It feels strange to be writing a second letter here (I wrote one way back in 2021 ), but I’m having a bit of conundrum and I figured you might have some good advice.
First, an update – I feel like since I’ve written to you I’ve had some W’s and some L’s. First, the good news: I’ve been going to therapy and it’s been incredibly helpful and has helped me find and notice various mental patterns that have often affected me negatively. In fact, it seemed to have helped me enough that I actually had my first (short lived) relationship! It was genuinely the most confident that I’ve ever felt in my entire life.
She dumped me after about a month of dating (for very complicated and personal reasons). I expected it to hurt, and it did. What I didn’t expect was for all of the confidence I had built up earlier to immediately backslide. Next thing I knew, I was going back to my same thought patterns: “I’m unattractive”, “no woman could ever want me”, “no one has ever found me attractive” (yes, I recognize the strange paradox about writing that last statement after having a relationship, depression is very bizarre like that).
In a way, I feel like I’ve lost all of the growth and development that I fought tooth and nail to achieve-a feeling that has become even more exacerbated currently. See, I’ve developed a new crush on someone. However, instead of feeling confident in asking her out, I’m just thinking my old, depressive thoughts again. Part of me feels frustrated that I’m even having this crush in the first place, since I know that feeling attraction can often be a depression trigger for me. So, my question now would be: how do I make myself feel attractive? I can’t figure out how to think of myself as being desirable, attractive, good looking, etc. I’ve been trying to force my brain to think this, but I can’t really do it without feeling completely ridiculous. Are there any practical actions that I can take on by myself to feel better about my desirability? Appreciate any insight!
Backsliding Into My Old Brain
So first of all, BIMOB, you deserve congratulations. You’ve been doing a lot of hard work and making some impressive strides, and you should be proud of yourself. You’ve come a long way since you last wrote in, and I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished thus far.
So let’s help you avoid backsliding and undoing all that good work.
Here’s the first thing to keep in mind: rejections are always going to be a thing. Break ups are always going to be a thing. Dating, like any interaction involving two discrete individuals, means that you’re going to encounter both. There isn’t a human out there who goes 5 for 5 either in their relationships or even just meeting people. Don’t forget: Brad Pitt’s been dumped and divorced multiple times. So has just about every model, celebrity, influencer, guru and anyone else who you (or other people) think is hotter than Texas asphalt in August. Breaking up with someone or being broken up with isn’t an objective measure of your value, your attractiveness or your worth as a human being.
Yes, I know: you were rejected. You were dumped. How is that not an objective measure of your desirability? Well, to start with: being desirable or attractive isn’t proof against someone deciding they don’t want to be in a relationship with you. People can be and frequently are still attracted to their ex, even as they recognize that the relationship isn’t working or that they want something else. And even if attraction (or the lack thereof) was a factor, that’s just one person’s opinion, not the judgement of the Female Hive Mind or the All Women Everywhere High Council. Get five women talking about who or what they find attractive, you’ll get six opinions, same as with men.
However, it’s entirely natural for you to take it that way. Leaving aside the personal and complicated details that you’ve left out, when we get dumped, there’s often a feeling of having been weighed and measured and found wanting – a feeling of “I could’ve prevented this, somehow, if I only did/was X”. This feeling can often be enhanced if this was your first (or most recent) relationship after a long period of being single. And if it’s you first (or most recent) relationship after having put a lot of effort into yourself? Oh yeah, that’s gonna smack you right in the metaphorical ghoulies and then point and laugh for an extra 1d8 of psychic damage for good measure.
To add to this: don’t forget that our brains are inherently lazy and don’t like change. It can be hard to shift how we think about ourselves, partially because of issues like masochistic epistemology, but because the way we think is a habit. It takes a lot of concerted and deliberate effort to break a habit and replace with a new one, and it’s much easier to fall back into old patterns than it is to carve new grooves.
So while you’re reading this, I want you to cut yourself some slack for feeling this way. This sucks, you hurt, it feels like your fault somehow and the regression you feel is understandable and normal. But it’s not permanent. Not unless you allow it to be.
However, if you want to build yourself back up, you want to do it the smart way. Forcing yourself to think one way – or trying to repress the thoughts you’re trying to avoid – isn’t productive. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the more you try to think “no, I’m not a hideous monkey-bird, I’m a hot guy”, the more those negative thoughts just push their way in. That’s in no small part because trying to not think something just focuses your attention on it. It reinforces that you’re feeling a certain way because you can’t stop thinking about it. Yes, meta-thinking about a particular thought pattern is the same as thinking it; you’re just reinforcing the thought and putting your attention on it, even as you try to drown it out.
Instead, you want to do a little mental jiu-jitsu, a little applied emotional physics. In physics, it’s easier to redirect force than it is to stop it. So it is with thoughts and feelings; it’s much easier to simply redirect a thought or push a feeling aside than to try to force it to not happen. One of the benefits of mindfulness meditation is that you learn that thoughts are going to happen, but that doesn’t mean that you need to pay attention to them. When you have those moments of thinking that you’re unattractive, that you’re somehow doing things wrong for having a crush on someone or otherwise feeling those negative emotions, what you want to do is to simply move them aside. You think to yourself “ah, that’s just my feeling sad because I was dumped”, then rather than try to shove the thought away, you gently redirect your attention elsewhere, to something that requires your actual focus. Not, mind you, something you have to force yourself to focus on; you’re simply giving your mind something else to do while you’re letting that feeling pass.
And incidentally, yes, you want to label it as “that feeling” or “that thought”. Describing it as “I feel unattractive” rather than “I am unattractive” reminds you that your emotions and thoughts aren’t what define you. Feeling unattractive is a temporary state, one that can change often and easily. That’s very different from saying you are unattractive – that is, your being unattractive is part of what defines you and makes you you, specifically. So remind yourself that a feeling is not the same as being.
Now, when you’re not redirecting your thoughts back to more positive or useful areas, you should also start cultivating a habit of being positive to yourself. I’m sure you’ve seen and rolled your eyes at the idea of looking at yourself in the mirror and repeating affirmations. Thing is though: all those affirmations are just a form of positive self-talk. Right now, you’ve got your voice in your head telling you that you’re a scruffy looking nerf-herder who couldn’t get laid in a Nevada brothel with someone else’s platinum card. That’s negative self-talk. Pushing positive self-talk helps reinforce your emotional resilience and changes the story you’re telling yourself. Just as describing yourself as feeling unattractive changes the mental narrative, changing how you talk to yourself changes the circumstances. Instead of saying “how dare I even have a crush on this person, this is just going to make me feel worse”, you should start saying “ok, that break up hurt, but I’m getting better and now I’m one step closer to finding someone who’s right for me.” Rather than trying to disqualify yourself from being interested in someone, you should say “you know what, this is a great opportunity for $MY_CRUSH to see just how awesome I am.”
And that doesn’t get you off the hook from those affirmations, by the way. But I don’t want you sitting there saying “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and gosh darn it, people like me” over and over again. What I want is for you to look in the mirror and say “damn, my hair looks good today!” or “This shirt really brings out the color in my eyes”. Look at yourself in the mirror at the gym and say “woah, I’m really showing some gains today!” or “wow, my shoulders look awesome.” Even if you’re not dressed to the nines, you should say something positive to yourself when you see yourself. Instead of saying “oh man, I look horrible in this picture”, you may want to say “my expression in this is hilarious” or “wow, that’s a funny candid, I love it.”
This has two purposes. The first is that you’re teaching yourself to be kinder and to prioritize positive thoughts in general and thus turn down the volume on the negative ones. The second is to simply get into the habit of changing how you think about yourself. How you think about things directly affects how you see the world. How you see the world affects how you interact with the world. How you interact with the world changes how the world behaves. So, in cultivating the habit of acknowledging your positives and giving yourself props, you change the world.
The last thing I want you to do is to dress like the sexy badass you are. Not “want to be”, are. Instead of seeing it as “I will dress this way when I achieve X that proves I’m ‘worthy’ of dressing like this”, I want you to just assume you’ve already done X and now it’s time to reap the rewards. And, importantly: I want you to do this regardless of whether you’re going out to the grocery store, running errands or you’re actually out on the town. This can’t be contingent on having a reason to dress this way – such as, say, a first date. No, this should be your everyday. If you get up in the morning to go to work, I want you to dress in a work-appropriate way that makes you feel like a sexy bad ass. If you’re going to Home Depot to pick up hardware, I want you dressing in a way that makes you feel like the sexiest motherfucker to ever look at wood screws.
This, like the positive self-talk, has two purposes. The first is that dressing in ways that make you feel like you look awesome reinforces the ways you talk about yourself. Feeling good and acknowledging that you feel good helps cement that feeling and becomes part of how you change how you interact with the world.
The other is a psychological quirk known as “enclothed cognition”. The values we assign to the clothes we wear directly affect our performance. If I take a bunch of people, dress them in a white coat and tell them that it’s a scientist’s lab coat, they’ll perform better on cognitive tests. If I tell them that it’s an artist’s smock, then that performance enhancement disappears.
So it is with dressing like a sexy badass. Dressing in an outfit that you see as “how sexy people dress” changes how you behave. Once you start feeling the performance boost, it starts becoming part of who you are. Do it in conjunction with the other steps, and it all becomes part of a self-reinforcing cycle that helps push aside unproductive, unhelpful thoughts and instead builds up a habit of more useful, more positive thoughts and feelings.
Now to be sure: this isn’t an instant fix. It’ll take time and practice – just as it took time and effort while you were doing the work with your therapist. But you’ve shown you’ve been able to get there before, and you can do it again. Only this time, you’re going to be making all of this just a part of your day to day life. While you’ll still have days when you feel lower than a snake’s ass in a drainage ditch, you’ll know that those are just temporary hitches. Before long, you’ll go right back to feeling like the gift to sexy people you’ve always been.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I have a problem with limiting beliefs, and I’m working on telling myself a better story. But this is the principle conflict that you have woven throughout your article. If the pain and the trauma I felt were actual events that happened, how can you expect me to deny that belief? Would you tell me that a religion that has their dictums carved in stone, was not true? And that I should find a better religion? You put in a great deal of effort. I really appreciate it.
Breaking The Cycle
Ok, I see the disconnect you’re having, BTC.
Not to be snarky but yes, if I thought a particular religion was full of shit, no matter how firmly it’s dictums were declared, I would absolutely tell you it was full of shit. Just because something’s old or deemed as intractable doesn’t automatically make it valid or unquestionable. If you tell me that (to pull a random example) your religion requires you to hate and mistreat trans and queer people and has for a thousand years, I will tell you that your religion blows goats and that following its rules makes you a worse person.
But that’s very different from what we’re talking about here. Changing the story you tell yourself isn’t about denying reality or changing the facts. It’s about changing the story those facts tell.
Take the movie The Karate Kid. Is this the story of a plucky young underdog who, through the wisdom and discipline of martial arts, overcomes struggles in his life and defeats violent bullies? Or is it the story of a smarmy, habitual line-stepper whose inability to leave shit well enough alone or try to make peace with people he’s decided are his opponents – people who are ultimately under the thumb of a manipulative, violent and hateful father figure – culminates with cheating to win a martial arts tournament – one he had no right entering in the first place – with an illegal kick to the face?
If we go strictly by the events that play out on screen… both of these stories are there. It’s just a matter in how we choose to look at it.
If something painful happened or you had a traumatic experience, then nobody – at least nobody worth listening to – will tell you that it didn’t happen or that you should act like it didn’t affect you. But there’s a difference in telling yourself “this experience broke me” and “this experience was hard, but it lead to my changing how I do X for the better”.
Let’s say you were in a traffic accident and it left you with physical disabilities – some temporary, some permanent. You could look at those permanent disabilities and say “this has ruined this part of my life” and let yourself sink into despair, or you can look at it and say “this was a massive change in my life, but through hard work at rehab, inner strength and the support of my friends, I was able to achieve X and Y, even if I had to find new ways of doing it.”
Don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t mean that you don’t feel the pain or frustration or any of the other complex and unpleasant emotions and feelings that come with it. Nor does it mean that you bounce right back up like nothing happened; even Lucifer had to take a moment to lay there and say “well, FUCK” after he hit the ground. But it’s the old adage that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. It’s not that you act like the pain didn’t happen, it’s what you do about it that makes the difference.
I’ve been dumped and I sat around and moped for months because I thought I’d lost the perfect relationship with the perfect girl. I’ve been dumped, gave myself a little time to sit with my feelings and then resolved that this was going to inspire me to be better. I can tell you from personal experience that the former was profoundly unhelpful and only held me back from my potential. The latter, on the other hand, was hard, but much more productive. The difference was the story I told myself about the break up. “Lost the perfect girl” just reinforced the idea that this was My One True Love and I blew it. “This sucks but I’ll do better”, allowed a shitty experience to fuel positive changes that made my life better overall.
So it is with self-limiting beliefs. Those are just a story you tell yourself. Change the story you tell, you change your beliefs.
And just to be clear: this doesn’t mean that eliminating self-limiting beliefs mean you’ll never fail again or never suffer hardship or run into things you can’t fix or change. I’ve had plenty in my life that I’ve ultimately given up because I finally came to the realization that it just wouldn’t happen. But rather than letting that defeat me, it was a matter of “ok, this didn’t work and that’s a shame, so let’s figure out something that will work instead.” It may not have been what I wanted, but it allowed me to find other things that I wanted too (or instead), rather than beating my head over and over against one thing I couldn’t have.
You’re not denying reality, BTC; you’re just changing your perspective on it from something that holds you back to something that helps you. Both can be true; it’s just a question of which view you choose.
This post was previously published on Doctornerdlove.com and is republished on medium.
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The post How Do I Rebuild My Self-confidence After a Break Up? appeared first on The Good Men Project.