I’m currently working on getting over two different women I’m friends with. Both of them are the type of people I could see myself being in a relationship with. I also know for a fact that both are attracted to me and have had feelings for me in the past. So why am I not plotting an elaborate plan to woo either, you might ask?
The reality is that having a crush on people you’re close to and admire is a common part of life, especially for queer women. I also know that it’s actually best for each of these women and for me not to say anything. Telling either of these friends about my feelings would probably hurt the solid relationships I already have with each of them, and confuse us all about what we actually need.
While this line of thinking might seem contrary to popular opinion or understanding of how to handle feelings for someone, I’ve had enough experience with telling people about my feelings at the wrong place and the wrong time to recognize that the only thing that telling either of them would actually accomplish is feeling less alone with my feelings and passing the responsibility to someone else. If what I truly need is someone to help me process my feelings, I can talk to my therapist and other friends to work through these crushes.
In my session yesterday, my therapist gave me an appropriate metaphor. “Don’t go looking for oranges at the hardware store,” she said, explaining that sometimes we think we need some form of validation or attention from one place when it’s actually not the place to go for it at all.
From a psychological perspective, it’s actually much healthierthan you might suspect to experience crushes and positive romantic or sexual feelings for someone that you don’t take action on. “Crushes are not only normal but also good for your health,” says Sex Therapist Dr. Shannon Chavez, PsyD, CST. “Having a crush can activate imagination and fantasy, both important components of sexual and mental health, while releasing feel good chemicals in the brain that boost your mood.” When you have a crush, the stress and reward systems in the brain are activated, so it’s kind of like taking a mini dose of drugs. You’re not necessarily thinking things through with a clear head, and you’re just trying to get another hit of dopamine.
Having a crush is one of the most common feelings no matter someone’s age or the phase of life they’re in, so it’s just another part of healthy social development and learning, Dr. Chavez explains. That means experiencing intense feelings doesn’t mean that there’s also the need to communicate them with the person you’re crushing on, unless you’re absolutely sure that it will go somewhere, you’re both on the same page and want and need the same things, or saying something won’t cause issues. Instead, it’s good to look at having a crush as an opportunity to learn to process your emotions in a healthy way and become more self-aware about what your sexuality is, what turns you on, and what and who you’re attracted to.
When I was younger, I was deeply dramatic about crushes. In elementary school, I got up during a class talent show and sang “Everywhere” by Michelle Branch to my crush as a public display of affection. In middle school, I started e-mailing love letters to my crush from summer camp. And in high school, I started an extremely embarrassing blog that, at least at first, was solely about all of the things I wanted to say to and about my crush but instead put it on the internet for thousands of people to follow. You’ve gotta love being a teen.
Looking back, high school was when I finally started to learn how to work through my feelings and desires on my own, and how to talk about them with friends or my therapist instead of needing to act immediately. I realized that telling someone else about my feelings was often a way to ask to be relieved of responsibility, in hopes that the person I had feelings for would know what to do with them better than I did, which, when I think about it, is selfish in such a specific, hurtful way.
While that might not be the case for everyone, and I’m certainly not calling anyone who chooses to tell someone their feelings selfish in a villainizing way, I do think it’s important to consider what the point of telling someone you have feelings for them is. I’ve certainly had people come to me with their feelings in hurtful ways and have been left confused about why they chose to tell me instead of dealing with it on their own.
Processing is normal and healthy, and it’s good to be able to process things on your own. The queer trope is that we spend lots of time processing with one another. We just have a lot of feelings. However, many people fall into the trap of putting our feelings on someone else because it seems romantic, when it can actually be truly disrespectful or unnecessary. From books to romantic comedies and other forces in pop culture, declarations of love or lust are the thing to do—boomboxes outside windows at night, chasing down someone who dumped you and enrolling in Harvard, meeting a woman at a department store and leaving your husband to have an extremely gay affair with her.
Those messages have a serious effect on how we process our feelings and what we do with those feelings. Recently, I read Mandy Len Catron’s book “How to Fall in Love with Anyone,” in which she explores where our cultural values and ideas about having feelings for people and starting relationships come from. She calls out the meet-cute as unrealistic, and discusses how our desire for a romantic story often keeps us in patterns and relationships that aren’t good for us.
After analyzing the messages that some of my favorite movies instilled in me, I’ve realized I used to be caught in an unhealthy pattern of confessing feelings for people and starting relationships that weren’t good for me just because it echoed pop culture portrayals.
The real question is how to figure out if you should pursue a crush or not, and the truth is that there’s no catch-all answer for every situation. It can be helpful to think about what telling the person you have feelings for will actually accomplish. If it would be helpful for you and might even result in something pleasurable or fun for you both, then maybe it’s an okay idea.
However, if there’s any reason that confessing these feelings might complicate either of your lives more than staying quiet, it might be good to reconsider saying something. If confessing your feelings might hurt or confuse someone, it might be best not to say it out loud. It might even just not be the right time in your own life to pursue something. To process your own feelings, instead of just wallowing in them, I’ve definitely found it helpful to take time apart from the person and make a pros and cons list, so that I can respond to my feelings instead of simply reacting to them.
Reflecting on the way I handle confessing my feelings to people now versus how I used to act on them, I can see I’ve matured a lot, and understand that having feelings for someone doesn’t mean I need to act on it at all. After talking with others about what not taking action on crushes has taught them, as well as speaking with Dr. Chavez, I feel even more confident in my stance that it’s good to experience strong feelings for someone that you don’t act on or need to express.
The pressure to always turn feelings into actions or having an attachment to specific outcomes like dating or hooking up can often lead to disappointment or shame, says Dr. Chavez, who explains that fantasies can put more meaning on something that doesn’t need to be a big deal. If having crushes is a normal and frequent part of learning to explore our feelings and learning about who we are, then it’s healthy to have lots of them to get to know ourselves better. In turn, it probably doesn’t make sense to confess every single crush we have so much as it makes sense to learn more about what we like.
Dr. Chavez explains that having feelings for people without taking it to a next level can be one way to encourage yourself to have positive feelings for more people without placing the expectation or responsibility on someone else that they “owe” us anything for that, as well.
I personally experience crushes for people all the time now that I never do anything about, whether it’s because I don’t think that particular person would work well as a partner, it’s not the right time, or I just don’t feel the need to. It isn’t a negative experience for me just because I don’t get a relationship out of it, though. For however long it lasts, I get to experience the wonder of all of the awesome things about someone—their passions, the foods they like, the way they dress, the way they speak—and it makes me happy that wonderful people exist in the world and I get to know them. It also helps me to appreciate myself, thinking about how someone else could like me too because of my best features and qualities.
Carissa, a 22-year-old queer woman I spoke with, says she’s also the type of person who develops crushes easily. “I know that most of the time, if I develop feelings for a friend that it will pass eventually and I would much rather keep someone as a friend than lose them because I tried to pursue a romantic relationship,” she says.
While actually hooking up with or dating someone you have feelings for can definitely be fun, Dr. Chavez explains that simply feeling positive emotions for someone else can be exciting enough to give you a surge of energy and confidence. If you’re not tying your self-worth too heavily to someone reciprocating those feelings, a crush can be good way to boost your endorphins and even feel gratitude, because crushes “provide awareness of what a person wants or is looking for in any partner.”
The flip side of having a crush that you aren’t acting on is learning how to process those feelings on your own, which takes a lot of emotional work and patience and can be frustrating as fuck. Sometimes you want someone so much it drives you wild, and it can feel like you can’t handle that restless energy or desire on your own. Still, it’s not just your burden to bear and there are ways to channel any negative or difficult emotions into something that actually benefits you in the end without acting on them.
When I have crushes on people I don’t intend to tell, I find constructive ways to process my emotions. I add to my playlist of songs I listen to when I have intense feelings for someone. I write poetry and short fiction. I talk to my therapist. I figure out what these feelings I have for someone else can reveal to me about myself and the way I navigate life, as well as what kinds of energy or people I want and need more of.
To work through your feelings for someone and cope with the intensity, Dr. Chavez says it’s important to allow yourself to observe your feelings without judgment or anxiety. If you allow yourself to enjoy the reward and joy from having a crush and simply acknowledge any anxious feelings that arise from it, it won’t feel so overwhelming. To process your feelings alone, it might be good to take space from the person you have feelings for, or talk about it with other people who aren’t your crush.
Emily, a 37-year-old non-binary trans woman says they also have many crushes all the time, most of which they never act on. “Sometimes it’s a Twitter crush, sometimes it’s someone I know in real life. At a certain point, there are all sorts of things to consider: power dynamics, monogamy status, queerness, mental health, practicality,” they say. In particular, Emily says they’ve had to be more careful about confessing feelings for someone than, say, even a cisgender queer person might because of harmful stereotypes and narratives about trans women. “Trans women combat these allegations all the time that we’re all sexual deviants. So I feel like I have to be way more cautious than most people, which is bullshit, but it’s just a page in the bullshit codex that is being trans in this world,” they explain.
For Cleo, a 22-year-old lesbian who practices polyamory, it’s completely normal to have feelings for various people they never tell, but it’s not attached to avoiding negative stereotypes. Sometimes feelings don’t add up right with what you need and want in your life, so it’s good to acknowledge your feelings without needing to hand them over to the person you feel them for. Recently, when they developed feelings for a girl that they’re in a friends-with-benefits situation with, Cleo chose not to tell her because they knew that the feelings developed quickly and were likely intensified by the amount of time they were spending together. “Because I am polyamorous and have been in a serious, open relationship (as is my FWB) for the past two years, I knew that she wasn’t looking for another romantic relationship and after some reflection and physical distance from her over the summer, I realized I wasn’t looking for that, either.”
While I know that it would be simple enough to tell either of the women I have a crush on about my feelings and easily land myself in an intense L Word subplot, I also know that making my life more complicated than it needs to be isn’t worth it. There are myriad people I could like or lust for whose lives and feelings I wouldn’t at least partially be tearing to shreds and messing with by putting my feelings first. In the end, I know that having their friendship in my life and getting to enjoy them platonically is much more important to me than causing confusion for a few moments of adrenaline and potentially some bad decisions.
Tonight, I’m going to get home, say hello to my vibrator collection and have some fun, while keeping my fantasies to myself and fulfilling my own needs. Then I’m going to make myself my favorite dinner and drink tea on my fire escape—because I can give love to myself better than anyone else ever could, and when the time comes, there will be someone worth telling my feelings to—but for now, I don’t need to go looking for oranges at the hardware store.