I have the best boyfriend. We’ve been together for almost two years and have lived together for over a year. Even in quarantine, he’s really the only person I can be comfortable with being around all the time. I feel like we can be alone together. We’re very different in many ways, but have learned what’s important to the other and how to communicate what we need. I’m the sensitive words-mean-everything girl and he’s the pragmatic I-do-my-talking-through-actions boy. And we work.
But there’s always this voice in my head that says he wants to be with someone else — specifically, his co-worker. I’m an “artist,” and I put that term in quotes because I’m a writer who feels like I’m not a real writer because I’ve never been published and I’ve been too afraid to put myself out there in a real way. My boyfriend works for a company that works with sculptors, and he’s the engineer who figures out how to take the sculptor’s vision and make it feasible to install in a home. The woman who I think he’d rather be with is said sculptor. They work very closely together. She’s a real artist because she makes her living doing it and has awards and outward acknowledgment of her craft.
He and I have talked about her. They were attracted to each other when they first started working together. Before he and I met, they went on a date, and it wasn’t the right fit. But I find myself obsessing over them still. I look at her Instagram and see that they have so much more in common than he and I do. She’s more talented, more worthy of him. He probably pines over her daily (and he sees, or saw, her every day at work) and wishes that it had worked out with them and feels like he’s just settling for me. These are the thought patterns that swirl through my head daily, and it’s exhausting. It leaves me little room to really enjoy what we do have, and it makes me ashamed that I’m so afraid. What am I afraid of?
I’ve been working with a great therapist and we’ve talked about this a lot. But nothing seems to really help these thoughts, that I think he wishes he were with her and not me. I do yoga, I run, I cook, I’m constantly thinking about my childhood and attachment style and trying to find the thing that is the answer to why I can’t let this go. It’s starting to drive me crazy, and then I think, “That’s it, maybe I should just put us both out of our misery and break up with him.” That’s the solution!
I want to be with him for the long haul, I want them to stop working together, I want to finish my essay and my play and my teleplay and put my work out there. I want control. I want to stop feeling so anxious and afraid of the things that mean the most to me. But I feel like I’m at a loss.
I’m Driving Myself Crazy
Your boyfriend isn’t obsessed with this woman, you are. You’re obsessed with her because you want to become an artist.
Stare into this obsession-shaped keyhole. You can almost see into the next room through it. What’s in the next room? It’s you, writing and loving your work. It’s you, loving your boyfriend passionately, without fear, knowing that you’re the one he craves and adores the most. It’s you, befriending the sculptor, who you were so sure was a scary competitor who’d eat you alive. It’s you, living in full color, with a full appreciation of your immeasurable gifts.
The more you stare into that keyhole, the bigger the keyhole will become. Instead of staring at the sculptor on Instagram and knowing — just knowing — that she’s a million times more lovable than you are, keep looking at the obsession itself and what it means. What it means probably changes by the day. Keep watching it change, like a lava lamp. Keep shame out of it. Every time shame comes up, tell yourself: “I can do this without hating myself. This fear and this energetic fixation hold an important message, I just need to be patient.” Soon, you’ll be standing in front of a keyhole-shaped door that’s wide enough for you to walk right through.
How do you make the keyhole wider? By writing about your fears. By writing about the most embarrassing aspects of this picture. Don’t just yield all of that information to your boyfriend immediately, once you start to feel better. You need to make peace with it first. You need to get on top of it and sit on it for a while. You need to walk around it and look at it from every angle.
Then you need to crawl inside of the keyhole, in your mind: Become the sculptor. Become your boyfriend. Become a luminous artist of your own creation. Become a wolf, slinking through the snowy woods. What is this slinky motherfucker looking for, exactly? Give yourself more power inside your mind. Give yourself more charms and more skills. Everything you create for yourself will have some thin thread of truth to it that will make you stronger in your real life. That’s how the artist survives emotionally.
You don’t want your boyfriend to reassure you. You don’t even need him to love you more than he already does, or to show it more. You just need to notice how badly you want to become the sculptor. She knows something you don’t know. She has more freedom than you have. She stands up for her desires, completely, without shame, in ways that you would never let yourself. You’re a little bit in love with her, but mostly you want to become her.
Become yourself instead. Use the tools she uses and throw in some of your own. Move closer to the things that terrify and embarrass you. Find images for how you feel.
This is what I’ve been doing for the past year with Ask Molly, the newsletter that’s written by Polly’s evil twin. I know I keep bringing it up, but I keep reexamining its purpose in my life lately. It’s grown into this tool for understanding my subconscious and unconscious desires. I let Molly go wherever she wants and say whatever she wants and do whatever she wants. Molly started out funny and then she got creepy. Molly was a predator for a while — she only hunted emotionally stunted or out-of-reach straight men, not the sexiest or worthiest prey around, but God, did she make it sound fun sometimes. It was a tiny bit problematic, but that’s what I needed to shake something awake inside of me without burning down my life. Molly has made everything more fun, even in the middle of a global pandemic. She’s a fucking wildebeest. She can have fun anywhere.
Molly taught me how to have fun with my shame instead of always feeling afraid of it. By digging into the most shameful terrain imaginable, Molly allowed me to see that the things I was afraid of were actually just basic animal needs: universal, understandable, visceral, tasty, totally forgivable.
Your envy is forgivable, too. Instead of feeling ashamed of your so-called sins, look more closely at what they want to teach you. Follow your desires around the room until your body wakes up in Bali, in Wichita, in Morocco, in Tasmania.
And ask yourself what you love the most. Sometimes the answer to that will come from the current you: “I love transcendent words on a page.” Other times, the answer will come from some insecurely attached baby form of yourself: “I love to long for love that will never be given to me.”
Sometimes Molly takes the shape of a vainglorious queen. But lately, the vainglorious queen has turned into what I like to affectionately call my ignored baby. My ignored baby loves to be ignored so much! She gets a charge out of it. The vainglorious queen cut back on my shame a lot, so now it’s safe for the ignored baby to come out to play.
Or is it safe? Because the world is frightening and my world is also a little frightening at the moment. Is the ignored baby here because I’m afraid? Is the ignored baby here because I’m trying to write music and I’m worried that I won’t continue, out of shame or avoidance? I don’t know. All I know is that I’m being very, very patient with my ignored baby. Every now and then she makes a mess, compulsively. Not a big mess! Nothing gets broken! But ignored baby wants everyone to see her when she’s upset. And I’m trying to slow that down a little. I have to learn to sit with her when she’s pissed off or sad, so she won’t go looking for help from someone who’s not that careful with her heart (THIS IS HER FAVORITE THING TO DO).
I don’t completely love telling you about ignored baby, because she’s pretty fragile. She embarrasses me. But that also tells me that mentioning her might be worthwhile. The fact that she throws me deeper into my shame helps me to observe and even heal that shame in ways that the vainglorious queen can’t. My queen has magic mirrors to stare into and gigantic goblets of red wine to pour down her throat, after all. She’s too busy for this shit.
Sometimes an obsession is a way of entering your most jittery, afraid state so you can address, examine, and heal that state patiently, and observe what energy might emerge from it. When you feel jittery, look for energy that you could use productively, energy that makes you feel calm and whole when you sit with it. Instead of telling yourself a story about how your jittery feeling means that you’re broken and you need SOMETHING EXTERNAL to fix yourself, sit calmly and savor your jitters until they subside.
The key is to not return to the spot where you wait for some answer or satisfaction from the void. Don’t let yourself observe the sculptor on Instagram right now. Stop talking about her like she’s someone you know. Stop talking about your boyfriend’s passionate love for her like it’s real. Shut off your windows into those worlds, and watch as new windows open up as soon as you do that. The new windows will look in on that room we talked about before, where you’re an artist and you’re loved deeply and you’re full of passionate love for everyone around you and yourself. That room is compassionate and it’s also endlessly interesting and odd and vivid and hilarious and murky.
You get into that room with patience. Patience means backing away from obsessive portals and sitting calmly with yourself and giving yourself all of the love that your insecure child or anxious, inferior girlfriend or wobbly new artist needs. Patience means understanding that you want some things that you might’ve called embarrassing in the past. You made your gifts and your desires shameful in order to protect yourself from the risk of wanting something so big and so important to you. Your insecure child told you that wanting big things always leads you down the path to pain and agony. But patience means loving yourself even as you discover how wild and confusing your truest desires really are.
Patience even means loving a boyfriend who has secret crushes that don’t mean shit. Because patience means loving the complexity of your own soul and everyone else’s souls. The more you explore your own twisted knot of supposedly unacceptable needs and vainglorious desires and bratty urges, the more you’ll make room for the manifestations of other people’s wildest selves and wildest desires.
I’m not saying your guy actually has a crush. That doesn’t seem like who he is, honestly. He’s a guy who wants to be with someone like you, an artist who is also very vulnerable and humble. He wants to live in reality with you instead of existing on some fantastical plane. That’s why he’s not an artist himself. Your boyfriend is complex, and he has other desires that you’ll have to make room for and accept along the way if you want to stay with him. You’ll both have to grow.
Just be clear on this: You’re the one with the crush on this lady sculptor. You’re the one who needs to make some room for it and process it and feel it and put it in its proper place as an invention of your restless artistic mind.
Life gets more interesting when you can pull this off.
But you have to be very kind to yourself, and very patient. Once you feel very patient and calm, you’ll find yourself in that magical room we talked about. Every cell will feel sublime, every nerve will light up, every color will brighten, every heartbreak will soar to the surface of your consciousness. Your baby will be there, too, and she’ll need your love. Give her everything you’ve got.
So don’t ask if you’re good enough to keep your boyfriend. Don’t ask if you’re good enough to become a writer. Don’t ask if you’re good enough to become a “real” artist. You’re already an artist, and you’re already real. Ask if you’re patient enough to be right where you are.
Ask Polly is moving to an every other Wednesday schedule, but there’s a new Ask Polly newsletter to fill in the gaps; please sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every other Wednesday.
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