Envious and fixating
December 25, 2014 1:19 PM   Subscribe

How do I get over the envy that my boyfriend has had more exciting life experiences than I have, when I'm hypersensitive to every reminder?

My boyfriend went on a semester's exchange to the US a few years ago, before I met him. He made a lot of close friends there and from what I've gathered, had the best time of his life there, including falling in love with a girl he'd hooked up with. He still keeps in regular contact with two of the girls from different countries (his platonic BFFs), and sometimes gets messages from others who still remember him. When I met one of them overseas recently, she painted a different picture of him than the one I knew, and seemed surprised that he'd been working so hard in his degree since he left, because when she knew him he was 'loose' and too busy partying to study. Some offhand comments she made made it clear that he'd hooked up with multiple people during that time, not just the one girl he'd loved as I'd (maybe foolishly) assumed.

I've touched on some of my insecurities about this in a previous question. Because I'm a late bloomer (I'm a few years older than him, but didn't start coming out of my shell until last year) and have several issues with anxiety and low self-esteem, I've found all of this very difficult to deal with, but I've accepted that this is my tangled knot of anxiety to work through. It took that last incident for my boyfriend to finally know all the insecurities I was feeling about his exchange, and how that reflected on how I felt about myself.

We've talked this issue over and he has been extremely supportive. He told me that he had an awesome time there and met a bunch of awesome people, but that was two years ago -- he's happiest now here with me. Since my last question, our relationship has gotten much stronger, and we are both without a doubt devoted to each other.

My problem is that now, whenever I come across anything relating to the 'college experience' (a movie, webcomic, topic of conversation) or student exchanges, my hackles still rise and I get that sick feeling of anxiety and envy. I feel like it's a combination of a few things:
-- My boyfriend's and boyfriend's friend's description of their experience.
-- My own sense of wasted time -- I feel I was not really a "person" until last year, and have missed out on years and years of personal development and friendship-building. This coupled with the fact that my boyfriend is younger than me and yet more mature and experienced than most men my age.
-- I don't have the opportunity to have the same experience with my (postgraduate) degree, as my degree doesn't offer exchanges, and I'll be graduating next year.

I honestly just feel like I've just awoken and I'm being pushed too soon into the world outside university. Now that I'm attractive and charming and funny and popular, like I always wanted to be, I haven't had the chance to be young and dumb and free, hang out with a solid group of friends, get ridiculously drunk and hook up with a bunch of people before I start working or settle down. It sounds immature and in reality, I dislike drinking to excess and getting hangovers, and I have an amazing boyfriend whom I would not trade for anything, much less a handful of cold one night stands. I just want to have had that experience prior to meeting him, which is impossible.

I need advice on how to make peace with my anxieties. I'd also love suggestions for awesome international experiences where I can make friends. I'm becoming happier with my life overall, but I'm beginning to realise that I'm not as introverted as I thought, and there's a lot left I want to do.
posted by sockitysock to Human Relations (20 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, I felt this for a little while. The way you make peace with your anxieties is to start doing the stuff now that you think you missed out on. After a few years of catching up, you won't long for those missed opportunities because you'll know what they feel like, more or less.

I think part of the problem is that, among many heterosexual couples, there is the opinion that experiences like casual hookups, partying, social drinking, etc are considered -- as you call them -- "immature" and "dumb". Straight people are expected to put away their childish things and focus on having babies, career and mortgages when they hit their mid or late 20s.

One of the things I like about queer culture is that it often resists that ideology. And so it's quite normal to be 40 or 50 or more and still having casual hookups (whether in an open relationship or not) or going to dance parties, and such behaviours aren't deprecated.

In short, resist the urge to think about such activities as being confined to a brief window of opportunity in your teens and early 20s that you missed.
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:09 PM on December 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

I used to feel this way.

The advice for getting past these feelings is not easy advice to put into practice (if it was easy, you wouldn't have to ask). What you must absolutely remind yourself of at all times is you cannot change your past. It's done, gone, poof. If you continue to define your present life by your past life, then you are wasting all the time you have right now to live. You have to quit thinking about it. Don't continue to theorize. Find something at first that's small but easy to do - maybe plan a day trip by yourself to a nearby town you've never been to, or just pick up a book of poetry and read it. Really, start small, but get up and do it!

If you fill your present with activities you enjoy, or take up meditation and become more mindful in everyday mundane tasks like folding the laundry or wiping down the countertops, you won't have time to dwell on your past "regrets".

Then again, there's probably a reason you made the decisions that you did in your earlier life. Were you (and are you still) terrified of risks? I was, and still am in many ways. But risks and a willingness to step outside of your comfort zone are how you get those great experiences. Which, by the way, are not all razzle dazzle and rainbows. Great experiences can be just as sad and lonely as they may be profound and energizing - that's part of the risk, but either way you'll learn a great lesson and develop wisdom. So you have to examine yourself and ask, are you are still reacting to potential opportunities/risks the way you once did? You can't continue to make the same choices and expect different results.

That's why I once again recommend that you start small and build up from there. You should definitely find opportunities to travel internationally; but, before that, you may want to practice finding peace and satisfaction in the small things all around you. Don't overwhelm yourself with projects and pursuits - just think of one or two things you'd like to learn more about, that seem invigorating but not too intimidating, and find a class or a book or a YouTube video to get you started. Or go to a hardware store, a museum, a national park, whatever you want, and wander. Take a pottery class. Don't feel like you have to make plans to do this; and you should leave your watch at home. Soak up everything and forget time and structure. You can travel abroad all you want, but if you're always strung out over missed opportunities and what you're "not doing", you won't gain quite as much from your travels as you might if you were more comfortable being yourself and just existing.

You have to accept yourself and love yourself. If you don't, you won't be able to accept and love your life. Your boyfriend does not define you; no one defines you except yourself. Be humble, but be confident. Confidence and self-love are the key factors here.

The other key factor is to let go of desire. I know I'm waxing Buddhist, but desire really is the enemy of happiness. Say that you desire to travel to India. You book the tickets and hotel, you get there, you do everything on your itinerary, then you get back home. Now it's "I'm back, and India is the past, and I'm just here and me again, and it's so boring." Or you go back to comparing yourself to others: "Sure, I traveled to India. So what? Susie's been to over 100+ countries and she's only 25. What's wrong with me? It's like I never do anything!" Your desire to always be doing this or doing that, your desire to be anywhere other than you are, your desire to be more like someone who isn't you: it's holding you back from being happy. There's always something else to want. There's always something that you haven't done. That's the beauty of life. Imagine if life's opportunities were finite and one day, you just ran out of new things to do?

When you stop wanting, you start living. Instead of feeling like you have nothing in your closet to wear and now you'll just have to go shopping and drop a grand on a new wardrobe, you accept the clothes that you already own. If you can really accept what you already have, you'll realize just how much you already have.
posted by nightrecordings at 2:24 PM on December 25, 2014 [16 favorites]

I also wanted to add: another way to think about living in your past. Say you wrote a bestseller at age 20 and made a lot of money. But now you're freaked out at having to write another book as good as that one. It consumes you. You become depressed, you quit writing, you stop doing things you enjoy, you stop seeing friends, and you beat yourself up every day over the fact that you're 'a failure'. Just because you (or anyone else) did something great once doesn't guarantee you a rich and fulfilling life. Your boyfriend's international escapades were unquestionably great and enriching experience for him, but it doesn't mean the rest of his life will always be hip or fascinating or whatever. Living a cool life means practicing at it. It means awareness. It means accepting that you might have changed, or want something different now. A person who wrote a bestseller a few years ago but now can't think of what to write isn't a failure; they're a human being, and they've either changed but haven't figured out what that change is, or they're too caught up in comparing themselves to others. You've already said that you've changed in the last few years. That's another sign you're alive and healthy. If you don't change in your 20's, you're made out of stone - to roughly paraphrase something I, at age 14, once read Alanis Morisette say in a magazine interview (which makes me feel totally ridiculous, but having a sense of humor is another critical life tool!). I had no clue what she meant then, but I do now. Embrace your changing self and change with it.

No matter how much you beat yourself up, you will never be able to change your past. All the energy you're wasting on self-criticism could be used to kick start a new hobby or life journey. Think about that.

I also want to recommend Cheri Huber's "There Is Nothing Wrong With You: Going Beyond Self Hate" and "What You Practice Is What You Have: A Guide To Having The Life You Want" and any of her other books. A lot of this anxiety you're feeling is stuff you've been 'conditioned' to think about yourself, but in fact has nothing to do with the reality of who you are or your situation.
posted by nightrecordings at 2:46 PM on December 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

It's never too late to have adventures. So you may not have the hooking-up adventures, but you can still travel, have a girl's weekend in Vegas, have oodles of friends, etc. I'm 52 and I've been married for 13 years, and Husbunny and I have fun adventures all the time!

You're in a great place right now, just remember that everything happened exactly the way it needed to happen to get you where you are right now. I did all that partying in college. It took me over 7 years to finish, and my GPA was 2.0. I spent some time regretting that I didn't do what I needed to do to in school. I should have majored in Nursing instead of English, I should have gone to class occasionally, I should have taken that job as a fingerprint technician in Phoenix. Lots of roads not taken, but my life is pretty flipping awesome and although there were things I wish I had accomplished, or experienced, you can't do it all.

You can't enjoy your amazing now, if you're pining for a then. So when you feel regret, or envy or some other fucked up emotion about something that happened 5 years ago, just think about your friends today, your job today and your boyfriend. Then plan a nice vacation.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:22 PM on December 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I could tell you stories about my life which would make it sound very interesting. They are more interesting to remember than they were to live. That anyone would be jealous of me for having gone through them makes me laugh, because they are not their description but something else entirely. Your reaction isn't really about something Out There you missed but about a feeling of lack in yourself. The events out there do nothing to fill the lack. They didn't for me and wouldn't for you, though I don't expect you to believe this.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:22 PM on December 25, 2014 [18 favorites]

Hey, I was pretty introverted till I was 30 or so, and only really started enjoying most social things a few years ago. Which is pretty late! And it bothered me a lot at first. I remember going with a friend to the town where she went to university and just bursting into tears because she had clearly loved it so much, and had such a great time, and I felt so sad about having missed out on that.

I don't feel like that any more! I don't know if it'll work the same way for you as it did for me, but a couple of things I found that helped to think were:
  • Well, I'm having fun with my life now. I wouldn't be having more fun if I'd done more of this stuff in the past. In fact, I might even be having less fun, because it'd all be more familiar to me and so I wouldn't get the spark of novelty...
  • All that time when I wasn't being drunk and out and about and having casual sex and so on? Well, I read a LOT, and the stuff I read is still in my brain; I went for a ton of walks, I wrote terrible teenage novels and got better at sentences as a result , I spent quiet time with people who are good friends and that I wouldn't have got to know in busier social contexts, I have knowledge and skills and relationships now that I wouldn't have if I'd spent that time on other things.
For me, the feeling of having missed out was a transitional thing - while I was in the process of making more friends, figuring out how "going out dancing" works, etc. After a while, once I'd settled into this new mode - discovered that it really wasn't too late to make new friends and hang out with people and dance and drink a bit too much sometimes; become comfortable with this newly-stumbled-upon part of my personality - I stopped feeling it.

As I say, I don't know for sure, but I think it could be similar for you: that you're in the earlier stages of figuring out this new aspect of yourself, and you feel scared that you wasted too much time, but that that feeling might go away if you can just get through it for another six months or a year while continuing to make new friends and have silly sociable fun.

Changing how you interact with the world like this is hard but the fact that you've managed it this far is a really good sign, right? It means you know how to figure out what sort of person you want to be and then start making it happen. And so chances are you can stick with it and have whatever sort of fun you decide you want to - and maybe that won't include casual sex or parties that run till 11am, but being more settled into the sort of fun things that you do like makes it easier to go "eh, not my thing, never mind" about stuff that you don't.
posted by severalbees at 4:50 PM on December 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I just want to have had that experience prior to meeting him, which is impossible.

I wish I had gone to university when I finished high school instead of twenty years later. I feel like I missed out on a lot of learning and earning capacity that those early uni years could have provided.

But I am doing it now. I am learning and increasing my earning capacity after decades of travelling, activism, self-employment, 'exciting' jobs etc. I sometimes think I am living my life backwards and by the time I am 80 I will have fitted it all in, just not in the normal order or time-frame.

You can do anything in your life at anytime. You can have awesome overseas experiences where you meet a bunch of new, like-minded friends from around the world in your eighties just as much as in your twenties. DO NOT LIMIT YOUR IMAGINATION to the norms of your culture unless you want to live an average life.
posted by Kerasia at 5:03 PM on December 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Nelson Mandela
You are not a time traveller and cannot change the past. You can only learn from it and avoid repetition. Leave your SO out of the equation and you'll find a better way ahead. You need to be you, not someone elses fantasy.
posted by ptm at 6:20 PM on December 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Remember that you were doing what you felt like doing at the time, and no time is ever wasted. For a while I felt the same as you, then I remembered that if I hadn't spent my time the way I did, there's a good chance I would have ended up with a drug addiction, and I wouldn't have spent as much time listening to music which has made writing it SO much easier than it would have been, and brings me a lot of pleasure now.
posted by Chrysalis at 6:34 PM on December 25, 2014

I was recently looking at a photo of myself as a teenager, standing by a car with my grandmother and mother, and I looked hilarious gawky and awkward. And my sudden impression, when I saw that photo, was: "I wish I had just fully embraced who I was at that time." What I mean is this ... I remember, when I was that gawky teen, wanting to be someone more worldly, cooler, savvier, more sophisticated. And now, from a distance of almost thirty years from that lad in the picture, I see a real beauty and presence in who I was ... there was nothing wrong with me back then. And yet at the time I desperately wanted to be someone else. Looking back, I wish I had just accepted myself, just been fully me, been okay with being at home on Friday night reading a book, not wishing I was at a party with the cool kids.

YOU need to accept that there is nothing wrong with who you are now. I hate to say it, and this is no knock against exchange programs, but you're I find it crazy that you're intimidated to the point of depression by the fact that someone was in an exchange program. Seriously? I am never impressed by that, it isn't even in the ballpark of things that would impress me. Who cares? Ditto, when someone is widely traveled. I have really found that wide travel, exchange programs and the like, don't "improve" a person or make them more interesting. It's just a fact about the person.
posted by jayder at 6:37 PM on December 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

Don't let any of the info re his past relationships get to you. He claims to have loved some girl boo hoo to him. If I had a dollar for every guy I know that went on and on about "the one that got away," hell, I'd give it back to each of them to thank them for the comedy show. It's just immature guy talk to make himself seem more interesting.

Honestly, you have your life, you struggled and developed---he has some stories, whatever, but you have the rest if your life to party and make friends. It's kind of unlikely these ppl were that close---my ex used to make it seem like he had friends but he really had no intimate friendships, no skills to really care about or stay in touch with people who reached out to him. He had superficial friends. And women he'd hooked up with and ex girlfriends who moved on. And the girl that he claimed "got away" never even wanted him.

He had stories that made it seem like they were good friends and close and he had deep experiences, but not really. So honestly, it's possible he just spins it into something it's not. And these people from abroad---they'll lose touch with him. The hookup girl who got away or he loved---please. She is just a tool he uses to make himself sound interesting. If he really loved her, and she thought he was worth the trouble, they'd be together. Lots of my friends from study abroad met their husbands then or long term boyfriends that were annoying to cohabitate with and then married different men.

Don't build him up in your head at your own expense. Because he's probably just a normal guy who is trying to sound more interesting than he really, honestly is. (skim the OKCupid profiles of guys in their mid twenties and over living in DC area for reference).
posted by discopolo at 7:08 PM on December 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

There's no reason you can't go and have a fabulous international adventure once you finish school, if that's what you want to do. You can save some money, pack a backpack and go travelling, if you like - lots of people do it. If you want something more structured/educational, tell us where you are and what your interests are, and we might be able to suggest things eg if you're in the US you could look into Peace Corps; in Australia there's AYAD; I'm sure other countries have equivalents. Or go teach English in Asia or South America. Or get a working holiday visa somewhere.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 7:30 PM on December 25, 2014

Just relax and go to Cancun, or Ibiza with your boyfriend for the weekend. Wherever the cheap party spot is near you. And since your boyfriend has experience with these things, let him book it. The joy of being a bit older is that you can figure out in a weekend what it takes younger kids a semester to do.

Go forth, cross an international border, get drunk, dance and puke. It's really not life changing, but it will give you the confidence you need.
posted by charlielxxv at 10:17 PM on December 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Edited to add: I know "just relax" is easier than it sounds when you suffer from anxiety. But you can make a conscious choice to do an uncomfortable thing. If you don't like it, it doesn't matter. It's a learning experience and you can then say you did it, and move on to the next thing.
posted by charlielxxv at 10:29 PM on December 25, 2014

If there's a whole lot left you want to do, well, this is your chance. You're still very young so odds are this boyfriend is an anecdote that you will reminisce to your future husband about. Cram it all in and eventually you will be looking back on this and hopefully you will smile when you remember it. This guy will probably be your equivalent of his overseas fling. I'm not saying this so you can treat him as disposable, more so you can view him as a wonderful life experience and hopefully there will be a lot more. I met my husband at 31 but I had the foreknowledge before we met to realise that chances are my future husband was waiting and that I should enjoy being single while I could. I don't regret adopting that attitude and when he came long, I recognised him for what he was. But in the meantime? I made some memories. I recommend you do the same.
posted by Jubey at 4:22 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I went/am going through something like this.

I had a small anxiety crisis about being a year older than the guy, but feeling way more inexperienced, mainly because he has traveled a lot alone and is way more extroverted than me and has a lot of friends all over the world and whatever. But you know what? He is also human and still has A LOT of things to figure out, just like you and me and everybody else.

I can tell you for a fact that traveling and partying doesn't equal being kind and mature and knowing oneself. Worry not.
posted by divina_y_humilde at 8:09 AM on December 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Due to a conservative religious upbringing that I didn't reject until later, I didn't have the stereotypical college drinking and hookup experience. I wasn't even experiencing it secondhand as the designated driver or the longsuffering roommate. By the time I changed my mind about how I was raised, I was mature enough that binging and one-night stands didn't appeal to me. I didn't want to do those things, but I hated that I hadn't already done them. So, you're not alone. I've been there.

I think you're spot on when you list the number one problem is their description of their experience. You realize they're putting on rose-colored glasses, and it probably wasn't as objectively amazing as they now think of it in retrospect.

What I did was get better at lightheartedly saying what I was doing while others were doing other stuff. For example, I might say "yes, I too was young and dumb. I actually spent an entire year on [topic of my senior thesis]," while pushing up my glasses. Or when others share stories of stupid things they did while drunk, I share a story of something stupid I did where I hadn't even been drinking so there was no excuse. People who really think the hard-partying approach to college is the only fun approach to life will not appreciate this, and the conversation will fall flat, and you'll move on. But people who like you and enjoy knowing you as a person will want to hear your stories just as much as they want to share their own.

You say you feel like you've only now become a person. I do know what you mean. But I promise you that who you were before was also a person. You have to be the first to value the person you were up until recently. Then learn to tell that person's story in a way that is every bit as engaging and relatable as anyone else's story.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 4:37 PM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

The movie Chasing Amy is about exactly this issue. The subject in the movie is of a sexual nature, but in reality it was travel experiences that were the object of envy for the writer/director. It won't solve everything, but it can help to see you aren't alone in these feelings.
posted by soelo at 9:22 AM on December 29, 2014

yeah, i feel this way from time to time. when your brain starts that negative spiral, you really just have to distract yourself and try to stop thinking about it. you have to make a conscious effort because a lot of it is just shit you make up in your head. memail me if you want to chat because this is definitely something i'm still working on.

what if you start doing all the things single people would do, short of anything physical? get a tindr account but don't check anyone, and you'll see the reality of it is not nearly as glamorous. go out to bars with friends. most likely you'll talk to some rando and realize your guy is way better and you're not missing out on much. it could help you feel more confident in the choices you've made for yourself, and know that you did what you did because you are you.
posted by monologish at 1:09 PM on December 29, 2014

ps. if the experiences you speak of are purely of a sexual nature, talk to your boyfriend about what you're both comfortable with exploring together or even separately. it could open up a lot of new adventures if you're both okay with it. if it's travel, there's lots you can do to travel! aupair, hostel work, teach, etc.
posted by monologish at 1:39 PM on December 29, 2014

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