Fear of foolishness

How can I stop worrying about what other people think of my boyfriend?

Published December 18, 2001 8:45PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am almost 30 years old, and I have been dating a wonderful man for almost a year. We have tons in common, we laugh a lot, and he is the most caring person I have ever known. However, I still find myself worrying too much about what others think of him. I've had the sharp-dressed man who says all the right things at parties. I've had the man with lots of money. Yet these men and I did not have the relationships that I yearned for, a relationship that I now have.

Despite my happiness, I cannot get over a longtime problem I've had -- being too hard on my boyfriends, as well as being too hard on myself. When I introduce my boyfriend to my friends, I'm afraid he's going to say the wrong thing and embarrass me. I am ashamed of my thoughts - they are unfair to the person I love, and they cause me to spend time and energy thinking about things that don't matter.

Is my behavior normal? Do you think someone like me can ever be completely at ease? I'm dating the type of person I've always wanted to be with and am torturing myself with my paranoia. Am I destined to live alone because I'm too hard on others?

It Ain't Right Being So Uptight

Dear It Ain't Right,

I know what you're talking about. Isn't it awful? (Are you a Virgo?) You want to put your hand over his mouth and say "Shush!" Or you want to retell the story, the same story, but the right way, leaving out the dumb details. It's a terrible human trait. I've got it, too, because I want desperately to be liked. I also have a deep need to see the world as I imagine it to be. I live mostly in a fantasy world, so when I have to enter the world as it is I grieve a little. Isn't that sad? But it's true. When I was in graduate school I read a lot of Henry James and I wanted the world to be like the world in Henry James, where everyone has inner monologues with the complexity, depth and richness of fine wine, and everyone understands the detailed subtext of everyone else's merest utterance.

Not to put too fine a point on the obvious, but people you meet at work and at college aren't like the people in Henry James. People are the way they are. The key to accepting that sad and mundane fact is to find some bedrock of self-worth that allows you to stand on your own two feet and accept whatever reactions your friends have to the man you love. However indecorous it may be, that's the way it is, princess. If your friends love you, they will attempt to get to know the man you love, because that's what people who love you do. They reach out.

If you can stop worrying about what they think long enough to act with some grace, you can help them get to know him. Assuming what you have in mind is a long-term relationship with this man, you can have some frank conversations with your closest friends; admit that you're afraid they think your boyfriend is goofy; tell them you want them to see him as you see him.

This may be harder than it sounds, because your friends may not even be your friends. People who are overly concerned with what others think have difficulty forming frank, solid friendships, and so what you have may be simply a coterie of acquaintances whom you value for their status or their appearance. Don't expect them to be on your side. They may be catty and unsupportive. A real friendship is one that allows you to tell your friend about your fears, to seek advice, to ask for patience and goodwill toward those you love.

Dear Cary,

My wife and I have been married for 11 years. We have been through an apartment, two houses, three kids and innumerable life changes. We have managed to maintain our senses of adventure, humor and love for each other. But ...

She's a pack rat. I long for the days when everything I owned fit in my car. I look at the basement and see, in what was to be the kids' playroom, boxes and boxes of mementos. And I'm not just referring to the occasional letter from Grandma, long since deceased, which even the striver for a state of Zen nothingness in me recognizes as having legitimate sentimental value. A partial list of box contents: Garfield calendar from 1983; Christmas cards from paper route customers, same vintage as calendar; posters that once graced dorm-room walls, now torn and faded; notebook containing list of caterers, photographers, halls and so on considered and rejected for our wedding. And so on. Stacked floor to ceiling, approaching wall to wall.

If I ruled the world, or even ruled the house, these things would be at the curb immediately. To her, they are all linked to memories. Intellectually, she admits that just as the map is not the territory, neither is the item the memory. But since intellect and emotion are not the same, and since we treat the marriage as a partnership in which consensus is required, the playroom remains a warehouse and I remain frustrated.

We've talked it over and over, at low volume and high. Concessions have been made -- for example, the mug collection she amassed as a teen, boxed and untouched for years, went to the Salvation Army recently. But the outflow remains less than the accumulation. I don't want to be one of those elderly folks who are crushed by a stack of newspapers in their dining room!

Too Much Stuff

Dear Too Much Stuff,

Allow me a moment to sigh in solidarity and also in fear, because stored objects have an awe-inspiring power to sap the will, to turn the mind inside out, to stupefy you and make you go weak. I have both the pack-rat tendency and the desire for a house of clean surfaces and a few well-placed things.

There are lots of ways to think about this, and lots of practical strategies. For some reason, reading that book "Your Money or Your Life" was useful because it stressed taking an inventory of all your possessions and putting a monetary value on them. I don't remember if it explicitly said to compare the monetary value of the object with the value of the space it was taking up, but that's one thing that happened: As a result of inventorying all my junk, I realized that I was paying many times more for the space it was occupying. Your house, after all, is valuable space. It isn't free. Every cubic foot of space has value. (And if you live in San Francisco, that value is profound and, in itself, awe-inspiring.)

And what about this fear of what will happen if the thing is gone? I found it very liberating, actually, to cast some stuff off and realize that nothing happened. All that happened was we suddenly got more space ... for free!

The war against objects can never be completely won, but if fought hard and consistently, it can allow you to achieve some balance. Practical strategies include carting the objects to a storage facility and paying the bill for storage every month. The idea there is to win in stages. First the stuff goes into storage. That means it's out of the house. That deprives it of some of its power, because she won't be happening upon those items and having unexpectedly wistful moments. Then after the stuff has been in storage for awhile, there might come a time when you visit the storage facility to get rid of some of it.

Because it's easier to throw things out when you're in a neutral, public space than when they're in your home. Or there may come a time when she looks at the bill for storage and it suddenly seems like a waste of money, and she may reconsider what's in all those boxes. True, she may decide that you've got lots of storage space at home, and why not save the money and bring that stuff back into the house? But it's worth a try.

Now, some things do have actual sentimental value; they express someone's personality or vividly evoke a particular time and place. Things that contain images, such as old dorm-room posters, seem to me to be perhaps worth saving, while caterers' estimates do not seem evocative.

And while you're at it, don't just try to solve this problem for yourself. Try to see how the objects fit into your wife's world. Try to see the good side of this pack-rat mentality. It may represent a profound love, a feeling for her kids and her life much deeper than anything you experience. You may underestimate the power of her passion; you may underestimate the depth of her love for the lives and moments that are passing right by you. Tread lightly on her stuff, because you may be treading on her dreams.

Dear Cary,

I am enrolled in one of the best law schools in the nation. My first couple of years of school went pretty well. But after this fall things have been going badly. A summer internship that I was very excited about became problematic, with some lawyers at the firm disliking me, because of my strong accent and my total failure at navigating the office social life. Several attempts at summer romance ended badly, and I was denied loans, which put me in a bind.

At that point I entered a state of semi-paralysis I have not been able to get out of. I was in a depression, I cried several times (I am actually a masculine man), a couple of times in front of others (which made me very ashamed). I was not able to do anything during the day, except for being on the Internet away from real life. I have missed most of my classes, was sure I had anthrax at one point and cancer at another.

I have lost contact with many of my friends. It just recently took me a week to call back a friend. Finals are approaching, and I keep telling people that I am studying, but I am not. One of my professors is quite angry at me for not turning in assignments.

I cannot go to campus counseling because I will have to deal with administrators to get there. A week ago I couldn't go out to get enough food. I am more successful in eating now, because a friend keeps calling me and asking me to eat with him.

I have to get out of this. I am an avid reader of your column (and Mr. Blue's before), but the main reason I am asking you is because you are on the Internet, and I can still function on this medium.

Paralyzed in Law School

Dear Paralyzed,

You, my friend, appear to be suffering from depression. It isn't your fault, and there's no shame in it, but it's a serious disease. If left untreated it could kill you. So tell your friend, the one who tries to make sure you eat, that you need to be taken to a clinic to be treated for depression. If he asks why you don't go on your own, explain that it's the nature of the disease to isolate people and prevent them from seeking treatment. And that's why you're asking him to make sure you go. Don't wait until you feel strong and hopeful enough to seek treatment. Have your friend take you to the doctor right away.

Dear Cary,

Due to religious ideas and emotional abuse that I experienced as a child, I am a 28-year-old virgin. I decided three years ago I don't want to be. But because of my previous relationships and personality (very nerdy!!), I find it hard to connect with people. I never thought I would find anybody to love me. I don't expect women to be patient with a guy inexperienced in dating or sex. I met someone and she seemed to really like and care for me. When I finally accepted that, and wanted to commit to her like she asked me to, she called it off. I had never loved anybody before, though I have had women friends.

I love her very much, and her rejection has torn me up inside. Life seems meaningless without her. Right now I am trying to move on and meet other women. I feel that if I don't learn how to initiate a relationship or how to ask a woman for sex, I will stay like this forever. I have started thinking of seeing hookers, hoping that it will take away my shyness around women.

Right now I feel that all my efforts are hopeless and that my whole life will always be half a life since I cannot connect to women.

Hard-up, Confused and Lonely

Dear Hard Up,

Put some gas in the car. Then try to start it up. That is, if early religious training and emotional abuse are at the bottom of what's going on in your life, that's what you need to deal with first. Now, I don't know what happened when you were a kid, but it's still bothering you. If it's the reason you are a virgin, you can't fix it by getting laid. That would be like fixing your situation with the car by pushing it a few feet and saying, Look, the car moved!

Getting laid is the least of your concerns. There's a lot of pressure in America to conform to a highly sexualized image, to make lots of money, to appear rich and successful, and it's easy to feel that if you don't do that, no one will love you and your life will be sad and lonely. But you need to first establish some relationships based on who you really are. You need to find, or rediscover, those sources of power and energy that, perhaps because there is pain associated with them, you have become cut off from.

Remember a time when you were happy and free? Remember what you used to do when you were upset or sad? If you ever got any solace from the church, if any of your religious training had anything positive in it, try to find that solace again. If there was emotional abuse, talk about it. Talk about how you feel and how you want to feel. Talk to your friends. Talk to your parents. If you're using substances to dull the pain, try to taper off. And spend some time describing in detail those religious ideas and that emotional abuse that you referred to.

This will help you become whole again. We become attractive when we become whole. And then when you least expect it, a woman will come and sit on your face.

P.S. You can laugh and say this is too New Agey for you, but I don't care. Sometimes the truth just sounds corny.

Dear Cary,

Why do men ask for your number, only to never call you? I have given my number to at least four men in the past month or so and am never called. Does this mean that I am just an insurance policy in case they get lonely? What am I doing wrong?

Number Cruncher

Dear Number Cruncher,

Um, I called but your answering machine didn't pick up? I was going to but just hadn't yet? Somebody said you had a boyfriend?

Guys have lots of reasons for not calling. Sometimes they never wanted to call. They just wanted to see if they could get your number. A number can be a trophy. Once you've got it, the game's not interesting anymore. Or they want to call but don't know what to say and can't handle the awkwardness. Or they meant to but for one reason or another just got caught up and didn't. Phone numbers are a dime a dozen. In today's society, getting a phone number does not constitute a legal contract; it's just a vague gesture of openness to further communication -- not a firm commitment.

But that's not what it seems like to you, is it? You're probably hearing "Can I have your phone number?" as "I'd really like to get to know you better, call you up and make a date." And it does seem rude of these guys not to call; after all, you're extending a courtesy, making an implied agreement and then they're not coming through.

But maybe if you look deeper at what you're trying to accomplish, you can try some new things. If you meet a guy and you want to get to know him better, why not take some more concrete steps right then and there? If it's a place he frequents, make it a place you frequent, too; you'll probably see him there again. There's nothing like getting to know someone casually by hanging out in the same place to take the pressure off. It's much more relaxed than dating. Or, if you're bold and you really like the guy, you can take it as far as you want right then and there. Go get a bite to eat together. Take him home and ravish him. Whatever. Make it special. Make yourself stand out. Turn the tables on him. Don't even give him your phone number. Tell him if he wants to see you again he has to make a date with you then and there. There are lots of things you can do to clear the air of what has become a shallow social ritual that often results only in a vague sense of disappointment and injustice.

One final thing: If you're actually offering your number, he might be just taking it out of politeness, because to refuse would seem like rejection. But there are lots of ways to get to know a guy, and the more unusual the better.

Dear Cary,

I am 34 and recently married the woman I have dated for the past seven years. I love her and am deeply attached to her. She is caring, affectionate and extremely committed. Yet, after just a few months of marriage, I find myself filled with the same doubts I experienced before I proposed to her.

My own extended family has always been very close, and my parents have always had a near-perfect relationship. She, on the other hand, comes from a fragmented family with a long history of trouble and conflict. Her mother left her and her siblings behind with the father when she was young. My fear is that as we settle into married life, the trouble she experienced years ago will find its way into our relationship and could lead to problems in the raising of our children. Should I be concerned? Should I get out while I still have a chance?


Dear Skittish,

Having kids is a frightening prospect for anybody; maybe more so if your own childhood was rough. But rather than fear that certain patterns might reemerge, why not view raising kids as an opportunity to halt a cycle of family dysfunction that may have been going on for generations?

Sure, she's going to remember things that happened to her as a child when she has kids of her own, and maybe that's going to be upsetting to her. Maybe she's going to remember how it felt when her mother left. And maybe her kids will grow up fearing that she's going to abandon them -- not because she really is but because kids pick up on all the things we fear; they seem to sense all the bad things that happened to us, and then they become afraid that those things will happen to them.

But then, when they don't get abandoned, they grow up and get over it, and then they don't have that fear, and then when they raise kids, that whole cycle ends with your generation. Maybe. And maybe you can play an important part in that.

Rather than fear that your perfect family life is coming to an end, embrace the opportunity to bring some of your good fortune to a woman who never had that.

By Cary Tennis

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