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A few months ago, I started dating a really great guy. I consider it my first “adult relationship.” I had a handful of flings in college, but either I’d be trying to force the situation to fit a narrative in my head that wasn’t really happening (i.e., the guy didn’t like me that much), or I’d be detached and uninterested enough that whoever I was seeing couldn’t hurt me if he was uninterested too (which often ended in my discovering deeper feelings and getting hurt, anyway).
Before I started dating this guy, I was single for about a year, and during that time I tried to think about what hadn’t satisfied me in my previous relationships and what I wanted in a partner going forward. I knew from when I started dating him that this relationship was different. He doesn’t talk over me or shy away from complexity, and I’ve never felt like I was trying to pretend our relationship is anything other than what it has been. After the initial awkward getting-to-know-you phase, I was surprised by how easy it was to be around him, and how accepting he was of my weird anxieties. I felt like I could communicate my needs with him without worrying about being seen as needy or bossy.
Now things feel different, and I’m not sure why. In those college flings, there would usually be a point when I would be waiting for the other shoe to drop — waiting for the other person to realize that there was some kind of flaw or weirdness or badness in me, and no longer want to be with me. I’m not sure where this comes from. In college I was also insecure about my academic performance and felt like I wasn’t smart or disciplined enough to have profound ideas and turn them into meaningful work. (I wrote a lot of fine papers! But my thesis, for example, was mediocre, and I could have put more effort into developing my ideas. And for a while, I was really afraid to talk in class and couldn’t make myself say anything.) Anyway, in college work as in college relationships, I had these terrified, shivering-Chihuahua moments where I was scared of having some major flaw exposed and tried to avoid it by lashing out in weird, combative ways that did not make me feel any more competent or in control in the long run (tearful fights with dudes who did not give a fuck, pages of shitty late-night Word-document poetry instead of writing papers, etc).
Anyway, now that things have been going well for a while with the current dude, I am anxious and upset to find myself regressing into Chihuahua territory. It’s like it’s too good to be true that he finds me fun and interesting to hang out with. When is he going to realize that I am an anxious mess who overthinks everything and hates herself, like, a lot of the time? Or that I’m actually not that interesting or smart? I feel like I’m testing him by exposing small bits of what I worry about and how lost I feel, and then sitting by and gauging his reaction with my beady, desperate Chihuahua eyes. What happened to the progress I thought I’d made in the year before dating him? Why is this still a thing? I feel gross even writing this.
Desperate Dog Woman
Dear Desperate Dog Woman,
A few months ago I adopted a beagle mix with a spaniel’s big, desperate, teary eyes. I’m always surprised at how engaging those eyes can be. My older, bigger dog has eyes that say, “Oh, Christ. This again.” But the saucer-eyed dog is always so hopeful and so completely invested in what comes next.
There’s something really amazing and important about being the kind of animal who’s incredibly invested in what comes next, so invested that you just can’t hide it. There’s something so unparalleled, so electric, so absolutely irreplaceable about caring more than you really want to care. To have a heart that breaks over and over again! It’s painful, sure, but a person who can wear that kind of energy on her sleeve, without apology, has a special kind of power.
When you’re young, it’s hard to recognize that caring too much is a form of power. The big goal among the young is to pretend to be far more sophisticated and world weary than you actually are. But there is nothing more juvenile than that pose! Better to be completely innocent and unaware of the world and flush with optimism (or even fear!) than to work very hard just to appear disengaged and apathetic. What could be more worthless than pretending to be neutral, over it, above it, alienated from it, unfeeling, unconcerned? What’s the fucking point of that? Imitating a stone. Pushing all your most human impulses and desires away, and becoming a piece of furniture, a slab of ham, a picture on the wall.
The best people are the ones who care too much. The best ones are the ones with big, desperate, watery eyes. They are overly invested, they care deeply about how things turn out, they want to know what comes next, they ache for a wilder, more colorful life.
The only real challenge for you, Desperate Dog Woman, is to turn your question into a statement. Like you wrote, you are way more invested than you want to be. That part is fine. That’s just who you are. You are a person with an almost boundless ability to care, to love, to feel, to create. These are precious and important qualities.
Instead of trying to hide these things, be open about them: “I’m someone who cares a hell of a lot more than I can sometimes control.” It’s not a problem as long as you don’t turn it into a problem for other people. You shouldn’t ask your boyfriend “Am I good enough, or not?” You shouldn’t present your anxiety and your overactive brain as obvious liabilities. Smart people are often very anxious. Smart people often overthink things and eat themselves alive. These things are normal and common. There’s no reason to be ashamed of them.
But that doesn’t mean that everyone else needs to approve of who you are! Someone who loves you doesn’t have to be exactly the same as you on the inside. The world outside of you doesn’t have to validate or match the world inside of you in order to make what’s inside of you worthy and good.
You can believe in what you have without proof that other people value it. In fact, that’s one of the really great things about being a very intense, anxious, emotional person. We know how to nurture our convictions in a vacuum. Sure, it sometimes means that we make mountains out of molehills. But it also means we can feel big feelings and create works of art from nothing and milk sublime moments out of thin air.
Don’t turn your back on everything you have, or pull it out to be analyzed by someone who doesn’t understand it yet. Don’t ask “Am I too much for you?” Your boyfriend can’t answer that question. When you ask it, you hurt yourself. And you make your boyfriend uncomfortable for no reason. You treat him like someone who is supposed to give some “right” answer, like he is being tested. That’s not really fair. Give him space to be wherever he is without making it into a litmus test.
What you can say is this: “I am sometimes too much for myself. I sometimes care more than I can stand.” Or you can say “Sometimes I have more inside of me than I know what to do with.”
Most people — even very smart people — do mediocre work in college. College is a time of competing impulses. If what you want the most is love and approval, you will not give all your energy and all your heart to your work. When you can’t give all of your energy and focus to your intellectual pursuits, it’s very hard to feel smart or talented. As long as you’re questioning the value of being an “anxious mess,” you won’t see the gifts that go along with having an engine that revs really high.
You’re a work in progress. You recognize the value of refusing to hate yourself, but you haven’t figured out how to stop hating yourself on a day-to-day basis yet. You know what you need from a relationship in order to feel satisfied, but you don’t know how to tolerate actually getting it. You still have to believe that you’re someone who’ll fuck everything up. You’re so used to believing in failure that believing in happiness feels unfamiliar. All these things are 100 percent normal and expected. People rarely realize their full potential at age 25.
But there is some value to saying, out loud, “NO ONE ELSE CAN SAVE ME.” I think before I accepted that, I was pretty lost. People will love you, sure, but no one will save you. You have to save yourself. You have to decide that you’re smart and talented and that, once you have a little time and space and clarity, you will figure out how to focus and work hard. You will understand the full breadth of your abilities. You have to save yourself by resisting the urge to become a question mark. You have to save yourself by refusing to ask for other people’s approval.
Asking for other people’s approval is like begging for a fix. It’s a shortcut. Pay attention to how it feels to even ask. Pay attention to the feeling you get inside when you’re about to say “Is this going to work for you? Can you stand to be around me? Will I eventually get on your nerves? Will you decide you can’t handle me?” Pay attention to that terrified feeling, and notice how much more terrified you get when you turn it into a question, and then wait for an answer.
Decide for yourself instead. Pay attention to how it feels the moment you resolve to address and soothe these feelings of self-doubt and distress on your own. Learn how to tell yourself that you are good and worthy. You are worthy even on your worst days. Learn to believe in the value of caring a whole hell of a lot. Learn to enjoy being your own savior. Learn to ask yourself tough questions, and learn to answer them in reassuring ways.
That doesn’t mean everything about you is sheer perfection. It’s fine to admit that your feelings about yourself and the world shift from day to day. “I don’t have the best ideas sometimes because I get so wound up over whether my ideas are good or not,” you might tell your boyfriend. “And sometimes I’m a little needy. Lots of women are like that. I’m not better than other women on that front. I am a work in progress. Sometimes I need to cry, too, in the presence of someone who can handle it. But to be honest, I don’t really want to spend time with someone who wants to feel less, to pretend that the stakes in this life aren’t incredibly high, to play games of make-believe when the real world is so much more interesting than that.”
You can make statements instead of asking open-ended questions. You can stand up for who you are and what you believe. Instead of asking your boyfriend to prop you up and make you feel whole before he knows you well enough to even try, you can do these things for yourself.
The illusion that you’ve lost ground, that you’re losing yourself, is all in your head. You are learning, every day. This is your adventure. Not every single thing will go according to plan. Your boyfriend might dump you at some point. Or he might love you like crazy until you outgrow him and you decide to move on alone. People will tell you to care less about these outcomes, but you will care more than you can possibly stand. It’s time to accept that this is how you will live. It’s time to stop fighting yourself, day in and day out. It’s time to enjoy the way you are right now. Your desperation is beautiful. Your disappointed Chihuahua eyes are beautiful. You have to see that, and feel that, and know it in your terrified, shivering heart.
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