The good part of any Ask Polly column in New York Magazine is the letter. Someone, usually a woman, writes in to explain her problem. When, as often happens, the letter writer testifies to what she has learned in therapy, we get an unadulterated picture of what is really going on in therapy.
For the purposes of this blog, such testimony is invaluable, in particular because it is not filtered through the bias of any therapist or even of your humble blogger. The letters help us to understand why insurance companies are increasingly unwilling to pay for anything other than short term cognitive therapy.
The bad part of any Ask Polly column is whatever response Polly gins up. Most often she will tell these women to feel their feelings. Not only that, but to really feel their true feelings. And she will regale us with more tedious stories about herself. In truth, her experience is not germane and does not clarify anything. It fills up space. The more I read Ask Polly columns the more I suspect that that is the primary purpose of the endless repetition of: feel your feelings.
Anyway, the letter writer named Unrequited identifies herself:
I am a 34-year-old single writer-actor-bartender living in New York City, and for as long as I can remember, I have almost exclusively wanted men who are unavailable to me.
This sounds like a Freudian fantasy. Doesn’t Freud tell us that the only people we really, really want are those who are most radically unavailable— one’s mother or one’s father? Unrequited is living the Freudian dream. And she is fulfilling its purpose: to generate unrequited desire.
For her part, Unrequited’s focus is too self-centered. Then again, so is Polly’s. Perhaps that’s why she is writing to Polly. Anyway, it is driving her slightly crazy:
It’s gotten to the point where I feel like I cannot trust my instincts: I almost think, if I am attracted to this person, it must actually MEAN that they are unavailable. Which leaves me at a dead end. How do I change who I am attracted to?
Obviously, she is correct to want to be able to trust her instincts? She might distrust them because she suffered a sexual trauma of some kind. She might distrust them because she has been hooking up with men she does not care for. She might distrust them because she does not respect herself or her sexuality.
She errs in thinking that the basis for a relationship is sexual attraction. She might do better to consider the character of the men she meets, their suitability as mates. Then she can apply herself to the task of making herself attractive to them. Once they are attracted to her, she might find a new stirring in her loins.
She believes that she needs to find love and attraction. And yet, she does not say what kind of relationship she seeks. She is 34 and she says nothing about marriage and family. In truth, she presents herself as career-driven and career-defined:
I’ve fought through anxiety, depression, and extreme poverty to come to a place where I feel good and healthy enough to really put myself and my work out there and make a mark on the world. This is and has always been my priority, and I for the first time (maybe) truly believe that I will be successful.
If her work is her priority, why does she imagine that an unattached man will find her especially attractive? Rather than continue the maddening habit of introspecting to discover how she really, really feels, she might ask herself what she is offering to a relationship… besides sex. It may come as a surprise but relationships are social engagements, with give and take at numerous levels. Reducing it and herself to her desire or lack of same is skewing the equation.
Unrequited defines her problem:
Over the years, I’ve tended to do one of two things: cultivate extreme romantic fixation on close male friends who aren’t actually interested in me (and with whom I never have a physical relationship, to my devastation) or sleep with people whom I am not all that attracted to (thinking some condescending nonsense like “Beggars can’t be choosers”) and/or don’t actually see much potential with. Essentially, separating sex completely from intimacy.
Obviously, lusting after Brad Pitt is not the same as mooning over an attached friend... especially when you know his wife. A more precise set of definitions would help out here. I have nothing against romantic fixations on male friends, but I would humbly suggest that looking like a love-stricken adolescent does not turn anyone on. She might take a few lessons in learning how to play the dating game.
I agree with Polly on one point. Unrequited should stop sleeping with people she is not attracted to. This is doing nothing for her self-respect. But, Unrequited has tried this already. She reports that it does not work.
Here, Unrequited describes her intense crushes:
I’ve had two intense crushes on friends I work with (mostly artistically) that are fueled by mutual interest and witty repartee and their eagerness to spend time with me — these friends were, however, about to move to another country and with someone else, respectively. I know, I know. But the feelings seem so REAL. I also had a couple of meaningless sexual flings with people I had a feeling I would never see again — what has changed as far as that was concerned is that at least, those times, they were with men I respected. Still, I am so frustrated.
As I said, I do not think she knows how to play her cards. If the men are otherwise involved then perhaps she does not understand the game that is being played. If she wants to break up someone else’s relationship—all’s fair in love and war—she ought to be more explicit about it. And she ought to learn how to go about it. It will take a lot more than feeling her feelings.
I note, with chagrin, that she trusts her feelings too much. This being the case, Polly’s usual blather about feeling your feelings sounds especially vacuous. For the record, there is no such thing are real feelings. Feelings are subjective. They need to be read. They might refer to reality and they might not. Trusting your feelings is a genuinely bad way to conduct relationships.
Besides, this woman works in the theatre. People in the theatre are known for their ability to play roles. And for playing people. They are often masters of witty repartee. She ought to look outside of the theatre for her next fling.
As it happens, she is in this mess because she has had too much therapy. She reports on what therapy has taught her. As I once opined, she has undergone a course of overpriced storytelling:
I have been in much therapy. I am aware of certain mechanisms. Maybe I do this because my dad (whom I’m extremely to close now) wasn’t physically around when I was a kid. Maybe I do this because I had a volatile, co-dependent relationship with my mother growing up and am actually afraid of true intimacy. Maybe I look down on men who want me because deep down I hate myself. But all that seems so boring to me. And if it is true, and even if I examine it — which I have — it doesn’t seem to bring me closer to changing who I want.
Note the following. Up to now she has talked about attached men who are playing her and men she had sex with but where she was not especially attracted to. In this text she explains that there are men who actually want her. Perhaps those are the men she has sex with, but surely she is confused about it. Just because a man was willing to have sex with her does not mean that he wants her for anything else. Or that she is offering anything else.
Perhaps the men who want her want her want her as a wife. Or perhaps they do not want her to be the mother of their children. Since Unrequited says nothing about this aspect of things, we can only speculate.
As for her contempt for men, such is a common attitude among liberated women. I will spare you the details. One would need to know more about her specific interactions with men to know whether she is ruining her prospects by showing contempt for them. Some feminists believe that men who are looking for wives are needy and dependent.
What does Polly think? Polly does not really think very much. She feels. And she feels for Unrequited. She believes that Unrequited should learn how to feel her feelings. If you thought I was kidding about this, I wasn’t.
Obsession, or getting fixated on people who don’t love you, or pushing away people who do like you: These behaviors don’t represent real hunger or real inspiration. You do these things when you can’t feel anything and you want to feel something, so you try to THINK your way into feeling something. You obsess because you’re trying to feel. You can’t feel your feelings without blaming yourself for them.
You’re telling stories with your brain instead of daring to feel everything you have inside right now and daring to remain present to that, just for yourself and no one else.
Polly is addressing Unrequited’s promiscuous behavior, her willingness to have sex with men she doesn’t care about. Polly thinks that this means that she is trying to manufacture feelings where they do not exist. When it comes to the feelings that the woman feels for the men she is convinced want her, Polly has very little to say. Unrequited’s problem is that she is convinced that those feelings are real. She is suffering because she believes that she must follow the Siren Song of those feelings, regardless.
Since Unrequited has suffered from a course of overpriced storytelling, Polly offers some underpriced storytelling:
What if you told a new story, with your own appetite for life at the center? If you could do that, you could probably tolerate someone “unattractive” (i.e., attracted to you) listening to that story. I’m not saying no one you sleep with is truly unattractive. I’m just saying you are never attracted to anyone who is attracted to you. That’s not about how objectively hot these people are; that’s about how you’re only able to feel things when people are ignoring you. You’re only able to feel things for people when you generate a lot of excitement and create some mythology around that person from a great distance. Once they see you and want something from you, your feelings go dead.
Encourage feeling at every turn, but don’t tell the same old stories about feeling. Celebrate your feelings, both good and “bad,” and work hard to create from them. Stop looking for love and rejection, and just cultivate love for your own experience. I will personally guarantee you that this is the central trait of every single unavailable man you’ve fallen for: He believes in his own world. He believes that he brings energy and light into every room. He’s an artist, he fills the air with electricity, he takes up space, he always has somewhere better to be.
Obviously, this is tedious drool. The woman’s problem is that she is spending too much time trying to get in touch with her feelings. And telling stories about them. She ought to open her eyes and to look at what is going on around her. And she ought to know what she brings to a relationship and what she wants from a relationship. Does she want to be a wife, a mother or a courtesan?