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How do I stop imagining a ghost-person my partner has loved?

A reader asks our agony aunt how she can stop fixating on the fact that her boyfriend was previously in love – even though she knows how stupid that is

I'm in a really stable, happy relationship and I have a job that fulfills me, and I'm finally feeling results of working on being okay after being depressed (and in and out of abusive relationships) for four-ish years. Here's the thing. This joy feels like a soap bubble. I feel like it's going to burst at any moment and I'm scared of embracing it fully, and I keep anxiously fixating on "bad" things. The main one: I feel so insanely insecure about the fact that my partner has been in love before. It's silly. I've been in love before, I had steady relationships before, but his ex-girlfriend (whom I have never met but I know a little about) looms in my mind as the embodiment of everything I'm not — or everything I *think* I'm not. I have a hard time accepting that my partner has been with a beautiful and smart and fun girl before me. I am entirely a feminist and the rational part of my brain thinks of her and thinks — "you go girl!" But how do I fully embrace and internalize that with my whole brain? How do I not feel jealous of this ghost-person I've conjured up to compare myself with? How do I love myself 100 per cent and acknowledge that other people's accomplishments don't take away from my own?

I feel like I should write this letter to both you and the ghost-person. Like in couple’s counselling, where I address you individually, and calmly encourage you both not to raise your voices or interrupt each other. Maybe my name is Carol and I’m wearing reassuringly chunky jewellery and a mohair shawl. Who knows. All I can tell you is this is a safe space. Let’s talk this out.

You’re worried that this insecurity might topple you and take you back in time to when you felt a hell of a lot worse than you do now. I nod at you like a woman named Carol might nod. I tell you that trees grow deeper roots after a storm. This means nothing to you. I don’t care. I’m Carol. I turn to the ghost-person. She wants to know why she’s even here. She doesn’t want your man. You know that. She knows that. I (Carol) also know that. So what gives? What’s with all the anguish about her? Why can’t you just be cooler and forget it? Me and the ghost-person high five. You’re crying. I roller-skate out of the room. I’ll invoice you later. I do whatever I like. I’m Carol.

Was that helpful? No? WOW OK UNGRATEFUL MUCH? Whatever. Let’s try something else.

Let’s try accepting that this feeling is in all of us. Let’s try being honest about the real girl, the girl that you’ve modelled your ghost-person on. She isn’t a threat. You know this. You’re not worried about her stealing your man. That’s over. Smart beautiful fun girls don’t work backwards like that. No, what you’re worried is that your inability to forget about her and “love yourself 100%” makes you a failure. You’re worried that the you who’s built a good life and a promising career and a strong relationship isn’t the real you. You’re worried that the real you is this small, frightened, nothing person. She’s the threat. If you become her then the rest of your life falls into chaos.

I know many smart, brilliant, successful girls who feel like exactly like this. Also me! A spaghetti eating buffoon who’s just trying her best to be a person – I also feel like this. I’m cooler than a weasel in a top hat and yet some days I feel so insecure I think my stomach is going to churn my whole entire body into a horrible butter substitute. We’re all blundering through with no clue where it ends, no clue whether we’re fooling anyone, no fucking respite from the feeling that we aren’t doing any of this right.

“Be kinder in your interactions with yourself. Accept that you are ridiculous and you think ridiculous things – but that those ridiculous things are correctable”

So let’s work very hard to get through to the smallest, most afraid version of ourselves. Be kinder in your interactions with yourself. Accept that you are ridiculous and you think ridiculous things – but that those ridiculous things are correctable. So get correcting. When spaghetti brain says “I’m not enough” you need to counter it with “I understand why you arrived at that conclusion, but it’s false. Now go and have a biscuit and a long walk.” Because to feel better you need to move. You need to challenge the wrong things you think, scrub the space, and put a nice pot plant or erotic ceramic figurine where that faulty thought used to be.

And you can do this! The evidence that you can do this is that YOU ALREADY DID THIS! You got through the big swamp and you made a life. You’re already doing the things that most of us in recovery are trying to do. You’re inspirational, you utter buffoon. You just need to re-commit to yourself. Get busy, pick up some new projects, plan some fun stuff for you and your boo. Start lifting weights. Take an online course in something you like but don’t really know anything about. See a therapist if you can. Anything- just keep spreading that self-improvement chutney all over the cheese of life. Fill your life up opportunities to prove to yourself how capable you are. Climb out of your own head and into a rocket ship. Ride that rocket ship to the funfair. Win yourself a plushy manatee. Call him Robert and LOVE HIM FOREVER.

And above all – trust yourself to survive whatever difficult shit happens – be it heartache or career upheaval or a cake that looks like it has chocolate chips in BUT REALLY IT’S JUST SULTANAS. Trust yourself to change accordingly.

Stop worrying that the soap bubble will burst. It won’t because you’re not in a soap bubble. You’re in a glorious, iridescent, self-sustaining sphere – what you’ve made is tougher stuff than suds and water. Small bubbles will burst, sure. They’ll burst all day everyday. Pop, pop, poppity-fucking-pop. You’ll suffer, you’ll argue with people you love, you’ll mess up at work and feel dizzy with shame. A celebrity you love will do something you can’t understand and you’ll spill soup on your white shirt. It will all happen to you and to me and to all of us forever. And when it happens we’ll survive it – we won’t go back to being small and afraid and empty. We’ll fix what breaks and we’ll make stronger structures in future.

Because you’re strong and cool and real.

And I’m… Carol.