Ever had a girl break your heart so badly you thought you'd never recover? Couldn't get her off your mind? Desperate to get her back? Then you might find John's story helpful; and besides, I need to debrief to get this guy out of my system.
I met John in a youth hostel while on a winter road trip up the east coast of Australia in search of warmer weather. He seemed like a decent guy who was always cracking jokes, and before long the two of us were entertaining some of the other backpackers with our stories of adventure and comic irony.
John seemed intrigued when I mentioned that I was a recovering perfectionist, and asked me several times to elaborate about that. I told him the story of how I had a fulfilling engineering career up until the point where I decided I didn't enjoy it any more and decided to change direction. He could relate: John had studied law, and hated every minute of it. Then he'd joined the military, and he'd hated that too. He hated prosecuting people who hadn't done anything wrong, and in general his conscience bothered him a lot. He was from California, which he hated because it was being over-run with Mexicans. He'd come to Australia on a whim to get away from it all.
A surfboard hanging on the wall of the hostel reminded John of his sort-of-girlfriend back home, who we'll call HB. She was a year older than John, by his account very attractive, and apparently crazy about him. Sounded like her biological clock was ticking. Problem was John wasn't too fussed about HB, because he was still emotionally attached the girl who had “ripped his heart out”, who we'll call Christie.
It's funny that I don't remember Christie's real name, given that John spent a full day whining to me about her. I give John full credit for traveling overseas to take some time out and broaden his horizons, but no bonus points for bringing his misery with him. I made the mistake of suggesting that John and I hang out on a day we both had nothing planned. After a couple of hours exploring the town I began to wonder what the hell I was thinking.
John's full story is a tragic tale of suffering and woe too despairing to fully explore here: anxiety, depression, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and just general misery thinly plastered over with sarcastic humor. He was basically a miserable guy pretending to be fun and happy. But he complained about just about everything: his ex-girlfriend, his career, his overbearing conscience, his life in general. I thought of Dr Paul Dobransky from Men's Psychology describing guys like John as being “top-heavy on conscience”, and the irony that despite all his failed efforts, John basically came across as a whiny jerk. Shortly after lunch time, I was ready to throw us both off the bridge. Either that or gnaw my own arm off just to try and get through the day in his presence.
Being a recovering nice guy myself, I could recognize a lot of symptoms in John's world view. Deep down, he was angry about just about everything, but he wasn't prepared to admit it. Instead, he dumped on people behind their backs with cynical humor. The world didn't work the way John thought it should, and rather than accept this fact he kept on rallying against reality. He was pissed off that Christie left him to go out with a string of abusive douche-bags who treated her like crap, but didn't recognize that the way he acted was probably what repelled her from him in the first place. Hanging around miserable people is exhausting and drains your energy. That was my experience of John, and I bet it didn't just start the day I met him.
Deep down John seemed desperate to connect with other people, but the strategies he was using just weren't very effective. He was occasionally funny, but more often than not I just felt this urge to get away from him when he joked around. His stories of woe had no resolution because he hadn't ever resolved the hurt feelings that he still had towards his work, the military, his country, his life, and the girl who he said “had ripped his heart out”.
I wasn't really in the mood to coach John given that I was on holidays, and the impression I got was that he was too stuck in his own pity party to take much on board anyway. He seemed slightly inspired by my stories of how I had learned to dance and to play guitar. The previous evening I'd made a bunch of friends at the hostel by playing songs for them on my guitar and hence contributing to their lives in a way I found rewarding. Music is a great way to connect with other people; overly sarcastic humor isn't.
John was a walking example of the worst aspects of nice guy syndrome: expecting the world to be a certain way that it's clearly not, expecting women to like him even though he's complaining about everything, getting stuck in the wrong job, with the wrong woman, in the wrong life for him.
He also had a serious case of oneitis: the mistaken belief that there is only one girl who could ever make him truly happy. As long as John held onto this belief, he was likely to stay stuck: desperate to get Christie back and unable to move on to truly love another woman. Unfortunately for John, desperation is yet another nice-guy trait that women don't find attractive. No wonder Christie left John for guys who showed a bit more edge.
But rather than express sadness or anger over what happened between them, John used humor to avoid his true feelings. That's like putting sticking plaster over an Uzi wound that's blown your arm off. Until John allowed himself to feel, and thence to heal, the hurt that he felt over what had happened with his “one true love”, he was going to be stuck thinking that only she would ever make him happy. When in fact, he was probably going to make them both miserable unless he dealt with...
The bigger problem for John: his reaction to his abusive father. He described his father as an abusive asshole and John's whole personality and attitude to life appeared to be a counter-reaction to this. If John could just repress his anger and aggression hard enough, he would be able to avoid turning out like his violent father, who he clearly despised. But in the process of repressing anger and aggression, we lose our backbone and become compliant nice-guys who end up frustrated with life when it doesn't go the way we would like.
Having rejected his own ability to express anger and aggression, and any other “negative” traits that reminded him of his father, John was left with no emotional defenses and no real sense of who he really was, so life just seemed to push him around all the time. When I asked what he wanted to do in life if he hated law so much, he had a pretty clear idea about working with animals and he got excited when we went to go visit the koala hospital that afternoon. The question was whether he had the commitment to follow-through on making it happen. Without access to a bit of masculine determination that wasn't likely.
I remember realizing for myself that many of the traits that I had rejected in my father were actually the ones that made him a powerful, masculine man. I rejected them because he often expressed them in an unhealthy way, and because they didn't go down so well with my mother who was out of touch with her femininity and ended up in constant conflict with him. Disempowered men attract masculine women, and they both live unhappily ever after because they aren't really being true to their own nature. It turned out that the very traits that I rejected from my father were the ones that I needed to succeed in life, and with women; but I have to work out how to express them constructively instead of destructively.
I have a strong hunch that the same is true for John. If he was asking for my advice it would be this: firstly, stop whining. Stop joking around about the pain you're carrying about your abusive father, and about the girl you've put up on this big pedestal. Allow yourself to feel the pain these things have caused you. Get angry. Take up boxing. Cry it out. Drop the story. Stop pretending you're invincible to emotional pain. Focus on how you feel right now, and on building the future you want in your life, rather than on the story about the past.
Your first one-true-love is a fantasy story full of bullshit, and it stinks. If it had worked out the way you wanted you would know that by now; but it didn't so you're still in limbo emotionally attached to a fantasy. The way to break emotional attachments is to allow yourself to fully feel and express the emotions involved. Get some emotional healing. Find a professional who will listen compassionately to your emotions, but won't let you keep spinning the bullshit story.
Ultimately, the way to get over the girl who ripped your heart out is to realize that it didn't happen the way you remember. She didn't rip your heart out. It just didn't work out the way you wanted, and you got hurt. Life is painful sometimes; stop pretending that it should be painless when it clearly isn't. Stop using whiny complaining and humor to avoid the pain. Express it, heal it, and move on to create the life you want.
Get the emotional healing you need and learn to be true to yourself instead of letting other people and circumstances push you around all the time. Start building a true sense of confidence and drop the oneitis with women. For more on taking action to deal with nice guy syndrome, father issues and anger see Steps 3, 7 and 16 in Confident Man.