Hello, Internet! Welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating column to graduate top of its class from Transylvania Polygnostic University.
This week, we have a question that comes up a lot: How do you keep your lack of dating success from curdling into resentment in your soul? What does it take to break out of that downward emotional spiral of self-loathing?
I know a lot of you feel this way. Fortunately, there are ways to pull out of an emotional nosedive. Strap in boys and girls, 'cuz this is gonna be a long one.
Let's do this thing.
Doc, you have to help me. I have always been inept with women and it's starting to get to me.
I'm not socially anxious, I'm perfectly capable of holding conversation etc. But when it came to actually asking women out, when I managed to (which was rare), I would get turned down.
This happened through 6th form, university, and thereafter. All the while getting more and more frustrated / angry / sad and wondering how broken / inept I am, and how I will never be a man (negative bias & negative spiral).
Cut to age 25 and I have a huge hang up about still being a virgin. I pay for sex, I feel terrible, and weirdly bullied or abused by the experience. But I keep going back because I don't see any other way have any sort of intimacy with a woman (more negative bias & negative spiral).
After seeing a therapist for a few years to address my depression and anger issues at couples and women in general, I finally manage to get a girlfriend at age 30. I make some first relationship mistakes, but I'm trying. And hey I'm leaving the dream — intimacy, pillow talk, love, support, trust…
Obviously I was not seeing escorts whilst seeing her. I was always faithful. I even gave up porn because she asked me.
We broke up in January of this year after I found out she had been cheating on me. Her "reason" was that we had drifted apart. I had been seeing her slightly less as I was looking after my mum whilst she was going through chemo, but I didn't and still don't agree that we had drifted apart. so my feelings towards her can be summed up as "fuck off you disloyal childish judgemental entitled high maintenance cheating c*nt." And this is after she's been a jealous bitch through our relationship, getting uncomfortable about me seeing female friends, checking my phone etc. and I thought "hey this is not cool but let's work on the relationship because that's what people do".
I've been doing all the things the internet told me to do. See my friends more, go and socialise to expand my social circle, keep doing my martial arts, improve my fitness, focus on things I enjoy.
And yet through all this goodstuffthatiamsupposedtodo, I am just SO angry and feel totally utterly worthless with regard to women. I know that this is a behaviour pattern of mine, and it isn't rational, and I've only had one relationship so this is not a wide sample at all. Despite all that knowledge I feel helpless at the prospect of even beginning to look at dating or even asking someone out. I think that she'll say no, or she'll say yes and then something will go wrong because I guess I was terrible at relationships or sex because no one ever said yes to me so I never had the practice so I'm so behind the game I may as well stop playing because the only way to address this is get a fucking time machine and change history so I get the experience from early on.
Again, I realise this is not rational. But knowing a pattern or feeling is not rational does not stop me being swept away by it. I just feel utterly without hope. And laughable. I laugh at myself for being so deluded as to think I could ever please a woman or be a man. I have a work crush and seeing her just depresses me because it reminds me how pathetic I am. Masturbation depresses me. That's all I'm good for. Wanking into a tissue or into the loo because I'm so repugnant or broken or missing something. Wanking into the loo after having a shit is a great metaphor for my worth as a sexual being.
So, any advice beyond the stuff I've already tried to do?
Drowning in my Own Shitty Emotions
Hey, DimOSE, I want you to know that it's really brave of you to write in about all of this. Even under the cloak of anonymity, it can be incredibly difficult to open up about these issues that clearly have been curdling within you for all this time.
You're dealing with something that many, many people - myself included - have dealt with. You, like others, are beginning to realise that in a lot of ways, you are your own worst enemy. These negative emotions and self-limiting beliefs are sneaky because they creep into your brain and whisper poison words in your ear — and part of what's so insidious about those words is that they're instantly believable because you're hearing them in your own voice. Small wonder that you feel like shit all the time; it's almost impossible to believe in yourself when you're continually punching your own soul in the nuts.
However, it says a lot that you're willing to take ownership of this. Being willing to actually put all of this out there and take ownership of it — acknowledging that it's irrational, that it's self-reinforcing and self-imposed — is important. A lot of people will externalize their self-loathing and put the blame on others. Externalizing your problems removes your focus of control — it puts your life in the hands of others. This is a mistake. People can hurt you, but they can't make you do or feel ways unless you allow them to. As a wise person once told me: pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. As hard as it can be — and it is hard, I won't lie to you about that — you alone have the final say in how you feel about things, if you're willing to take it.
Yeah, I know: it sounds like woo-woo feel-good bullshit and you didn't write in for me to blow smoke up your arse. You wrote in for practical advice. Fortunately, there are practical steps that you can take to pull you out of this maelstrom of self-loathing.
1. Forgive Yourself. The first step is the simplest and — paradoxically — the hardest: you have to forgive yourself. Right now, you're carrying around a lot of self-directed bitterness and resentment for no good reason. You don't have much success when it comes to dating women. OK… but this doesn't say anything about you as a person. Dating is a skill, same as playing a sport, drawing, singing or coding. Some people are lucky enough to have a natural aptitude for something. This doesn't make them any better or worse than anyone else. An aptitude for dating is one that carries a lot of cultural baggage because we've allowed toxic ideas about masculinity to define manliness as "how much pussy you get." But you can learn to get better at a skill. You can learn to get better at dating. It doesn't matter when you start getting better, just that you do. So forgive yourself for your past.
It's the same with your hang-up at how you lost your virginity. The obsession with virginity is another case of toxic masculinity fucking with your head. Being a virgin isn't anything to be ashamed of, it just means there's an experience you haven't had yet. Separate it from the cultural baggage and losing one's virginity isn't any different from, say, going on a rollercoaster. Some people rode one early and loved it. Others rode one early and hated it. Some don't ride it until late in life and realise it's awesome and others don't see what the big deal is. It only becomes a problem because we've wrapped ourselves up in all these ideas about what it means.
The fact that you lost your virginity to an escort is another way that you hammer yourself in the nuts. As long as everyone's safe (physically and emotionally… more on that in a second) and consenting, I'm all in favour of sex-work. But visiting escorts in and of itself isn't the problem, the problem may lie in why you're doing it. Getting your itch scratched is one thing, but it sounds like you may be using escorts as a way to punish yourself. You crave intimacy, but you also know that visiting them is going to make you feel worse about yourself, and yet you still go. Wallowing in that misery and making yourself feel like dogshit is a form of self-harm and one that's incredibly self-reinforcing.
This is why you need to forgive yourself for having lost your virginity this way and for continuing to go to them. You didn't commit any great sin and you didn't do anything shameful. All you are doing is perpetuating the cycle of "feel like shit > punish yourself for feeling like shit > feel more like shit". The only way out is to break that cycle. So, as cheesy as it may feel, standing in front of the mirror, looking yourself in the eyes and saying "I forgive you" is a power move. It's the first step in taking back your emotional life and breaking out of this self-reinforcing hate spiral you're in.
2. Take Back Control. The next thing you need to do is learn how to take back control of your life. You've been living with these feelings of helplessness and despair that you can't imagine anything else. Like a puppy who's been continually treated to electric shocks, you've trained yourself into believing that all you can do is brace for the pain instead of escaping it. You've lost your motivation and energy to do anything because it's just going to hurt. You've trained yourself into believing that you're helpless and there's nothing that you can do. You are, for all intents and purposes, in an abusive relationship with yourself.
But just as you've learned this sense of helplessness, you can unlearn it. The key is that you have to start exercising control, even in little ways. You celebrate little victories - having a good day at work, having a pleasant conversation with a stranger - and do things specifically because they make you feel good about yourself. Get a flattering hair-cut. Buy some clothes that fit well and make you look good. Doing these small things for yourself - known as micro-revolutions - create little cracks in the belief that you can't do anything and that you're hopeless. Those tiny cracks may not seem like much at first, but they're incredibly significant. They're proof that things can get better. They're signs that you can affect things. And while your belief in your helplessness may seem like a giant wall of reinforced concrete, little cracks in the right places can bring that whole motherfucker down.
3. Practice Mind Control. You recognise that the thoughts you have are irrational and the anger you feel is unreasonable… but you feel it anyway. This is because you've given yourself permission to do so. You let these thoughts come without challenging them, which lets them take root and rot in your soul. But you have the power to root them out, if you choose to do so.
So start by challenging these emotions. When you see a happy couple and get angry, reject the anger. Remind yourself that a) you know nothing about them and how they got to where they are, b) that you have no reason to be angry and c) that their happiness doesn't remove your ability to find happiness. Mentally and consciously reframe the situation. Tell yourself "no, I'm actually happy for them" or "It's great that they found each other. I'm looking forward to being that happy too."
It can feel a little awkward at first — we're used to just feeling and responding, so reframing our emotions feels fake and forced. This is because our brains are inherently lazy; trying to change old habits is hard and takes energy. Negativity is a habit. By keeping at it, though, we can force our brains to carve new grooves. It takes time — most experts agree that it takes 21 days or so to change a habit — but it can be done as long as you consciously put in the effort. Over time, you'll find that you no longer have to consciously reframe the situation; it will have become reflexive and instinctual.
Practicing mindfulness meditation and self-directed cognitive behavioural therapy via sites like MoodGYM can help with this too. It's all a way of taking control of your brain and forcing it to behave in the ways that you want it to. Consider it as a supplement to working with a therapist.
4. Eliminate The Deadlines - You have an attitude that many people I know have: that if you don't achieve X by a certain date, then it's all useless and you'll never make it.
This attitude is bullshit. It's a self-limiting belief that only serves to reinforce your own negative cycles. The fact of the matter is, if you're not dead, you're not out of time. You can still learn. You can still improve. You can still achieve. There's no deadline for love; people date, screw, fall in love and get married at every age. One of the people I've counseled was convinced that, at age 40, it was too late for them to ever find love.
I officiated at their wedding the very next year.
Shit, age isn't even a barrier to sex. One of the unspoken health crises in the US is the astounding rate of STIs in seniors — turns out they're fucking like elderly rabbits and having a grand old time of it.
As long as you're alive, you have the opportunity to improve but only if you take it. Starting dating early isn't a guarantee of romantic success later in life. Starting later doesn't ensure failure. Giving up does.
5. Expect Better - The point of all of these exercises is to break out of your pessimistic attitude. Your attitude quite literally defines your life. A pessimistic outlook guarantees that people aren't going to like you. Because pessimists expect rejection, they're colder, more withdrawn and dismissive. They're functionally rejecting people first in order to save themselves the pain.
Optimists, on the other hand, tend to do better with relationships because they expect to be liked. This isn't just The Secret-esque bullshit about positive thinking; this has been documented by scientists. Just as pessimists act colder and meaner in anticipation of rejection, optimists are warmer, more inviting and friendlier towards others because they anticipate acceptance. We instinctively like people who behave warmly towards us, after all.
Being an optimist has other benefits as well: it helps increase your emotional resiliency and helps you respond better to negative outcomes. Take your ex-girlfriend, for example. She was an arsehole who treated you abominably. But now not only are you well rid of her, you've learned from her. You know that you don't put up with people's shitty behaviour any more and you know how to recognise said bullshit.
Similarly, by reframing your thoughts and making positivity a habit, you're better able to handle mistakes and rejection. OK, so you got rejected. Now you can recognise that being rejected is usually a sign of incompatibility. This frees you up to go find someone you are compatible with and who wants what you have to offer. Did this person reject you because you're a late bloomer? OK… why would you want to date someone that judgemental in the first place? Congratulations, you just dodged a motherfucking bullet. Quit beating yourself up over the opinions of an arsehole and celebrate the fact that you aren't in a relationship with them.
You made a mistake. Did the mistake kill you? No? Cool, now you can learn from it and not make that same mistake again. You're going to fail at times. That's inevitable. Beating yourself up over it doesn't help; learning from it does. So learn from it. Fail better next time.
You're not broken, DimOSE. You're not a failure, you're not worthless and you're not repugnant. You're just in pain and you don't know how to break the cycle… yet.
It's important that you recognise doing a lot of things right. Going to a therapist, practicing emotional self-care, doing things that make you feel good are all important. Now you need to take it to the next level. Take a little break from dating so that you can forgive yourself and take back control of your life.
You're on the right track, man. You're going to be better. You're strong. You've got this.
Have you dealt with depression? Did you fight to get your confidence back? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments and we'll be back in two weeks with more of your dating questions.
Ask Dr. Nerdlove is Kotaku's bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O'Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you'd like answered Write [email protected] and put "Kotaku" in the subject line.
Harris O'Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His new book Simplified Dating is available exclusively through Amazon. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.
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