I love your column. I read it all the time. It always feels like I can apply bits of what you say to my personal story. It’s reassuring in a way, because it means that we are all going through the same things.
I am now 38. My last relationship was six years ago. It lasted seven years, including two years long distance between Europe, where I was, and New York, where he had found a job. It was a very intense and passionate relationship that ended very suddenly when I finally found a job in NY to join him. I went anyway and had five incredible years. I grew a lot personally, made new friends, explored my artistic side. I am a scientist by profession and an artist at heart. I am drawing, dancing, and writing. I get inspired by live art performances, and museums feel like home. I truly enjoyed the New York city life. Most importantly, I became very successful in my work. I channeled the breakup energy/anger into my science.
But I felt very insecure. This has always been the case. As a teenager, I suffered from perfectionism and anorexia. And after being left by my boyfriend for no specific reason, my self-esteem was again very low. After two years in NY, I had an enormous crush on a married man. It went very far and led me to depression.
I am now back in Europe, and I have a big crush on a young handsome man who once again rejected me and dates women from Tinder instead. He is in fact a very nice person, and I want to be respectful of his choice. But it’s very hard for me to let go. I have been longing for him for one year now. It feels like I am in a place where I’ve finally accepted that he won’t date me. But I told him that since I like him and don’t want to lose him, I want to be his friend. I truly mean it. Even if it doesn’t make me feel worthy of romantic love, I know I can be a very good friend. But I am not sure if this is healthy. I want to have him in my life mostly because I have a terrible fear of rejection and losing people.
This probably has a lot to do with my relationship with my sister, which is very unstable. Growing up, I needed her approval for everything, and she always had a very strong power over me. If she suddenly stopped talking to me — as happened many times — I would feel literally dead. And I notice I repeat the same pattern by chasing guys who will do the same to me.
People tell me to go on dating apps. I tried but it gives me anxiety. I am terrified. My comfort zone is to be alone, to chase, to feel rejected, to beg for attention and affection. I don’t know how to fix it.
I have very healthy friendships and I am incredibly grateful for them. They are all very loving. But when it comes to romantic relationships, I feel completely broken, incapable. I am very emotional, I show my feelings a lot, I laugh out loud, I am needy. This is the opposite of who I was when I was this anorexic 15-year-old, hiding in the bathroom so I wouldn’t be seen. Now I want to be seen, but only by the guys who will reject me, it seems. I haven’t had sex in six years, which also makes me feel like a failure. Of course I miss it. But how people manage to date so easily is beyond my understanding. I do not feel like I belong to the same world. I can’t follow the same rules.
I know I have a lot going for me. A successful career, living abroad, a lot of good friends. But I feel lonely and not worthy of true love.
The problem seems very clear, but I don’t know how to solve it. Can you share your wisdom, dear Polly?
Dear Rejected Girl,
Mostly what I do when I write this column is look for some small shimmer of reflection inside of me that matches what someone has written in their letter. I take that tiny glint of light and I try to move closer to it. I focus on it and it grows more brilliant and expands in every direction. I might have the faintest impulse or idea when I’m considering a person’s situation, but I definitely can’t skip straight to the answer. When people send me letters that circle around the answer — what is the answer, tell me the answer — I sometimes feel like they’re misunderstanding me. They’re shaking the concession machine and it’s only going to crush them. My favorite letters sound more like “Take me on a walk through the woods. Let’s see if we can find any clues along the way.”
The perfect letter is fragile and optimistic. When you catch a little glimpse of fragile optimism, you know that real connection is possible, even if someone is otherwise feeling hopeless and devastated. You can also feel real love for someone who brings you their fragile optimism. And quite honestly, when I sense a fragile optimism lurking behind an otherwise busy and distracted person, it’s like knowing that I’m supposed to walk with that person and find clues with them. It’s not often that people you meet manifest that energy. But when you see it? It’s attractive. It’s sweet. It’s almost like your connection matters before there’s even a connection.
I like your letter and the spirit behind it so much that my reply already feels like it’s expanding in every direction and it’s hard to follow all of the threads. The shimmer inside me is already a giant ball of heat and light, illuminating everything. When it feels this way, there’s promise in this moment not just for you, but for me, too. We’re both going to learn something here. It’s unavoidable.
So let’s start here: You have this ability to throw your heart and your head into whatever is in front of you, even when you feel crushed. That’s some tenacity and faith, right there, and you need to feel proud of it. Museums feel like home to you because the sensual and cerebral and expansive essence of art causes some small shimmer of reflection inside of you. You don’t just look at art from a distance. You understand how it felt to create it, and you also feel like you can enter the habitat that the artist is offering you. When you enter this imaginary world, you feel everything it has to give you. Your insecurity is back in the real world, discarded on the marble steps of the museum. Your neurotic thoughts aren’t rattling through your head. You are on a new planet now, where whatever happens — whether it’s frightening or tragic or glorious — is welcome. You welcome it all into your cells. You feel nourished and alive and electric.
Science is another planet that might bring you the same feeling, if you dive into it enough. Your friendships have been bathed in the same fragile and optimistic honesty that you brought to me in your letter, so you can be honest with your good friends and they understand and trust you. When they can’t give you what you need, you are rarely tossed into your own violent sea of desperate longing. You trust that whether this friend or that friend can show up, you will always have friends. You are magnetic to sensitive people with good instincts who love your intensity — and crave it.
Romantic love is the one pocket of terror in your life, but it can sometimes block out everything else. Why? Because you have easy access to that glimmer inside you (like I do), that reflection of whatever you encounter. At the very beginning with love, you’re in the museum. Insecurity is on the marble steps. But almost immediately, your imagination kicks in, and some deep, essential part of you that hasn’t examined your sister and her rejection still feels the violent impact of future rejection before it even begins. Romantic love to you IS REJECTION. The second you recognize that you’re attracted to someone — which I’m going to guess happens pretty rarely — your imagination tells you that this one person owns the sun.
This is an illusion. You are the one who owns the sun. Your imagination is the sun. Your glimmering, expansive soul and your faith in this world is the sun. Your ability to hurl your entire self into everything you do is the sun. Not everyone can live that way. That’s why people are so drawn to you, even when they themselves are terrified of your power. The object of your affection does have something, some strange fragile optimism that gives you that feeling that great art or startling scientific phenomena also give you. Maybe the object of your affection is worthy, even. But if they’re worthy of your focus, they’re worthy the way a plant is worthy of sunlight. You are the source of the light.
I’m not trying to paint you as a god here. I’m just trying to rewrite this faulty map you’re using. Because there is a path forward to a place where you and your love are two suns, shining side by side like they do on bright, dusty planets in Star Wars movies. But you’ll only get there by recognizing your own power.
The imaginary worlds you enter when you’re at home in the museum? Those worlds are real. They connect you to the iridescent infinity living inside your chromosomes. That’s a phrase I’ve been using a lot lately, on my newsletter, Ask Molly, to spell out my (increasingly wild, slightly fucked-up) thoughts about our existence at this fragile time on this planet. I usually don’t like to circle back to the same string of words that often; it feels like turning the sun’s brilliant liquid wilderness into one of those homey wooden plaques you get at Home Goods that say things like LOVE and FAMILY and TOGETHERNESS. If you could feel the goddamn glory bouncing around in your DNA, your wooden plaques would say ORGASMIC TRANSCENDENCE and LUMINOUS, FILTHY LOVE and TREASURED MINIATURE GARGOYLE OFFSPRING and BLESS THIS UNRULY MOB OF MISCREANTS!
I love to follow the fucking twisted jazz of my words off a cliff these days. I never want to turn my freakish soul into a wooden plaque from Home Goods. I feel like I can do a lot with my talents, now that I’m finally honoring what I have, but many of the options the high-capitalist world offers me would essentially mean taking this messy cyclone and converting it into some dim shadow of something that belongs inside a lava flow of words or music. If I turn what’s wild into a dead product that doesn’t inspire anyone to do anything but reach for their wallets, then that’s like catching a glimpse of your own fragile optimism and then having it snuffed out. That’s like recognizing a flash of fragile optimism inside someone else, so bright that it sets your skin on fire, but you know in your heart that they will never honor it or feel the connection that burned between you for a second.
I need to live inside a museum, in other words. I need to commune with the dark wilderness inside of me in order to thrive. I mention this because like you, everything I do that’s generative is also closely linked to my energy and drive to destroy and diminish myself. That glimpse of fragile optimism in others, and the bone-deep knowledge that they won’t honor it, that they don’t see me, that they don’t hear me, that I can’t bring it alive in them, is a kind of rejection. And even though I hate that feeling I ALSO LOVE IT. I WANT TO TRACK IT DOWN AND SINK MY TEETH INTO IT.
Like you, I’m a tiny bit addicted to rejection. I love struggling to be seen and remaining invisible. And the more imaginative and freaky I get on the outside, the more easily I can see paths before me that are filthy with the deepest, most delicious wellsprings of rejection: Here is someone who is completely out of reach to me, like your married imaginary lover or your handsome imaginary boyfriend who prefers Tinder to reality. Here is someone who will eventually make me leave the museum just so I can sit on those cold marble steps with my insecurities. Here is someone who can turn all of my brilliant gaseous white-hot wilderness into cold ash. Here is someone who will narrow my sun to a broken, sputtering flashlight.
I want that sick feeling in my body that says I need to work harder. Because that sick feeling is what keeps a predator moving forward, searching for a taste of blood on the snow. That sick feeling is what makes an animal’s body feel electric and ignites its imagination. I will chew on the bone of rejection until my sharp, sharp teeth fall out onto the dirt.
Longing feeds me now because I’m in touch with my animal self the way I was when I was younger. Longing fuels me because it activates my imagination, which is overdeveloped thanks to too many sad days spent alone as a kid. Melancholy and joy dance a close quickstep in my blood.
So what do we do with this curse, you and me? I think we walk in the woods together, looking for clues that might turn our curse into a gift. I think we feel the space between us close up as we meander. I think we stop in the dark woods and look into each other’s eyes and tears well up and we each feel seen, we each feel whole. The predator can’t creep through the shadows forever, right? Even though predation is its own delicious art (and by predation I mean obsession here, not literally stalking someone or wishing them harm), we still need discipline. When the obsession feels bad, we move back into our own skin and feed ourselves something real: the quiet joy of real connection, the patient mastery of an instrument, the silent work of drawing or reading or doing research, the nuts-and-bolts service of showing up for people who need us but don’t have a need to leap toward infinity with us in the same ways our closest friends and imaginary soul mates might.
But most important of all is the recognition that even though our vast imaginations and our recurring love of rejection (and erasure) and our brilliant obsessive minds all seem to CONSPIRE and COLLABORATE in the project of making us feel very small and stupid and pathetic for doing what we do, it’s an illusion. We are not small and stupid and pathetic for sometimes turning the sun to cold ash. We are not chumps for sometimes taking white-hot infinity and converting it into a picture of a shitty shell on a beach at daybreak, blah. We are not repugnant for trying. We are not sick and weak just because the glimmering beauty inside of us is obscured by the saggy skin of a lumpy mortal, rapidly speeding toward her own end. We are not twisted and fucked for turning a married man into a glowing savior inside our heads, or turning a busy and important stranger into a confidante and lover. Our attractions point to rejection, sure, but they also point to fragile optimism and possibility and expansion. Our imaginations build universes from one tiny seed scattered on the sidewalk, yes, but there are dimensions of the universes we create that are just as real as the oxygen you’re breathing. This walk we’re talking through the woods right now is just as real as the skin on your hand. We are feeling this and so are a lot of other burning suns reading these words. We are in this together. You can feel it. I can feel it. It’s real.
We are the ones who recognize how real it is: the ones who can feel these words, the ones who understand that imagination is everything and obsession can lead you on a gentle path back to yourself and rejection has a way of tapping into your life force by almost killing you every time it happens. We are the ones who need to trust that when we start to feel erased, we will color ourselves in again. We are the ones who know in our bones when we’re selling ourselves short, or when we’re not honoring the enormous, powerful forces dwelling inside of our souls. We are the ones who recognize infinity in others. What we want, ultimately, is not to be erased. What we want is to help other people from erasing themselves.
Not many people will accept that help. But you just helped me a little, and I helped you a little, in this moment, and our collaboration expands out like the sun to anyone who read these words and thought FUCK FUCK FUCK YES YES YES. The error in how you’re living, my sweet imploding star, lies in the story you tell about where all of this power that YOU OWN goes. You believe that when you return to that dark cave where your sister ignored you, you become cold ash. You are wrong. Even when she withholds her love and her sight, you are gigantic. Even when you see nothing but darkness, you are still the brightest fucking thing in the galaxy. Even when she turns away, you are growing plants on planets light years away.
Find the people who know this. You already have. Do more of that. Find the people who can see your rays of light. Have mercy on the people who squint and cover their faces and run away. They are everywhere, too. There are so many sad, scared, distracted people in this world. We will reach them eventually, though, won’t we? You can only shut out the brightest motherfucker in the galaxy for so long.
This is not really about dating or not dating. This is about dancing between imagination and reality without losing yourself. Your one job right now is to learn how to pull back and cut your losses. It’s a heady thing, to keep working at something impossible. I love it so fucking much myself. You have to make art from it and still keep your feet on the earth. You have to put it in its place. This friendship urge you have with the dude is a good one if you ask me, if you manage it the right way. It will have to be a day-to-day thing. You’ll have to tune into whether it is working or not. You’ll have to commit to cutting it off if it starts to consume you. But chances are, he will begin to appear more mundane and smaller to you, and your love for him will feel less like being consumed and more like showing your mercy for someone who is not nearly as strong as you are. But you do want to help him to stop erasing himself. You are hoping to give him a little of what you have. You can do that without sleeping with him or erasing yourself using his indifference. You can live in the company of this love and protect yourself at the same time.
I wouldn’t toss that suggestion out to anyone. I feel like you’re capable of that advanced level of balance. I think you can learn how to accommodate your compulsion for erasure while also feeding yourself exactly what you need. I think this might be the central paradox of your existence, and if you strengthen your ability to live here, you’ll thrive beyond your wildest dreams. Forgiving yourself repeatedly, constantly, is key. If you can forgive yourself, your life will become a kind of jazz where you get to improvise and play but you also know when to set your instrument down and rest. You will date and bring your fear and darkness along as a companion, and you will trust yourself and know when to follow that shimmer inside of you and when to cut bait and return to yourself. You will honor your nose for fragile optimism, and you will trust that it can lead you to a more supportive, enduring love. You will stay inspired, deep inside your being, because you’re owning your full self, which includes your shadow. You can nibble on the bone of rejection and understand its place in your life and also nourish yourself at the same time. This bone doesn’t mean that you are nothing and no one, a starving mongrel. This bone means you have a deep hunger to survive.
That’s a pretty goddamn difficult tightrope walk, I know. It’s a lot. But artists and visionaries and old souls and sensitive caretakers and lovers and leaders and revolutionaries need a lot in order to stay in a generative, generous state. We need a lot in order to give a lot. And what we have to give is endless. We are going to save this planet, for one thing. Do you feel me? I know you do.
This is your moment. The iridescent infinity inside your chromosomes has come for you. Stop returning to that dusty old story that this fragile optimism leads to annihilation. You are a trillion times stronger than you believe you are. Stop blaming yourself for the sunshine coursing through your veins and let it burn in every direction, stretching its rays across the universe. This is what’s real. Believe it.
Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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