How deeply-rooted feelings of unworthiness have kept me eternally single
I’ve barely dated anyone in my life.
In fact, despite being 24 in New York City, I haven’t been in any sort of romantic relationship in over three years, even for just a week or two. My longest relationship ever lasted two months — eight months if you count the lead-up to it — and on average, I’m physically intimate with someone maybe a few times a year.
I generally don’t mind being single, but my unusual pattern begs the question: Why don’t I date more? When people ask me that question, I always say, “it just doesn’t happen to me” … but why doesn’t it? I look around at my friends, some of whom are what I call “serial monogamists”, always dating someone new … and I often wonder what I’m doing wrong.
It’s not that I’m not meeting enough people. I have hoards of attractive male friends, and because I’m part of several dance communities, I intimately interact with these men on the reg. In fact, I actually have a habit of dancing with an unusually high number of men on any given night out. Earlier this year at a dance party, my friend Joe pointed it out, joking, “When did this begin, all these men throwing themselves at you?” I looked away, bemused — were some of the men I was dancing with actually interested in me and I just never realized it? That was a terrifying but exciting thought.
When I recounted this story to another male friend of mine, he agreed with Joe, saying, “Sophia, you’re a catch. I would bet that a solid percentage of your male ‘friends’ would be down to date you, but don’t think you’re interested.”
It makes me wonder: am I putting out the wrong energy? With a default assumption that men only want to be friends with me, am I creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? And why is it that my own attractiveness feels so hard to believe, leading me to make that assumption in the first place?
Let me tell you more about my current dating situation, but first, a flashback to how I ended up here.
I have a wound. This wound initially formed in middle school, when all my classmates started dating each other but I was always overlooked, never chosen by the boys in my class. When we moved to high school, I was never once asked to a school dance —in fact, I was one of the few people who even went to prom solo (for the record, this was not a thing that people did.) This still feels like an embarrassing thing to admit.
In hindsight, there were probably justifiable reasons for my lack of suitors: I had other priorities, and I didn’t conform to the social norms of high school. I wore no makeup and slapped my hair in a ponytail every day; I carried a giant three-inch binder in the crook of my arm everywhere I went; and I never hung out with anyone outside of school because my first love was homework. But instead of ascribing the lack of male attention I received to my lifestyle choices, I internalized it and assumed something was inherently wrong with me.
After a while, I concluded I was by definition “not desirable”, and learned to occupy a platonic space in everyone’s lives, outside of the dating pool. The way I saw it, everyone had an internal switch labeled “Potential Romantic Interest:”, and mine must have been switched to ‘No’ from birth.
I learned to never express my own desire, out of fear I would be laughed at for thinking I could even be considered. This became a scab for the wound, protecting myself from others’ judgment — if I never asked for anything or expressed desire for anyone, I would never have to be rejected. I wouldn’t have to confront the fact that I deeply wanted to be loved, but felt afraid others deemed me unworthy of it.
As I grew older, I started wearing my hair down and expanded my horizons beyond academics, which inadvertently earned me more male attention. In college, I had several romantic sparks with men, but because I still believed I wasn’t worthy of being desired, the connections never materialized into anything.
I distinctly remember one such connection with a guy named Carson during my junior year. I met him at a salsa dancing event, and we immediately clicked. We lived in the same dorm building, so we started hanging out regularly, me climbing the stairs to his room every weekend and sitting on his bed talking until morning about philosophy, music, existentialism, and our childhoods. I had a huge crush on him, but he never made any clear moves, so I was left constantly wondering where we stood and how he felt. No matter how crazy it drove me, though, I wouldn’t dare ask — I feared I would seem stupid or silly for imagining he could possibly be attracted to me, particularly for a relationship or any kind of commitment.
One night, he finally brought it up. We were mid-conversation about Proust, when he said,
“Sophia, I need to ask you something. What do you want from me?”
I froze. “I, I don’t know…” I stuttered, but it was a lie. I wanted to date him. I wanted him to kiss me. I wanted lots of things, most of all to feel wanted. But I couldn’t voice any of that, because my inner critic had commandeered my brain with its constant chanting: “You aren’t dateable. You aren’t worth commitment. You aren’t even attractive. Simply put, you aren’t good enough. Why would you ever tell him you want to date him when you know there’s no way he could possibly want that? How embarrassing for you, and what an awkward position to put him in!”
To you, the reader, this mindset might seem silly, nonsensical, baseless. “Get some self-worth…” you might be saying to yourself. But this belief I have is deep-set, stubborn and difficult to unlearn. It’s hard to convey how solidly my brain is routed this way — how scary it feels to even be writing this, to be saying, “Yes, I actually am worthy of relationships with people I desire, and I’m telling this story about the faulty voice in my head,” when the voice itself is screaming at me, “You know this article is just going to be super awkward, right? You’re not dateable, and now you sound like a fool for talking as if you actually are, as if you’re ‘overcoming this’, when really it’s just the truth.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where this voice in my head came from — why I inexplicably feel this way, even when evidence to the contrary presents itself in the form of a romantic interest that does briefly get past the gates of my mindset. As shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown says,
Shame used to be a two-person game, but now I’ve learned to do it all by myself.
While I might trace the voice’s origins to my experiences during high school, now it doesn’t matter what experiences I have — no matter what happens, my mind will somehow use the experience to support the story that I’m not good enough. It will invent infinite reasons why I’m probably not worthy, ranging from body size, being too opinionated, being not-spiritually-evolved-enough, facial asymmetry, the acne scars on my forehead, and that ridiculous internal not-a-romantic-option defect I mentioned earlier.
This cycle connects closely with my deeply-rooted perfectionism: My mind believes “If you are not perfect, no one will love you,” and since perfection is unachievable no matter how hard I work, my mind always wins — I’m nevergood enough to be loved. And so I never even ask for anything I desire, or tell the people I love that I’m in love with them — because I preemptively assume that I’m not worthy of getting what I want, and that the answer is no.
So that brings me to these last few months. I’ve been feeling stuck, repeating the same pattern over and over again. The pattern goes like this: I meet a guy, and we hang out. I become attracted to him, but I receive mixed signals from him, which leaves me wondering: Is he into me? Or are we just friends hanging out one on one?
And at that point, I feel frozen in a kind of no-man’s-land. I don’t voice how I’m feeling, and the connection goes nowhere. Like with Carson that night in college, my feelings catch in my throat, and I can’t speak my desire. That primordial fear comes creeping back, that I am not worthy of what I want, so how can I possibly speak it out loud? Plus, there’s my patriarchal conditioning monologuing in my head:
Isn’t this a game, where I’m supposed to be coy and aloof and he’s supposed to chase me? If I say I’m into him, even if he’s sort-of into me, won’t my saying something ruin it? Anyway, if he was into me, wouldn’t he be saying something? My job here as a woman is to play small and wait.
But none of that bullshit is real, and even if it is, it doesn’t matter. My feelings are valid, and voicing my desire to someone I’m dating is a good filter. If he is less interested in me because of my desire for him and my honesty about it, then I was never going to be truly known and loved by him anyway.After all, I’m not interested in a relationship that rests on a game of Who can care less?. I lose that game every time, and playing it feels inauthentic to who I am. I want and need to be able to express my whole self freely to someone I consider a partner.
More importantly, speaking my desire is a way of honoring myself and my own feelings — desire being a perfectly legitimate feeling. By speaking my desire, I am honoring what’s true for me and refusing to participate in my own oppression. I am refusing to shrink myself for someone else’s comfort. I am allowing myself to take up space, and empowering myself to ask for what I want and deserve.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m still afraid. The voice in my head is still loud and constant, yelling statements about my unworthiness and defectiveness. But I am learning to ignore it and say the hard things anyway. To squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath through the pause after I tell someone “Hey, I’m into you” and allow that pause to take up space. Because regardless of outcome, my speaking out is evidence of embodied courage and vulnerability, two qualities I intrinsically value.
Something tells me Brené would be proud.