How Do I Take Off These Rose-Colored Glasses?

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How Do I Take Off These Rose-Colored Glasses?

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Estimated reading time: 19 minutes

Dear Dr. Nerdlove

I have been reading your column for a little over a year. I am hoping you may at least have some insights where I am stuck, if not advice.

After getting out of *another* relationship that turned scary + abusive 4 years 5 months ago, I stopped dating until I could get to a better place (in all senses of the phrase).

One-on-one therapy, group therapy for self-described “limerence addicts,” diagnosis and treatment for a physical condition I had gaslit myself into ignoring, and pragmatic support from some extended family to help me get safely financially independent.

I am now feeling ok. I am feeling stable. I live solo and I no longer feel like I *have to* be in a romantic relationship.

But my heart – my desire? my orientation? – seems permanently…off.

I genuinely want to have a real romantic relationship again. But my sense is so off. I have used external checklists of red flags + warning signs from anti-abuse organizations, and I now realize much earlier on – within the first few weeks, sometimes on the first date – that a guy is bad news.

But I feel so frustrated! Every time I read the list and, inevitably, a guy a feel a strong, early connection with is a friggin’ red flag parade!

I want to rationalize, or believe the list is wrong and “follow my heart.” But I know from experience and therapy now that the list is valid, based on decades of research, and correct. It is my heart that is wrong.

Whereas, after a date with a “green flag” guy, it’s like…I basically feel no connection after a few dates – or even after a few months of dates!

And it often seems mutual. Half the time, it’s Green Flag Greg who ghosts or politely turns *me* down for the next date.

And I don’t start spiraling or worrying or anything when that happens. I don’t think, like, “why doesn’t he like me? How can I win him back?” I just feel relieved. Or I shrug.

Last night, I was reading about “love bombing” and the “match-plus-one” conversation strategy. And something clicked.

On some level, I only feel “chemistry” with extreme, early displays of “over the top” romantic affection and desire. On top of that, I also feel, well, insecure about myself and decisions I’ve made. I feel a strong connection to people who take decisive action – even on my behalf, even without asking first, at least about little things like what to eat for dinner.

And I realized I just cannot do the “match-plus-one” conversation style.

It feels like, everything moves so slow! Deep intimacy and mutually vulnerability feel like real love to me, they create extraordinary electric chemistry! My instinct is to match plus, I don’t know, ten or something. To reveal too much, ask for too much revelation too soon. “TMI” feels right; the normal, slow progression of trust and vulnerability makes me feel disconnected, or even disliked – like Green Flag Greg is uncomfortable getting to know the real me.

After years of therapy, I have effective strategies to avoid getting into another abusive relationship.

And in some cases, I do know the strategies work. There was one “Red Flag Ron” I felt strongly connected to after a few dates. But the checklist indicated several red flags, so I declined to become a committed relationship, even though I felt anxiety and feared future regret turning him down.

Well, the list did its job right. I found out less than a year later, he was arrested for physically assaulting his girlfriend so badly she was hospitalized.

I dodged a bullet!

But is it possible to fix my heart?

You have heard the BoJack Horseman quote, “when you wear rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.” The corollary there is, rose colored glasses also make green flags look blah sad-vibes gray.

I want to be able to feel a genuine connection, to experience true chemistry, and fall in love with one of the many Green Flag Gregs of the world!

How do I do that? Is that even possible?

I feel like much of my therapy + growth has stalled out after meeting my initial goals. I gained independence, learned strategies to evaluate danger more objectively, and processed serious trauma – I used to have panic attacks daily, and now I only have them once or twice a year at most!

But I don’t have any idea to get to the next step. My mind has healed a lot. I worry my heart may be broken forever. I have stopped attending limerence support group, because I feel like I’ve outgrown it, and I found myself (obviously unfairly) annoyed at group members making mistakes I’d stopped making a while ago.

Where do I go from here?

– Smart Brain, Dumb Heart

First of all, SMDH, I think it’s important to take a moment and appreciate how far you’ve come. You’ve made some incredible progress, and that’s amazing. You’ve made incredible strides in your life, addressed so many issues you’ve faced… that says a lot about you and your ability to grow, change and improve.

This is why it’s entirely understandable that you have this seemingly intractable sticking point that you just can’t get past. But it’s also something that happens a lot to folks who are breaking negative patterns and growing as people. Change takes a lot of effort. Sustained change takes even more, because our brains are lazy and don’t want to expend that energy. So there’re are often points where it feels like we’re trying to pull an elephant out of quicksand and the elephant doesn’t want to leave. It likes the quicksand. And you may feel like yelling what the actual fuck, elephant, if you don’t move you’re going to drown? Get your ass in gear and lets get out of this 80s nightmare where quicksand is an actual thing to be worried about!

OK, that metaphor may have gotten away from me. But the point remains: it feels incredibly frustrating when you know intellectually that you’re still engaging in negative behaviors but you can’t seem to shift them no matter what you do.

Well, there’s a two-fold approach to this that I think would help you. The first is to understand the situation, the why and wherefores of it. The second is to use that knowledge as leverage and how to apply it.

The first part is actually pretty obvious. Part of the reason why Red Flag Charlie gets your motor running is because certainty and directness is appealing. This is just part of the human condition; we have an almost instinctual attraction towards people who seem incredibly confident and assured. It tweaks the part of our brains that says “this person must know what he or she is doing. They’ve got it figured out. I can relax, someone knows what’s going on.”

This is part of how conmen trick perfectly intelligent, savvy people. Yeah, everything Elizabeth Holmes or Sam Bankman-Fried or whomever says seems outlandish, absurdly risky or impossible based on the physical laws of the universe… but they’re so certain that there must be something there, right? With all that horse shit they’re spreading, there must be a pony in there somewhere.

It’s also part of how predators and toxic partners get you. The assertive confidence, the passion and intensity are compelling. Someone both seeming so confident in themselves that they have no doubt and with the willingness to be so open about their attraction and interest… that’s very appealing, especially when they seem to see things in you that you wish were there. If you’re insecure or feel shaky in your own value, someone confidently telling you just how amazing you are and how much they like you (and they’ve never felt this way, they never do this, etc.) is like catnip. They’re making you feel special because what they say seems like it’s laser targeted at the areas where you feel the most anxious.

Now to be fair: that’s not just the province of toxic people or predators prowling around looking for weak boundaries. There’re good people who are effusive and outgoing too. But a lot of them tend to be a bit more restrained at first.

Put a pin in that; we’re going to come back to that.

So, you know that the confident, aggressive approach works on you. You also know that you’re prone to insecurity and second-guessing yourself. That’s precisely why the over-the-top, oversharing approach works on you. It feels good – easing your stress and worry – and the speed of it keeps your brain weasels from getting enough time to warm up and start gnawing on your insecurities. You know yourself well enough to know that this gets you into trouble pretty much every time.

Here’s the important part: the reason why going slow feels so frustrating isn’t because you’re wired for speed. It’s because it’s what you’re used to. A slower burn feels uncomfortable because it’s different. It’s not following the path that you know like the back of your hand. A slower pace feels like you’re doing something wrong, like you’re not going to get to where you need to be when you need to be there. But that’s why we say “feels aren’t reals”. Your feeling something doesn’t mean that it’s true; it’s just how you’re feeling.

This is why it’s good to trust your gut, but only as long as your gut is trustworthy. Sometimes your gut needs training, like an excitable dog that barks at everything. You want to teach it that the unfamiliar isn’t automatically dangerous, and to reserve its attention for the times when there’re actual dangers.

So you’re going to retrain yourself and your gut. You’re going to break your old habit and build a new one through careful, deliberate and mindful effort.

How you do this is simple in concept, but challenging in execution: you hold on a little longer than you would normally with someone who’s waving all those greenflags. You start a dialogue with yourself about those anxiety patterns: “oh, right, that’s my usual dating anxiety flaring up again. That’s the part that always leads me astray.” Then you mentally grit your teeth and tighten your grip so that you don’t leap to the usual (often incorrect) conclusions and redirect your attention to being in the moment. You focus your attention on what they’re actually saying, what they’re actually doing, and resolve that you’re going to give them a little longer for that chemistry to kick in. “It doesn’t have to be for very long”, you tell yourself. “Another conversation. Another date. Just a bit longer and we’ll see. If it’s not there, it’s not there and that’s fine, we’ll be able to move on knowing that we made the right call.”

The same goes for the frustration of how slow everything seems to be. It only seems slow because you’re used to sketchy dudes who go from zero-to-sixty in 3 seconds, guys who use speed to overwhelm your Spidey-sense and keep you from noticing that all those flags are getting a distinctly crimson hue. So you treat your heart like an eager race horse; yeah it wants to run, but first it’s do its warm ups so it’s ready to run without hurting itself.

That’s precisely how you think of those early days when you’re lamenting the seemingly glacial pace: you’re warming up, you’re stretching and getting ready for the moment that you can drop the restraints and go.

Now to be sure: this is going to take work. This is going to require that you strengthen your willpower, because the urge to say “fuck it, this sucks, this is taking too long” will be immense. But you’ll notice that it takes a little less effort every time. The pace seems a little less ponderous and a little more measured. You won’t have to put as much conscious thought into fighting those old instincts. And before long, you’ll realize this has gone from being something you have to think about to something you just do; it’ll be the emotional equivalent of muscle memory.

Don’t get me wrong: yes, there will still be all the usual annoyances and frustrations built into dating – the ghosting, the sudden radio silence, the first dates to nowhere. But because you’re giving people more of a chance, you’ll discover there will also be times you’re pleasantly surprised. Yeah, Gary Green Flags may not seem as interested or eager at first… but given a little time to warm up to you and to connect with you, you’ll be surprised by the strength of that connection, the intensity of those feelings.

Remember what I said about good guys who don’t show the same level of assertiveness and powerful feelings right away? Well, part of why they do that is because they’re worried that they’re going to scare you away if they don’t. Byrestraining yourself – giving them more time while also refusing to let your anxieties trick you into running away – you’re giving them time to feel like they can show that side of themselves. By holding yourself back rather than telling them to get ready to drink from the firehose, you’re not scaring them off, too. It becomes a win-win scenario, where you both get the best of the other.

This doesn’t mean you have to date people who don’t stoke your fire. It doesn’t mean you have to wait weeks before you can open up to someone. It just means giving a little more time, having a little more patience and a little more restraint. The predators and Red Flag Robbies of the world won’t like that and they’ll leave. The good guys? They’ll appreciate it.

It takes practice. It takes effort. It takes strength of will. But you’ve already proven you have that strength. You just have to apply it here, the way you have in the other parts of your life.

You’ve got this.

Good luck.


Hi Dr NerdLove,

I was reading your recent column “It’s Impossible For Me To Meet New People!” where you brought up the “man or bear” thing and it made me realise I need to ask for help on this.

I’m a trans man and I really, really hate myself for being a man. When I was growing up I was part of communities that went very hard on the “men are terrifying predators, OBVIOUSLY a woman would choose the bear, etc” stuff, which felt great and affirming… until I realised I was a man. And that transitioning would make me worse than a wild animal in the eyes of my friends – who had been very clear about that, they always went out of their way to say things like “kill all men includes trans men!” (You can tell from the past tense that I, uh, don’t spend a lot of time with these people any more. But their influence on my thinking remains.)

So like, I get your advice about “if you know it doesn’t apply to you then don’t take it personally” and I want to be able to do that, but I don’t know how. Especially since people keep going out of their way to make it clear that they DO think trans men specifically are evil. I’m not saying trans men should get a free pass on sexism, but these people aren’t saying “remember trans men can be sexist”; they’re saying “trans men are irredeemable predators just like cis men”. I don’t know how to let that roll off my back, especially since I feel guilty for feeling upset by it, because if I was REALLY a good man then I would know that it didn’t apply to me and wouldn’t feel bad! So being upset is proof that I’m evil!

I get the impression this stuff affects me more than cis men because I feel like I could “do better” by going back in the closet and trying to be a woman again, which isn’t really a thing cis men see as an option. TBH it’s perfectly captured by your example of how everyone chooses the bear in “your daughter meets a man vs a bear” but the woman in “woman vs bear”; I feel like I couldn’t ask for better evidence that it’s safer for those around me if I stay in the closet. I’ve actually caught myself wishing that conversion therapy worked so that I could do it without having to suffer gender dysphoria. (I’ve looked for resources to help with these thoughts but basically everything about conversion therapy assumes that a) it’s religious or psychoanalysis and b) someone is doing it to you rather than you doing it to yourself.)

Tl;dr it’s easy to say “if you know this stuff doesn’t apply to you then don’t get upset by it” but how do I actually start building that ability?

Cheers,

Bear-Man

I’m glad that you said that you don’t hang out with those people any more, because the first thing I was going to tell you was that you need new and better friends.

There’re a few things to consider here, BM. The first is that volume and excitement aren’t the same thing as being correct. It’s easy to yell “all men are predators”; it can feel good because it lets people feel righteous and not have to think any further than that. It feels like activism. But it’s not. It’s just yelling. It’s just noise.

The second is that men aren’t instinctually dangerous. Men aren’t predators because gender is immutable or we’re wired to be so at some genetic level. The reason why so many men are so shitty and dangerous to women is because the system we live in teaches us to be that way. That’s the whole deal with toxic masculinity – it’s a system of beliefs that treat behaviors that are inherently harmful as virtues, encourages men to follow them and punishes the ones who deviate from it. Much like the old saw about how fish have no word for water, it’s something that we’ve all been raised in and swimming in for so long that we’re barely aware that it’s even there.

This is why we’re still having discussions about “how men can’t flirt for fear of being hit with harassment suits” or why it’s bad that (white) boys aren’t having as much sex as they theoretically should be; we’re only just starting to grapple with the fact that that behavior that was not just tolerated but encouraged and valorized was, in fact, deeply fucked up. A lot of people are hearing for the first time that behavior they thought was accepted and expected is, in fact, anything but, and that’s incredibly uncomfortable. It both asks for accountability and acknowledgement of bad behavior, but also to recognize that a lot of what men were taught was their birthright is actually unearned.

So, no: the fact that you realized you’re a man doesn’t mean that a switch was flipped and now you’re ontologically evil. It just means that you’re a man, in a world that’s in the middle of systematic change and change at this level rarely goes smoothly.

But that’s a systematic issue. Let’s talk about the personal level. We’ll start with something simple: being a good man doesn’t mean that you don’t worry about how people feel or that you should let those words roll off you like water off a duck’s back. You know why those words bother you? Because you worry about being a bad man. You’re concerned with other people’s comfort and safety and making sure that you’re not contributing to a world that already makes life hard for others. You worry that maybe there’s something that you’re missing, that maybe there’s some way that you’re causing harm that you aren’t aware of.

Those aren’t the behaviors of a bad man. Those aren’t the worries of a predator. Those are the thoughts, behaviors and feelings of someone who is considerate, thoughtful and who wants to be better. And to a certain extent, that’s a good thing. One of the biggest mistakes people can make is to assume that because they’re The Good Guys, then obviously nothing they do is wrong. But that’s precisely the problem; once you start assuming that you’re Good, you stop paying attention, you stop trying to make sure you don’t hurt people by accident. How could you? You’re Good.

And that’s where the mistakes creep in. That’s where the harm happens. And that’s where accountability stops because clearly it couldn’t be your fault, you’re Good! You’re ontologically incapable of causing harm.

Now to be clear: this doesn’t mean that self-doubt and anxiety mean you’re inherently good. What it does mean is that the people who are causing the most harm don’t worry about it nor do they care. The guys who pivot to violent fantasies over the whole “man vs. bear” thing? They’re not rubbing their hands together like a supervillain about to launch their death ray, they’re not thinking “mua ha ha I’m evil!” They’re not thinking about anything, other than their pricked ego. They couldn’t care less if what they’re doing contributes to a world that harms other people.

At the same time, being worried about making mistakes doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to make them. You’re human and you’re imperfect, same as all of us. Everyone fucks up on occasion. It’s part of the human experience. But you’re actually paying attention. You’re doing your best to avoid causing harm and you want to make things right if you do. That means a lot, and it tells you far more about who you actually are.

Now, I wouldn’t be earning the “Nerd” in my name if I didn’t bring this around to something suitably geeky, so there are two things for you to keep in mind. One is that being a man – and yes I am absolutely including trans men in this – gives one privileges in society. Well, this is why it’s good to follow the Tao of Peter Parker: with great power comes great responsibility. If you have power or privilege, it’s important to think about how you use it and how it affects others.

This is what leads me to the second thing to keep in mind: embrace your inner Mr. Rogers. Not just Fred, but Steve Rogers. Steve Rogers is, by all objective accounts, the Man’s Man. He looks like what wanna-be “alphas” think a “real” man looks like – tall, handsome and built like a brick shithouse. But the reason why Steve Rogers is Captain America is because of who he is inside. He may be the Manly Man Man but he knows what it means to be weak. He knows what it means to be vulnerable. And in his heart of hearts, his goal is to help the weak, to protect the vulnerable, to uplift the people around him. This is why it’s significant that his weapon is a shield; it a small detail that says volumes about who he is and what he stands for.

Steve Rogers is aware of the potential he has to cause harm. He knows that he could be a risk to others and so he does his best to make sure he doesn’t. He tries to be careful about how and when he uses his prodigious strength, in how he treats others and what causes he pursues. And while there will always be others who may not trust him or see him as a threat, he does his best to earn their trust. He doesn’t try to prove he’s a good man, he just tries to do good. And while he frequently has his doubts or worries, he does his best to follow his moral compass and let that be the bulwark against being a threat.

I think there’re far worse role models out there than Fred and Steve. Some situations call for a Fred Rogers. Some call for a Steve Rogers. Finding your place in that spectrum, I think, will go a long way towards relieving those anxieties you have. Your existence isn’t a threat to others, MB. Your simply being a man isn’t causing harm.

Being dangerous is an active state. It’s not inherent in your gender. It’s a matter of choice. It may be a choice made in ignorance, but it’s still a choice.

There are awful people in the world, yeah. The fact that you physically resemble some of them doesn’t make you one of them, because it’s not the physicality that makes them awful.

You aren’t making people unsafe because you exist around them and the world won’t be better because you go back into the closet or deny your truth. It’d just be a little sadder and a little less bright because you’re hiding your light.

You want to be a good man? OK. Choose to BE one and live it to the best of your ability. Do your best to do no harm and to make the world a little better – even if it’s just your small piece of it. If you make mistakes, then apologize and do your best to make amends. But never forget: you have it in you to be the man that both Mr. Rogers’ knows you could be. So go out there and make them proud.

You’ve got this.

All will be well.

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