and alcohol then slow-burning self-hatred, the kind that leaves you mildly depressed, the kind that robs you of your will to live, the kind that prevents you from savoring the vivid, gorgeous, dangerous world around you.

When something goes horribly wrong, it’s not that hard to get stuck. A giant loss occurs and recovery seems impossible. If you already have damage and injuries and compartmentalized fears and sadness onboard, it’s hard not to surrender to melancholy. Your viewfinder takes on a grayish tint. Acknowledging that fact, admitting the enormity of a loss, grieving, falling to pieces: These are ways of being strong sometimes.

But there’s a point where we ask ourselves: What is this about? How did I get stuck? Why does sadness feel like returning home?

I know a woman whose one true love was a married man. When he disappeared, he took her joy with him — or so her story goes. Other people who love her offer up their hearts, but she tells them that he was the only one who understood. She doesn’t stop to ask herself, “Why was true love only possible with someone I could never share my life with, someone who existed more vividly in my imagination than he ever did in my real life?” I know another woman who mourned her dead husband for 20 years. Every story she ever told returned to the tragic past, and the ghosts of the present were never good enough for her. She never stopped to ask herself, “Why does love offered freely seem so much less valuable to me than love that can never be mine again?”

You were going to have to go through this regardless. Eventually, that tiny voice was going to come for your head. So the first thing you need to know is that this crisis in your life has nothing at all to do with the woman at the center of it. She’s an actress playing the part of the tiny voice. Maybe she’s great at her role. Good for her. She is irrelevant. She took this starring role because her own tiny voice told her to. Otherwise, nothing about her is meaningful or adds up to some secret message from the gods. Cast her aside today, once and for all. She is a totem of your self-doubt. She is an idol cobbled out of fear and longing. Don’t make amends or admit your failings or confess to her like she has some special access to the truth. Drag this false god of yours to the nearest Goodwill, dump it next to that ripped-up couch that smells like cat piss, and drive the fuck away.

After you drive away, what’s left?

This is a time for purging. Maybe you want to cast off the tiny voice’s expectations. Maybe you want to grow into someone who can welcome love instead of chasing indifference. Maybe you want to be someone who speaks out when they’re wronged. There is some lesson waiting here. The first step is to marvel at how often the voice speaks up. “Look at how awful you are,” it says as you do the dishes. “Of course you couldn’t finish the job,” it says when you need a break. Training the voice to say different things takes a long, long time, but it can be done. You have to do that work every single day. You have to bend that nasty voice to your will.

But if you can’t manage that just yet, I want to tell you this: You are lovable. In your fumbling and your obsession and your excuses, in your ability to return to the site of your greatest shame and injury, searching for clues, putting scraps of lint and grit and mysterious fibers and tear droplets under the microscope, you are lovable. Your fixation on the truth is lovable. Your fear of the truth is lovable. Your hatred is lovable, even. This is passion waiting for a new direction. This is stored energy, waiting to explode on the world, to explode into something blinding and terrifying and right. You won’t be like the woman who mourned her dead husband for two decades. You won’t be like the woman who made a married man her soul mate. You will be bigger than that.

So begin your day with this: You are lovable right now. As the day wears on and your best self becomes a dim shadow and your worst self wants a hamburger and a nap and a back rub and a kiss on the cheek and some rest, some fucking rest from being brave and strong and going it alone, fearlessly, you are lovable, then, too. And when tears leak out of your eyes at the office and you wonder what the fuck is wrong, why can’t you be normal like everyone else, why can’t you march in time and win and win like the winningest winner, you are the most lovable of all.


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Ask Polly: How Do I Get Over My Former Enemy?