Anatomy of a Scar

So a while back I mentioned offhand that, due to my occasional tendency to blurt things out thoughtlessly, I self-sequester from Nice Guys™.  (If you’re like, “Why does this chick hate decent men?” go read that link.  I don’t.  I’m referring to a specific social phenomenon.)  This is not because I dislike and despise Nice Guys™.  It’s actually based out of empathy and compassion because I don’t know how to keep from hurting them right now.  I see a guy self-loathingly talk about how girls never choose him even after all he does for them, and I’m like, “Me = Bull.  You = China shop.  Me = LEAVING before I break you.”

It’s because I used to be one.  (As a girl.  A Nice Girl™.  Gender socialization makes Nice Guydom different than Nice Girldom in many ways, but they both share a common emotional core.  For the purposes of this post I’m reviving the archaic custom of having the masculine pronoun encompass both male and female perspectives of Niceness, unless a specific example is female.) As a Nice Girl, I trailed in the wake of the people I liked.  I gave gifts, attention, and energy, desperately hoping they would love me back.  I never said a word until far too late.  And then when I was turned down, I was devastated.

I used to be one, but then I dedicated myself to years of beating back the darkness in my soul.  Over the course of this quest I have learned secrets of Nice Guyism that no Nice Guy can hear without pain  They are a very potent medicine; they can cure, but it is not a kind cure or an easy one.  They stripped me down to my very darkest place and left me there for a long time.

Like, here goes:

Nice Guys™ believe no one would ever love them just as they are.  That’s why they try to “earn” it.

This is what made me stop talking about, then to, Nice Guys in public.  Because in geek gatherings, when I say this, it often causes at least some of my audience to get wide, rigid eyes, like someone’s just stuck a gun-barrel to them.  It’s the look that says, “OH SHIT, SHE’S ON TO ME.”  The second time I said this in the flow of a normal conversation and someone burst into tears as a result, I decided to self-sequester until I know how to use this power effectively.

Nice Guydom is underlaid by this idea of relationships as an economy.  I give you a place to play video games; you give me potato chips and company; let’s make a deal.  Or, in this case: I give you gifts and emotional support; you give me a romantic relationship; let’s make a deal.  The value of what people bring to the table as friends or romantic partners varies depending on various habits and innate qualities.  Nice Guys believe they have to be friends and selflessly giving and totally perfect and full of material wealth out of an innate sense of being unlovable, disgusting, and worthless.  They view their gifts and actions as bribes meant to compensate women for the work of putting up with them.

If the object of affection in this scenario turns the Nice Guy down, it’s incredibly painful and he often reacts in ways that show anger and disappointment.  Feminists read this as entitlement, and I’m not saying it isn’t, but my experience makes me read something else in addition: This is the frenzied panic of someone who did the only thing they know to make themselves worthy of love, and it failed, and now they’re afraid that no one will ever love them.  And, well, very desperate, fearful people don’t react well.  Light this fire of self-hatred under someone who thinks it’s okay to insult, degrade, or harm another human being, and you can power a domestic abuser for a long, long time.

Nice Guys are so fixated on sex and romantic love because they think it will fix them.  It won’t.

I am really, really sorry to break it to you if this is news.  The Love of a Good Woman™ will not end your pain.  If you do end up in a relationship, yes, it ought to make you happier, but it cannot cure everything.  You will be just as insecure and self-loathing as before.  You’ll just also be dating someone.  Fixing yourself–the road back from Hell–is a lot slower and more complicated and less glamorous and much more painful than that.  There will come a time when you are loved and it will be joyful, but that is a place you will reach, not how you get there.

Listen, if there were a way to reach inside somebody’s head and take their pain away, I would do it.  I’m in this business because I want to reduce the amount of suffering in the world. If having sex with someone cured them of self-hatred, I wouldn’t be a psychotherapist; I’d be a prostitute.  But it doesn’t.  If you could love somebody better, if somebody else could love you better, I would in fact be 100% behind the right of individuals everywhere to get their own happily ever after roll in the hay.  It would be a much better method than the awful, ugly, imperfect cures for depression and anxiety that we have right now. But it doesn’t work that way.  Not to mention–no matter what, you don’t have the right to demand a life-sustaining need from a specific person.  I also think medical care is a basic human right; but if I have a heart condition, it’s not like I can go out on the street and go, “YOU THERE, you’re going to perform cardiac surgery on me.” Which means that even though I really want someone in particular to love me back and I think nobody else could ever mean as much to me as them, that doesn’t mean they have to.

Our society has sold us the myth of romantic love as the sole savior of humankind, told us that all our friends and mentors and neighbours and family can be bundled into one human-sized marriageable package, so this one relationship can fill the function that is supposed to be performed by an entire community.  It’s a myth that runs relationships into the ground.

Paul Kivel writes in Men’s Work, his examination of the role men and masculinity play in violence and oppression, that a lot of men specifically are raised with the idea that they don’t have to, or shouldn’t, do the heavy work of managing their own emotions.  What they are promised is that, when they’re older, they’ll meet a woman who will do that work for them.  She’ll comfort them when they’re sad, soothe them when they’re angry, and take away their loneliness and pain.  It wasn’t until reading Kivel’s book that Nice Guys’™ complaints about sexual rejection really made sense to me.  Things got a lot clearer when I realized that when many men talk about “sex” and women who won’t “have sex” with them, they actually mean, “the magical ability I believe to women have to fix me and make me feel loveable, which they are refusing me out of sheer caprice.”

Like I said: if I could, I would.  If I could make my friends and family with suicidal depression better just by loving them, I would.  When I was younger I thought I did have this ability and I did try.  (HAHA those were some fun relationships I had with sad poetic boys.  Not.)  But our tragedy is that we are not a telepathic species, no matter how much we want to be.

Sexual intercourse is not a “need” in the way that food, water, and shelter are needs.  However, belonging and affection are.  To be healthy, we need to have reciprocal relationships with other people and to belong to a community that values us.  This is not fluffy happy “would be nice to have” stuff.  I am really fucking scientifically serious here.  If you deprive a child of human touch and emotional connection, it can literally stunt their growth; it can fuck them up for life; and if they’re young enough, that alone is enough to kill them.

Let's stop suggesting marriage as a cure-all, mmkay?
Let’s stop suggesting marriage as a cure-all, mmkay?

But like I said, I think the surest way to ruin a relationship is to put the weight of meeting someone’s entire emotional needs on it.  (True story: once in therapist school we learned about a theory of couples’ counselling that claimed the purpose of marriage is “to heal each other’s childhood wounds”and I turned into DO NOT WANT cat right in the middle of class.)  That weight needs to be spread out among many people in a varied social world.

Some people are lucky enough to learn how to love and be loved as children, during the critical period when it comes easily and naturally.  It’s like language, which kids pick up without even trying under the age of five.  If you have to learn it as an adult, it is a pain in the fucking ass.  I missed a time-critical period for psychosocial growth.  I developed pretty healthily for the first five or so years of my life; but once I entered school, things faltered.  I spent a lot of time as an unpopular outcast, so instead of learning how to function socially, I learned how to read alone at recess.  I grew up with a skills gap in the middle phase of development, where you run around and laugh and play and exchange physical affection with your friends.  I had to make up for that learning later, and learned only imperfectly; as an adult, I am far more comfortable in friendships based on intellectual connection than ones that are rooted in physical touch or emotional exchange.  I mostly manage by hanging out with other nerds with a similar history of social trauma, and consequently similar ways of relating–our hugs and dancing are awkward and we don’t always know how to express affection or anger, but we like each other anyway.  I speak Friend with a non-native accent.

Instead of waiting for a single relationship to fix everything, the way to take the edge off that desperation for a significant other is to build and enrich ones in other roles.  Someone may not be the person who will love you forever, but with them you can still work on the process of letting someone care about you and learning to believe that you have value.  Emotional skills, like physical ones, require repetition.  We need to learn them before they’re needed.  It’s a tedious and sometimes terrifying process.

So is learning to walk.  So is living.


So I can be a total downer at parties.

(“Read any good books lately?”  “This really great one on the neuroscience of child abuse!”)

I’ll figure it out someday, I suspect.  Until then I’m working on my Shutting the Hell Up skills, which for a therapist are almost never at risk of being overdeveloped.

For anyone out there like me, I want to leave you with the words of Laura Hershey, the late poet and disability rights activist:

Remember, you weren’t the one
Who made you ashamed,
But you are the one
Who can make you proud.
Just practice,
Practice until you get proud, and once you are proud,
Keep practicing so you won’t forget.
You get proud
By practicing.

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10 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Scar

  1. ” grew up with a skills gap in the middle phase of development, where you run around and laugh and play and exchange physical affection with your friends. I had to make up for that learning later, and learned only imperfectly; as an adult, I am far more comfortable in friendships based on intellectual connection than ones that are rooted in physical touch or emotional exchange.”

    That’s a bad thing? Shit. I save physical touch for my family and cats; my emotional exchange is usually, outside the family, mediated through editable keystrokes.

    I’d just said “This is the flavor I am available in.”

    1. *shrugs* “Bad” is super subjective. If you’re happy, you’re happy. And yeah, on some levels it absolutely is affected by culture and temperament. I guess you could just parse it as a difference in personality, instead of a skills deficit. (My phrasing as such is probably not unrelated to me feeling unhappy with my job, which makes me work a lot with kids with limited language abilities.)

      On the other hand, with the people I do click with, I hunger for things like horseplay and dancing and understanding without words. In and around endless intellectual babble about psychology and stories.

  2. “If having sex with someone cured them of self-hatred, I wouldn’t be a psychotherapist; I’d be a prostitute. But it doesn’t.”

    This hit me so much that I temporarily lost the ability to process the rest of this post. I did that for a while. I thought that I could help these lonely people by accepting them, and by giving them a time-limited and bounded, but safe space of warmth and affirmation, kind of like a therapist. It was a part of my personal meaning-making for doing sex work (in addition to income). But there have been enough situations where I thought “omg, you seriously should have spent this money on a therapist”, and felt helpless to function as anything more than a band-aid – and sometimes even as an enabler of unhealthy patterns – by providing temporary relief. I was also in a wrong role most of the time to help, even if I did technically have some skills. This contributed to my burn out. I am not in any way saying that this applies to all sex worker clients or even to all of my former clients, but there were enough to make me seriously question the meaning of what I was doing. And then I had a lucky opportunity to exit and to transition into a mental health / social services field – into actually being in an appropriate helping role – and I took this opportunity. So yes, my personal experience really deeply resonates with this point.

      1. Yep. Which hey, I would welcome legalized sex work to the social services field–sex workers would get employment standards protection and the law on their side and opportunities for education in psychology.

        (Though, I feel the need to point out for the audience at home, the hypothetical on the post was if sex were a magical fix-it button. Back in real life, I am a therapist, and I am on team NEVER EVER SLEEP WITH YOUR PSYCHOTHERAPY CLIENTS, I MEAN GOD DAMN.)

    1. That makes perfect sense. And ouch, I can only imagine the burnout that would come from multiplying sex work with mental health work, to the power of not enough training, supervision, or collegial support. *wince*

      The real secret is that even as mental health professionals we can’t fix anybody (goddamn telepathy). We just help them create the circumstances in which they fix themselves. I think admitting that central lack of control in the middle of all our efforts is key to everything we do.

  3. There’s no conflict between diagnoses of “entitlement” and a reaction from desperate, helpless need. MHO, part of what makes entitlement so offensive, so detrimental to relationships among equals, is that an attitude of entitlement IS an expression of desperate, helpless need… from a social position that isolates the needy person from realizing their need is their own to address (and all that follows from that: that one may already have the ability to meet one’s own need if one stopped trying to foist it on others; that others may not be able to meet this need in any case; that others have their own similar needs that *they* may give at least as much priority…)
    Entitlement, or desperate helpless neediness, sucks and fails not (only) because it’s not an equitable or effective distribution of emotional workload, or a try to trade things in one domain (gifts, services) for things in another domain (attention, sex) –those apparently work OK in other contexts, absent the Nice(Needy) element–but because it communicates an inequitable distribution of personhood, or selfhood, or whatever you call the basic sense of individual worth and agency. Anything else, people with differing abilities or interests could negotiate a trade or accommodation. But being a self one can only do for oneself.

    1. It’s so funny to relate this back to the idea that “you must love yourself before you can love others” (which I usually have mixed and complicated feelings about!). Because from the inside this whole complex it feels like, “Oh, I’m putting myself down and thinking really highly of everyone else, how can they not like that?” but from an outside perspective, when I deny my own worth as a person, it distances me from my ability to treat anyone else like a person. Other people are statues on pedestals, not human beings. It’s not until I have my own self, something in myself that I treat as worth holding onto, that I can face other peoples’ views of me without being annihilated. (“How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”)

      When you’re treating yourself like a despised object, all you can see is that you’re treating everyone else like a better object. (A comfort item, a cure, a Holy Grail.) But that’s so, so far away from not treating anyone like an object at all.

      There’s a lot I pruned out of this post for clarity because I haven’t found a really great way to express it, but it seems to me that although the emotional core of Nice Girldom and Nice Guydom are the same, their cognitive and cultural aspects are really different. Men get told that pining and trying to “win” love is an A+ strategy. Meanwhile, when I looked for a reflection of myself and my own experiences, I mostly only saw depictions of pining women as pathetic, unlovable, and unsuccessful. Helena and Donna Elvira and Clarabelle Cow and, I don’t know, the three girls in Belle’s village who drool over Gaston. Guys in our society get told that they should feel entitled to a reward in the form of female love, while girls get told that the way to get that reward is definitely not by actively trying for it.

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