he’s the main character in my life
July 9, 2022 2:24 PM   Subscribe

I went through a break up around 5 or 6 months again. I’m sufficiently over the guy now, but still, when I’m around him, I can’t help but compare myself to him constantly. While I plan to keep my distance, I want to stop comparing myself to him.

Comparison with others is one of the major things I’m working on in therapy at the moment and has been a theme of questions I’ve asked on here in the past - I just want to acknowledge that, since I realize it’s frustrating to see the same type of question posed by the same person multiple times. I think my framing for this question is different from those though.

The context: I dated this guy for a little over a year. We broke up because he didn’t want to be together for the long term and I did. I went through all of the pain and the grief, and maybe still have some residual grief, but I don’t think I’m in love with him anymore. We were no to minimal contact for several months and now we’re starting to maybe become friends. We just watched a movie together with a mutual friend who’s much closer to him than he is to me.

The problem: For as long as I’ve known him, even before we started dating, and even now, I have always compared myself to him. It’s part admiration and part envy; he has a lot of traits that I don’t have that I really, really want to cultivate in myself. For instance, he’s very confident in himself, naturally extroverted, very charismatic, always the life of the party, street-smart, has lots of basic life skills (things that I don’t know well or at all, like driving, riding a bike, cooking, fixing cars, etc). He is resilient and trusts in his ability to get over things. And he just has a lot of interests that he cultivates and genuinely likes; for example, Marvel, music, 3D printing, etc. I have my own strengths, but a lot of these traits are things that I am still working on developing or will never be. For instance, I am an introvert. I will never be an extrovert. I’ve always seen myself as being deficient to him in some ways - because he’s so mature, confident, etc.

To be fair to myself, I have traits that I really value. I am incredibly thoughtful. I have strong critical thinking skills. I am humble. I find beauty in the smallest things because I truly believe beauty can be found everywhere. I have a strong sense of curiosity and want to learn about everything. I am respectful and considerate. I notice though, that even when thinking about these positive traits of mine, I’m still comparing myself to him — thinking “well, he has these traits too”.

Today, when I was hanging out with him, I felt so small. The way I thought about it was that when he is in my life and I am comparing myself to him, he starts feeling like the main character of my life. Which is fundamentally disempowering and incredibly painful. If he’s the main character, then I give away all of my power to write my own story and instead spend all of my effort trying to get my story to be more like his, even though we are fundamentally different people on fundamentally different paths. This dynamic made our relationship incredibly stressful for me.

The request: I have already decided that I will be politely keeping my distance and not trying to engage in friendship until I have stopped comparing myself to him (and only then if it feels like friendship with him would add to my life — I’m really not sure it would). But in the mean time, I want to kill this thought pattern in my head, because I know that it extends beyond him. So, here is the concrete request: what are some strategies I could use to stop comparing myself to my ex and other people who I see as having all of these positive traits that I don’t have? How do I turn this envy into something productive rather than destructive? How do I take back power over my life, so the only person who I am striving to be is my most authentic self?

Caveats: our hang-out today wasn’t great; I felt like the third wheel between him and our mutual friend since they’re so much closer and talk a lot. Because we were also with the mutual friend the entire time, I didn’t really get a chance to have a more vulnerable catch-up conversation with him where I’d be able to see that he was struggling with things just as I am. Another major caveat: I’m pretty sure I’m depressed (unmedicated atm but getting treated), and he is not depressed (to my knowledge). Final caveat: some of this may also be motivated by realizing that he’s actually doing just fine without me, that I wasn’t essential to his life…which is its own painful realization, and also makes me feel expendable. He never needed me like I needed him. And I don’t need him now, but it hurts to see that I haven’t actually had any kind of strong impact on him - whereas he has shaped me so much.
posted by cruel summer to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you want to get better at life skills like cooking and driving, what’s stopping you? Go for it!

He sounds like a pretty regular guy. Frankly, being interested in Marvel is at best a pretty ordinary and mainstream interest to have these days. You can probably cultivate more interesting hobbies than that!

I think he makes you feel insecure because you are still not over the breakup. It’s not really fun to hang out with someone who rejected you, right? Maybe you can be friends someday, but for now, you should look elsewhere for friendship. And for the love, don’t try to have a “vulnerable” catch-up conversation with him.
posted by cakelite at 2:51 PM on July 9, 2022 [13 favorites]

Best answer: You are definitely not over this guy. And that's OK! It takes me a really long time to get over break-ups too: it's rare I find someone I like so much and when I do, it's hard to let go.

Please completely cut him out of your life. He is NOT that great because he made you feel small. I see how he expanded your world but he's also made it smaller now, you know?

All the personality stuff you describe sounds like whatever to me. You're doing therapy and maybe will take meds and both of those things will help you understand yourself better and grow your confidence. You can also work on building your practical skills like riding a bike, driving, cooking, etc. For real? Everyone can learn those and the fact that you think it makes him special makes me want to laugh... at him, not you. Fuck charisma and being the life of the party; here's to kindness and you being you! When you are your best you, you will have all of that and more. For much of my life, I have been the center of attention at gatherings and it's really meaningless unless you're around people you like and care about. And if you do care, it's kind of exhausting. He doesn't sound very caring and maybe is confident but also is selfish. OK maybe he's fine but sounds completely mid to me: as cakelite said, Marvel is fun but nothing extraordinary. If you like it, jump on it with an open heart! Connect with others online who share your interest and who don't make you feel bad.

So yes, keep doing therapy and pick up a book to learn or ask a different friend to help teach you these skills! Set little goals and go for it! Maybe you're not ready to cut him out completely yet but know that one day you will be able to move on and it will feel great. And a few years from now, you will have all of these skills and can help teach others!
posted by smorgasbord at 2:57 PM on July 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

As someone who is really successful and happy with my life but also less successful than most of my former lovers. . . my strategy is to try to remember that if someone objectively awesome likes me, that's a good thing and worth celebrating. I've got no complaints about my career. But, I've not become the youngest fellow of a professional society, or received a presidential medal, or had to choose among 5 faculty jobs at research universities. I've shared a bed with people who have. I feel good that they wanted to spend time with me and value that friendship. Being the dumb one among awesome people is a lot better than being the smart one among dumb people. Best wishes.
posted by eotvos at 3:13 PM on July 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: cruel summer, I admire the work you're doing, and this result in particular: you've noticed the pattern. It's not specifically about this guy -- he's just the latest exemplar. "Aspirational crushes" can be romantic or platonic.

Good call to limit time with people who make you feel small. It's really great how you're recognizing this is a feeling, not a fact.

Strategy: In general, the self-assuredness you seek is a consequence of developing your own skills.
1) Make a list! What do you consider "basic life skills"? Your ex can cook, ride a bike, fix a car -- which skills have the other "charismatic," "confident" people had? They weren't born with this knowledge, either; what would you like to know how to do? (Include anything you do now and would like to improve upon.)
2) Put the list in order of importance to you.
3) Break out the resources and steps needed to learn or better these skills. [Skim AskMe tags, or post a new question. Depending on the subject, an already-proficient friend (not your ex, not at this time) may also be a good teacher.]
4) Practice.

You know some of your core strengths. Thoughtful, curious, considerate, reflective you *is* the authentic you.
Treating the depression (and anxiety is often co-morbid with depression) is going to help a lot.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:16 PM on July 9, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I can't speak to other charismatic people who become the main character everywhere they go, but my best friend is like this. Naturally outgoing, even in a country where he doesn't speak the language he immediately makes dozens of friends, people of all genders fall in love with him immediately. The thing is, it's effectively a show he puts on and can't help putting on. It takes a huge amount of emotional energy. When he's alone or with only trusted people, he's often quiet, anxious, and withdrawn, and he's always looking for ways to restore his sense of balance, often turning to methods that aren't optimal for his well-being. I spent a lot of my life being jealous of him but as our friendship has grown deeper I've realized that I don't actually think I would ever trade my life for his.

But be that as it may, you're clearly not over this guy, and it will take a while for you to see the cracks in the façade. I would suggest bearing in mind that he very likely deliberately stayed close to his mutual friend so as to avoid a "vulnerable" conversation with you, because he sees that you're still pining for him and wants to avoid having to emotionally shut you down again. Yes, he may have gotten over you pretty quickly—but so what? Chasing parity here will only lead to more misery. People are important to you for your own reasons and that is wonderful, it in no way requires reciprocity.
posted by derrinyet at 4:28 PM on July 9, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: What was something that you loved before you met this person? Some skill you wanted to learn, some quality you wanted to be, some hobby you wanted to try? (Or something you did, loved about yourself, excelled at!) Pick something that has nothing to do with him. If it’s hard to find something that isn’t tangled up in him, look around your neighborhood and find something you haven’t done or known about that you *could* try - learning a language, knitting, parkour, knife-making, fire-spinning, house dance, volunteering at an animal shelter. Look in particular for activities that are outdoors and social and/or align with your core values. Go! Focus on what YOU were and are.

If hanging out with certain people makes you feel awful, know that you are making that choice when you hang out with them. If you compare yourself to someone online, know that keeping that channel open is a choice that facilitates that painful comparison. It took me a long time, is still taking me time! to acknowledge that exposing myself to the things that hurt wasn’t helping me to work through them. In some cases, we have the choice to not put ourselves in harm’s way. You have a choice.

I hope it is a *happy* summer, a summer of exploration and growth and release for you! Congratulations on your recent graduation. You are starting on a journey of self-discovery and healing that many people never even begin. I am so excited for future you!
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 5:20 PM on July 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

Some of the dumbest fuckers I know like the Marvel universe. Plenty of people who aren't dumb as shit like Marvel, too, but being impressed someone for an interest in Marvel is like being impressed with someone because they like eating pizza. It's not a personality.

Please please please I beg of you, stop spending time with people who make you feel bad. There are more than 7 billion other people to choose from.

Spend time doing the things that YOU like to do. By yourself, even. Get a pet, go volunteer somewhere, do literally anything that opens your world to show you a purpose beyond this vortex of awful people and awful relationships. I promise you there is so much more out there and so much opportunity for you to find your wonderful life once you stop engaging with these people who make you feel less than what you are.
posted by phunniemee at 5:45 PM on July 9, 2022 [16 favorites]

Best answer: Ooh ok we sound very much alike and I dated a guy who was just like this, and I felt all of the same ways. In time I have come to realize that he was probably actually a lot of bluster, and while fine I'm sure, was never really deserving of the pedestal treatment he got. The way I nipped those thoughts in the bud until they stopped showing up, is every time he would come up, I'd be like, ugh, no, and try to think about something in my own life I need to work on. What projects am I working on and what will I have to do next? What do I need right now? Am I comfortable? That kind of thing. Thinking about yourself & tending to your own needs starts to feel way better so it's something you prefer to do.
posted by bleep at 6:23 PM on July 9, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have had similar thought spirals of nonstop comparison and envy with someone who I was intimate with who rejected me. I was trying to think my way out of grief rather than experiencing the full feelings of loss and the emptiness I felt. My brain believed if I just spiraled thoughts about how I wasn't as good as this person for long enough, I would figure out how to be different so I would be loved again. I found it useful to have a couple sentences I would say to myself when I noticed I was doing The Thing again: one is "my life is about me," another was "there's a million ways to be." I also used some CBT exercises from the book Feeling Good to try to counter the spirals of envy and jealousy and comparison.

It takes some work to begin to feel like you are a legitimately great person and the main character in your life. There are many messages we all encounter about how we need to work on and improve ourselves and be a certain way. Being the life of the party and super charismatic and confident is not the only way to be a person. Being those things is also easier when you have more privilege.
posted by lizard music at 7:21 PM on July 9, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think we have some weird cultural thing about how it's a sign of emotional maturity or good character to be friends with your exes. Here's the thing: there's nothing inherently good or bad about being friends with exes. Often it's just an extension of a complicated relationship. My therapist has said she thinks you need a good long while after an emotional break-up before you should even consider if you want to be friends. I worry that your desire to be friends with him is part of a continuing desire for his interest and approval. There's no requirement of friendship. A lot of times we talk about being friends at break ups because it's so difficult to imagine life without that person. It doesn't mean you can transition quickly to friends, or that you can ever do it.

I hear you talking about his great qualities, but I think it's also important to look at how you feel when you are with him. Do you feel good about yourself when you're with him? It seems like you don't. And that's what should be a huge red flag. And this isn't just about people we date. Do we feel good about ourselves when we are with our friends? If not, that's something to explore! Why spend time with people who you feel bad being around?

I have an ex who I love and adore. We were very close, and the break up has been emotionally wrenching for both of us. We have gotten back together a few times. I finally realized the last go-round that I just don't feel good about myself when I'm with him. It doesn't matter why (in this case, it has to do with some things he said that we never really had the tools to repair, and those things just echo in my head), and there isn't really a need to cast blame. It's just a sign that it's not really a healthy relationship.

I'm pretty extroverted and outgoing. There are some fun things for me in being this way, and I want to share that extroverts can be people who make you feel good about yourself. I was at an event recently and struck up a conversation with a lovely person, and we ended up chatting off and on all evening. At the end of the evening, she told me she is usually pretty socially anxious and making me as a friend, and having me be so comfortable talking to her, made her night and helped her have a great time. I had no idea! I didn't even know she was socially anxious! I just started talking to her and she talked back.

My point isn't that I'm awesome. I'm sure sometimes I'm not! But being an extrovert isn't inherently superior, and definitely it's no good if you don't feel good around him.

Usually the things we project onto others, the comparisons, are things we feel back about in ourselves, as you have realized. This isn't about him.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:45 PM on July 9, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I would one million percent not be ready to hang out with an ex this soon, regardless of the circumstances, so please don’t push yourself to do this just to check some sort of “healthy growth” or “I’m over him” box.

Others have covered the pedestal issue but I really want to stress that there’s no benefit to hanging out with someone who doesn’t make you feel good.

He’s not better than you.
posted by kapers at 11:37 PM on July 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: even though you are obviously extremely self-aware in some respects, I think you are still stuck back in the (common, usually harmless) delusion of thinking you loved him because he was so interesting. whereas in fact, without wanting to be insulting, it is pretty clear from your description of his interests that you found him so interesting because you loved him.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:38 AM on July 10, 2022 [17 favorites]

Best answer: +1 his imagined merits you're listing off are... very, very far from anything that is real merit. (Marvel?!)

You just loved the guy, that's all. And you have a blistering inferiority complex that got exacerbated from this relationship, as evidenced by your feelings vis a vis the guy, his ex, etc.

The way you get over this stuff is by cultivating your own interests and skills, and not hanging out with folks who trigger you to revert to unhealthy states of mind.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:17 AM on July 10, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: So...first and foremost, if someone is making you feel small, stop hanging out with them. I promise that is going to be way easier than managing your feelings constantly. It doesn't matter if it's not his fault, sometimes the timing is such that people are just bad for us, even if they aren't bad people.

I don't know how old you are, so I'll just share about a period in my life when I was young and sometimes felt similarly. In my youth I often wasn't sure if I wanted to date people or be them. I think when you're still new to being an independent adult (for me that lasted through my late 20s) it's easy to idealize things in people that we feel like we're lacking. And when I was young I picked up a lot of things from people I dated: they shaped my entire, and I do mean entire, musical taste for instance. Some of that was fun, like the reading lists dates sometimes gave me.

But here's the thing: I wasted literal years doing things I didn't enjoy because people I loved liked them. For a while it was like there were "normal" people who I didn't connect with at all, and geeks, and because all the geeks I knew played D&D I did that. For years. And it bored me stupid. Now I look back and regret the time and money and energy I spent on hobbies that I wasn't into, simply because people I liked and admired did it.

I really loved what you wrote about the things you like about yourself. That's a great foundation on which to build. It may take some time and experimentation to find things that fit *you*, but I promise you are just as wildly complicated and interesting and vital as a confident, extroverted geek-guy. Introverts are my favorite people, so many juicy layers, just like me.

Do yourself a favor and stop hanging out with this guy for a while. You don't have to make a big thing of it, just be too busy or tired or whatever all the time. If he forces a conversation about your absence, feel free to tell him either you aren't ready to talk about it, or tell him plainly what's going on, whatever works for you. As an introvert finding people you jive with is hard. I'm not going to pretend it isn't work. But being around people who you admire who don't make you feel small is worth the work.

Best of luck!
posted by liminal_shadows at 9:41 PM on July 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: All of this advice has been incredibly helpful. Not to thread-sit, but I wanted to ask for two additional bits of advice:
1) how do I deal with envy that relates to his “life position”, for lack of a better term? Specifically, in our last conversation, he talked about how happy he is with his living arrangement right now (living in a suite with 6 other friends, with even more friends constantly visiting). In comparison, I just moved to a new apartment in a new city, and I’m very happy with my roommate, but I’m still trying to establish my social circle, and I expect it’ll take me longer because I’m more introverted and don’t love to hit bars every evening, etc. I’m trying so hard not to compare myself to him but I find myself thinking often about how he’s thriving socially and I am not yet, and may never thrive socially in the same way that he is thriving.

2) I can hear his voice in my head at times. I’m realizing that throughout our relationship, he made little, kinda mean comments to me about things that I did or didn’t know and also mansplained a lot. He was always at least a little self aware of this behavior, but didn’t really try to change that power dynamic - I would ask him lots of questions for advice on things I valued his opinion on and also just to generally understand his perspective, and he did not do the same with me. As an example, when we were hanging out, he made one comment that’s upsetting me quite a bit. The door to one of the bathrooms in my new apartment is broken - I couldn’t figure out what the issue was when I moved in. Recently, my roommate figured out that the issue was that the hinge broke and the old tenants decided to fix it by duct taping the bolts to the hinge (a creative solution, to say the least). I told this story to my ex and mutual friend just as a little funny “haha guess what the old tenants did” and my ex rolled his eyes and was like “who doesn’t check the hinge of the door”. He’s more mechanically minded and handier than I am. When I was head over ass in love with him, I would’ve laughed at that or brushed it off, but that really pissed me off - am I being over sensitive, or was that a rude/even slightly demeaning response to my story? Now when I’m going about my day, I hear his voice in my head chiding me for being dumb and careless - even if he’s never actually said anything to me about the mistakes I’m making.

Anyways, I’m done with this guy. I will not be speaking with him anymore, for a long time. But he’s still in my fucking head and I’d really love to evict him.
posted by cruel summer at 1:50 PM on July 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You are doing everything right. Now all you have to do is distract yourself and let time do its work. It may take a month, it may take three years, but you have a whole amazing life to live in which he will not participate, so there is no reason to feel apprehensive.
I saw how recovery worked. I saw how, as time passed, other things came in between, as though a wall were being built. Events occurred and then receded in time. New habits formed. Situations in my life changed.

As long as everything stayed the same, it seemed possible for him to come back. As long as everything was the way he had left it, his place was open for him. But if things changed beyond a certain point, his place in my life began to close, he could not reenter it, or if he did, he would have to enter in a new way.
- Lydia Davis, The End of the Story
posted by derrinyet at 2:12 PM on July 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: how do I deal with envy that relates to his “life position”
"Gosh, I'm so glad that Ex is doing well. I am a bit jealous of his living situation right now, and that's a sign that I want to continue working towards something like that for myself. Also, I need to keep in mind that people's quick summary of things might not reflect the everyday lived reality. I'm sure there are a lot of challenges in living with that many people, and I'm not sure I'd want exactly that. Also, I recognize that he is in the same place/near where his friends are, while I am making steps forward in my adult life and that gives me an opportunity to grow even though it might mean the transition can feel a bit lonely. I'm going to put some intentional efforts towards developing my friendships here."

my ex rolled his eyes
Eyerolling and sarcasm is an expression of contempt. Christ, what an asshole. Is he always this judgmental? Sometimes when people are critical or judgmental, it makes us want their approval. But why does he need to judge? You know what confident and kind people do in life? They aren't rolling their eyes over a silly little thing like this because they don't need to put other people down to feel good about themselves. This isn't a sign of knowing a lot of things. It's a sign of immaturity.

What would it look like if you had a general boundary/goal of spending time with people who were honest and kind? It's definitely possible to be both. I wonder how it would feel for you to be around people like that?
posted by bluedaisy at 2:37 PM on July 11, 2022

Best answer: Thanks for reflecting and for being so honest about things even when they're hard. I wish I could gift you some Schadenfreude so you could add some pettiness to your assessment of him. To me, your life sounds like the more enviable one: new place, fresh start, just one roommate, time to explore your own interests.

Going to the bar every night is not healthy: also, if he were so happy with his billion roommates, why couldn't he stay in and hang out? Something just isn't adding up but he's so full of shit and you're still hooked. I get it, again, no judgment! I just wish you could see how your situation is equally good if actually way better. Also, he's a jerk and rarely are mean people truly happy and thriving.

I'm so glad you recognized that his comments are mean. They're also just stupid, like this man child with six roommates is lecturing YOU on your, I am laughing at him, hinge inspecting abilities?! You know he's an amateur because a professional would understand, offer to come fix it and/or be impressed or at least intrigued by the MacGyver repair. This guy isn't an expert imparting his knowledge; he's just an insecure asshole.

You are doing GREAT in life and with this!! You are making a wise choice to not include him in your life because you are lovely and he does not deserve to be graced by your presence. I have OCD so I hear you: it's hard to get shitty things out of my head sometimes but eventually they do. Perhaps you can accept that you'll hear his negativity echo but then not dwell on it, that you can refocus on other things. Sometimes when I am feeling stuck mentally, temporarily upping my SSRI dosage helps to get over the hump. I used to feel crappy for "needing" this but now I'm like "heck yeah! It's a reset and I'm happier. Glad I could help my brain that's a great thinker and, therefore, also sometimes an overthinker. That's OK!"

Imagine the most amazing life ever and start living it now! Or see all the wonderful things about you that are already there. Or just find some little project that keeps your hands busy while you watch tutorials on YouTube. Or realy double-down on a hobby you enjoy that he criticized and celebrate it!! You've got this!
posted by smorgasbord at 7:20 PM on July 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

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