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Ask Polly: What Does Love Feel Like?

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Dear Polly,

So, hey. I read a ton of Ask Polly, so I don’t think I’ve missed this question or a related one: Can someone define love for me? How the fuck am I supposed to know what it is?

That sounds angry, and I am. (Don’t worry, I have a therapist, and we are Going Through It.) I am in my early 30s. How did I miss the lesson of learning how to recognize, appreciate, and absorb love?? My life is relatively comfortable. I have good relationships with my family, though my nuclear family is all stoical dudes; my mom has been dead a decade. I have a handful of wonderful lady friends whom I enjoy warm, mostly reciprocal relationships with. Part of the reason that I’m in therapy, though, is that while I can give to my loved ones — take all my time, talents, and cutest bits of stationery, friends! — I’m not great at accepting their unconditional support back. In romantic relationships, of course, this rears its head too — I fall hard for a guy, flail around for a bit in attraction, and then a few months later dump him because I’m not feeling it anymore and I spend a ton of time trying to get myself to RELAX and accept his affections.

I’ve started trying to actively cultivate receiving care, affection, and help in its many forms from my loved ones. That shit is hard, but … I’m trying. In the meantime, though, when I look back on each day and consider where I loved and where I was loved: I don’t see it. I can go days without seeing any love in my life. I told my therapist I should get a dog, just to share of their unbridled affection, but I swear I saw a little flash in her face of “Lady, you don’t deserve that yet.” Of course I don’t. I have a heart of stone.

What is everyday love like? How can I get better at seeing it? Even if I die a shriveled, dog-less spinster, I’d like to go through the world seeing some of its goodness.

Can’t Feel the Love

Dear Can’t Feel the Love,

You don’t deserve a dog because you can’t feel your feelings?! Where do you think dog people come from, anyway? The land of stoical nuclear families, that’s where! If you can pet a dog and feed a dog and take a dog outside for a walk without abusing or neglecting that dog, then you deserve a dog. Get a dog, for fuck’s sake!

I adopted a rescue dog when I was 34 years old and about to dump yet another boyfriend who seemed amazing for the first year and grated on my nerves for the second. I did love him — too much, really — but when I got a dog, I loved the dog more. The dog was naughty and hilarious and so cute and a little aloof, and focusing on her needs helped me to stop focusing on my naughty, funny, aloof boyfriend’s needs so much. I was a little angry and a little lonely before I got the dog: lonely in my relationship, lonely in my life, and pissed off at pretty much everyone I knew, for reasons that weren’t entirely apparent to me then. The dog softened me up and gave me a deserving target for my love — as opposed to my boyfriend, who was reasonably lovable but not that loyal. He wasn’t sure he wanted to stick around or not. The dog had to stick around. She had no choice.

It was refreshing to love an animal that wasn’t threatening to wander off at any minute. It felt soothing, to know that even when my boyfriend moved on, my dog would remain. Once I finally worked up the resolve to break up with my boyfriend, my dog was a little depressed, so we went on extra walks together to cheer her up. We visited the beach and stayed in a dog-friendly hotel. The photos of me and my big puppy at the beach are some of my favorite photos in the world. Making my dog happy made me happy.

Like you, I wasn’t all that great at feeling love back then. I was afraid to feel my feelings. I suspected that everything I loved would leave me eventually. I wasn’t worthy of anyone’s love, so I had to prepare myself for eventual loss all the time. It’s not hard to see how you, who lost your mother and have been subjected to a family of stoical men since then, could land in a similar defensive crouch. And I do think a dog could soften you up and reacquaint you with your capacity to feel love. So get a dog! I mean, come on! You deserve a dog! Walk the dog, get it health insurance (trust me), and set aside a little every month to cover boarding, dog walkers (if you work during the day), and anything else that might come up along the way. Dogs are a luxury, yes. Skimp on everything else so you can get a dog! Commit to giving your dog a great life.

Okay, but also? Be picky about which dog you rescue. Read about how to judge a dog’s temperament. Look around a little. Do you know anything about dog breeds? Personally, I like a nice short-haired mutt with a long nose that seems confident and smart, but not too dominant or nervous or afraid of teetering lamps. Some guidelines on a good starter mutt: Lab-like is good, but look for a mix that’s not as dumb as a Lab. (Sorry, guys, but a lot of Labs aren’t the smartest, and that shit gets frustrating.) Border-collie-looking is great, but don’t adopt an actual Border collie unless you own some sheep, too, because they’re obsessive working breeds that need to be given a steady flow of jobs or they get really impatient. The high-strung dogs that look like they’d like to race around all day — Weimaraners, Vizslas, whippets — can be fear-biting neurotics unless you’re a dog trainer who’s also a marathon runner. Jack Russells are always a giant mistake for first-time dog owners who won’t notice when their dog is becoming the boss of them. Look for a docile, relaxed mutt that can run but can also lie down and stay there for a few hours without freaking out. Jack Russell mixes that include some Chihuahua and a little beagle can be great. Labradoodle-ish, golden-retrievery-looking, corgi-esque — all good. Look for a dog that makes you say, “Wow, what kind of dog is that?”

Now that I’ve bored all the non–dog people AND pissed off all the pure-bred-dog lovers in one fell swoop, let’s alienate all the people who feel love around the clock and can’t stop talking about it. What does love feel like? I don’t fucking know. I’d tell you that it feels like you want to throw your body in front of a moving car to save someone, but that’s actually very specific to having kids. This morning, that exact sensation led to me bitching at my oldest daughter for not scanning the street before stepping into the crosswalk. She’s tired of being harassed about this, but she pays zero attention and then gets very defensive about it when she steps in front of moving cars. Meanwhile, my entire nervous system is in overdrive, preparing my body to hurl itself onto the hood of an oncoming pickup truck. This type of love doesn’t lead to the most loving conversations with your kid. By the time we arrive at the school, my daughter is furious at me because I’ve been jabbering angrily about how she’s going to get squashed into the pavement, and I’m furious at myself for fucking up her whole morning/life with my frayed nerves and jabbering mouth.

Love can feel like anger, is what I’m trying to say. Or maybe what I really mean is that when you feel anger, that’s sometimes an indication of what you’re trying NOT to feel: vulnerable, scared, upset, panicked.

To be clear, though, I can’t define the sensation of love for you, nor should anyone else. You will feel love the way YOU feel it. I would never hold forth on what love itself feels like, because when people do that, they make love sound like smelling flowers and tasting candy and having sex at the same time. Sure, sometimes love is this very palpable sensation of joy that’s impossible to ignore. But who walks around feeling that all the time? Forget it. Don’t inflate your expectations. Everyone is different. You have to work with whatever you CAN feel, period, and define your own sensations for yourself instead of taking your cues from some multi-orgasmic flower-sniffing motherfucker. My attitude is, unless you’re prepared to live inside my skin and experience my operating system firsthand and feel just how compromised or oversensitive or broken my motherboard is, I don’t want to hear about your 24/7 explosions of joy and peace and deeply satisfying being-alive-gasms.

Anger is sometimes the filter through which those of us who were taught to “be tough” experience all of our emotions. We feel scared, we feel sad, we feel frustrated, we feel invisible: Those emotions are forced through a sieve and only anger comes out. It’s even possible to feel angry at a partner when they make you feel vulnerable. Have you ever felt really angry in the middle of sex, or at the start of what’s supposed to be a nice date or a great vacation? That’s the feeling of pressure that comes from vulnerability and fear: “I’m doing something new, and I’m sure to disappoint everyone with my inability to enjoy it.” Or: “I can’t take in this experience in a pure way, it’s inciting anxiety over what’s not right, so instead I’ll encounter everyone else’s reaction to this experience as ‘wrong or ‘annoying.’”

Trying to feel love (and to feel happy) is fucking complicated for people who don’t know how to feel anything at all, people who were basically taught to feel nothing, to show nothing, to “get over it” again and again. There’s a ton of self-hatred waiting around every turn. Your central challenge is going to be forgiving yourself for your own weird, broken operating system. Even though you and I know in our sometimes-stone hearts that having reactions like “I don’t want this dude I supposedly like to touch me” and “I don’t like how much joy my friend is feeling over her turmeric latte” adds up to being deeply wretched and unlovable, we have to breathe through that shit. We have to accept who we are: broken robot women with bad brains. And we won’t solve the maze and get to the center where our love and our softness and our joy are without letting ourselves be just as wretched as we want to be.

That doesn’t mean “Be terrible! Criticize annoying people! Be enraged and impossible!” It means finding a place to put your anger and your flinty reactions and your disappointment in yourself. I try to funnel this stuff into my writing, and I tell my husband all of my embarrassing feelings of irrational anger, too, because as long as I’m not angry AT HIM when I do it, it’s fine. Talking about it helps him feel better about his own anger, which comes partially from being told over and over as a kid, “No one wants to hear about your problems.”

If I were you, I’d write a lot about my anger, and I’d find trusted friends to really get into talking about what makes you both angry. Experiment with talking about the things that piss you off. When I talk to my closest friend about anger, I tend to preface it with, “Okay, I’m in a tough spot and I need to bitch for a few minutes, if you can handle it.” She usually says, “YES, HAVE AT IT!” Because she’s got plenty of stuff to bitch about, too, and she’s often looking for an outlet. And also, maybe we’re both really angry people?

One of the beautiful things about learning to feel your feelings — and accepting those feelings without allowing them to destroy everything around you — is that you no longer feel, deep inside, that the words “I’m an angry person” somehow damn you to a miserable, loveless life. My whole family was angry and stoical and also very capable and tough. I can feel love and feel vulnerable some of the time, but some of the time, I just feel distant and impatient and pissy. I want to make harsh jokes. I want to snicker about how palpably fucked people can be, how sloppy and unfair and cruel they can be, without knowing it.

Anger is a perfectly adequate gateway emotion. If you feel angry without hating yourself for it, you can start to see it for what it is — the body’s very rational reaction to a nonsensical, cruel world ruled by serious fucking idiots and dominated by stoical fuckers who teach you to sever your relationship to yourself. Then you can start to welcome your anger. And when you welcome your anger, what comes along with your anger is fear, sadness, longing, and joy. And also? LOVE.

At first you’ll hate your anger. Your anger will make you more angry! That’s natural. But you have to keep coaching yourself out of this stance by reminding yourself, “My anger doesn’t make me bad.” And after that: “My sadness doesn’t make me weak.” “My longing doesn’t make me worthless.” “My joy doesn’t make me delusional or embarrassing or earnest or unseemly or dorky.”

You know who knows how to express anger and sadness and fear and longing and joy without worrying about seeming overly dorky or unseemly? DOGS DO. Dogs are very emotional creatures. Even their boredom is a palpable presence in the room. And dogs really love to get angry. Yes, it’s true that if you’re a good owner and a calm, strong leader, you’ll show your dog that it’s okay to relax and not fear every stranger and other dog on the street. But even well-behaved dogs still like to stand at the window and bark like they’re going to rip someone’s throat out. Plus, different dogs have different barks reflecting their particular personalities. My dog Olive’s bark says, “Hey! Don’t come any closer! I mean it, now, really! Stay away!” My dog Potus’s bark says, “I could kick your ass! If I were out there, I would be kicking your ass, right now! You’d be bleeding, and I would be laughing at you, bleeding! You’re so lucky I’m not out there right now!”

My bark says, “I’m sick of you and everyone else.” My bark says, “This world is a fucking mess, and you seem like part of the problem.” My bark says, “You’re doing it wrong again.” My bark says, “I’m bored. I need more than this.” My bark says, “I like you but I have to push you away first and see if you come back. That way I know you really mean it.” My bark says, “I know I’m fucking everything up again, like I always do.”

Sometimes when my husband and I spend time alone together, we bark about the world for a while, like in a dog park when all the dogs are barking at once. When all the dogs bark together, even if it started with an angry outburst, eventually they all start wagging their tails like crazy, too. Getting angry together actually brings them joy. “We’re all really fucking angry! Ha ha ha!” their happy faces and wagging tails seem to say.

You may never become an incredibly “loving” or “affectionate” person. I write and talk and think about love and affection constantly and I’m still sort of an asshole. But the more you accept and cultivate compassion for the person you are right now, the more love you’ll feel for others. And trust me, you will FEEEEEL that love, and you’ll know it’s love. You won’t feel it all the time. But you will feel it, and when you do? Don’t ask if you felt it enough. Don’t assume that the love you feel is half-assed, thanks to your supposed heart of stone. Welcome in whatever feeling is there, and embrace it.

To get to the point where you feel love, though, you have to feel what you do feel right now, even if it’s mostly anger. And when you feel anger, you have to celebrate it. This is a good first step. You have to share it with others. You have to call your angry friend and bark and say, “Ha ha, we’re both really fucking angry! Look how angry we are! Ha hahahaha!”

If your therapist gets all dour about how angry you are, or if she really does give you the vibe that she thinks you have a heart of stone, I would get a new therapist. Or I would talk to her about how you think that she thinks that you don’t deserve a dog yet because you’re a robot lady who doesn’t deserve much of anything at all. The whole point of therapy is to invite this kind of stuff into the room with you. Are you projecting this view you have of yourself onto her? Do you assume that she sees you as heartless when she really doesn’t? Or is she openly disapproving of emotion in the same way your family was, and that’s why you picked this therapist in the first place? Don’t settle for a therapist that makes you feel judged. Discuss the judgments you do perceive.

Just trust me on this: You will feel love, and joy. You will feel more than your heart can handle, eventually. You will let people support you. But to see yourself as worthy of support and attention, you have to decide that you’re worthy of space, and emotions, and time. You have to decide that you deserve to feel what you feel, and you deserve to define it for yourself.

You have to start by feeling your anger. You have to stand in a dirt yard and bark, without caring who hears you. “This is who I fucking am,” you’ll say with each bark, until your barks start to sound happy. “This is who I am! Like it or not.”

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: What Does Love Feel Like?