Two dimensions of peril

“You really are difficult,” Sofia wrote to me. She’s right, of course. We were talking about how I respond to the sensation of being desired.

On the one hand, there’s the danger that someone becomes someone I have rather than someone I’m getting. And, on another hand, there’s the danger that someone wants me other than (more than, less than) the precise amount I want to be desired.

The first, I’ve written about at length. Here, and here. And maybe other places too.

The second, I’ve written about less. I find it harder to think about, harder to write about. Maybe harder to admit. Because the first one – the getting vs. having thing – is universal. We all experience it to greater or lesser degrees. Industries exist because of it. GDP grows because of it. Human endeavor is, to a large part, motivated by it.

But the second one feels more… personal. More evitable. More pathetic, in some way.

What it boils down to, I fear, is my narcissism. Not, as I’ve written before, narcissism in the sense the word frequently is used, to mean “excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance,” but rather, in the more clinical sense of “the centrality of the regulation of self-esteem in one’s conduct.”

Part of what it is to be N. is to be hungry (insatiably so) for a particular sort of validation. My days as a CPOS, of compulsive sexual acting out, can be understood accurately as a desperate, failing attempt to medicate my sense of worthlessness. I believed, felt myself to be worthless, and the only way I knew to counter that feeling was by paying for sex. Alas, it didn’t work. Or if it did, it only did for a few days. Or hours, or minutes, or seconds.

In my “recovery,” such as it was, I came to see this more clearly, to learn to tolerate the sense of worthlessness. And, to a lesser extent, to discover other, less destructive, strategies for addressing it. This blog has been a part of that. So have various monogamish connections I’ve made over the years. And meditation. And yoga. And therapy. And other writing. And friendships. And work. And fitness. And bodywork. And so on.

I didn’t stop feeling worthless. I learned that feeling worthless is different from being worthless. And that some of the strategies I had developed actually were ineffectual, connected to childhood strategies that may well have worked for me when I was 3, or 7, or 12, but that don’t necessarily work so well for me as an adult.

Fast-forward to the point of this post. One of the vestigial elements of all this is that my relationship to the sensation of being desired is enormously complicated. Want me too much, and I feel claustrophobic, repulsed. Because I don’t feel worthwhile/desirable consistently, if your desire for me conflicts with my own sensation, I start to taint you with the same worthlessness I sometimes feel. And, because if you want me consistently, I begin to know, to feel, that I have you, rather than that I’m getting you, each and every time. And so here we begin to interact with Peril #1.

But if you want me too little you represent an existential threat to me. Your absence of desire for me runs the risk of confirming my sense of worthlessness. And here’s where I become truly insane. If I perceive that you might not want me enough, I often begin to feel an urgent need to win you, to get you. This is, I know, self-destructive. Because the upside, the best case scenario, is that I achieve that evanescent sense of confirmation of self-worth that comes with getting. But the downside can be endless, and excruciating. This is at its worst with someone who isn’t definitive, who keeps my hope alive, but stays at a distance, holding out the carrot of possible seduction, while withholding actual seduction.

This perfectly replicates my childhood experience of maternal love, a mother who loved me, yes, but whose love was intermittent. I tried, always, to get it, and when I did, I felt a momentary glee, but then I lost it again.

Any addict (or owner of a casino) knows the danger of intermittent rewards. They’re the most powerful kind of reward there is, one that can, literally, drive us mad.

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