ask polly

‘I’m Obsessed With the Co-worker I Hooked Up With!’

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Dear Polly,

I’m one year out of college and recently got out of an emotionally abusive three-year relationship. Through therapy, I’ve realized that I was never in love with my ex-boyfriend: He came into my life at a point where I was very lonely, depressed, and aimless, and we quickly became co-dependent. I had just moved to a new country, I was having trouble making any new friends, and I kept having quiet thoughts that this wasn’t what I wanted — he was immature, negative, judge-y, never said or did anything remotely romantic, the sex wasn’t good, and I wasn’t even really attracted to him — but I always ended up sticking around. He started to criticize my body and never said he loved me (because he thought the concept was “trite,” “clichéd,” and “diminutive”). We ended it after I stopped accepting those statements and started throwing them back, fighting back.

About a month after the breakup, I drunkenly hooked up with my guy friend from work. He had been flirting with me for months, to the point where others in our group of work friends had commented on it. He texted me the next day saying he wanted to hang out, that we had a nice thing going and that we should “figure out what we are” before telling anyone at work. I thought he was being a little intense, but thought I liked him and it was all positive, so went with it. I then left for a weeklong work trip, and when we met up when I got back, he came all the way to my house to tell me that he thought we were a bad idea, that he was just going to mess it up, that he didn’t want to be a rebound but that I was a “boyfriend” girl and he couldn’t be that either, and that things had “gotten weird” (never mind that I wasn’t even in the country that week!).

I told him that he was completely freaking out, that I hadn’t thought that hard about it because we hadn’t spent any time in person since that night, and I thought we could just hang out one-on-one and see where it went, and that he had made up so much about us in his head that I didn’t even know where to begin. I said he didn’t seem that interested in my opinion on any of it, and he agreed. He then hung around my bedroom asking for a tour, I told him to leave, and he texted from the train saying he was confused, had maybe overthought the whole thing, and that all he wanted to do was turn back, but that ultimately he would “defer” to the part of his brain that thought we were a “bad idea.”

He slept with someone else five days later and came into lunch covered in bite marks and recounted the tale (I was in a meeting), which a nosy
co-worker was delighted to relay to me while “checking to see if I was okay,” since this guy had “taken advantage of someone so vulnerable.” This upset me way more than I thought it would, mostly because I realized I was being discussed by my co-workers in a way that made me feel that they thought I was pathetic.

He has since said I need to “stop with all the drama,” that he’s “shut this down” and that I need to “get over him.” I’ve done nothing dramatic, unless you count being upset with his presence and telling the nosy co-worker I was mad that he had clearly been talking about the situation to other colleagues and had probably relayed false information. In response, I told him his behavior was ugly, that he took a nice thing and blew it up, that he’s selfish, and that the entire situation will be upsetting for a bit, especially if he keeps taking digs at me whenever we are in a group setting. He said I lack boundaries, and that he ‘“feels sick that I’m upset” but that “I’m not what he’s interested in romantically” despite “really, really liking me” because I “get him.” He said he slept with the other girl because he “needed to relieve some tension” but that it’s “none of my business” and that he’s very upset with our colleague who told me for causing “unnecessary emotional pain.” I get vibes of disdain from him now. I have to see him every day at work, and if I choose not to avoid him completely, I more or less choose to not socialize at work at all because he’s always there.

It’s been about a month since all this happened. Honestly, it’s sent me into a bit of a spiral. I can’t stop wondering how this happened, and why I still care about an objectively shitty, selfish, patronizing person who’s rejected me despite barely knowing me. It’s made my inner dialogue intensely self-critical (about my body, abilities, social skills, everything). I’m feeling unhinged. I feel like he’s a narcissist, which then makes me worry I somehow have borderline personality disorder, or that I’m somehow a narcissist as well. Thoughts that he wasn’t attracted to me physically or thinks I’m too messed up or not fun enough send me into an anxiety tizzy and I can’t focus on work. I know that my issues clearly aren’t all about him, but he’s the focus of my freak-outs at the moment.

I want to not care, I want new direction, and to feel fucking free from all this crap, but I feel stuck and worry that I won’t ever climb out of this hole.

Stuck

Dear Stuck,

There is only one way to handle this: Erase this spinning top of a man from your mind. Yes, some people might be able to sleep with a guy for one night, tolerate a barrage of confusing mixed messages, endure a series of condescending remarks, ignore a flurry of gossip among co-workers, and even remain placid when he continues to tell elaborate stories about the strange toxic confusing mess of a person you are (describing himself all the while). But you can’t tolerate it. Congratulate yourself on that! It means that deep down, you trust your own instincts and know what you’re worth.

Yes, you’ll have to feel your feelings and acknowledge the pain and anxiety that come with being forced to work with this goon. PRIVATELY.
But from this moment forward, you have to make exactly zero sounds about him to anyone at work. That means don’t acknowledge him. Do not engage. Do not speak his name. If anyone asks you about him, you literally chuckle. You say NOTHING. You do not have to explain anything. Let people believe what they will. The more this guy talks, trust me, the more he builds a case against himself. He is a deeply insecure and defensive human whose emotional turmoil will show itself in other relationships with other women. You don’t need to inform anyone that he’s confused. You don’t need to discuss it. Resolve now to BITE YOUR TONGUE, smile a Mona Lisa smile, and never form the sound of his name with your mouth again.

Trust me, there is no other answer for this roach motel of a human being. He is lined with sticky paper that will trap you in his confusion.
It smells tempting. Back away! Hesitate, and you’ll find yourself crammed in there with all of the other roaches. Likewise, don’t interact with people who want you in the roach motel with them. People who give this guy a lot of space to complain about you are not people you should trust or spend time with. They’re shit-stirrers. Do not engage, do not confess anything, do not open your mouth. Smile faintly and roll your eyes and say nothing.

I would leave it at that, but there is an important lesson here for you. You might need to open your heart a little to hear it. So first, let’s review the good part: You have very strong boundaries: You told him that you weren’t overthinking it, and that you didn’t know him that well. And then, when he acted like an abject defensive imbecile, you told him to leave you the hell alone. That’s exactly why he lost his shit. He couldn’t handle it. You basically had a fast-motion relationship and witnessed how unstable he can be, and you said “No thanks.” You dodged another terrible, abusive relationship. Take a second and feel proud of that!

But here’s the bad part: He pulled you back in by talking shit about you, the same way your not very sexy, not all that great ex pulled you back in by criticizing you. You are susceptible to that kind of rejection. You see a roach motel and you cross the street to avoid it. “No way!” you say. “Only someone who hates herself would go in there!” But then you look over your shoulder. Some part of you wants to go back, to wander in and see whether or not you’ll get stuck like everyone else. Maybe you’re better than them! That’s something you have to notice and be careful about. Maybe it starts to happen once a guy gets really negative about you, or maybe it kicks in when an audience gets involved. Either way, you have more work to do: You have to stop imagining what other people think of you, good and bad. You have to cultivate a faith in yourself that springs from within. It takes work and practice to build a private religion around what you believe in. You have all of the good instincts that you need already, but you have to write them down and then color them in and hang them on your wall.

Right now, the spot on your wall where those beliefs should go is filled with a low-res TV with very bad reception, a live feed of other people talking about you. You have to smash the TV and replace it with your personal belief system painted in bright colors.

You wrote, “Thoughts that he wasn’t attracted to me physically or thinks I’m too messed up or not fun enough send me into an anxiety tizzy and I can’t focus on work.” In that sentence, you reveal your fears about what you think other people want you to be: physically attractive, sane seeming, and fun. And if someone (even someone who clearly has a lot of emotional problems!) views you as unattractive, crazy, or Not Fun, you are fucked.

As someone who spent a solid two decades trying to be, above all else, attractive, sane seeming, and fun, I need to warn you against setting your sights on these targets. It reminds me of that old talent show Star Search, which used to have a “talent” category called “TV Spokesmodel.” As far as I could tell, “TV Spokesmodel” talent boiled down to having shiny hair, big boobs, and an ability to smile while reading words off a teleprompter. The ideal TV Spokesmodel knew how to sound almost smart and to seem kind of healthy and normal, all the while gesturing at someone or something far more exciting and more important than herself. When you aim to be attractive, sane seeming, and fun, you are aiming to become an attractive display case in human form.

Here’s how you avoid that fate: Accept right now that you aren’t perfectly healthy in every way. Maybe you’re insecure and moody. Maybe you’re also not that attractive to many men. Maybe men try to get into your pants simply because they enjoy getting into lady pants in general. And maybe you seem fun at first, but the truth is, you are not fun. You worry too much and you have no chill. You are needy and emotional. Every single time a guy thinks you’re fun above all else, he’s being duped, because you can also be a gigantic bummer of a person at times.

This makes you exactly the same as 90 percent of the women on planet Earth.

Every single very smart woman I know sometimes seems like she might have one personality disorder or another. This is true because it’s really hard to be a woman in our culture, and also because most people come from families that are dysfunctional in one way or another — and by that I only mean that these families don’t mold us into strong, independent, loving humans who know how to feel their feelings and sally forth unafraid of feeling joy and sadness and pain. Most people are very afraid of themselves and other people’s judgments of them. Most people want to be seen as sexy and healthy and fun, but most people, when you strip off their shiny exteriors, are not that healthy and not that fun.

But they are a million times sexier, once you really know them. Once you can see the truth — that they’re scared, that they’re sad, that they feel needy, that they spent a few years blindly serving the needs of another person they didn’t even love — you feel attracted to them in a way that you never imagined you could. I’m saying YOU CAN FEEL IT. You fall in love with someone who can be that honest about their history, about their fears, about their worries, and you can feel that honesty, and it’s the hottest, most fun thing and THE HEALTHIEST SANEST THING that a person can feel.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but I keep thinking about this scene from last week’s Game of Thrones where Daenerys sees Jon Snow’s scar and realizes that he is at once a freak who survived being stabbed in the heart AND a good, self-sacrificing person. He is weak and vulnerable in that scene, but he’s also honest, and strong, and real — maybe more real to her than anyone she’s met before. I can’t think of that scene without crying, possibly because I’m easily manipulated, or possibly because I’m absurdly emotional or a borderline avoidant narcissist, or possibly because I have no imagination, so I have to rely on expensive premium-cable fantasies involving dragons to fill in the gaps. Maybe this digression makes me “seem” crazy. But I don’t fucking care. That scene got under my skin, and my private religion says that when something gets under my skin, I have to pay attention to it. We all have these strange shifting tides inside of us, and our happiness relies on honoring those murky waters and letting in the magic they hold.

That doesn’t mean I’ve started stalking guys who look like Jon Snow. Likewise, you can welcome in the intense, overwhelming feelings you’re having around this bad experience without getting hung up on some nightmarish spinning-top man. That’s part of the paradox of feeling your feelings: The most obvious solution (win him back! Win them over!) is almost never the REAL way to tap into the magic therein.

So this is what you need to do now: Forget the roach-motel guy. Purge him from your mind, and turn your attention to yourself and your feelings instead. You should get a therapist, because you have a lot of work to do. Your job now is to learn to feel and celebrate your feelings instead of trying to “seem” healthy. You need to learn how to be vulnerable. Imagine that you are ugly and unwell and not fun, like a guy who’s been stabbed in the heart and somehow survived, but who often wonders why he’s still alive. Why is he still around? What is he supposed to do now? A traditional hero, one who seems attractive and healthy, would simply mount the nearest horse and ride off into the sunset. But Jon Snow knows he has to feel his way forward, trusting his feelings, sometimes without knowing what comes next. When you’ve forgotten how to feel your feelings (your relationship with someone you didn’t love hints that this is the case), trying like hell to seem attractive and sane and fun can feel like trying to erase yourself completely. And admitting that you are needy and weak and scared can feel like finally being seen for who you are.

So ask yourself, “What if I am the sum of my worst fears?”

We are all the sum of our worst fears. Once we see that clearly, that’s when we can finally start to figure out why we’re still around.

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.

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

All letters to askpolly@nymag.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

‘I’m Obsessed With the Co-worker I Hooked Up With!’