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How Not To Break Up

The letter below is part of an ongoing series featuring letters from authors to their teen selves. If you're a published author who'd like to participate in this series, we'd love to have you. Just click here and let us know you're interested. Today's guest is S. H. Cotugno, author of The Glass Scientists, out this week.


Dear S. H.,

When you are nineteen, your first-ever boyfriend will confess that he cheated on you, and you will not cry.

He seems a little distressed by this. He would prefer that you cry, that you shout and throw things at him, but you don’t feel like doing any of those things. Perhaps you feel nothing at all.

Somewhere inside you, a calculation has already taken place, a calculation that knows that, when you get upset, people sometimes get upset with you. Often, those people are smarter or more persuasive than you, and they convince you that you are wrong for feeling upset, and you end up apologizing to them, even if you don’t mean it. It’s much safer to not get upset in the first place.

And so you don’t. The calculating part of you shuts off the valves for sad and angry before you even get a chance to feel them. By the end of the night, you are comforting him and promising this little incident won’t change anything about your relationship. A couple weeks later, you head off to what you think will be your dream internship and proceed to have a three month long anxiety attack that nearly ends your career before it starts.

Don’t worry–your career is fine. You do eventually break up with your first-ever boyfriend, and you don’t harbor any hard feelings for him nowadays. Honestly, you had a fundamental mismatch in sex drive and probably should have broken up way earlier. But your inability to get upset that night will fester inside you for years.

You might have a tiny problem with people-pleasing. You want to be liked, and you don’t want to hurt the people you like, and you don’t want to end up alone. In the movie of the world, you want to be the sympathetic hero everyone makes Tumblr GIFsets about, but you fear you will be relegated to the role of the bitter ex, the uptight killjoy, the nag, a minor narrative obstacle so unpleasant and unremarkable no one bothers to make any Tumblr GIFsets about you at all.

You don’t want to end up like that, so you curate a version of yourself with all the messy parts removed. But the messy parts don’t go away, and sooner or later, they find an outlet. Mostly, they find it in books.

S. H. as a teen

You’re really into the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde right now. It is thrilling to watch this this prim and proper gentleman transform into the wildest, most uncontrollable version of himself. It is important that the thrill is fictional. It’s like a roller coaster–simulated danger. It is equally important that Jekyll dies in the end. You would not enjoy a story in which the hero lets his messy parts out and still gets a happy ending. That would not feel true to you. It would feel like cringey wish fulfillment, or even a kind of mockery: look at what a picture-perfect happy ending other people get to have! Not you, though. You have to curate, or else it’s the nag box for you.

But here’s the thing: being accepted for a curated version of yourself doesn’t feel good. It just makes you feel more alone. Sure, it might satisfy you in the moment, but in the long run, you will start to feel hollow and restless, and you will begin to resent the people you are curating yourself for, even if they didn’t ask you to curate yourself in the first place. (At least, not explicitly.)

There’s only one way to fix this situation. You need to stop curating and start opening yourself up more. Not everyone is going to respond the way you hope they will, but you owe it to the people you care about to give them the chance to surprise you.

There are limits to this, of course. You should test the waters before sharing vulnerable things with people, especially people you don’t know very well. You should take time to think through difficult feelings by yourself before sharing them. You should–and this is the hardest part–be willing and able to have uncomfortable conversations when conflict arises.

But stick through the discomfort, because it is worth it. You will save many relationships this way, and the ones you don’t are likely not worth saving. And one day, you will write a story with a hero full of messy things, and some people will read that story and say that those messy things are the things they like the most about him. And for a little while, you won’t feel so alone anymore.


Your future self


About The Author: S. H. Cotugno is a queer and mixed-race Victorian horror nerd born and raised in Los Angeles, California. They are a director, writer and storyboard artist in the animation industry and have previously worked on projects such as Gravity Falls, The Owl House and Star vs. the Forces of Evil. The Glass Scientists is their first published graphic novel.


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