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How to be human: how to learn from unrequited love

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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 a Senior User Researcher for Slack, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Dear Leah,

Before I start, I'd just like to say how great your articles are on The Verge and I've been reading most of them since the start of it. I know you can give me some sense to my situation which is why I've decided to write it to you.

I guess my problem is sort of pretty straightforward. I've been friends (good friends I guess?) with a girl in my class for coming to around three years already and we chat almost every single night. And somehow, I have started to have deep feelings for her since the start of this year. I don't know how to describe it but I know it's there. Every time I think of her or just simply hear her name my heart just melts.

But the thing is, no matter how much I care for her, it seems like she has never cared for me back. She sometimes gets cold and seems to not care at even talking to me. It sucks. Don't get me wrong, I know she doesn't love me (I asked her once). But I just can't help myself. I've tried distracting myself from her but it never works; not for a long time at least. I know we're just 16 but I can't stop thinking about her. Heck! I love her. And so my question is this: Is it worth having feelings for a person who doesn't love you back? And if not, how do I stop it? I guess I'm just tired of chasing shadows.

And on top of that, she's currently hanging out with another guy during class time and ugh... I'm sure you know how that feels; kills me every time I see her laughing with him. I know, she has the right to hang out with other guys. But I'm just plain jealous of him! He makes talking to her in real life seem so easy; something that I know I can't do.

So yeah, I really hope you could help me with this. It's been a pleasure reading your articles and I look forward at reading your future ones.

Thanks in advance!

Truly,

A.

Hey A.,

Have you ever noticed how many songs there are about loving someone who doesn’t love you back? So many. More than almost any other kind of song. Or at least it seems that way when you’re in the throes of unrequited love. You know how I know this? When I was 13, I fell for a guy who was two grades above me. When I say I fell for him, I mean I FELL for him in every way possible. Thought about him all the time. Initiated most of our contact. Felt totally devastated when he took another girl to prom. Kept initiating contact. Lost my virginity to him when I was 18. Initiated contact again even though he’d been a total jerk. Stayed hung up on him until I was 23. And then finally, finally got over him and stopped chasing him. Here’s the terrible thing: We were never in a relationship. We never even dated.

So trust me when I tell you I know what you’re feeling, and I know how the situation you’re in is the perfect storm of unrequited misery. I also know — in the very core of my being — the answer to "Is it worth having feelings for a person who doesn't love you back?" If only I could say "Nope!" and that would be that, you’d be cured of your feelings and never do this again. Plus my column would be delightfully short. But you and I know it’s not that simple.

A few weeks ago I answered a similar, if more general, question from another reader: Is love worth it? That answer was a little thornier, because I believe it depends on how you define and practice love in your own life. Some kinds of love are worth it, but others aren’t. And anyway, wondering if love is worth it is like wondering anger or joy is worth it. Emotions aren’t always something you can choose but you can choose how you act on them. So the question is more "what kinds of relationships are healthy and worth pursuing, and which aren’t?"

Before we get to the whole idea of "worth it," let’s talk about perception and perspective. Now, as with unrequited love, you should know that what I’m about to tell you comes from personal experience. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while and am nowhere near mastering.

You seem like a someone who is curious and open to learning about yourself as an emotional being. I admire that, and I also think that becoming more perceptive about other people and yourself is in many ways a learned skill. I trust you when you tell me it seems to you that this girl doesn’t want to talk to you, or even for you at all. So I want you to try and sort a few things out for yourself.

Think about your interactions with this girl. You tell me you and she chat every night, but sometimes she can be quite cold or doesn’t seem to want to talk. How do you chat? Is it over IM? Who initiates these chats? Is it always or mostly you, or does she chat first, too? If it’s mostly or almost always you, think about how it might feel to someone who wants to be nice and friendly but not every single night — or who doesn’t know how to tell you to give her some space. If this is the case, then think about how your feelings might be clouding your perspective. Does she want to talk to you, or is it you who loves talking to her so much that you’re not able to read her signals that she needs some space?

If it’s not just you, and if the two of you initiate chat pretty easily, then that’s a different story, but one in which you can also think about your perspective. Do you love talking to her so much that you will do so, even if it makes you feel bad? When she seems cold, is she actively being rude, or is she simply distracted or busy — but it seems cold to you because you like her so much and want her to feel exactly as excited to chat as you do?

You can never really know another person’s motivations or reasons for behaving as they do unless they tell you openly. Even then, what they say might be skewed. But it’s tempting (and sometimes fun) to assume and assign meaning and motivation to what we see other people doing. This is one major reason brunch exists, basically.

We do this a lot when we see other people on social media, where we all choose what we post and what we give others access to. It also can be true with digital communication in general, which makes picking up on certain cues more difficult. Humans have been using non-verbal communication — body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions — along with verbal communication for millennia. We’re still working out how to signal like that in our digital environments where we communicate with words, pictures, and emoji. How do we convey things like tone? How do we drop hints? Even in person it can be easy to read into someone’s words and assume meaning based on how you feel and what you want, and with text / chat it can be even easier.

This is why I’m asking you to examine your feelings and actions. How much are you reading into what she does based on how much you like her and feel hurt when she doesn’t like you? How much are you pursuing friendship based on those same feelings? I really trust you to be able to do this fairly and honestly, because I think you’re already so aware. Once you know whether you’re pursuing friendship in a way that makes her comfortable OR whether your friendship is equal but you’re allowing yourself to feel bad in order to have a little bit of this girl’s company, you’ll be able to do what you need to make things better.

If it’s the former, and if what you’re perceiving as coldness is in fact her hoping you’ll take a hint, then you can work on respecting her boundaries. If it’s the latter, and if she likes being your friend as much as you like being hers but just isn’t interested in a romance, then you have to decide how to protect your heart. You do that by telling her honestly that you love her friendship so much, but you need to take a little time to try and get over her, which of course will be harder since you see her every day. As much as it pains you to ask, can she not chat you for a while, until your romantic feelings have subsided and you can be just friends again. And then you have to stay away as much as you can, and distract yourself. Easier said than done, I know, but I have faith in you.

All of these things fall into a pretty normal set of human behaviors that many of us need to keep in check — human behaviors influenced by and often based on our own emotional perspectives. You, like most everyone around you, are viewing the world through your own lens, which includes your experiences as well as your feelings. A lot of us forget that other people don’t exist solely as extensions of ourselves, rather than as separate beings with their own experiences, emotions, needs that may overlap with but don’t necessarily connect to or reflect ours. I think this is one of the hardest parts of being a human in the world — seeing other people as separate beings, and respecting what it is that makes them such. We’re all floating around in the big ocean of human experience and emotion, so of course we’re connected. But we’re also operating in ways that aren’t purely reflections of the people we know and love.

Oh, and another important thing: The boy you see chatting easily with her in school isn’t so different from you as you think. You are able to chat easily with her every single night! Just because it’s mediated through technology doesn’t make you any less brave or cool than him. Our digital worlds are real worlds, too, in ways similar to and also different from the physical world. Maybe that guy isn’t very good at texting! Maybe he can read her body language better and is more at ease in person, or maybe he’s someone who’s kind of full of himself and never asks her questions about herself, so one day she’ll think he’s kind of a jerk. You have no idea! You see him through your own envy and insecurities, just like you see her through your crush on her. We all do this. All of us! The better you get at allowing other people to have their own motivations, insecurities, faults, feelings, and experiences, the better you will be at interacting with them and connecting with people who are super excited to connect with you too, whether online, in person, or whatever cool realm we find ourselves in next.

This brings us finally to "is unrequited love worth it?" It’s not a question with an answer, really. You usually can’t help falling for someone. Feelings are feelings: not terribly logical, not always what you’re hoping for, and influenced by all the experiences you carry with you through your life. It’s not so much whether it’s worth it as whether you get better at understanding yourself and others, so you can choose how to act in those situations. How to give yourself space when you realize you like someone, and you’re giving them more than they’re able or willing to give in return. This is true in friendship as much as in romance.

I truly believe that all these relationship experiences are ways to learn. I don’t think it’s so much about "worth it" in the sense that you mean, because feeling shitty but learning something isn’t a 1:1 value relationship. It’s more that you’ll find yourself in these situations, and when you do, you’ll get better over time at navigating them, and taking new lessons from each. That’s incredibly valuable. Even in the best situations, you or someone else will inevitably feel bad at some point. Being a human is about having emotions and higher-level understanding. The worth is found in what you learn and how you get better, each time, at moving through the world with more kindness and respect for yourself and others.

Lx