I am 27 years old and recently ended a two-year relationship, my first long-term “adult” one that ran its course. It was a wonderful relationship and a mature, loving breakup. Before I met him, I thought I would never be “loved in that way.” Now, I don’t believe that’s true.
During the last month of our relationship, we were long distance and open. I chance met a guy through a friend and ended up talking to him for three hours while the bar cleared out and then we kissed good night. I was consumed by obsessive thoughts about him for weeks after, even on my solo trip to Mexico City, even though he didn’t respond to my ask to hang out for 2 weeks!
I left town for a six-week gig shortly after, and set up an online dating profile looking for “fun casual connections with like-minded folks.” I don’t really know what exactly I was looking for. I ended up seeing one person with some regularity and an intense intimacy that I didn’t expect. He’s moving to a city a few hours from me in the fall, but from what I can gather he’s not interested in continuing our romance beyond its transient nature. I’m back home now, moved my boxes out of my ex’s to a new apartment, but back in my real life, all I can replay is our time together. But my question isn’t even about either of these men.
I can’t remember the last time I truly didn’t have a crush on someone. Looking back on my adolescence, I was always fixated on some boy or girl who more often than not didn’t return my feelings. I can only think of two distinct phases in my life where I didn’t “like” anyone in that way — between fifth and sixth grade, where I have memories of intense creativity, and right before I met my ex, where I was so fed up with dating that I “gave up.” Online dating makes it easy to always HAVE someone around in some capacity — and if I have chemistry with someone, I tend to obsess over them. These crushes get so all-consuming I’ve even considered attending a sex- and love-addicts anonymous meetings. If nothing else, I feel like I’m constantly pining over someone from my past. I look at all the goals I have for myself and think about all the things I could accomplish if I just had a little more negative space in my mind and heart.
I have so much going on for me in my career and life. I want to make more time in my life, carve out more space in my heart, to fall in love with myself, to really be okay alone. I want to watch more movies, learn how to cook beautiful meals, spend more time with friends, take more long walks by myself, finally finish all these half-done writing projects. I have already taken down my online dating profile and already feel much more clearheaded. But what if I chance meet someone and end up talking to them for three hours while the bar clears out again? I don’t want to lose my fierce belief in love and magic that, miraculously, is unmarred by my breakup. If nothing else, my six-week lover taught me that my heart is open. I miss falling in love, and I want it very much. But I don’t have enough space in my head to become the person I want to be and also love someone else. At least right now. I want to want to be alone.
Need Negative Space
Dear Need Negative Space,
I understand what you want and why you want it. I used to deliver a powerful sermon on the strength that comes from being alone. But these days, that perspective looks really limiting and black and white to me. Crushes, like other games of imagination and obsession, usually have a lot to teach us, if we let them.
Having a crush is not just obsessing and it’s not just addiction, though those are two elements of it. It’s not just connecting with someone, which can feel extremely rare and exciting and precious. A big part of it is physical, but it goes beyond sexual urges and desires and needs. Sometimes it almost feels like your body wants your rational mind to listen to its irrational, erratic rhythms for a change.
I think that those of us who punish ourselves too much — who think too much instead of feeling, who have trouble giving ourselves what we need — tend to let crushes take over our whole lives because in a way, our feelings and our bodies are looking for some way to break through our layers and layers of intellectualizing. When you have a crush, it’s like your body wants your mind to obsess on the crush. You wake up in the morning and you could get to work, you could pursue the mundane tasks in front of you, but instead you just want to lie there and feel where you are. You want to luxuriate in consciousness, you want to cultivate an awareness of every cell in your body. Your body asks, “Who do you want?” And your mind searches for an image. And it pulls up your crush of the moment. And your body says, YES, FOCUS! FOCUS ON HIM.
A crush can be a way of feeling your feelings instead of holding them back. And when you find yourself always wanting to be in love, always wanting to indulge those feelings, that tells you something about your relationship to yourself. Maybe you’re not good enough to yourself from day to day, and your body and mind are rebelling against you. Maybe you always feel guilty, no matter what you do, even when you’re making progress on your writing, even when you’re spending lots of time alone. Maybe a voice tells you that you’re never doing enough, you’re always screwing up. So your body and mind refuse to obey your orders to clear your crush out of your mind. That crush might seem like a waste of time, but it actually might be a way of reaching for something else that you need.
I think the fact that you call it “negative space” instead of “empty space” or “a void” reflects your punitive state of mind toward yourself. I get what you mean by negative space, but why is it negative? It’s negative because YOUR BODY AND MIND BOTH WANT TO FILL THAT SPACE WITH LOVE, but you feel guilty about it.
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to intellectualize our very basic need for connection. Your animal self is bored by your responsible life. Your animal self is tired of being responsible about your career, and doesn’t really want to learn to cook, of all arbitrary nonanimal things. YOUR ANIMAL SELF WANTS TO SKIP TO THE EATING PART.
It’s a mistake to assume that this energy is lazy or avoidant or indulgent or bad for you. Yes, it can be addictive and compulsive. But I think it’s wrong to tell yourself that the part of you that cares about crushes and loves to be in love is weak and sad and hopeless. Instead, try to empathize with the part of you that wants to skip the creative work, skip the projects and the friends and the long walks alone and the slow cultivation of a life. It’s understandable that you are hungry. It makes sense that you want to eat, to breathe in a new human being, to step inside their strange mind, to reach out for them and feel them, to learn their urges and fears, to experience their faith in themselves directly. Love the part of you that wants to eat your crush alive. That’s a big part of you, a part of you that’s hungry and wide awake and worthy of love. That part of you is worthy of your love and worthy of someone else’s love, too.
Disciplining this part of yourself, labeling it as “bad” and defining it as opposed to the act of creation and forward motion and a full life makes no sense. That’s like Prince trying to turn into a preacher. Was Prince good at preaching? Fuck yes, he was. He might’ve been confused into thinking he should preach, just preach and nothing else, and he could’ve been forgiven for that. But Prince was also good at singing, and good at dancing, and good at fucking. You know he was. We don’t need taped footage of Prince fucking to know this about him (though we wouldn’t avert our eyes if we happened to have it). Should Prince have stopped fucking so he could preach more effectively? Should he have stopped singing about fucking and focused on the Lord? Maybe that’s why he was called to heaven, so he could stop getting distracted by his ONE TRUEST CALLING. I don’t even believe in heaven, but if Prince can’t fuck in heaven, then there is no God. Because Prince was born to preach and and sing and dance and he was born to fuck.
Please forgive me, Prince, and your personal friend, the Lord, for transgressing this way. I’m sure there’s something sick wrapped up in the picture I just painted. But don’t tell me what it is. I don’t want to know about it. I love Prince like a lover, and I have since I was 13 years old and first heard “Dirty Mind” and thought, This guy understands me like no one else.
Being understood and seen is like a drug for me, and for you, and for a lot of people (but not all of them). That’s the white-hot center of feeling alive for us. We don’t just want to work hard and grow and slowly create things. We can’t do that in a vacuum. We need to have a reward. We need balance. We need to work hard and grow and also EAT, MOTHERFUCKER, EAT EAT EAT. We need to preach and sing and feel our attraction to others and obsess sometimes, too. We need to embrace who we are in this moment, even the parts of us that feel frustrating and regressive, and we need to cook and dance and form great friendships and go on long walks and we also need to fall madly in love, again and again, with the world, with ourselves, with our ANIMAL selves, with our bodies, with our minds, and also fall madly in love with other people’s bodies and minds — their dirty, dirty minds.
Being alive is a never-ending thirst trap. If you want to work hard and create, you have to lean way the fuck into that. You have to use it. Having an open heart is such a gift. Embrace it as much as you can, because it makes life more fun and more rewarding. You can’t be so punitive with yourself. You can’t deny yourself and say no to everything that makes you feel alive, or you will WILT. You can’t pretend that you’re finally “over” this or that, that you’ve matured past it. You will surprise yourself. You will revisit old versions of yourself often, without warning. We don’t grow out of our animal selves. They are always here, until we’re dead. And we’re not dead yet, motherfucker.
So. What do you do, as someone who wants to clear some space to create? Stop calling it “negative space,” for one thing, because the word negative reflects your conflicted soul. Embrace your conflicted soul instead. Tease out your conflicts. Ask yourself why you’re bad for feeling your feelings. Why do you assume that having a crush or falling in love always means losing yourself? Is it because you abandon yourself completely, leave your body and mind and move into someone else’s body and mind, every time you fall in love? Then stop doing that. Keep your body and your mind precious. Protect them and love them and worship them the way you worship your imaginary paramour.
The trick is not to stop wanting. The trick is to stop abandoning yourself and your life every time you want something. The trick is not to stop eating. The trick is to stop blaming yourself for your hunger. The trick is to use your hunger to build something. Hunger is a kind of a void, but it’s not negative. Hunger makes space for your feelings. Hunger makes space for hard work. Hunger makes space for building the kinds of things that TURN THE WORLD ON. Hunger is a place to start growing. Hunger forces you into a state of radical honesty. Hunger makes things awkward, and awkwardness is magical and righteous.
Instead of trying to banish your crush, occupy a place of longing and celebrate that longing. Celebrate your body, all of its cells singing in harmony about how hungry you are. Build something big and wild out of your longing. Sweat it out, this longing. Go on a short run instead of a long walk. Call your friends, but don’t talk for that long. Tell them you have to go soon, because you have something on your mind, some electric buzzing in your cells, and you want to release it into your work and build off it. Tell them you understand now how people move forward and succeed in life, how they harness what they have to create a bigger life, how they tap into what moves them. It’s not about having a vision and working steadily and blindly and numbly toward that vision. It’s about being alive in the moment, feeling connected to your own body right now, feeling your way toward something irresistible. It’s about savoring your own melancholy. It’s about eating right now, relishing your own appetite, rejoicing inside your own skin, reaching out for a ghost, and eating that ghost alive.
For such a compulsively indulgent country, we’re so fixated on denying our own needs. We’re so convinced that suffering improves us. I don’t buy this notion that everyone needs to be alone and obsessed with their work just to grow into a person. It’s obvious that developing your own private understanding of yourself is incredibly important in feeling confident and trusting yourself. But there’s no rule that says you can’t balance that work with other parts of your life. I sometimes think that my belief that I could either be alone and strong or coupled up and weak actually made me feel unnecessarily insecure when I was younger. I was always fighting my true nature as a dreamer. I should’ve enjoyed my rich imagination and my romantic sense of the world while also resisting the urge to cast my work aside the second I fell in love. When you savor your longing and your melancholy instead of feeling guilty about it, that’s another way of feeding yourself and valuing your experience and becoming the person you already are.
From what you’ve written, I think you’re looking for a way to feel love without losing track of who you are. I don’t think you have to give something up. You can find a balance and have crushes and also work hard and build a life. You can love and also love yourself. Only your own hang-ups prevent that from being true; the more you love this part of you that loves love, the better job you’ll do at balancing your hunger against slowly becoming yourself and feeding yourself.
You can date or not date, it’s your choice. Follow your whims. You can go ahead and talk for three hours while the bar clears out. Unlike lots of people, you already seem brave enough not to fixate on other people’s reactions to you. You’re into the sheer thrill of falling, of wanting, of longing. That’s why you don’t fear love. And you shouldn’t fear it. You’re good at it. You’re flexible and confident, and it’s easy for you to fall for that reason. Take some pride in that. It’s not about obsession or feeling invisible. The connection is what matters to you. Instead of fighting it, use it to inspire your work.
That’s not addiction. You aren’t trying to escape. Notice that. But remind yourself not to give everything away. Honor your body and your mind. Stay out late, then wake up and build something from that energy. Build from the positive space created by your open heart.
Feel this gift in your cells: You are an animal, fully alive. Enjoy this moment. This hunger is divine.
All letters to firstname.lastname@example.org become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.