Help me survive my twenties without completely losing my mind.
October 17, 2012 2:58 PM   Subscribe

I'm a 24 year old lady with failed relationship woes. Help me stop feeling so crummy about myself and give me day-to-day ways to feel more centered, happy, and not-desperate.

I ended my longest relationship (3+ years) a year ago, because it was bad for me and I was being bled dry by its emotionally abusive aspects. I'm proud that I did that, but things have been hard since then.

I had a follow up relationship with someone I met online dating that crashed and burned spectacularly after about five months due to his "lack of attraction." That was a low blow and it hurt a lot.

Since then, I've hopped into bed with two different old friends (not at the same time, haha!) who also became single in the past year. The first was honest from the get-go that he wasn't ready to dive into something new yet and we parted ways fairly nicely. The second made a lot of mushy comments about how long he had had a crush on me but has been squirrelly and non communicative since, even after a fun and non-awkward "next morning." While both experiences were fun at the time and had no serious repercussions, I am finding that it's only fueling my insecure lizard brain later when it becomes obvious that they aren't really interested in pursuing me in earnest and things fizzle out.

I feel like relationships are my kryptonite. I feel sad, anxious, and lonely during them and after them and in between them. I can handle deadlines, pressure at school and work, family chaos--whatever happens--but this one area of my life makes me feel unhinged. I know in my logical mind that I am a beautiful, successful, smart, fun, caring, kind, and loving person. I have the most amazing family and friends who offer me so much support and love. I'm emotionally intense and I wouldn't change that about myself, but there has to be some way to cope with these feelings without so much angst, right? What is my problem?! Why can't I turn off the voice that tells me I'm nothing because nobody loves me in a romantic way? Why can't I be satisfied with the love my family and friends give me instead of feeling left out because they mostly are in serious partnerships and I'm not?

I am in graduate school and I work 4 different jobs at the same time to make ends meet. I'm great at all the things I do, but I think I'm making impulsive choices to break up the rigid discipline of my life, except it's making me feel worse instead of carefree.

I've had therapy before, following a sexual assault in college years ago, and it was helpful, but I'm not confident I can find time and a weekly $30 copay to do it again. My school has counseling services but I opted not to pay the fee that would cover them (which I now regret, but oh well). If you think it is the only thing that would help, maybe some suggestions for the type of mental health care provider to look for would be useful. My GP has me on an anxiety med and it helps a LOT, but I know some of the work I need to do is beyond that.

However, mostly I just think I need your own lost-in-your-twenties anecdotes, advice, and maybe some books to read? I need to learn to cope with the ugly feelings that come up and repair my self esteem. How can I talk myself out of being crazy with neediness and loneliness when I'm single or in the beginnings of a relationship? I don't tend to act really crazy in terms of calling a lot or being outwardly needy, but my emotions drive me nuts. Sometimes I post angsty social media updates that I later regret and delete (and then feel sheepish, like I'm Miley Cyrus or something). How can I get better coping skills for dealing with these nasty, panicky feelings? How can I stop letting my entire emotional world depend on whether whats-his-face texts me back? I'm a little disgusted with myself and I need your advice for how to get a grip.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I am similarly anxious and "needy" in relationships, and one book that really helped me to recognize my feelings and triggers was Attached:The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love, that I previously saw here on the green. The book talks about 3 different attachment styles: Anxious, Avoidant, and Secure. After reading it I realized that I am of the anxious type, that all of my bad relationships had been with incredibly avoidant types, and that if I was going to preserve my sanity and optimism for love, I had to start adopting more secure behaviors. I've had this in mind for at least 6 months now and it's still really hard to change that mindset that you're not worth anything and no one will ever love you. The book is good, but I probably would not have been able to listen to its message as well if I was not co-currently in therapy, and could talk to my therapist about my feelings. She has been really great at pointing out when I get unrealistic/in a rut about this issue.

Another thing that can be helpful is mindfulness meditation. When I get anxious relationship wise, I find myself running a horrible futile cycle in my head: "nobody will ever love me I'm going to become a crazy cat lady and die alone and this is the worst thing ever." Trying to meditate a little bit 3-4 times a week gives me the mental space to take a step back when that happens and say: "No, that's not true. I'm going to be fine." So, if you really can't afford therapy, I think trying to establish a little meditation practice for yourself can help with the anxiety, since you seem to have a pretty good sense that you have panicky/anxious feelings, that they upset you, and that you'd like to change them. You can find free guided meditations on the internet, like from UCSD's website here. That one is very clinical, but there are more "woo" versions out there if you'd be interested in that.
posted by permiechickie at 3:14 PM on October 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Stay a while, and listen...

I am 28. After an 8 year relationship with my wife we decided to split. Fortunately, it was about as amicable as anyone could hope. I moved back to Portland from San Diego immediately and continued my life alone.

For a long time I felt incredibly lonely, and hurt because I had failed so hard at something about which I had been so proud. It was supposed to be true love, but it didn't work out. My self-esteem tanked.

I wouldn't say I hit rock-bottom, as I didn't get into doing anything crazy, but I certainly partied too hard and reaped the repercussions of that behavior. I dated a bit here and there but it didn't go anywhere. I began to feel that I was hopeless, that there wouldn't be another person I could feel so strongly for.

At some point I decided to focus not on relationships, but myself. The issues I had from childhood lingered, and I knew I needed to grow up. So began much inward focus and soul-searching. What did I want out of life? Who do I want to be? The twisted knot of self-loathing was beginning to loosen.

Then my sister had her baby. As cliche as it might seem, it was a wake-up call. I don't live near my family, but suddenly, holding this tiny new family member, I had an irresistible urge to protect her from harm and to provide for her every need. Something clicked. I decided that I wanted to move back home to be near family.

Whatever clicked did it hard and fast. I felt renewed, revived. (Life's a bummer when you're a hummer, life's a drag). Currently I'm looking for new employment area. I have a new sense of purpose and it's entirely centered around me, who I hope to become.

On a whim, I messaged an acquaintance on Facebook that I would be in Seattle that weekend. Honestly I didn't expect anything of it, I just wanted to make (re-make) friends in the area.

When we met up, I felt something I hadn't felt in a long time: a strong desire to be with her. Not in a lustful manner, but the way one looks at someone they admire, the way that you'd want love to be.

I don't know that it's love and I don't know that it will work out in the long run, but I'm okay with that. I just know that I have a new opportunity, a new chance at loving a person as I want to be loved.

And I am happy.

tl;dr: Work on yourself, don't focus on relationships. You define your relationships, not the other way around.
posted by brony at 3:17 PM on October 17, 2012 [15 favorites]

Through your mid 20's, it feels like everyone is coupled, and being coupled is the thing that will make you A Real Girl. In your late 20's, it's getting married. In your early 30's, it's having a baby. In your mid 30's, it's buying a house. In your late 30's and early 40's, it's landing a key career bump.

I promise you, you are already very much A Real Girl.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:26 PM on October 17, 2012 [22 favorites]

You sound so much like me a couple of years ago that it hurts. Right down to the post-breakup flings, the knowing logically that you're lovable but not feeling it, etc. For me, my relative success at everything else in my life made my lack of positive dating experience sting more, because I felt that by this point, as an Achiever, I SHOULD have more experience- does that resonate with you?

A combination of a few things helped me- I did therapy, group therapy, read Feeling Good, but I also made an effort to spend time with my friends more and to at least TRY to meet new friends, I forced myself to do online dating even though I had major anxiety around it, and I immersed myself in creative activities that made me feel like a useful person (because, for me, 'useful' and 'desirable' are kind of conflated). I made this a serious project, and in addition to taming my anxiety, I also emerged as a much more easygoing and approachable person. So, not only was I more able to ask guys out, they were more likely to ask ME out.

Have you asked if you might retroactively pay the mental health services fee, or perhaps begin paying when next semester begins?

One thing you might look into is group therapy, which can be really cheap- I did it at my college for free, and I've found some local non-school-affiliated groups as well.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:56 PM on October 17, 2012

My mid-twenties were not a lot of fun, emotionally. They weren't quite as bad as, say, adolescence, but my self-esteem really took a beating in early adulthood, for no rational reason. And to be honest, 10 years later, I still experience some of the nutty emotional stuff you're talking about at the start of a relationship, so it's not necessarily that the emotions get better, but boy has my ability to a) cope with them and b) cut myself a break for being a little unhinged about a new relationship gotten better.

What works for me may not work for you, but I've been pretty successful, when the emotions get all snarly and unpleasant, with taking a moment to recognize what I'm feeling. If I have time to sit with it and think or write and try to figure out what I'm reacting to, I do. But sometimes I just have to say, basically: "This is what I'm feeling, and it sucks, but I have [x] thing to do, so I'm going to do that." Sometimes I have to adjust [x] down from something important to something easier if I'm rattled enough, but the trick for me, sometimes, is to do something to shift my focus when the negative feelings kick in, even if all I can manage is to take a walk.

What is my problem?! Why can't I turn off the voice that tells me I'm nothing because nobody loves me in a romantic way?

There is a whole lot of cultural conditioning underpinning this, and it's pretty relentless. It eased up some when I cut myself off from TV and women's magazines, but this is a major cultural narrative in the US, and even when you know intellectually that it's nonsense, it can be hard to dislodge. showbiz_liz has some good thoughts about things you can do to build counter messages for yourself.
posted by EvaDestruction at 4:07 PM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

1. Single is the default.

2. Lost in my twenties anecdote:

I was just like you in my mid-twenties. And my late twenties. And at 30.

I stayed in a terrible relationship for years, then proceeded to have a string of mediocre relationships with people I honestly didn't even like, just because they were there and I wasn't alone.

I wasn't alone but I was so lonely, and loneliness fed the anxiety, until the anxiety became this huge, all consuming thing that made me unable to function in any relationship, not just romantic ones. My actions and emotions were out of control. I'd supress, supress, supress all the worries about my relationship, then act out, feel ashamed and start suppressing again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Here's what happened to break the cycle: I got dumped. One of those mediocre, lonely relationships ended and I... did some really regretable things with rebounding, trying to get back together with an ex, not with the guy who had dumped me, but the guy I had the really terrible relationship with. That would be the third time since we broke up that we attempted to get back together.

My best friend in the world wrote me a letter that said something to the effect of, "I love you. All of your other friends love you so much. Why don't you love yourself? Why do you put yourself through so much pain when single is the default?"

It made me realize it wasn't other people making me anxious, sad, miserable. My choices were what was breaking my heart. I was so fixated on a relationship that the rest of my life was passing me by. I couldn't spend another day unhappy. So I embraced the default.

Of course, it wasn't just that easy. There was therapy, and meditation, and so much introspection you would vomit, and still going on dates with boozers, users and losers. But knowing I was OK alone, whole even if the only person who EVER loved me was myself, has helped me a lot with anxiety and obsessing about relationships.

I know all about being a broke grad student, but those $30 co-pays are so worth it. If you really can't swing it, consider yoga, mindfulness and meditation.
posted by peacrow at 4:49 PM on October 17, 2012 [10 favorites]

Seconding Attached. Lots of good advice here but I - not a self-help book fan whatsoever - loved Attached and found it to resonate quite well. Worth a read even if it's not as resonant with you.
posted by kcm at 5:23 PM on October 17, 2012

I think you sound remarkably aware of what you want. Sometimes the best you can do is just tell your lizard brain to stfu and thank the sweet lord jesus that no one else can hear your internal monologue. I am currently surviving my late twenties with the following rules:

1. Fake it till you make it.

Spend real, actual time defining what type of person you want to project via social media, in relationships, etc. Does this person post angsty things ever? How often? Does this person spend days or weeks being angsty over boys or not?

Define discrete and measurable limits to your behavior and then follow these rules. Get specific. Eventually your brain will maybe follow suit and feel feelings that sync up with these behaviors, but only you will know if there is any gap.

2. Forgive yourself for your cultural wiring

Girls are taught from the time they are tiny, tiny babies that the thing they need to feel whole is the love and validation of a significant other. This kind of external anchor is something you've been taught at the lizard brain level, so it's difficult to change. I think just recognizing it helps.

When the lizard brain starts pumping out the you are alone and lonely anxiety noise try to do something that makes you feel productive, or just do ANYTHING that distracts your not lizard brain. It is faulty wiring, so the feeling is valid and real and all that, but it is something that you can try to tune out.

3. Avoid Drama Town

Draw a line between talking about things to get through them and talking about things because you are fixated. It was life changing for me to realize that all the anxiety noise got much quieter when I just stopped giving that part of my scumbag brain a microphone.
posted by skrozidile at 8:35 PM on October 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

Try cultivating stillness.
posted by ead at 10:13 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

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