'He Told Me I Was Nothing!'
Your obsession is fueled by the conviction that in order to be loved, you have to transform yourself into someone better.
Anything (1916) by Georgia O’Keeffe
Throughout my first year of university, I had a friends-with-benefits relationship with my flatmate. I was infatuated with him; he liked being able to sleep with me without having to commit to anything. He broke things off to date a mutual friend for a few months and didn’t even tell me — I found out through someone else — and I went back to him after they broke up. He once told me I was nothing compared to her. Hurt, I admitted that whatever we had was consuming me and we needed to just be friends. Two weeks later he told me he missed me, convinced me that I could be content with just casual sex. I was miserable, but carried it on for another five months.
Everyone in my life (and probably you now) was screaming STOP DOING THIS TO YOURSELF!! GET OUT OF THERE!! None of my friends liked him, he caused a lot of trouble in the flat. He was rude, embarrassing, and I made excuses for him. Maybe if he knew the depths of my feelings he’d change. He’s not manipulative, he’s just immature. He doesn’t realize what he says hurts. Why was this guy the only thing I could think about? I tried to go on dates with other men — kind, funny men who treated me well. I read as many Ask Polly letters as I could, sticking advice all over my walls. The cage is open, I’d repeat, I can walk out any time. Why am I still here?!? I went to counseling. I took in so much advice, opened up to so many people. I knew I was in an unhealthy situation. I knew I needed to cut things off. I knew I deserved more. I knew all of this by rote and told it to myself every day — but I stayed in the cage. He was perfect to me. I couldn’t let him go.
At the end of the academic year, I was strong enough to deliver an ultimatum: I wanted an actual relationship or I had to end everything between us. He said no, what we had was great, why would you ruin it with commitment? I stuck to my word, it was over. Not even a week later he was with someone else, doing things with her he’d always refused to do with me.
That was three months ago now. I’ve spent this summer back home, around family. That’s helped, but I still spend a lot of time thinking about what happened. I hate him. I miss him. I never want to go through anything like that again. I want to be back in his arms. I want to scream in his face. As my next year of university approaches, I feel like I’m spiraling.
It’s a fresh start — new flat, new flatmates. But I’m so nervous. All my friends were his friends, my favorite bars and clubs were his favorites, too. I didn’t need to meet people, I thought, I have him. I distanced myself from nice people because he didn’t like them. I feel like I could’ve had a good group of friends if I hadn’t bound myself to him.
How am I supposed to have faith that this year will be any better? How can I hope to maintain a normal relationship when everything seems to lead back to this man? What if I feel the same obsession for someone else, and what if they treat me equally unkindly? In a city where everything feels connected to him or things we did together, I feel like I’ll never be able to escape that year. Whenever I see something linked to him my heart sinks, I feel nauseous and I want to cry. Will he always be here with me? How can I move on, foster new relationships, find new friends when I feel like he’s around every corner?
I am so angry. He keeps the friends. He’s moved on. I am nothing to him. But he’s given me all this rage — will I ever be able to let it go? I thought it would’ve gotten easier by now, wounds healed in time for this fresh start. Can I really have a fresh start when I’m still carrying all this hurt?
A Woman with Rage
This hurt is prehistoric. It attached itself to this terrible guy, but he’s far less significant than he seems right now. And he didn’t win your undying passion and devotion by sleeping with you or by seeming perfect. He won it by telling you that you were nothing.
When he told you you were nothing, this prehistoric pain entered the picture. You’ve felt like nothing before. You’ve been ignored before. You’ve been treated like you were irrelevant or invisible before. Maybe you were only visible if you did everything right, conforming to someone else’s perfect vision of what you should be. You learned to survive by telling yourself stories about what makes you special, important, better than nothing. You worked very hard to become a lovable person. You learned that as long as you’re flexible, easy, agreeable, generous, and fun, then people will give you their attention and affection.
But you have to be nice, and pliable. You have to go with the flow. Slowly, you’ll prove you’re not nothing, but you have to keep showing up, keep pleasing people, keep them on your good side, listen to them, give them love.
How do you feel when you’re doing all of these things? That’s irrelevant, of course. All that matters is winning their love.
So now, inside your mind, the only way to win love is by giving your whole self away. That’s what love is to you. When you’re tempted to give away EVERYTHING, that’s when you feel like you’re madly in love. When you start to believe that this man is perfect and irreplaceable, and the central goal of your life is to keep him, that’s when you’re hit with the engulfing pain of self-abandonment, which you interpret as passion. Passionate love, to you, is the same thing as giving someone everything you have until you’re nothing.
You’re furious right now because you can’t win anymore. If you win him, you’ve won someone who’s widely acknowledged to be an asshole, an asshole who thinks you’re nothing. And even if he changed and became less of a dick, you’d still be tempted to give him everything until you had nothing left. And if you lose him forever, somehow that’s proof that you’re still nothing.
So he wants you to be nothing and you want you to be nothing, too.
You were taught that your feelings weren’t important. So now you replicate passionate feelings by abandoning yourself to a destructive force outside of your control.
It’s almost as if your very strong feelings for this guy are really about survival. When he told you that you were nothing, you shifted into survival mode. Your survival suddenly depended on changing his mind. You made everything about him, about changing his mind for good.
This job felt familiar because you’ve spent your whole life working hard to become lovable, to become something (even though, once you’re loved, you’re at risk of giving everything away). This guy is a problem because he activated the central anxieties behind your life’s work. Essentially, you were taught that you weren’t whole.
Lots of women are taught this. And the only thing that can make us whole, according to this bad story, is another person’s love and approval.
As long as you’re controlled by this prehistoric pain and you’re acting from this prehistoric belief system – in which your value is determined by how attractive you are, how pleasant it is to be around you, how well you feed someone’s ego, how magical you seem to them – you’ll remain attracted to indifference and dismissiveness and even contempt. Because your belief system is about other people. It’s about feeling like nothing until you can win their love. (And, unfortunately, also about feeling like nothing after you win their love.)
So even though you’ve spent the summer recovering from this mess, your head is still wrapped up in what this idiot thinks about you. And you’re right to worry that someone else might play the same role after this guy has been forgotten. Because you believe that your real self — your angry, needy, sad, dejected, nervous, clingy self — is deeply unlovable.
All of your work in becoming LOVABLE and BEAUTIFUL and KIND can be erased by this scary core self, with its anxieties and needs. The second you’re angry, you’re erased. The second you cry, you’re erased.
And sadly, a person who already thinks you’re nothing will play along with this perfectly, by telling you things like “We can hang out as long as you don’t want a commitment,” “I’ll have sex with you as long as you don’t complain about my other girlfriend,” “I’ll hang around as long as you don’t feel disappointed by the fact that I don’t care about you in the slightest.”
All of this makes me wonder if you were allowed to be a full person growing up. It makes me wonder if you tend to serve your friends’ needs without showing them who you are. It makes me wonder if you keep what you see as your “real” self hidden because you see it as weak. You’d rather seem lovable than love yourself, in other words.
Who taught you that you were nothing? Because this prehistoric pain didn’t start with one random reckless flatmate. It started years before you met him. And you won’t get over him by repeating slogans to yourself (even if I wrote them, heh), because that’s an intellectual exercise. What you need is emotional exercise, the kind of work that makes you feel confident, calm, and present in ways that aren’t measured in other people’s eyes.
The perfection and the passion you imagine are inextricably linked to this guy are only projections created by your own delirious magic, your imagination, your potential — those creative forces that kept you alive as a child. When you think about healing him, making him a person who can see you clearly and understand everything you are and give you the love you deserve, what you’re really trying to do is heal yourself, see yourself clearly, understand everything you are, and love yourself for who you are right now.
So your real challenge isn’t about grappling with your hatred or mapping out the right social calendar or building a separate group of friends who adore you. Your challenge is to stop trying to fix this, stop trying to feel less, stop trying to solve this puzzle and then bury it.
Your work is to feel more and to love yourself for all of those feelings.
Your work is to take the exact story you tell about this guy – his perfection, his potential, his big heart, his hurt, his confusion, his pain – and apply it to yourself. You’re trying to make this monster lovable because you see your inner self as monstrous.
Take every single story you’ve ever told about him, every single excuse you’ve made for him, every single trait you’ve glorified in him, every single way you’ve turned his potential into something delicious and special, and apply it to yourself. Because YOU’RE THE ONE who wants to be forgiven for being a flawed human. You’re the one who wants to be loved even when you’re ugly, even when you feel lost, even when you’re angry, even when you’re discouraged and lonely and needy and unshowered and sad.
Your job is to love yourself. I mean feel love for yourself. I mean feel proud of who you are, in all of your raging emotions. I mean stay steady with yourself, hold your own hand, and let yourself know that you’re not going to give it all away to the next dude who’s physically available and emotionally absent.
Your job is to notice that you’re not nothing.
Your job is to stop yourself from equating true love with giving everything away.
Your job is to prevent yourself from romanticizing feeling like nothing.
Your job is to romanticize feeling humbled, lost, not special, not witty, not generous, not impressive.
Your job is to romanticize being a real person with soft feelings and lots of extra love to give. Your job is to understand the difference between loving someone and worshipping them. Your job is to notice how romantic it is to love a person from a safe distance without disappearing or erasing yourself. Your job is to get to know people slowly, while paying close attention to how you feel and whether or not you’re erasing yourself for their benefit.
Your job is to enjoy how dramatic and passionate you are, and to stand up for that person. When people say STOP DOING THIS TO YOURSELF!, a part of you loves that you’re that self-destructive person, who’s brave enough to give everything away to someone else. A piece of you views self-abandonment as heroic.
And that makes sense, honestly, because you associate passion with survival. You’re tapping into the good parts of that prehistoric pain, the parts that tell you that you’re willing to do anything to live, and to invent new ways to feel more in a world that treats your feelings as irrelevant.
Everything you’ve learned to do, to make, to give away, in order to SEEM LOVABLE – which has been your life’s work so far – feels more palpable and valuable when you’re in this state of saying WHY CAN’T YOU STOP THINKING OF HIM? Because self-abandonment is the only place where you’ll let yourself feel feelings.
But that survival instinct is also what makes you feel like nothing. You’re working too hard on old puzzles. You’re determined to fix things that can’t be fixed. You want to own things that can’t be owned.
The key is to stop working so hard. Instead of aiming to win or escape or change reality, you need to slow down and accept reality. Sit with your feelings — empty handed and humbled and present. Be flawed. Be regular. Make regular friends who tell the truth. Don’t impress anyone. Don’t entertain. Don’t be tough. Don’t say the right things. Admit that you’re in a tough place, but don’t go into detail. Exist without proving yourself.
What’s strange is that being calm and quiet and mundane is an exit out of nothingness for someone like you, who has spent her whole life believing that she can be lovable or she doesn’t exist at all. That puzzle – adored or invisible – disappears the second you show up as you are: quiet, imperfect, full of heavy feelings, but alert and open to what comes next.
Don’t drop that friend group. Your flatmate ex-lover will destroy half of those friendships soon enough. Speak very directly with your mutual friends. Practice being matter-of-fact, neutral, not sweet and generous OR enraged. Try being a very average human being with some thoughts in her head that’s she’s not afraid to share.
Don’t win over new friends. Show up and watch people. Observe the world. Take notes. Conjure the passionate creative genius that turned that ordinary selfish fucker into a glowing god and turned your difficult childhood into a survivable challenge, and apply her skills in a new way, to a new project. Figure out how to work very hard at something other than love, in other words. Figure out how to apply your life’s work to something completely new and difficult and engaging.
Build something beautiful that will last.
Be wary of anything that activates those old neurons around love and approval and seeming impressive and becoming lovable. Experiment with ordinary existence, how it feels inside your body not to toggle between everything and nothing. Focus on loving and accepting yourself and this moment instead.
Because there’s nothing more deliriously sensual and right under the sun than noticing, for the first time, that the most lovable part of you is the part that isn’t afraid of being seen clearly, warts and all, fears and all, needs and desires and hopes and longing and all. Do the things that make your body and heart feel strong. You know what they are. But celebrate being a regular person who is not easy to love every minute of your life. Celebrate being human.
Once you learn to be human, you’ll receive the greatest gift in the world: the gift of seeing the humanity in everyone around you. You’ll start to love others for their weaknesses and hopes and fears. You won’t need to make anyone perfect inside your mind, because perfect won’t appeal to you anymore. And when someone tells you that you’re nothing, they’ll become nothing to you.
You aren’t a monster. Learn to love who you really are and welcome all of your feelings, and you’ll lose interest in chasing monsters around.
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Anyone else's inner 20 year old screaming at this entire response like holy water just got thrown on them?
“Who taught you that you were nothing?” The Man did. This is the perfect woman in a capitalist world. It makes her a perfect employee, too. When you say prehistoric you mean medieval times. It is important to patriarchy that women feel worthless without the love of a man, any man, even the worst man. And that means father, brother, uncle, priest, employer, etc. because when women value themselves it’s a threat to the status quo.
Fight for your life!