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Ask Polly: Am I Too Anxious to Ever Find Love?

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Dear Polly, 

I’m a 20-year-old college student. In high school, I was suicidal and depressed. I meet with a counselor now and haven’t been nearly as low as I was in high school for a long time. My parents are great, my friends are great, and my life is pretty fulfilling.

I got dumped about two months ago. We were together for slightly over two years. I was his first girlfriend. Things were mostly great — at least I thought so. In front of him, I had two pretty bad panic attacks where I told him about high-school me and feelings of guilt about a best friend who had died when we were children. I immediately sought counseling after both these attacks and also made it a point to broaden my support system and make sure I reached out to people other than my boyfriend. He was pretty understanding at the beginning (as in, he didn’t run away screaming), and we didn’t really talk about it much, mostly because, 99 percent of the time, I am not the person I am when I get my panic attacks.

About a year ago, his roommate committed suicide. I tried my best to be there for him, even though it probably wasn’t the way he wanted me to be. During that time, I tried to also talk about my feelings (since suicide triggers a lot of bad memories for me), and he sort of blew up at me and basically said, “My feelings need to be dealt with right now, not yours.” Which, fair. It really hurt me, but I put in more effort to be a supportive girlfriend. I had another panic attack a few months after this, and he told me that it really stressed him out to worry about me. I told him he doesn’t have to. I committed more to developing my support system and tried to get more productive about counseling. I reduced how much I told him about my anxiety as to not stress him out. I tried to become more responsible for my emotional well-being, and I think I did a good job.

Next semester he’s studying abroad, which I think triggered the breakup. It definitely came as a surprise to me, because previously, we’d discussed it as “We’re in this together.” Intellectually, I know he can break up with me whenever and for whatever reason. One of the reasons he said he broke up with me (others being that he doesn’t know if he wants to marry me, anxiety about me being his first girlfriend) is that I wasn’t being open with him about my issues. That I was “stonewalling” him. But I thought that was what he wanted.

I think my question is: How do I have a healthy relationship? I tried communicating with this guy, I tried to be responsible for my emotions, and yet it feels like I did it wrong. No one around me really knows what to tell me, and I’m nervous about the future.

Thank you!

Love,

Nervous to Start Over

Dear Nervous,

Considering your particular history with suicidal depression, both in you and in your friend, it was natural for you to be upset about your boyfriend’s roommate’s suicide. It was also totally natural for him to be overwhelmed by hearing about your feelings at that moment, and also overwhelmed by the idea that you were suicidal once. He can claim, after the fact, that he wanted you to stop bottling things up and be more open about your issues, but it doesn’t sound like he was capable of showing up for you back then, under the circumstances. And even later, when you tried to tell him what was going on with you, he told you that it stressed him out to worry about you. He was going through something very tough, but it also sounds like he takes on the stress of other people’s emotional experiences like a boat taking on water. This makes him less supportive than he could be. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy, but from what you’ve said, you two are not really the best match. At a time when you needed to experiment with being more open, he very clearly expressed his inability to handle it.

And maybe you weren’t fully capable of showing up for him, either. That’s to be expected, considering your history. You’ve been through some major traumas; he was going through a major trauma. It just wasn’t going to go smoothly, no matter what you said or did. You could’ve done everything exactly “right” (whatever that means), and it would still have been a mess. So don’t sweat it. You were his first girlfriend, and now it’s time for him to see what it’s like to date other people. That’s healthy and good, and you should let him go and try not to dwell on it as some major sign of you messing up everything, everywhere, always.

I don’t think you felt safe opening up and telling him everything. I think that was a good instinct, actually. I think you knew that he didn’t really want to know you completely. You knew it would stress him out. So put that behind you.

That said, it does seem like you bottle up your emotions. You said, of your panic attacks, “we didn’t really talk about it much, mostly because, 99 percent of the time, I am not the person I am when I get my panic attacks.” Again, it was probably smart not to hash it out with your boyfriend. But here’s the thing about some (but not all!) panic attacks: They tend to be associated with clamming up and holding things back. Some of the functioning people I know who suffer from severe anxiety, who’ve had panic attacks in the past, are people who need to talk a lot and let out their emotional experiences a lot in order to feel relaxed and happy. They tell everyone everything, sometimes in situations that might be considered inappropriate. I have a few anxious friends who might very well react to a big happy event or big trauma in my life with a loud blast of their own complicated but more or less mundane news/challenge of the day. On the wrong day, this can feel like I’m asking for support only to have an air horn go off in my face instead. But I know these people well and accept these idiosyncrasies (for the most part!). Anxiety makes people self-involved sometimes. And sure, instead of accepting that, many people simply sweep anxious, self-involved humans out of their lives. But because I’m a little tightly wound myself, and because I like the sorts of interesting, colorful, wild ideas that seem to spring from anxious minds, I enjoy their company too much not to take the good with the bad (within limits).

The point is, even though you might feel like the answer to being an anxious person is to stay in control, to be “more responsible” and not burden other people with your problems, the truth is that you have a lot to say and a lot to offer, and you have to let it out. Even if you choose to bottle everything up inside, it doesn’t work. That said, when you express your emotions openly, that’s likely to feel awkward, too, and plenty of people won’t like it. Moving forward, you will have trouble finding a good balance between biting your tongue and opening up, and you will also have trouble navigating people like your ex, people who SAY they want you to tell them stuff but react badly when you do open up.

It takes decades to master the ebb and flow of human conversation, and to accept that some people — paradoxically, fellow anxious people! — can’t stomach the slightest whiff of anxiety in others. Like so many people in the world, particularly young people, you might not always recognize the “right” times to talk and the “right” times to clam up. At least you’re sensitive, and you can listen to how others respond to you and adjust the way you communicate. When I was your age, I just blasted my air horn in people’s faces over and over again until they either listened or rolled their eyes and wandered off. I had no sense of give-and-take whatsoever. I told the truth to everyone I met, appropriate or not. (Or a swaggering, self-deprecating, grandiose version of the truth, if that makes sense.) Talking too much kept me from having panic attacks, I guess, but it also kept me from having real back-and-forth relationships with people who wanted to be heard and not just broadcasted to.

Calibrating this kind of thing takes years and years of trying and failing! But my hunch is that you have the opposite problem. You hold all of your emotions and ideas in, in order to be “good” and “lovable,” and then something big happens, and you can’t help but let everything fly out at once. You have a panic attack, and you have no choice but to tell everyone what’s going on because otherwise you’ll explode into a million pieces. That’s not that uncommon or weird, first of all, and it’s totally forgivable. But in order to avoid doing this, you have to show more of yourself, little by little, and that means you have to know how you feel, day by day, and that means you have to care more about yourself sometimes than you care about how you SEEM to other people. You have to prioritize yourself over your ability to “win” friends and keep love in your life and please everyone else.

So you’ve had this big wake-up call, but right now you’re determined to use whatever you learn in order to DO BETTER, SEEM BETTER, ACT BETTER. You want to fix the problem quickly and efficiently so you can GET ANOTHER BOYFRIEND AND PROVE THAT YOU’RE OKAY AND YOU DESERVE LOVE. No. What you need right now is not a new guy and a new proving ground. What you need right now is to give yourself some time and space to be imperfect among trusted friends, to talk too much and too little, to let off steam and then reflect on how that feels. You have to go from being a volcano that lies dormant for years and then explodes out of the blue, decimating several villages of innocent people, to becoming a volcano that lets off a slow, steady lava flow that’s truly beautiful, yet predictable enough that people can come and marvel at its beauty without getting their faces singed off.

Let me be honest with you, though. I singe people’s faces off all the time. I don’t have panic attacks, but sometimes I do have trouble calibrating when to get heavy about what’s going on with me and when to shut the fuck up. As a very sensitive human being who occasionally has giant piles of work to do, I tend to withdraw into myself and become robotlike for long stretches. Then I notice that I’m too robotlike and I want to be more present and more affectionate, so I ask myself, What are you really feeling? and at that point, if I’m not exercising every day (I know that’s ridiculous, but trust me, it’s true), what I discover deep down inside me is anger and blame and disappointment and self-doubt. What can I say? That’s just what’s buried in the goddamn volcano when my endorphins aren’t firing. So of course I erupt, and villagers run screaming, and then, for a while, my whole life sounds like a group-therapy session. I admit to other people that I expect too much of them, and they admit their own things, and then we cry and clean up all the ashes and build some more huts.

But some people don’t want a volcano in their lives. They don’t want the exploding kind, and they don’t want the slow, pretty lava flow, either. They want mountains — cold, misty, solid, never changing. “Whatever!” they hiss at you when you get too heavy, as if that’s a valid life philosophy! “It is what it is!” they growl at you when you won’t back down, as if that means a single goddamn thing! I would like to pretend that this is cool with me, because sometimes it is, but other times I have trouble accepting this. WHY DON’T YOU WANT LAVA? I ask. LOOK AT IT, IT’S SO FUCKING BEAUTIFUL! GET CLOSER, PUT YOUR FACE … Ooo, sorry.

I feel disappointed in the mountain-lovers. They make me angry. I feel rejected by them. They seem MEAN to me, sometimes. Because there are a lot of volcanoes out there who only like mountains, even though THEY THEMSELVES ARE VOLCANOES. There are also a lot of mountains who are really volcanoes in disguise, lying dormant until they finally explode one day. Sometimes I feel very self-righteous about who I am — a lava-spewer! — and I feel very passionate about how worthwhile it is to be with other lava-spewers, many of whom are artists and writers who aren’t afraid of what’s inside of them. And I also feel very loyal to those non-volcanoes who nonetheless appreciate the glory of a good lava flow.

I know this feels pretty far afield for your letter about your breakup and whether or not you’re doing it wrong. But this is what I want you to know: You’re a fucking volcano. You’ll always be doing it wrong to someone, somewhere. Stop trying to be a mountain. Being a mountain will only give you more panic attacks.

You are already being responsible for your emotions. No, you’re not always perfect at not blurting things out when you’re under stress. Everyone is like that. You are trying very hard to be more appropriate, more acceptable. Fuck that shit. Stop trying to be better. Stop trying to fix every single not-quite-right thing about yourself. Stop running in tiny little circles in your head. Write this down: I am a motherfucking volcano.

Volcanoes are breathtaking and spectacular. You will have more love than you know what to do with. You will have more passionate feelings, more colorful notions, more amazing epiphanies, more heartbreaking realizations, more shivers of recognition and inventive ideas and breakthroughs and grateful tears than you can possibly deal with. Be exactly what you are. Be thankful for what you are. Let it flow.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: Am I Too Anxious to Ever Find Love?