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This week’s question: I’m obsessed with my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, or rather, with my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s self-presentation. I feel good with him — secure, everything — after a year of togetherness. I feel as pretty as I normally do, which is not that pretty, yet also not (I hope) overly concerned with my face. And yet I can’t stop looking at pictures of her face, her outfits, her new nails. I no longer remember when or why I started.
The other day, I started looking through her tagged images. From there I started looking through her friend’s Instagrams for pictures of herself she’d untagged. I noticed she had untagged a photo of herself with my boyfriend, taken with what seemed to be a selfie stick, from about a month after he and I started dating, when he said he was no longer seeing her. I want to ask him about it, but I don’t want him to know what I’ve been up to — not because it’s wrong, but because it will make me seem pathetic in his eyes. I’m sure she’s not spending hours looking at pictures of me.
Am I pathetic? Am I…sympathetic? How do I find enough sympathy for myself to stop doing this, and should I try to get sympathy from him, or will I only get — only deserve — scorn and pity?
The Coquette’s answer: On general principle, never be jealous of anyone with a selfie stick. That being said, as much as it would please you, I seriously doubt that your boyfriend would react with scorn and pity if you were to bring up a year-old Instagram of him and his ex. You’re aiming a bit too high with scorn and pity. Those are soap opera emotions, which I suppose is my polite way of calling you a drama queen.
Thing is, you’re not an extroverted, attention-seeking, high-conflict style drama queen. Nah, you’re one of those low-key types who feed off a consistent and controlled amount of chaos. (Think nuclear reactor instead of a nuclear bomb.) You say you’re secure in your relationship, and I believe you, but that’s probably the underlying cause for your behavior. Security is the opposite of chaos, and so this Instagram obsession is how you keep your reactor fueled.
You’re one of those people who needs to commit daily acts of minor self-sabotage. (Yeah, that’s kind of your thing.) Going deep into the ex-girlfriend’s social media is a prime example. So is the urge to bring up the Instagram with your boyfriend, and I’m sure if we spent the afternoon together, I could point out another dozen little ways you’ve found to inflict emotional self-harm.
Naturally, you do all these things for a reason. They fill your need for chaos. They keep you fueled. It’s better than taking a razor blade to your thighs, but that’s basically what you’re doing every time you click on pics of the ex — you’re causing pain so that you feel something. Yeah, it hurts a little, but it hurts in a good way, one that you aren’t quite comfortable admitting to yourself.
That’s fine. We all have our masochistic peccadillos, and Instagram stalking your boyfriend’s ex is a fairly harmless way to get your kicks, but you should also step back and recognize how this behavior fits within your larger pattern of self-sabotage for the sake of that controlled chaos. You need to know this about yourself or your behavior is never going to change.
The point isn’t for you to find enough sympathy for yourself to stop doing this. Sympathy isn’t the missing ingredient. What you need is an alternative fuel source, something less dangerous than chaos to stave off the existential ennui that creeps in when things are, as you put it, “secure.”
What you need is self-realization. That’s the clean and safe alternative. That’s the path to not being pathetic. You wanna stop creeping on the ex-girlfriend’s Instagram? Okay. Identify that wounded part of you that needs the chaos to justify its existence, and then banish it from your identity. Find acceptance for yourself instead of sympathy. Stop giving a shit. Let go.
Of course, that last part is easier said than done, but fucking do it anyway. Put in the work. End your need for chaos through acceptance and watch how the self-sabotage evaporates. Go on. See how much better you’ll feel. I promise it will be worth it.