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‘My Ex Ruined My Whole College Experience!’

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Dear Polly,

I began my senior year of college yesterday, and I should feel better than I do. I’ve done all the right things, plumping my résumé with things like “orientation leader” and “club officer” while maintaining a steady 3.7 GPA.
Plus, I have made some amazing friends here. On the outside, things seem to be going well for me, but I do not feel well at all.

I go to a small liberal-arts college — less than 1,000 students. Though I don’t explicitly regret choosing this school, I am coming to terms with the fact that I followed a boy here three years ago. At the time, I thought that this particular boy (my high-school “best friend”) and I were so similar that we chose the same random tiny college by chance. But ultimately, I chose it after he decided to come here — it simply wasn’t an accident, no matter what I tell myself. Our first year, we engaged in a toxic, alcohol-induced friends-with-benefits “situationship” that left me devastated and full of self-hate. This fueled a slew of self-destructive behavior that I eventually got over — or at least I thought so.

This boy broke my heart and found a girlfriend six months later, despite “not believing in labels.” We stopped talking completely … until last week. (Because I go to an atrociously small school, I know he and his girlfriend broke up two months ago and I assume that’s why he started talking to me again.) He reached out to me with the notion that “we should catch up” because I was “one of the most genuine and caring people he knew.” This fucked with my head, and I immediately fell back into freshman-year me — I got blackout drunk, talked to him at a party, and I can’t remember what I said to him. We haven’t spoken since. Cue the intense regret, anxiety, and self-loathing.

He made me feel worthless back then and, in hindsight, I don’t think I have ever gotten over it. He made me think I wasn’t good enough to date three years ago, and I’ve kept that idea ever since, not really dating anyone or “putting myself out there.” I know you write about self-worth a lot in your column, but I don’t know how to reverse the toxic thoughts that I am starting to harbor almost obsessively. Plus, I see him around campus frequently, which serves as a physical reminder of my flaws and shortcomings. Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

(Oh yeah, and I’m supposed to be having the “best time of my life.”)

Sincerely,

Sad Senior

Dear Sad Senior,

Being obsessed with the wrong person can ruin anything. Any fun you might have, any accomplishment you might enjoy, any satisfaction you might take in what you’ve learned or how far you’ve come — all of it can dissolve into thin air, thanks to a fixation on someone who doesn’t really value you and never will.

But that’s just the first layer of what you’re feeling. Because in truth, you aren’t fixated on your ex. You might think that you are, but the real person who doesn’t value you (and it sometimes seems she never will!) is you. I know that makes me sound like a fucking TEDx talk, but stay with me, because you’re ready for this message now, as basic as it sounds. You’re looking back at your college experience, and suddenly you can see that every decision you made sprang from your obsession with your ex. And part of that bad feeling comes from believing that you should’ve known better. You’ve known for so long that you shouldn’t be hung up on this heartless motherfucker, but here you go again, falling back into the trap of thinking about the one person who kicks up all of your “flaws and shortcomings,” as you put it. First you obsess over him, then you obsess over the fact that it seems like you’re not good enough for him, then you beat yourself up over how weak you are for obsessing about him, and now you’re looking back at the last four years and you’re saying, “Holy God, I have been doing this for so long. I am turning my whole life to shit by fixating on this person who only kicks up my flaws and shortcomings!”

But you are the person kicking up your flaws and shortcomings. Your ex hasn’t laid a trap for you. You carry the trap with you everywhere you go. Your trap is that you’re sure that you’re not good enough, that you have to seem better than you are in order to keep someone, and that the second you let your guard down emotionally (for example, getting blackout drunk and spilling the beans about how you feel), other people will abandon you, recognizing that you’re not good enough and you never will be. This is your belief system, not someone else’s, and it involves a lot of hiding and cutting yourself off from others, because they can’t understand and will only hurt and reject you if you show your true self to them.

With this belief system at your disposal, you can keep ruining everything after college, too. You can ruin your first job. You can ruin moving to your first brand-new city. If it makes you feel any better, I pretty much ruined ages 16 to 26 obsessing about a series of guys who weren’t that into me — with a short break between ages 18 and 20, when I dated someone who actually loved me like crazy. I promptly got sick of that person. Of course.

That’s right. I had what I wanted, at last, but it didn’t make me happy.

So what did I really want? I wanted to sit around, obsessing and mulling over all of my flaws and shortcomings. I was obsessed with my own flaws. That “trap” was traveling around with me at all times, no matter what guy entered or exited the picture. That trap started when I was younger than 16, and it lasted beyond the age of 26. My obsessions were a manifestation of my confusing views of myself, my depression over not knowing what to do with my life, my anxiety about being alone, my worry that there was something deeply wrong with me, and my suspicion that life had no meaning outside of love.

In your final year of college, this is what you have been called to recognize: You followed your boyfriend to college because you were afraid of being alone. You were afraid of being alone because you were anxious, and depressed, and extremely emotional and sensitive. The outside world seemed frightening. College seemed frightening. Why not go to college with the one person who made sense to you? And I’m guessing your ex was scared too, at least until soon after he got there. Then he found someone else to hide with and dumped you. Then he broke up with her and couldn’t help but contact you again. It’s no wonder you two were together.

So your gigantic challenge right now is NOT to stop obsessing over your ex. Your ex is 100 percent irrelevant. You’ve just plastered his face across your real problem. Even if you manage to stop thinking about him, which is a good start, you’re likely to find someone else to fill his slot IF YOU DON’T LOOK AT THE ROOT CAUSE OF YOUR PROBLEM, which is that you’re anxious and depressed and you don’t know what the point of your life could possibly be. You can’t figure out how to be happy on your own. (Understandably so! It is exceedingly hard to figure this out, even when you have everything you’ve ever wanted!) The only thing you know you love is being loved by someone, being protected by them, and hiding from the rest of the world with them.

That was the only thing I ever loved when I was younger too. I loved love. The only thing I could do on my own that I cared about was write in my journal and write love songs. I read books and listened to music occasionally. But I had trouble connecting with other people. I was an extrovert, but I didn’t really connect. I talked too much and drank too much. I was afraid of people underneath my bluster. I was afraid of the whole goddamn world, honestly. And I was depressed, in a low-level, gray-fog, “What’s the point?” way, every single day. The only times I wasn’t depressed as a young person were the brief times between boyfriends, when I was usually working out vigorously — in order to make myself hotter, in order to attract the next boyfriend!

What an empty person, right? But let’s go back to the central principle of your letter and my response: I thought that I was obsessed with love or this or that guy, but I was really obsessed with my own shortcomings and with the fantasy that someone was going to come along who would finally accept me as I am.

Someone did come along: I came along, and I said something almost romantic to myself. I said, “I can’t really say that I LOVE you, because ew. But I can accept you as you are. I’m on your side, and I’m not going to abandon you again. I’m going to protect you for a change.”

A lot of my obsessive energy, I now see, grew out of my weird creative temperament, which grew out of feeling isolated as a kid. I created imaginary worlds in my head that felt bigger than the outside world. The outside world felt sad and mundane, but my world was romantic, because it put imaginary, mind-bending romantic love at its center. But in so doing, it denuded the real world: No sunset was real without someone to love there, gazing at you as you gazed at the sunset. No moment felt good without someone there, feeling it with you. But the really passionate, turned-on, super-hot, excellent, soaring, inspired special feelings only came when I IMAGINED SOMETHING. Because actually having a boyfriend never felt that incredible, not really. It felt better, granted, because at least I had the approval of another person, so I could check the “at least good enough for one guy” box, which saved me from closely examining my underlying depression and anxiety and my overarching view of myself as damaged, weird, insecure, not good enough, shameful, afraid.

But now that I have every goddamn thing I’ve ever wanted (except for maybe a glorious palace on a hill and an obedient gaggle of man-maidens fetching me shit) (mmm, I’ll call them my basic-bitch boys) (I like Men in General again, by the way, I don’t know what’s happening to me) … Okay, where was I? Now that I have the life I want (although it seems less complete when I start thinking about those bitch boys) (Oh my God stop it you fucking whore), I have the opportunity to observe this phenomenon in myself. I am clearly depressed and anxious when I don’t exercise a lot. So I exercise a lot. But I also struggle with trying to get the outside world to match my inner life, which as you can clearly see is rich indeed and full color and a little fucked up. My romantic sense of the world is strong, yes sir, but it’s no longer tethered to some external source. I can read books and listen to music and exercise and most important WRITE WORDS, and I can, on good days, access the full range of emotions and colors that I used to only daydream about. But I have to be moving forward (metaphorically and also quite literally) and I have to work very hard and I have to sleep enough hours at night and I have to be very honest with myself and very honest with my husband and, more than anything else, I have to, every single day, tell myself that I’m okay the way I am right now. Not tomorrow, not next year, but right now.

This is hard to do when you’re just a regular mortal. It’s hard for every single regular mortal to do, in fact, unless they’re delusional, and even then, they have to feed the narcissistic beast within forever and ever and they’re never quite full (see also: Our Fine President). But as someone whose anxiety and depression are managed with a 50-50 blend of vigorous exercise and patient self-talk, I can tell you that being okay with your flaws and shortcomings is a big part of the struggle. A big, big, big part.

Here’s what truly sucks: You feel sad. You feel afraid. You want love. You don’t have love. You feel like a reject. And you blame yourself for all of these things. AND you have to talk to yourself, in the middle of all of these feelings, and tell yourself that it is normal to feel sad, and afraid, and full of longing for love, and rejected, and it’s also normal to blame yourself for feeling these things. And you have to do what I did, and say to yourself, “I am not super-crazy about you, honestly, but I am going to be on your side for a change. I am not going to get blackout drunk and embarrass you anymore. I am not going to shut you off from the outside world. I’m going to protect you, and I’m also going to let you SHOW YOURSELF to others without always feeling ashamed of you.”

The only way out of this mess is to stop worrying about how you seem and to start living on your own terms. Construct your romantic world on your own terms. It sounds myopic, but living on your own terms makes you more patient, more generous, and kinder to others, because you’re finally giving yourself what you need. And when you give yourself what you need, when you talk to yourself the way you want others to talk to you, when you sidestep traps and stop obsessing about your flaws and shortcomings, you can forgive others for being so unclear on what’s good about you and also for being trapped by self-loathing and anxiety and fear the way you used to be. You can let go.

And maybe you’re just someone who used to create imaginary worlds, too, where brilliant, full-color romance and joy could flourish. If so, you have to ask yourself how you will transcribe that world for yourself, and build it, and make it a reality. Because the more you can create and build the romance that you used to create for yourself BY YOURSELF, the more you’ll be able to see the romance and color and joy that’s waiting for you in the real world, right outside your door.

First, though, YOU have to stop being a physical reminder of your own flaws and shortcomings (the way you claim your ex was), and you have to become a physical reminder of your strengths and your beauty and your resilience. It’s a lot to ask. The closest I can come to believing in my strength and my beauty is by writing. I know that I can create beauty for other people, if I set my mind to it. That makes me feel strong and beautiful in turn (even when I feel a little worn out and soggy and not nearly as shiny and special as I might like). So maybe for now, you have to settle for: “I’m sad and afraid and lonely, and this makes me exactly like everyone else. But I’m going to figure out what will make me feel strong and beautiful, and every single day I’m going to forgive myself for being exactly who I am, and eventually, I’m going to celebrate exactly who I am.”

Or you can keep imagining that all of this stuff starts and ends with some arbitrary guy out there, if you prefer. But the truth is that you’ll be forced to accept exactly who you are sooner or later. You’ll have to face yourself and accept yourself and stand up for yourself and reveal your true self to others in order to be happy.

And if you do manage to start down that path, toward embracing your true flawed, weak, anxious, gorgeous self, taking baby steps every day? You won’t have wasted your college years. You won’t have wasted anything. You’ll be waaaaaay ahead of most people.

So start now, at this very moment. Pry open your mind to the possibility that the things you’re ashamed of are exactly what make you so beautiful. Can you feel that? I feel it. It feels so good to be here, in this fucked-up, scary, regretful, lonely, sad, thrilling moment. That’s because it’s the most romantic thing in the world, to realize that you are already enough.

Polly

Order the 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: ‘My Ex Ruined My Whole College Experience!’