Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Ask Polly: My Boyfriend Thinks I'm Clingy and This Terrifies Me

champsDear Polly,

I’m writing with a deceptively simple question. How can I be vulnerable? Some pertinent background: I’m an academic, working in a field that requires me to live in very remote places for extended periods of time. I find my work incredibly engaging and rewarding, and I know I’m lucky in this regard. Still, the life of an academic (particularly a traveling academic) is often isolating. I don’t have a place to call home. My family is deeply dysfunctional; although I love my parents and siblings, our relationships are fraught and I have never felt unconditionally loved by my parents. I was diagnosed as a child with OCD, and spent a great deal of my youth feeling broken and inadequate (a feeling my parents intensified by approaching my disorder punitively). From a young age, I learned that I couldn’t count on anyone to take care of me except myself. This stubborn independence has served me well in my chosen field, but it has complicated my relationships. I have wonderful friends scattered across the world, but the distance adds to the wall I have built around myself; I have a hard time truly letting people in.

My romantic relationships have also been complicated–sometimes I settle for men who aren’t a good fit, just because I know I can rely on them. Other times, I ruin relationships because of my raw neediness for love, which leads my partners to take me for granted and belittle me. My current boyfriend is in many ways a great fit—fiercely intelligent, bitingly funny, supportive of the demands of my career—but he thinks of me as "clingy," and this terrifies me. I don’t know if I’m happy in our relationship.
Recently, I underwent a medical crisis that required me to return to the States for treatment. Alone and incapacitated in a city where I knew no one, I had to confront the ways in which I have isolated myself. It’s a paradox: I never hesitate to be there for friends when they’re in crisis, but I can’t be honest about my own insecurities. I feel so grotesquely needy, but I can’t ask for help. I recognize that my desire to be selfless and untouchable is actually selfish—I would be a better friend, a better partner, a better person, if I could be more vulnerable. But how do I do that without morphing into the whiny, broken person I’m so afraid of becoming? How do I balance the demands of my career with my desire for a permanent home and a lifelong relationship? If I give up my work, I fear I’ll let go of my sense of purpose in life.

Thank you so much for any insight you have to this dilemma. I know my question is nebulous and hard to answer, but I always value your insight.

Hard Shell, Soft Chewy Center


I'm so glad you wrote to me, because I've been pondering the paradox of survival vs. vulnerability a lot lately. I look at my two young daughters, twirling in their dresses and giggling and making friends and just generally frolicking with the bubbly rainbow unicorns (when they're not threatening to kill each other with their bare hands), and part of me wants them to be tough, tough, TOUGH more than anything else. I want them to be strong enough and resilient enough to tell all naysayers and girl-haters to fuck themselves. I want them to do exactly what they love with their lives without questioning themselves and wondering what everyone thinks of them every step of the way.

I was tough, thanks to the fact that my parents were pretty focused on toughness. I was extremely sensitive underneath the toughness, of course, but no one needed to know that. I had bluster, swagger and a devil-may-care attitude. I knew I was unique and funny and full of ideas—or at least I knew how to pretend that I was confident in these things.

But the coping methods that get us through a rocky childhood among unyielding parents and critical siblings, the tools that help us survive those Lord of the Flies teen years, the strategies we use to secure graduate degrees and good jobs, the tricks we employ to attract funny, confident, successful men are not always the same things that bring us true happiness and satisfaction in life. They might help up to age 30, but after that, toughness and bluster and overconfidence can seriously hamper hopes for intimacy and stability and long-term satisfaction.


Fuck no. All I want to say is this: You are a false advertisement. You appear to be a carefree, independent, globe-trotting academic—the living, breathing dream of every flinchy motherfucker on earth. You seem tough and engaged in what you do—and why shouldn't you? You ARE tough. You ARE fully engaged with your work. You DO love your life.

But you're also something else. You're also soft and squishy and you hate that part of yourself. When the softness comes out, there's anger there. You're ashamed. You serve up your softness with shame because that's what you were taught to do when you were little. "This is not how you make friends, I know that. This is how you make people hate you," you say, in tears. "I know I'm gross. I know you don't want this."

But it's not JUST that you're serving up softness with a grimace and saying, "YOU WILL HATE THE TASTE OF THIS, LET ME APOLOGIZE IN ADVANCE." No. It's also that you're always in the company of some dude who doesn't like vulnerability. You date guys who see vulnerability—which is the very heart and soul of who you are—as weakness. You are with a guy who takes the very best of you, the rawest and most sincere essence of you, and he says, "I don't like this clingy thing you do. I know your history with your parents. I can understand why my indifference feels like rejection. But I don't care. This clingy thing is inconvenient to me, so you should stomp it into submission."

And isn't that exactly what your parents told you to do?

Forget him. I'm not saying he's a bad guy. He wanted a tough academic lady who'd never whimper to him. But that's not who you are. If there's one thing I've learned, it's this: You can't resolve not to be clingy. You have to feel understood and supported, and then you’ll—quite naturally—be less emotionally needy, because you'll trust that the guy you're with is there for you, and can accept every part of you, come hell or high water.

Sure, you could take a stand. You could say, "No, I'm not clingy. I'm a human being with emotions and needs. You can either show up and be a good boyfriend, or you can hit the road." Sometimes a guy will wake up and take notice when you make it clear that showing up isn't optional. But if he doesn’t do that, you really should think about moving on. Working on your vulnerability with someone who secretly (or not-so-secretly) hates vulnerability really, really doesn't work.

This isn't about him, anyway. This is about your relationship with yourself. It's also about how you relate to your female friends. You may have to work on those two parts of your life before you can successfully pursue romantic love or a long-term emotional commitment. Basically, you need to practice sounding like a whiny, broken person without getting angry at yourself for it. You have to be this way and accept it and allow it and stop hating it. That's the first step. You have to let the ugly, needy shit in and let it exist without spreading your fear and loathing all over it. You have to make room for cryface and learn to see it as beautiful.

That can be tough to do on your own. I'd get a therapist, and cry to her. Her, not him. Because I'm pretty sure from what you wrote that your intimacy issues start with women and will be healed more quickly/effectively in the presence of a woman. If you're thinking "Oh no, I'd really rather have a male therapist!"? That might actually be your love of toughness and denial and pushing down all softness talking.

Ok, so whiny, broken cryface in the presence of a therapist is not insanely groundbreaking, but it's a start. What you have to do after that is whip out the broken cryface in the company of a good female friend. This means you have to select one friend, explain to her that you need to try to be more vulnerable even though it feels totally weird, and warn her that you may call her JUST TO CRY sometimes. Yes. Embarrassing. But important. It helps. It's good for you and good for your friend, too.

Do you have a friend who could handle this? If you don't, then stick with the therapist for now.

Personally, this was a big deal for me. I never would've found and accepted a guy who's smart and funny and ok with softness and vulnerability if I hadn't learned to cry to a friend of mine first. Crying to a close female friend is a way of saying, "See, this is me. I know it's not incredibly fun and entertaining but it's not repugnant and hideous and shitty either. I'm just a person, leaning on another person. This is what people do, and they shouldn't have to feel ashamed or terrible when they do it."

When I was younger, I thought my purpose was to entertain people. I thought I was boring other people if I couldn't entertain them. If I talked about emotions, it had to be a joke. Just being NEUTRAL, having nothing to say, being a person in the room, was unacceptable. I was the charming gabby one who kept everything afloat. And being sad? No one wanted that.

I used to have nightmares about being a hideous monster surrounded by regular people who felt sure I would eat them. No matter what I said, everyone would run away from me, screaming. Being myself meant scaring the shit out of other people. Expressing my emotions was as bad as chasing people and eating them whole. I believed, as you do, that I WAS SO GROTESQUELY NEEDY.

For a while when I was in my late 20s, I wrote songs about this, about monsters who clean up well and pretend to be normal, but who can never truly be loved. One song had the line "I want you more than I want myself." I think that's where you always land when you're not showing your true self. You work really fucking hard and you focus on the other person and you entertain and charm and keep the conversation flowing, and you don't even care if you lose yourself along the way. Maybe that's the point. You either date guys who are indifferent, and that makes you clingy, or you date guys who aren't all that impressive—because maybe then they won't leave you?—and you get clingy anyway. You work hard to put the not-that-great guys on a pedestal. The focus is on them, so you don't have to feel your own feelings or think your own thoughts. But the more you focus on them, the more you imagine that they're about to reject you, just like everyone else has. Or as I described it in my monster song, I'd sit around "[f]eeling small, watching your shadows of doubt play on the wall."

Breaking this habit is an enormous and daunting task. Even if you reject the flinchy dudes, that doesn't mean you're suddenly going to accept a sincere dude who pays close attention to you. Who wants someone to meet the monster? Anyone who accepts the monster must be kind of a dork and a loser, right?

The bottom line is that it's very sad, to feel so angry at YOUR VERY SOUL. To rip your soft, chewy center out and hide it under the floorboards? That goes against everything pure and real and good in the world. So we have to take that monster and turn it into a gentle lamb—not by changing the monster, but changing our perception of her. First YOU have to love the monster. Invite the monster in, let it cry. Embrace the cryface.

I know, it's embarrassing and blech, so uncool. This world fucking hates honest, soft, open, emoting women. HATES HATES HATES us. We are the giant oozing sores of the universe. Why? Why do we prefer people with blank Frankenstein expressions, or worse, painted-on professional smiles, and loathe the cryface? Why do we hate weakness so much?

All I can tell you is that embracing cryface has made my life so much better. The tears flow over the craziest stuff—singing competitions, sad songs, the endings of good essays and great books.

Also, fuck the word "clingy." Does he want a girlfriend or not? If you're not calling him around the clock and freaking out, he shouldn't give you a hard time about looking for a tiny shred of emotional sustenance from THE PERSON YOU ARE IN AN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP WITH. Jesus Christ. There are so many NEW ways for Mr. Flinchy to be evasive and freakish these days. There are new advanced levels of Fuck and Run being played out there, there are new insanely high scores being racked up in the game of Sexual Assassin, enabled by dating sites and social media. Sexual predators who don't mind playing faintly human-like versions of themselves online have it pretty goddamn good these days.

And it's sad. Because somehow, a lot of people think that their emptiness is going to be filled by tricking a lot of people into sleeping with them. Or they assume that real, shared intimacy is just an elaborate trap set by needy, empty women. It's hard not to wonder if we aren't hollowing ourselves out, taking the lowest common denominator among us and telling ourselves stories about how they represent everyone else. But luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. Luminous fucking beings with soft, gorgeous feelings that, if they're invited in, will blossom into something rich and layered and inspiring. So let's not paint ourselves as monsters who cling.

Once you invite the soft, emotional part of you to live with the rest of you instead of being banished to the closet around the clock, once you accept and allow space for that part of you, you will naturally reshuffle your priorities. You can't THINK your way to a solution here, either with your boyfriend or with your dilemmas about balancing your career with your need for a long-term home.

It's a long process. See a therapist. Lean on a close friend, and if that's not possible, work on making your friendships closer. You CAN count on other people. You need to learn to see that, to know it. But mostly, you need to believe that your whiny, broken self is also your best self. It's hard to believe that. It feels almost absurd. But that's where it all begins, somehow. It begins with loving that whiny, broken self, until it's not whiny or broken at all, it's just REAL. You have to love what's real. YOU have to do it first, before anyone else can do it, to show yourself that it's possible.

Your toughness will not dissolve into thin air and leave you powerless. You will still be an adaptive animal. But you will no longer be an invention, imaginary, pretend. You will no longer need disguises. You will no longer accept excuses. And later down the road, you will be supported and loved for what's real for the first time, and it will feel incredible.


Are you a brittle, hard candy shell but want to be smooth and infinitely flexible and resilient like Laffy Taffy? Write to Polly and discuss!

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.

Photo by Michelle Bender

27 Comments / Post A Comment

sharilyn (#4,599)

"Embrace the Cryface" FTW. Please make bumper stickers.

bureaucrab (#247,615)

Everything I'm about to say is just more support and color for Polly's perfectly -awesome-as-it-always-is advice.

1. On parents wanting their kids to have both toughness and vulnerability: I'm naturally tough on the exterior. My squishy inside is always something I've guarded. When a guy broke my heart a few years ago, I told my mom and burst into tears, and the first thing she said as she hugged me was "Thank God you let yourself be vulnerable to him." She didn't know I could. My own MOM. (For the record, I had to work on it, for years, and did so incrementally with my friends.)

2. I was in a leadership training at work yesterday and the trainer said something really great: "You are responsible for only 50 percent of every relationship you have." He went on to add that you must give 100% to your 50% (and of course during certain times one might be temporarily carrying the burden), but if you are consistently giving 80% to the relationship and the other person is giving 20%, or vice versa, then it's not one worth having.

3. I've spent years working on being more vulnerable by opening up more to my friends. And it has improved every single one of those relationships. Since I appeared tough all the time, people actually thought I was "perfect" and "totally put together" and "never (!!) had problems." When I started sharing my insecurities and nutty side – a little at a time, this one to this person, that one to that person, etc – they saw me as the real, flawed human I am and shared more of their own similar insecurities and nuttiness, which made me feel more normal. Now I know that everyone on earth is batshit crazy about SOMETHING no matter how "perfect" or "put together" I think THEY are. It's kind of the emotional equivalent of picturing everyone in an audience naked – everyone you think is intimidatingly awesome has spent time as a sobbing heap of mascara stains*. Human interaction and intimacy becomes easier when you know that most people you care about will react with love and compassion and possibly even empathy to that squishy side.

*OK, maybe not "everyone" on this one.

snailshell (#281,882)

to the letter writer: I am right there with you. softness is so hard and it can feel like you're ripping your chest open and all the cold wind is coming thru. but we deserve to be soft for ourselves <3

Polly's advice always comes at just the moment you need to hear it. not just for the letter writer, but for anyone reading. thank you xoxo

Madly (#276,079)

Man, do I get this. Really beautiful work once again, Polly. When I was in my teens and twenties I also believed that my value in the world solely depended on my sparkling wit and ability to be OKAY I'M OKAY I'M GREAT SERIOUSLY SEE HOW FUNNY AND GREAT I AM? Then I got some therapy and made some truly good friends and began to unwind all the false bravado that hid the hideous monster I called "The Dark Thing." The pendulum took a wide swing for awhile, until I was nothing but a squishy cryface all.the.time. That might happen to you, LW, but it's okay. Sometimes there's no way around the messy work we have to do to become who we really were all along. All the best to you.

540033485@twitter (#281,883)

Oh wow. Our life circumstances may be different, Letter Writer and Polly, but the core of this is so much a part of the deep, inner self (that I yearn to protect and set free all at the same time) that my heart is racing.

I'll do my best not to ramble. But anyway:

1) Like me, you seem very self aware — you know how to figure shit out and you'll be damned if you can't take the skills and natural drive to learn and use it to figure yourself out. Part of my core identity is being a great problem solver — the only difference between me and the expert is that they've learned the process already.

2) Being the self aware, independent problem solver that I am goes hand in hand with my identity of being The Supportive One. It's a role I really like! I'm there when other people need things figures out. I'm open minded, non judgmental, practical, and great at guiding others to answers or automatically assuming they want my advice. Because I feel like I have a particularly high sensitivity to these things compared to my friends and family, which I work hard to cultivate, I reason with myself that I just can't expect the same from others. I'm lucky that I can do this better than other people, who have other skills to bring to the table. So I keep things to myself because I don't feel confident that my friends can give what I'd need. It's natural and easy for me, but a lot to expect from them.

But I also had that "ah hah" moment where I realized that I'm not being a good friend when I don't do my part to be open. Part of being a good friend is showing others that I trust them, too.

3) That little inside vulnerable part sometimes feels like a little keepsake that's just for me, so I struggle with the idea that I have to allow others access. Though I know I should be open, it feels like I'm taking this sacred part of myself and treating it carelessly.

4) I've never been in a relationship. I'm CRAVING the opportunity to deeply and intimately connect with someone on that level, but I am so focused on assessing whether or not the men around me are available to someone with Outside Me's on paper qualifications (looks, weight, intelligence, hobbies, strengths, etc) that I have absolutely no idea who I am actually attracted to. If I feel certain a guy can do better than me (which is a good indicator of someone I'd want to date), then I can't even entertain the notion of being them being available, or allowing myself that desire. Plus, even if I fooled them with my looks or conversation skills, they'd eventually find out how lame/weak I really am.

5) I've spent SO LONG playing the roll of the "confident, tough, independent, creative, smart, motivated, strong, happy, easy going (etc)" person that I've been told I am (and that I convince myself that I am) that I am terrified of telling people they're wrong about me. Guilty that all the good things they've said about me (because they care) aren't important enough for me to have listened to. And then convince them that I'm not just saying that to fish for compliments.

How on earth could I tell my parents I feel so unattractive and unworthy of love when they've poured everything into raising a woman who believes that she is?

How can I tell my best friend that I've been a total hypocrite all these years — keeping secrets when she shares so many of her own? That the disordered eating I've alluded to is much worse than she believe, because I've been lying to her all these years about what kind of person I really am?

540033485@twitter (#281,883)

@540033485@twitter ok I did ramble. A lot. But I should add…I am seeing a therapist and doing the same shit to her, a fact which I've attempted to admit.

An ugly cry feels basically impossible.

540033485@twitter (#281,883)

@540033485@twitter Gah!! So many typos! Oops.

paddlepickle (#8,731)

@540033485@twitter Thank you for this ramble, I was wondering briefly whether I had written this half an hour ago and somehow gotten amnesia so I didn't remember doing so.

540033485@twitter (#281,883)

@paddlepickle Oh, I'm so glad to hear that! Do you also do the self-disclosure fakeout (in life and in therapy), where you talk about a lot of personal things and feelings, but instead of being your actual feelings, they're more like what you WISH were your real feelings? Maybe empathize with/ confide in someone about a personal struggle, but stick to a surface level version and secretly keep the "real" significant to yourself so you can keep inquiring minds away from your deepest insecurities?

BookishBroad (#281,976)

@paddlepickle You and me both. I could have written that rant point-for-point.

BookishBroad (#281,976)

@540033485@twitter We must be twins because I am exactly the same way. I am intensely and paranoia-ly private and hate letting people in, even if I, relatively speaking, don't really have anything to hide. My mother's favorite critique of my reclusive tendencies is to tell me that I am "not an island" and that I have/need to let people in, even if they hurt me at times.

Jess1216 (#281,888)

I love so much that Polly reminds us that being "clingy" is oftentimes just a symptom of a ill-fitting relationship. If your b/gf doesn't want to spend the same amount of time together as you do; or doesn't want to be as vulnerable as you do….or whatever it is that you want, then go out and find someone who's view of a happy relationship aligns better with yours. I know that isn't easy either, but it sure beats feeling impossibly lonely sitting next to someone who supposedly loves you.

puncturedbicycle (#282,197)

@Jess1216 Yup. And you don't have to 'deserve' love, affection, attention etc, or feel like you deserve and/or have earned it to expect/ask for/get it. It is all about the fit. I found this to be true only after finding a partner who loves and accepts me with all my less-than-stellar qualities included. Finding myself in that unexpected position was what taught me about it. I think things might have been better for me if I had arrived at this conclusion earlier, but consider myself lucky that it has come to me at all.

I remember an assertiveness manual from the 70s (may have been I'm OK, You're OK) in which there is a sample conversation where someone is accused by their partner of being needy and they reply that yes, of course they are needy, everyone has needs. That also made an impression on me. Know and own your needs! They are food, not poison, to the right relationships and life will be so much more straightforward for you and the people who will really love you and all your idiosyncrasies.

I hope this doesn't sound like crass cliché because it is true dammit.

This kind of reminds me of myself and my dad. He and I both have this complex where we cannot ask anyone for help or assistance or a favor. Like, it's ripping my heart out to ask someone to drive me to the airport or feed the cats while I'm on vacation. But by God I will do so many favors for other people and I will INSIST on it. I don't get it. I don't understand at all. I've discovered over time that I've developed anxious-attachments with my friends and if they say something or act negative towards me (or that I suspect they are) I feel like I'm walking on eggshells around them until something "proves" to me that it's not an issue anymore and they don't hate me.
This letter and its response is not the exact same issue that I'm talking about but it does remind me that I need to not care so much about this. If people really don't want to be my friend, then we won't be friends. Asking them to help me is not going to make them hate me. They're not bubbling with passive-aggressive anger because I asked them to help me move into a new apartment or criticized something they happen to enjoy that I might not enjoy. I guess my overall shyness and struggle to make and maintain long-term, successful friendships and romantic relationships has sent me into a spiral of emotional chainmail armour and fear of being myself. So, thanks for writing this (both of you) and I will try to remember these ideas.

@Faith Louise Martin@facebook do you bubble with passive aggressive anger when people ask you for favors or criticize things you enjoy?

@Sister Administrator No! Which is why it's ridiculous that I would think that way. I think it probably all boils down to an issue with my self-esteem.

irenejoy (#259,197)

oh polly. i love you. yes, FUCK THE WORD CLINGY.

novak (#259,779)

@irenejoy DAMN RIGHT. The moment I hear the word "clingy" I pack and go, because that's a bright red flag to me.

LW: Dump this tool masquerading as a man and get that soft chewy centre back on track.

Fern Reno (#277,053)

Cryface from the bottom of paragraph 6 all the way down.

What a special kind of relief this post was.

Polly, you just explained SO MUCH to me.

misspiggy (#250,319)

He thinks YOU are clingy? Please allow yourself to feel the rage that this should induce. Maybe a rethink on what kind of man you want to be with would help: someone you can respect, but with different qualities. Someone who complements you by having his vulnerability on the outside, and strength on the inside, rather than both of you having the hard outer surface.

PistolPackinMama (#231,054)

LW I see you wrote my life in. How eerie. I am just going to address the boyfriend thing, since it's the thing that is hardest for me.

No, but really. I've decided tough is good for demands. As in, I demand that people who date me act like they like me, and that my needing and wanting intimacy and connections is not, in fact, a huge burden on their busy lives.

I am frosty, so if someone says I am clingy, there is… a disconnect, I think? Maybe clingy *for them* but by measures of how much connection women seem to want with their dudes, not so much. It takes me a long time to want that, because my independence is hard fought and won.

So yeah. You wanna get with this here? You had better act like you actually want it. And if you don't, that might be sad and I might cry some. But since I am really used to being self-reliant and on my own, I can do without your giving me crumbs of affection, time, and intimacy because they're all you think I deserve, or if you think you give more I will drain you dry.

There is strength in being vulnerable. And there is strength is valuing your vulnerability for what it is- the willingness to surrender some hardness to benefit from the softness that's already there anyway.

And the strength is recognizing that you can, and you should, walk away if your opposite person doesn't see your being vulnerable as a *huge* compliment to them, too. You can be on your own, if you need to. So that means if you are going to connect with other people, the connections can be the strongest, most satisfying they can be. Strong and vulnerable aren't mutually exclusive traits, at war with one another.

Also, it takes a hell of a boyfriend to beat no boyfriend at all, from where you are standing.

Danzig! (#5,318)

Ahhh, families. You don't even have to describe the particulars and we all know well enough the broad arc of the early life bringing you to this point. I used to think of it as a classic Anglo-Saxon thing, following from the suffocating stoicism of my grandfather toward my father (also: would the unresolved Oedipus Complex be such a thing if it weren't central to so many Great American Novels?), til a second-generation immigrant friend lamented to me the ways in which The Joy Luck Club cut her to ribbons. Tolstoy didn't really have it right, did he? Unhappy families are broadly similar.

When our parents aren't there for us it can be hard to learn how to be there for ourselves (and for our children in succession). It's a guilt that drops like a lead ball through generations. You build such contempt for yourself, no? It's like getting out of prison on parole. One ought to be proud of having survived in deprivation, but the beds are all too soft now and you don't know how to sleep in them.

The truth is that you won't find much in the way of outward validation for your desire to rest your legs after having stood vigilant all your life. Insofar as resilience is a trait coded masculine it's admired and revered and desired by everyone, everywhere. Resilience in this case entailing not simply having not succumbed but having been made more powerful for your hardships. A state of need is acceptable only in private, where it serves to underline the strength and authenticity of public resilience. It pays to have one's shit together, in other words.

I don't believe people are wired to work in such a way, and it fucking sucks that they're expected to, because it means that you can't trust people with your own state of health. Our social relations are predicated on people giving as little of themselves to each other as possible – your first family, the one you're born into, is meant to be solely responsible for you and your needs. When they fail to be no one really wants to take up your cause.

Choosing your second family from friends and lovers is a lot harder in this scenario, but it's ultimately what you have to do. Polly is absolutely 100% right in that you need to find some woman friends who you can talk to. Learn to trust them. I did and it's the only thing that saved me from the progressive rot of a WASP upbringing. Through them you'll learn how to need in a way that relieves the pressure on your heart in a way that's responsible. If you ask a lot, then you give a lot back. It's really that simple. But you cannot, unfortunately, expect just anyone to open that avenue of trade. A lot of people are scared of us, scared we might catch, or expose their own weakness. Don't waste your breath on them.

So yeah, what Polly said. Step 1: Find a friend, a good one, to confide in, and confide in them, and if you find yourself ashamed or embarrassed then you just do it harder. When you've freely given someone every bullet they could possibly fire at you and they don't, the voice in the back of your head that condemns you for having been seen by them loses all its teeth. Having just one of those people in your life is indescribably freeing. From there you can start to build an emotional life that doesn't make you miserable and cold.

carleensims03 (#282,119)


garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

I relate. When I was very little, I would try to get my mother's attention through asking her to read to me, being obnoxious while she talked on the phone, trying to hold her hand, etc. The response was usually, "Oh?! You need attention?!" (She was a very depressed lady and did not have the energy). I felt ashamed that I was needy, and learned to stop asking, and instead starting PERFORMING in a way that got positive attention (ie, like you and Polly– being funny, charming, academically impressive). It is still very hard for me to call my good, old friends when I am feeling down or just want to talk. But I have started forcing myself to do it. And it feels good. And you must do it too. Not all people are your emotionally unavailable parents, or in LW case, your emotionally unavailable boyfriend. Some people– the good friends– are both happy to listen and happy to share their own cryface. Good luck to you on finding those people.

Second point: being vulnerable, to me, also means being strong. It means being honest enough to take responsibility for the things you are ashamed of, or worried about, or have legitimately screwed up. I don't think of the vulnerability and strength thing as a binary. They are very complementary processes. For instance, apologizing to someone is an act of both vulnerability and courage. Admitting "I treated you badly when I did ______. I hurt your feelings and I promise not to do it again, because I value your feelings" opens you up to criticism, but it also opens you up to a deeper, more satisfying relationship with people. (I'm not saying that LW needs to apologize to anyone, necessarily, but that is just a good example to me of an act that is both vulnerable and strong).

Bella Tina@facebook (#282,476)

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Modigliani (#287,717)

Funny you should mention this great topic. Why just this afternoon, I sat through a tongue-lashing about being too clingy/demanding, a tongue-lashing disguised as a "lesson" to me about being a "mature adult who can control her feelings." I tried to explain how vulnerable I feel right now – I moved to a completely strange place to be with this man and it lasted 4 days before he invited me to get my stuff and myself out of his place. We had been talking about this and planning it for nearly a year. I was very sad about what happened and tried to talk about this today, but got the lecture about "clingy" as a result. I also heard about the concerns he had before I came that it wouldn't work because I seemed too needy. It would have been a mercy to say this flat out and save me both the time and the expense of the move. We are not kids. We are two adults with grown children. This article told me so much about what's wrong here.

Thank you for writing it and thanks to all the others who commented with their thoughts and stories. I'm a successful writer and woman/mother/grandmother in the rest of my life, but this man who has led a very different life has made me feel emotionally weak and a failure. I love my soft self and intend to get back to her as of now. She needs some TLC and I can give it.

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