I am a deep-cut, longtime fan of Ask Polly, your writing, and read your column religiously. Thank you, Pastor Polly! My dilemma today is that I’m having a deeply nonsensical crush on a friend that’s bordering on delusional. Me and this friend met a few years ago through a friend. He lives in a different, far-away city with his girlfriend of six years or so. We clicked immediately. He would visit my city every so often and we would have big sparkly nights out with his friends, and I visited his city sometimes too. We talk often, sometimes calls once a week. We definitely have been flirtatious with each other, but overall I feel a deep love for him. He is so funny and smart and a really talented writer. I’m a writer too, and we encourage each other with our writing and gossip about the writing world. He’s the kind of person who I feel lucky to have met in this life.
The problem is I am feeling so drawn to and attracted to him lately that I’m getting these “risk it all feelings” that would be a bad idea. Like asking him to leave his girlfriend and be with me — I know, insane. Even if this were to happen in some alternate universe, I don’t think he would make a very good partner. He is very depressed, drinks to cope, and has a hard time emotionally supporting me when I come to him for emotional support with something. He will just act really anxious and I can tell he isn’t able to spend a lot of time helping me if I’m experiencing acute emotional distress. He can be aloof, unreliable, etc. I have talked to him about some of this behavior and he made adjustments. He can also sometimes be monologue-y and narcissistic, but we mostly are bantering and exchanging ideas. I honestly get a lot out of this friendship!
But the urge to be his girlfriend is so strong lately. I miss him all the time and think about him a lot — an amount that doesn’t feel correlative to reality, which makes me nervous. I have tried to do therapy on myself and this is what I’ve come up with:
1. I am in a big time of flux in my life, moving into a new apartment with a friend and leaving my current apartment that wasn’t working out.
2. I have been feeling insecure about my writing career. Since COVID, I haven’t been writing much. I just started writing some pieces again and I HATE THEM and am so mean to myself about my writing currently. I feel like I will never have anything unique to say and that all my ideas are derivative and everyone is gonna hate my writing and I’ll never be a cool writer who everyone thinks is saying exciting new things.
3. I feel lost, anxious, lonely, in general. My entire 20s have been this way. I moved to the city I’m in a few years ago and am still trying to set up a solid social life constellation. Hoping this will change! I finally got a job a few months ago in my field, which has been a huge help.
4. COVID quarantine has been really hard on my mental health.
Does this person’s unavailability make me certain that I have to have them? I wish I didn’t want so much from him. I can tell these feelings don’t make a lot of sense and I’m probably projecting but … the desire is fierce! I feel like if I don’t marry him, I will miss out on being with a person I’m meant to be with.
How do I interpret these strong feelings in a way that will propel me forward in this lonely life?
Dear Projecting Patricia,
You’ve come to the right person for guidance on this one, because I am currently a scientist of crushes, working toward my Ph.D. I’ve completed all of my clinical work but I refuse to write my thesis, because it’s demeaning and I will not allow my sparkling, perfect imaginary boyfriends to be subjected to the rigors of peer review. THEY’RE TOO GOOD FOR THAT.
They’re also too good for me. That’s exactly what I like about them. They’re too good for me because they’re imaginary. I imbued them with supernatural traits because that made me feel more feelings about them. It also kept me from noticing that they’re mortal human men and therefore a tiny bit boring no matter what they say or do. Also, their feet probably smell.
Feeling feelings about imaginary things turns out to be very relaxing as a pandemic rages across the earth. Here’s why: You don’t have to actually grapple with real humans, who have a stubborn inability to drop everything and show up for any and all emotional needs upon request. You also don’t have to consider the real-world ramifications of moving or encouraging this guy to break up with his girlfriend. (You chose a long-distance, thoroughly spoken-for imaginary crush for a reason, of course!) You don’t have to grapple with someone else’s depression, his anxiety, his career (which is pretty boring when you’re not out drinking with his fabulous friends), and a million other things. You can just imagine kissing that sexy motherfucker for the first time, over and over again: Magical! And you can imagine other well-lit, perfectly directed scenes that we won’t explore in too much detail here. Let’s just hope your template isn’t informed by the unimaginative suspense-thrillers of the 1990s like mine is, because bros in suits kissing you up against the wall really shouldn’t be considered hot anywhere else but in the twisted corridors of my limited mind.
The point is: The feeling part of this is good. Your desires are good. So what you want to be careful NOT to do is smother all those feelings under a giant blanket of shame. Because shame won’t just blot out all of your desire, it will also repeat the core message that desire itself makes you a filthy piece of shit. Now maybe that’s just my former-Catholic, very married, very moralistic self-hating core talking, but I don’t think so. My suspicion, based on what I’ve observed in real life, experienced for myself, and read in countless letters from strangers, is that human beings blame themselves for being regular animals with needs and ideas and imaginations. We blame ourselves repeatedly and excessively, and all of that punitive self-flogging leads us off a steep cliff of shame. We end up flattened like Wile E. Coyote and then we cannot function or connect with others. When you see people shouting on TV, and they’re not standing up for justice of any kind beyond the freedom to do whatever the fuck they want and feel comfy about it? That’s some buried self-hatred and shame and flattened coyote bullshit right there.
So let’s not kick up your shame if we can help it. Let’s take the desires and the imagination and the longing and the fun and try to slowly but surely coax them out of the tight grip of your mind, which keeps telling you, over and over again, like a prayer, like a mantra, that these things belong to this particular (partially imaginary!) man, and when you give up on him, you give up on your desire, your imagination, your longing, your fun, AND — MOST IMPORTANTLY! — your protection from all of the heavy shit in your life that you don’t want to face.
You don’t have to face everything at once, remember. It’s not all or nothing! You can be good to yourself and take your time. You can also choose one or two UNRELATED OBSESSIONS like cooking or painting or high-quality lip glosses, whatever, and fixate on those things. Consider them replacement distractions, but ones that are less corrosive to your self-esteem.
The big problem with crushes is that this process takes time, and you have to make sure to avoid reigniting the crush in your attempts to get over the crush. You have to look plainly at this man’s traits and limitations without wanting to, you know, help him with that shit. You have to try to get practical — “This absolutely would never work!” — without giving up on all of that imaginary fun you created out of thin air.
Every time you fall in love, some imaginary fun is in the mix. You have an image of the other person in your mind that you build out and improve. You create a myth around the person, usually: This is the one person who can give me what I need. The relationship succeeds when the myth and the actual person grow together into something that functions in your life.
I can’t see that happening with this guy, can you? It sounds like he’s a little narcissistic and a little depressive and these things manifest themselves in ways that you can’t really imagine handling all that well. This is not your wheelhouse, is it? (I mean, I’m not the best with depressed narcissists myself. As friends, for sure! As partners, too much for me, I am high-maintenance enough all by myself!) It also sounds like you need emotional support that he can hardly imagine giving you, to the extent that you had to get very explicit and ask for what you wanted (healthy!) but he still probably struggles to offer what you truly need, right? And even if he were pretty good at having the occasional supportive conversation over the phone, you’d never really know how sullen and avoidant he became in person until you were actively involved with him.
Goddamn, love is hard! I mean, how does anyone even date? Because it takes soooo much time to figure out who someone is. IT. TAKES. SO. LONG. There are so many surprises along the way! It’s hard not to turn on people. Let’s get real. And it’s hard not to turn on yourself, too. Yow!
The thing I want to wave as a big red flag here is this: This guy is a writer. He does what you do for a living. You started to hang out with him over big dinners with fabulous friends. He sort of embodied this illusion, in your mind, that life could be exciting, filled with clever, fun, smart people. Like if you were with him, it would be just like a wine-fueled dinner party, every hour of every day. And you would be effortlessly confident about your writing, too, right? And you’d be surrounded by cool writer friends all the time, at least when you weren’t having the hottest sex your imagination can muster.
The point is, this crush represents a feeling, not a person. A real person is not all red wine and fabulous conversation and ’90s suspense-thriller soft porn. A real person also includes “Who left this empty yogurt cup on the coffee table?” and “There’s a virtual back-to-school night on Zoom but I’m making dinner right now so you have to do it.”
And also — significantly! — a real person doesn’t shield you from the reality of a global pandemic, mixed with your struggles to write stuff you don’t hate. A real person makes you sit with those realities because a real person can’t fix that shit for you. All a real person can do is listen and support you and make irritating suggestions that will never fucking work because he’s a fucking idiot who doesn’t know shit about writing.
A real person is not a ladder to the heavens the same way an imaginary crush is. A real person brings you back to yourself — the one person you don’t want to see or think about or feel right now.
You seem to know most of this already! What you don’t know is how to deal with it. The first thing you need is a clear understanding of why this particular dude is so compelling to you. And I want to say that it has a lot to do with how he’s handled his career and how social he is. Speaking from experience here, male writers who confidently pursue their career goals and socialize without much fear or shame are a real El Guapo for female writers who second-guess themselves and overthink all career and social decisions until everything looks gray and dead. We shouldn’t blame ourselves for that. Bluster and strong opinions are rewarded in boys and discouraged in girls — in school, in the workplace, interpersonally. Being a female writer is not the same road as being a male writer. So this man has given you a glimpse of A Shinier Way to Live, and now you’re holding yourself up next to that Shiny Way and feeling inadequate by comparison. You’re also daydreaming about stepping straight into that SHINE somehow.
What you need instead is to conjure your own bluster around who you are and what you want from this life. You have to start thinking carefully about the things that you bring to the table with your writing. What do you do well? What do you have that’s special? That’s something all writers have to figure out and remind themselves of constantly. The word “special” is used very loosely and broadly here. Most of the time what’s special doesn’t sound that special to the person who owns it. I always want my skills and talents to be rare and exotic, but I’d say most of my writing talent can be reduced to some very ordinary traits: I’m compulsively honest and I like working hard. That’s it. Not that magical. If you want to get a little more specific, you might add “enjoys ripping herself a new asshole in front of an audience.”
Most talents have dysfunctional or disordered roots. We overcompensate, adapt, navigate, obsess, swerve, dodge, and voilà! We develop into humans with bizarre proclivities and skill sets. What makes you who you are? What makes you a weirdo? What do you do well? What do you love the most?
Please notice that your crush doesn’t help that much on the writing front. As long as you’re living in some realm of comparison and approval-seeking, where you “get” his shiny life by becoming GOOD ENOUGH FOR HIM, that’s all very fraught and it mostly works against your creative process. Crushes can make you very self-conscious about who you are, so a lot your writing will end up feeling a little performative — good for some genres, bad for others.
What you need, more than anything else, is to BE GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOURSELF. That means you stop trying to mold yourself into a worthy shape. You just do what you do well without measuring it against what other people do or searching for a pat on the head from some charismatic, withholding source. You work hard to please yourself. You value your own instincts and opinions about your work.
What’s interesting is that you and your crush are a little bit similar. You recognize yourselves in each other. You both probably crave more emotional support than the other person can afford to give, and you both need more ego reassurance than the other person is willing to give. You both might prefer to be with someone who doesn’t do what you do for a living. You’re liable to be pretty reactive and volatile if you do end up together.
In other words, you’re made to be good friends. Once you stop using your imaginative ideas of him as an escape route from your own work and your own reality, you’ll see that more clearly. The key is to tap into all of this imagination and fun and desire and good feeling without always attaching it to your crush. How can you do that? Is there something you can write that could be a conduit for this? Is there a way you want to be living that could bring the fabulousness of his life into yours without IMPORTING HIM INTO THE MIX DIRECTLY? Can you focus on making more new friends, via text and email at first, from the discomfort of your own home during quarantine? Can you keep an eye out for people who are just as charming and complicated as your crush, and dare to imagine that they would want to be friends with you? And can you let any rejection you encounter along that path fall by the wayside, knowing that everyone has their reasons for being who they are and wanting what they want and it has very little to do with you personally?
Right now, people across this broken land of ours are cultivating obsessions of all stripes. A lot of people are lonely and longing for a rich, full life, the kind of life that’s not easily cultivated in the middle of a global pandemic. The main thing I want to impress upon you is that your path begins with a return to your own measurement system, your private values, your secret desires, your relationship to yourself. You have to stop imagining yourself through your crush’s eyes and start to see yourself clearly, through your own eyes, without judgment. You have to learn to emboss your raw materials with elaborate, imaginative designs of your own making. That doesn’t mean aiming for grandiosity, necessarily. It’s just a creative way of aiming for YOU.
Compared to obsessing about some charismatic man far away, that probably sounds pretty dull. We are so surrounded by ourselves right now. What I mean is, you have to dare to accept everything you have onboard, and work with it. When you’re blocked as a writer, nine times out of ten you’re aiming for shortcuts. You’re trying to churn out some preapproved, charming CONTENT while ignoring your emotional state and your reigning preoccupations. But when you try to navigate around a big, vulnerable, honest piece of who you are, you block your gifts. You aren’t really communicating with the page. It’s almost like lying to a therapist: What’s the point?
It’s time to face yourself. That doesn’t have to be drudgery. Because you own the fun that you found with this crush, don’t you? That’s why he likes you in the first place. You’re weird and charming and funny and full of ideas. You don’t need him to be those things. Find yourself on the page. Let the ugly, rejected, sullen, escapist parts of you in, too (you can always edit them out later, lol). Accept who you are. Make peace with your longing, without forcing it into the hot, airless jar of this crush. Sit with your loneliness until it smoothly transitions into a satisfying form of solitude. Honor your full, complicated, wild self — even here, in this dusty room, even now, at this excruciating time. Have compassion for your burning desires. Use them to cultivate your sunshine.
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