Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column “Ask Leah” ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. How to be Human runs every other Sunday. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more How to be Human here.
I was never the best at writing a good beginning for an email, and this sentence only serves to demonstrate the need for asking this particular first question: What’s the line between self-confidence and having pride in one’s self and achievements, and hubris and arrogance? How can I talk grandly of myself (which seems to be the de facto way of demonstrating self-confidence) without feeling guilty? I especially feel guilty about betraying my own belief that my life and achievements are things I primarily do for me, not to brag about or share constantly with others.
My second question is: How do I get romantically invested or interested in others? I’m around that age where almost everybody is a self-proclaimed expert in relationships, and I fail to be interested in having a relationship (with either gender, and being in a county where queer relationships are legally punishable doesn’t help with the whole experimentation part). I mean my crushes were far and between, but it’s been so long that I’ve been romantically interested in someone that I’m starting to wonder if relationships for men (especially those who are seemingly aromantic as myself) are simply about exploiting the other party for leisure, company and “fun” (which sounds rather disappointing considering how grandly everyone seems to think of “love,” not to mention quite demeaning and dehumanizing of women)?
Last but not least: How to build empathy? Whether it’s in oneself or others, what makes people make the effort to care about others and strive to understand them?
PS: As you might have realized not all these questions have that “one” answer, and to be honest I’m not looking for a perfect answer, just a nudge in the right direction would help, and I really can’t think of anyone better on the internet to do so than you.
What a great letter! I love these questions, and as you probably know, I think about each one of them rather a lot on my own. But three questions are a lot for one column, especially three different questions like this. Here’s what I’m going to do.
First, I’ll start with some news: My column is ending this month. The Verge has decided to bring it to a close, so the next column will be my last one. I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to end it, and I can’t think of a better way than with your last question. I’ll answer your first question then, too. This means you get two columns, Sag!
Let’s talk about your second question. I don’t know how old you are — because honestly “that age where almost everybody is a self proclaimed expert in relationships” could be anywhere from 15 to 105 — but I’m going to assume you’re in your very early 20s. Maybe in your late teens? It’s hard to tell, but regardless of how old you are, and despite what you may think about your own knowledge level on the subject, you already have some good insights into human behavior around relationships. It’s just a matter of interpreting those insights.
I’ve written before about being single and the pressures to find a relationship, and I’ve also written about the ways social norms have such an impact on how we feel and behave — and on how we think we should feel and behave. A lot of the bluster you hear about relationships from those self-proclaimed experts is probably as much about that pressure and those norms as it is about any actual expertise. Just as you’re trying to sort out how you feel, and whether you want a relationship at all with anyone, so too are some of those people trying to do the same thing.
For some people, their posturing around relationships is a way to pretend like they want what everyone else does or a way to act like they have the same set of experiences. It’s very rare for someone to sit down and be honest and vulnerable like you’re doing here, especially with peers and especially when those peers are other young men. So anyone with limited experience — which is most of the people you know when you’re younger — ends up assuming that everyone else knows more, has done more, understands more. And because it’s uncomfortable to feel like the only one who’s inexperienced or naïve, it’s easier to act like you know everything. It’s also easier to act like you want same things as everyone else, like a big intense huge love affair or a lot of no-strings-attached flings.
But you know what, Sag? Not everyone wants the same stuff. Not all women want a massive fairytale wedding, and not all men want to punch each other in the locker room as they joke about how many chicks they’re banging. Human experience and desire is so much more varied than that. Social norms and the way we talk about who we are and what we want have all changed a lot in recent years, but we are still a long way from really undoing many of the expectations and rules that have guided our behaviors for a long time. You know this better than many — you live in a place where you can’t even experiment and better understand your own sexuality because you fear legal repercussions.
This is my way of saying that you can’t use everyone else as a way to measure what you should want or how you should feel. I know that’s much easier said than done. I myself struggle every single day with this — I use my perceptions of what other people are doing, their successes, and where they are in their lives as a way to judge myself and highlight my own failures and shortcomings. But that’s a terrible way to live, partly because I have no idea if my interpretation of who or what they are is real. After all, maybe they’re putting on a brave front just like I am. More importantly, though, what they do and how they do it has absolutely nothing to do with how I live my own life and what I want or accomplish. Should I want children just because other people do? Should I feel bad that other people are married but I’m not? Should I feel like a failure for not having achieved particular markers of success? Nope!
Just because other people want to be in relationships — or at least act like they do — doesn’t mean you have to. Maybe you’re not someone who’s really geared toward romantic relationships. Maybe you don’t have the same kinds of sexual desires, or maybe you don’t have much (or any) sexual desire at all. Maybe you only very, very occasionally find yourself drawn to someone in a romantic or sexual way. Maybe you’re not ready. Maybe you haven’t met anyone who excites you. Maybe casual flings don’t appeal to you. Maybe you’re gay. Maybe casual flings would appeal to you if they were with men, and not women.
Desires and experiences ebb and flow over the course of our lives. This is another thing we don’t talk a lot about. Lots of people go through periods during which they don’t have any interest in sex or romance (or both). Sometimes they want to focus on work or on friendships or on themselves, or sometimes they just don’t… feel anything? Bodies and brains shift and change, and we all find ourselves faced with new experiences and possibilities from time to time that make us question whatever it was we thought we wanted or desired.
It’s absolutely possible to have fun (not just “fun”) and enjoy someone’s company (or have sex with them, or both) without having a serious relationship. It’s not for everyone, though. Plenty of people of all genders and sexual orientations don’t enjoy casual sex, or sex with someone they’re not emotionally invested in.
You are right that a lot of what you hear about this topic is dehumanizing and demeaning toward women. (This is a longer, separate conversation, but it’s one I hope you do make space for and a topic you learn about.) But I don’t think that all men only want relationships that demean women. The many social, cultural, and religious expectations and pressures around masculinity, femininity, marriage, and more make it very hard for people to talk about how they really feel and to pursue what they want. It’s very difficult for women. But it’s also difficult for men! Men are told things like “it’s not manly to talk about your feelings or to say you don’t like casual hookups and instead long for an epic romance.” Or things like “good women don’t love sex, so you can treat the ones who do badly.” We all hear things like this. There’s a lot we need to rewire in ourselves and in our cultural norms. So I commend you for writing this letter, because I think if more people — not just guys but all of us! — could be more open like you are here, we’d be a lot better off.
My advice to you is this: Don’t force yourself to get interested or invested in romantic relationships. Try very hard to not compare yourself to everyone else or to measure yourself by what they’re doing. They might not even be doing what they say they are, or they might not want to be doing it. Instead, keep doing things that interest you and pursuing the types of relationships that fulfill you — friends, community, volunteer work, spiritual practice, and so on. That’s going to make you feel much happier and more confident in who you are, and I think that will better allow you to understand yourself and what it is you want. Who knows, maybe along the way you’ll meet someone and find yourself with a new crush, one you want to pursue. Or maybe you’ll find that you simply are in fact aromantic or asexual. Any of this is okay. It’s more than okay! It’s who you are.
I’ll see you back here next week for one last column.