‘How Do I Stop Myself From Sabotaging My Amazing New Relationship?’

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Dear Polly, 

Like so many of us out there, I have been reading your column for years. Your book changed my life so much so that I now give copies of it out to friends. I am a very big fan.

For the first time in a long time, I am in a good, healthy, happy relationship. My sparkly new boyfriend is remarkable. He treats me like I’m worth a million bucks. If I were watching a movie about our relationship, I would probably shout at the screen “This isn’t real!” because I’ve never experienced anything like it before. After a decade of unhappily dating in New York, I finally feel like I’ve met someone I could build a life with. I see a future with him. I want that future. I want him at my side, maybe for the long haul. He’s not perfect, we aren’t perfect, but he is the best I’ve ever had.

If all of that is true, then why is my brain trying to destroy it? I think things like “Yes this is amazing, but do I love him ENOUGH?” and “I haven’t had butterflies in two days, does that mean he isn’t it?” It’s almost as if I have been conditioned to expect the worst, to put up walls, to try to destroy something before it destroys me. Experience has taught me that men lie, men leave, and generally that men are bad. (“Men are bad” has been my mantra for years at a time.) I’ve spent my whole life looking for someone who values me as much as my beau does, and yet my brain is cycling through a long list of reasons to convince me otherwise. I’m happy, I’m scared. I don’t want to be hurt again (who does?).

All this to say, how can I put my best foot forward and keep myself from sabotaging … myself?

Oh, and yes, I am in therapy.

Listen All Y’All It’s a Sabotage

Dear LAYIAS,

You have to surrender. When he looks at you and you know he sees you clearly — your charms and your flaws — and for some reason he likes what he sees and doesn’t look away, that feels incredible at first. But soon after it starts to feel unnerving, too. Sometimes you almost feel numb. Your brain is at war with your heart. Why is he still looking at me? Is there something wrong with him? He says he loves me, but is he not seeing me clearly? Is he tricking me into this?

If you grew up among people who thought love was a little embarrassing, who didn’t look you right in the eye and tell you that they loved you out loud, who thought that important, honest statements should be written down or whispered or mumbled after a few drinks, who spent most of their lives busying or distracting themselves — and maybe 90 percent of us grew up this way — then discovering someone who isn’t afraid to look directly at you and state, openly, that he is frighteningly invested in you can feel like landing on a different planet.

And who can pack up and travel to a different planet without ever asking themselves, “Do I even WANT to live on a new planet?!!” Even if you hated your home planet, where the heat was unbearable and the riverbeds were dry and everyone ate old tires for breakfast, you still might experience green trees and cool breezes and fresh orange juice as a kind of an insult to the senses. “Who lives this way?” your mind screams as you bite into a hot croissant. When you bathe in fresh flowing streams, some small part of your heart, not just your brain, misses all of that thirsty trudging through the sand you once did, back in your youth.

Longing for more love is much easier than showing up for the love that’s right in front of you. Longing takes you out of our body and puts your mind front and center. When you long and chase unavailable people, your love exists in your imagination. You are free to form a spine-tingling fantasy love in the blank expanse of your brain. But in real life, when someone is staring into your eyes and telling you that he loves you, there are jarring blips along the way. His teeth are a little crooked. His breath falls short of minty. A car horn blares outside. You are caught off guard, and he fumbles with his words. He hopes you will join him where he is. It’s an invitation. INVITATIONS ARE FOR LOSERS, your mind tells you, THIS MAN IS SO NEEDY. STOP LOOKING AT ME, NEEDY MAN! His gaze only makes you aware of your own flaws, and his. You want the safe, distant perfection of imaginary love instead.

In order to accept the love you’ve found, you have to say good-bye to your home planet and let go of your circling thoughts. You have to put down every last one of your very stupid culturally generated notions about what is romantic and sexy and intriguing. Butterflies are a concept generated by rom-com writers and advertising executives dreaming up perfume ads, and seasoned songwriters crafting swooning pop songs for little girls, who can build empires around them. Your deepest beliefs about seduction were carefully crafted by high-capitalist strategists. Lust and fantasy are opiates of the masses, easily manipulated into shapes that human animals fall for, over and over again.

Scraping these influences out of your brain is crucial, if what you really want is love in your life. Because these elaborately crafted, seductive stories rob us of our moments on this green planet. They rob us of our lived, awkward, beautiful connection to each other. Jesus, I sound like such a little commie hippie motherfucker when I dig into this shit. But these delusions that we all perpetuate rip us apart, by keeping us confused and alienated from each other.

Self-sabotage is often a way of avoiding that moment of showing up, of facing potential loss, of being strong enough and courageous enough to surrender to the unknown — but also, to surrender to the goodness of ordinary human beings.

This morning I’ve been thinking a lot about how embarrassed I’ve always been to be just another face in the crowd. I’ve aimed to be completely unique and impressive for so long that being one of a crowd and believing in something WITH another human or with a group of humans feels odd to me. For years, I think I even avoided reading great writing by authors who were a little bit like me, but possibly younger and smarter than me. I sidestepped so much inspiration and strength and wisdom, just for the sake of continuing to believe that I had a shot at being beyond compare, at least in some particular way. And even as I succeeded at my career, I think I subconsciously imagined that I could only stay on top by believing that I was the Very Best, which of course required ignoring what everyone else was doing entirely.

This alienation wasn’t so different from the alienation you feel when you self-sabotage and keep yourself safe from good things. I thought that by remaining aloof and inside my head and “superior,” by never identifying too strongly with other people, by always keeping myself separate, I might stay original and prove my BEST IN CLASS status. I did the same thing with love: I had to be the most charming and most attractive or love would never find me, and even if it did, it would never stick around if I became depressed or needy. I thought that friends who recognized my value weren’t good enough to allow in. I thought that friends and lovers who seemed distracted, or half there, or seemed to have better things to do with their time, must be smarter and more valuable and I should focus all of my efforts on winning them over. All of this was also about fear: I didn’t want to show up. I didn’t want to surrender to the people in front of me. I didn’t want to swim through warm waters. What if I was disappointed? Better to trudge through a hot sandy desert and dream of imaginary oceans, like I always had.

But what I’ve discovered is that surrender is my truest gift. Maybe it’s everyone’s truest gift. All I know is that I seem to learn, over and over, that I have next to nothing without surrender, and what I do have, I can’t feel anyway. Superiority and victory and separateness aren’t what make me or anyone else unique or strong, even though that’s the story we’ve learned to tell ourselves and each other, taught to us by the ancient wise men behind Gillette commercials and Chanel print ads. But those wise men are wrong. Surrender lies at the heart of everything good in my life and everything good I have to offer anyone else.

Self-sabotage sometimes comes from a fear of showing up, a fear of letting the moment lead you, a fear of accepting that human relationships are not dominated by seduction and butterflies. Sometimes sabotage presents itself, in your mind, as simple good sense and clear self-knowledge: “This man seems to need me. But I hate to be needed.” “This man seems to see me. I’m not someone who likes being seen. He must not be my type.” You mistake your own neuroticism for a sign that what you’re dealing with isn’t True Love. “I’m inside of my head; I’m not feeling that swept away. That must mean that I’ve gone cold for him.” “I can’t stop noticing that weird thing he does with his face when he’s concentrating.” “Who the fuck wears pleated khakis in 2018?”

When I met my husband, he was a red-hot god of a man trussed up in pleated khakis, hiding behind a wretched mess of nervous tics, awkward asides, defensive reactions, and bad jokes. I was an aggressive, disorganized, self-aggrandizing wrecking ball. We were in love, but our brains were constantly dreaming up good reasons to flee. We both had to set down a million and one bad notions and prejudices and even a few reasonable, logical, smart reasons not to be together just to move forward. We were both very lucky that we happened to meet at a time when we were both capable of surrendering.

Because surrender allows you to tune out neuroticism and tune in to your true desires. Many of us resist it because we’re deathly afraid of showing up and feeling seen and heard by someone who actually cares. Plus it’s just easier to stay in your head than it is to be present and feel exactly how flawed and fragile you are. But when you’re keeping your partner at arm’s length — and this can happen, off and on, throughout the course of a long relationship — nothing bridges the gap between you, sometimes, like saying to yourself and to the other person, “I’m flawed and fragile. I’m afraid and I want to turn away from you. But I’m here.”

In the immortal words of Open Mike Eagle, the first step is intention. Belief flows from intention. And sometimes intention exists in a vacuum of belief and a (temporary) vacuum of feeling. You simply show up and try. You engage in the practice of looking someone in the eyes and saying, “Whatever jumbled glorious mess is here, naked, in front of you, I want you to have it.” You see the other person’s fear, and you say, “Whatever crumpled sick smelly mess I find in you, I want to have it, too.” (Yes, smelly. This is reality, remember?)

You can’t keep putting your best foot forward forever. You should know that and embrace it, because it will help you to relax into your new reality. Seduction might occur when you’re trying hard to impress each other, but a soul-changing love doesn’t start until you let down your guard and encounter some scary, strange things, in yourself and each other. You will have to rediscover your intention and revisit your belief in spite of great obstacles and great fear. To get there, you have to trust yourself, trust your senses, trust your instincts. When you trust your instincts, you know the difference between hot sand and cool water.

Right now, you clearly believe that this new sparkly boyfriend is the one for you. It sounds like he does, too. Once you’re pretty sure that this man can’t be easily spooked — and there is a waiting period there for some, one that often has no bearing on how strong the relationship is — then you have to stop putting your best foot forward and surrender. You have to admit that this makes you vulnerable to whatever comes next. It’s almost like you have to accept whatever fate awaits you while pledging to fight for what you love. That’s the paradoxical balance of surrender. When we’re immature and addicted to fantasies and we resist surrender, when we live in the world of “I have to be on top, charming, impressive, better than anyone else, and only then will I deserve love/success/happiness/high-caliber friends and lovers,” we view surrender and being present as the realm of sad drippy nothing people who speak in sentimental cliches but fail to set themselves apart, who connect but aren’t original, who commune with others, but only because they’re a little simple or a little stupid. Or they’re suckers who will get hurt eventually. Or all of the above.

The beauty of surrender, though, is that, contrary to your prejudices against it, it isn’t stagnant and sad. It doesn’t keep you small or hurt. It propels you forward, into a world of connection and feeling that not only generates more love and inspiration and hope, but also gives you inspired, clear, focused, generous energy that you can share with anyone. It’s so sad that the active resistance to high-capitalist fantasies is painted as the stuff of hippies and commies and losers in our commerce-dominated world, because it’s the difference between alienated suffering and feeling alive and good and real and in love, not just with one person but with the whole world.

So stop putting your best foot forward and stand where you are. Your endless trudge through the desert is over. You have arrived at your destination. Feel that. Breathe it in. Surrender to it. Even if this man disappears today or tomorrow or 50 years from now, you won’t leave this place. This is where the fragile but courageous live. This is where the fantasy ends and the concrete but much more beautiful world begins. This is real.

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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‘How Do I Stop Myself From Sabotaging My New Relationship?’