I’m 36. A long time ago, my first boyfriend, of six years, met the love of his life (fast forward to three-plus kids 15 years later) within a week after we broke up. I had ended it. He was extremely doting and spoiled me rotten, but we had good childish reasons to end it. He was totally adoring, however, which really messed me up for future standards of male regard. He and his new wife built this beautiful, creative career and partnership together. After he moved on, I was left feeling utterly disposable, unable to trust love cues, and really jealous of the “new” girls — plural because this became a motif for me. I met a couple more guys in sequence who met the love of their life right after meeting me!
So I began to think I was cursed, a stepping-stone, unlovable, giving these guys the confidence they needed to meet The One. Their partners all happened to be outstanding, successful women, so it made me feel as though there is this unstoppable force of amazing women ready to snatch every decent, single man. This is a form of female toxic incel thinking, and I make myself sick. I am disowning myself, projecting my ass off, and yet I can’t look past the evidence. I am very lonely and haven’t been able to open up to men because of this. Please help me!
Dear Easily Replaced,
Looking for love is not the same as taking a poll. You can meet 999 people who find you utterly wretched and then No. 1,000 thinks you’re incredible. The outcome is the same. Person No. 3 and person No. 759 might have a thing or two to say about how tedious and unappealing you are. Person No. 418 might go on to marry Beyoncé. All 999 people could laugh with their perfect, gorgeous, successful, intelligent partners about what a ridiculous, bossy toad of a woman you are. As they say in the financial world, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
Rejection is never personal. People like what they like. One of my least conventionally attractive ex-boyfriends always treated me like I was a little bit gross, not quite right, not quite good enough. The fact that my husband thinks I’m sexy has no bearing on what my ex thought. My husband hasn’t redeemed me or made me hotter or more acceptable to the outside world, and my own relationship to myself exists somewhat independently of his or anyone else’s ideas about me. Once you see clearly that we’re all living in our own little terrariums of perception, though, you’re free to spruce up your own moist, stanky environs however you see fit. You are the one person who gets to define how amazing you are. You are in charge of what works for you. When you do what works for you, when you fertilize your little plants and check on your snails and make yourself happy, guess what? You are amazing. Full stop.
And when you tell stories about how much LESS THAN the next woman you are, how you keep being upstaged by scary predatory ladies ready to snatch your doting boy out of your (somewhat ambivalent) hands? That makes you feel like a wilty plant in a desiccated terrarium. You aren’t watering your little buddies. You’re letting your snails go hungry and starve. You’re punishing yourself.
It’s very hard to be amazing when you spend most of your time punishing yourself. I think you should ask yourself why you’re so into these narratives about how you lose and lose and lose. I think you should ask yourself where your shame really comes from. Because it started before you met any of these men. Your inability to open up isn’t caused by these dudes. Your inability to open up is caused by your fixation on this bad story: “These men and their perfect partners prove that I will never be enough for anyone.”
And if you found a man right now, his indifference or his busy job or his gorgeous lady bestie would prove that you weren’t enough. If you still managed to build a life with him, your kids would prove that you weren’t enough. Your stalling career would prove that you weren’t enough. If you don’t take a close look at your shame and self-hatred, you’ll find new ways of telling the same story regardless of how your life circumstances change. You’ll find new ways to stop watering your terrarium.
I do think that there’s something magical about the lessons the world wants to teach us, over and over again, until we finally learn. When I was younger, I was incredibly possessive and I wanted to be the best, the hottest, the favorite of all time, always. So I kept getting schooled. My exes kept dating my closest friends. Nothing made me feel more threatened and worthless than thinking about these exes and my friends together. Their relationships meant that I didn’t matter at all.
But my torment (and my envy) grew out of my fixation on being the best (not to mention my tendency to prioritize my boyfriends above my close female friends). My delusions of grandeur and my gigantic, hungry ego made the existence of other exceptional women intolerable. Because the truth was, I didn’t really believe my own hype. Underneath my insistence on being AMAZING and SPECIAL, there was a festering scary void. I was secretly sure that no one would ever love me, because I was too broken. I had to be amazing in order to not be disgusting. I had to be special or I was nothing at all. If I wasn’t the one woman that everyone loved and admired the most, I might as well not exist.
It’s actually hard to remember that feeling now. Even though I’m still competitive at times, it’s almost a form of amusement or a temporary distraction rather than a compulsion. I’m not nearly as attached to being seen as amazing by the people around me. I don’t really feel like I’m honoring myself or anyone else when I offer up an illusion that I’m enviable. Can I also say that I’m allergic to lifestyle brands that are built on the illusion that some people are hot and live art-directed lives and other people are worthless, smelly slobs who buy shit to make themselves more like their favorite brands?
I hate that stuff partly because I’m still competitive, sure, and I’m annoyed by the illusions therein. But I also hate that stuff because it doesn’t look healthy to me. It reminds me of my younger self, who was addicted to delusions of grandeur, whose ego needed feeding constantly, who was propped up by bad stories and also destroyed by bad stories. I couldn’t open up back then, just like you. Opening up meant showing my true self. I wanted to be an enviable illusion and not a person.
These days, my terrarium is a thing of great beauty to me, whether or not anyone else gives a fuck. Let me give you one stupid example: I have this long, comfy sweater that looks like something you’d pull out of a dryer’s lint trap. It is Not Right. There is no whiff of fashion there. I also have some weird crumpled demi boots that are deeply ’80s, but not in a good way. They are a dusty-blue color. I wear these two items together and I feel like a fucking goddess. I know that I’m the only one who thinks I’m special when I wear these things. Maybe that’s part of why I love them so much. These clothes honor the enormous subjectivity of amazingness. These clothes remind me that I am the boss of my terrarium and I can do whatever the fuck I like.
I want you to shift your focus away from the mythical creatures you’ve invented using your mind, the outstanding, outperforming, outsize Über-women and their doting, devoted, supremely satisfied mates. I want you to focus on your onboard navigation system and its bad storytelling, instead. I want you to ask yourself when you’ve felt cursed or unlovable in the past, before you met that doting ex-boyfriend of yours. I want you to ask yourself who treated you like you were insignificant as a child. I want you to examine the messages floating around in your brain about your inherent worth or lack thereof. I want to you question your status as a stepping-stone.
When you ask yourself these questions, you are digging up your dead plants and rifling through the dirt of your desiccated terrarium, a necessary but unpleasant task that makes it possible to start over. You are casting out old stories about what makes you unlovable and what makes you feel lonely. You are dedicating yourself to building up a new, delightful universe inside of you, one that is kind to sweet, tender, growing things. You are going to fertilize and water this soil regularly. You are going to make sure the conditions are just right. You are going to dote and be devoted and loyal to yourself.
That’s not some cliché of self-care. You need to shift your entire being in a radical way, so that you stop getting distracted by women who seem better than you (from a great distance!) and you start feeding and protecting yourself and honoring the values that you hold dear. You need to celebrate who you are — and that includes your envy and your shame and your wild mind, which loves to find scary, upsetting images and then tell bad stories about them.
Pay attention to that. Your mind can spin a tale out of nothing, can’t it? That’s bizarre and interesting, and it’s linked to a million and one things that are special about you, trust me. You can recognize that and honor it and STILL reject those bad stories. When a bad story comes up, you can say, “Nope. That’s not how I’m living now.”
When you take care of your own terrarium, it doesn’t matter what anyone else has to say about it. You aren’t trying to make something that other people will think is amazing. You’re trying to make something amazing FOR YOURSELF. You’re also trying to be who you already are, ragged and weird and inconsistent sometimes, but comfortable and good and broken and real. You are making room for yourself, maybe by spoiling yourself rotten sometimes, maybe by working really hard at other times.
That’s what happiness is: Giving yourself what you need to feel good and alive and connected to the world. This is how you stay open. This is how you become a more generous, relaxed person. This is how magic enters your life. But where are your friends? Don’t they matter, too, even more than these mythical exes? What do you deserve? Who already loves you? Stop living inside imaginary, distant lives, and honor what you already have, here and now. The lesson this world is trying to teach you is clear: Stop punishing yourself for not being someone else. Be yourself instead.
All letters to email@example.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.