Tom asked:

I was wondering, Why do people have ‘crushes’ on other people. If you like someone, why do most people not just ask them out? if they say yes, score one, and if they say no, it’s no big deal at all! they’ll move on. it’s win win, so why do they fear rejection to the point where they don’t tell anyone, and keep it a secret.

PS: I’m not FULLY sure what philosophy is, so I really hope this is a philosophy question.

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

You are right with wondering whether this is really a psychological rather than a philosophical question. It is not philosophical in the least. But it’s about human beings; and if Socrates was around, he would answer you and help you. So I will try to illuminate this issue for you.

Almost everyone develops a crush sometime or another. A crush can be very hurtful if its not reciprocated by the other person, but this is part of growing up. Of course it would be better if we could all of us open up and talk freely. But unfortunately, it is not always possible. This is because guilt plays a major role in the individual’s development. And once we have grown up, this feeling of guilt–the inner voice, or guilty conscience–prevents us talking about our crushes to anyone.

We feel embarrassed to confess to friends, and fear that we might hurt or be disrespectful to the person on whom we have a crush. But the real crux of the matter is being scared of rejection. It is difficult to go up to a person, without knowing them well and just ask for a date. If you know the person well, then perhaps it is a little easier (of course you can still make a mistake!). The point is that most people are shy; and fear of rejection is a huge problem for them.

There are instances (quite a few) when rejection provokes an identity crisis and hurts the ego. In some cases, a damaged ego can leave a person deflated for a long time, sometimes forever! Such people can develop an abiding and often escalating sense of inferiority. Once this emotional confusion begins, such a person becomes reluctant to mix with others. Ultimately this fear of taking a false step (and not knowing what the other person thinks of them) is what holds people back from expressing themselves to the person they have a crush on.

Society is structured in a way that no-one can escape being saddled with such psychological problems–e.g. we all carry the burden of our childhood on our back, when we were most sensitive to criticism and rejection; and many people carry this burden through life without ever being aware of it. Also, there are introverted and extroverted people, and the latter tend on the whole to have more resources to shake it off. These people find it easier to open up; they are not as timid, not as self-consciously hooked etc. Others just cannot function that way. We cannot force anyone to communicate if they are not ready inside themselves to do so.

By the same token, it is impossible to stop a human being’s imagination. People can have a crush on a person, or on music or books or games or in fact anything. Many hobbies develop into passions, although that’s not quite the same thing. Crushes are different: they can fizzle out quite naturally if the subject is diverted. Of course they can also turn the opposite way, namely what we call ‘unrequited love’, which tends to get stronger and to thrive on fantasy.

Psychologists frequently study such people in their practice who have crush fantasies and the assumption is usually that it relates to their personal past experiences. It can be anything from the memory of mother, father and other past relationships at a sub-conscious level. Perhaps the person is not aware of their feelings and don’t know how to express them.

So, to have a crush is effectively to live in the clouds in a dream world. Once this wears off, and reality strikes, it’s often hard to cope with life, which suddenly looks much greyer. But all rosy dreams have to be abandoned some day. Then the same people might look for something else for stimulation. I call it the surrogate stimulus object: you focus (for a time) on something else that gives you equal satisfaction, until it becomes part of the furniture, or else until it is safe to return to your first crush, or until you have actually succeeded in forgetting about the crush.

To end: none of this is in essence philosophical. There are no concepts here; no logical inferences etc. Neither of these can help anyone who has the problem you asked about. However, philosophy has not always been so aloof from the life we have to live. For example, Plato in his Dialogues frequently talks about passions, desires and crushes (although he doesn’t use the word). But don’t read him expecting to find prescriptions on how to date another person.

If you want to do some reading on this issue, I suggest Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development by Erik Erikson. He is a psychologist well-known for his theory on the social development of human beings. And I would be very surprised if you didn’t learn a lot about ego, identity, guilt, fear, insecurity etc. that are just not common knowledge – as they really should be!