'Am I An Evil Woman?'

Wanting attention doesn't make you disgusting.

The Lovers (1987) by Leonora Carrington

Hi Polly.

Thanks for doing what you do and being a writer in an age where that seems like an impossible job and for letting the world know your ugliest, messiest moments so we can relate and heal. The amount of comfort it brings me to read about you being a miserable 20-something in an office with a shitty boyfriend, you will never understand, and I am so grateful! I'm writing because I've spent so much time over the past few years of my life trying to 'change' or 'heal' myself and I've come to the conclusion that while giving myself validation for my emotions is healing and important and while I am still a flawed human that acts on selfish impulses, I think I am still much more chaotic and awful than a lot of other people.

I’m 25 and my first real relationship made me reevaluate my own codependent tendencies. I’ve been doing the work to become aware of that, but at the same time I can’t shake the feeling that I am fundamentally not nice.

Last year I met an incredibly sweet, cute guy who had just gotten out of a long-term relationship and happened to sit next to me all day. I knew, however, that he was far too fresh out of a relationship for me to feel comfortable with it and also that some part of me found him boring in a way that is tolerable in a friend and problematic in a relationship. Nevertheless, blinded by his cuteness, we slowly did more romantic things together over the months that unfolded and I put up no resistance and enjoyed it. In the winter I also had the opportunity to sublet for a perfect price in a great location from a friend who also happened to be a man that I knew liked me a lot. When we first met we had that little moment where you look at the other person and blush, but I was scared to let it escalate because this man doesn't present well in front of others - he is shy and trips over his words and kind of makes me relive my feeling of inadequacy and having to 'keep up with the cool kids' from some weird archetypal high-school experience.

So against all better judgement and knowing this would be a clusterfuck, I decided to move in. Oh, and cute boy's ex-girlfriend of 8 years (and first love) decided to come back to work at my company, doing a job that I want and she's extremely cool and so all three of us work there, which I hate. All my friends and therapist were like '“what's wrong with that, he's so respectful, first loves never last,” etc. but I still felt so resentful and threatened in a deep way that I couldn't control. Fast forward 9 months and I have succeeded in making both my roommate and boyfriend miserable in the midst of the first pandemic in 100 years and trying to end this relationship is like cutting an arm off with a butterknife.

Essentially what I mean to say is that I feel that I am a selfish woman. I knew this situation would be messy going in and I am causing so much stress and pain to this poor man I chose to date and I deeply regret that. But sometimes it feels like I’ve been this way my whole life. I was a domineering kid with a strong ego and no matter how much I self-help myself, things don’t seem to change. I can’t help but wonder if feminism allows for a range of female characters — like can’t feminism mean that women are selfish and ego-driven and disgusting and do things like this on purpose for attention?

Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts on this situation, and evil women in general!

Evil Woman

Dear Evil Woman,

What is “nice”? Someone who dates any man who wants to date her? Someone who marries whoever they’re with at age 25? Someone who never feels envious or sad or angry or weak?

And what’s evil? Doing what you want sometimes instead of always doing what other people expect of you? Craving attention and respect? Noticing when people are attracted to you? If that’s the case, I can’t think of a single man who isn’t evil.

Now take a minute to picture a man who has a sweet, cute kitty cat of a lady hanging around him, purring and rubbing on his legs. He isn’t sure he loves her or not, but he does love the attention. She’s on the rebound, so he tries to slow it down, but this woman is just so fixated on him in ways that other women aren’t. How do you resist someone who thinks you’re incredible? It’s hard to resist, that’s all.

And what are the costs? Maybe you suspect that you’ll dump the sweet kitty eventually. But don’t you know that half the time you start dating someone in your 20s? When I was younger, at the very start of most relationships I just wanted to win the guy over. It was: 1. Make him love me 2. Decide if I love him or not. Why was I like that? Because I spent my entire childhood essentially trying to win my parents over, to convince them to listen to me, to convince them to stay in the room, to stop ignoring me. Look how charming and lovable I am!

Plenty of people grow up that way, compulsively craving more attention. That doesn’t make you evil. It’s just a personality type – a very common one among actors, artists, writers, songwriters, dancers. Beating yourself up for it doesn’t help. Punishing yourself and lashing out at others will turn you into something worse than a woman who walks straight into chaos because it seems fun, because she wants more, because she’s bored, because men seem to find her attractive, because she craves more love and doesn’t know how to give it to herself.

I have zero judgment about any of that. If you’re hearing judgment there, that’s your projection and your insecurities coming into play. Half of the people I know are exactly like you — prone to the same behaviors when they were young, and not entirely free from those behaviors as they age. You can imagine them out there, sowing chaos, carelessly crushing people’s hearts into tiny bits, but that’s the judgmental sound of someone who’s projecting their own bad experiences and difficult childhood onto the present. The simple fact is that there’s a lot of love in the world, and most of us don’t know how to either resist it when it looks unstable or accept it when it looks solid. We tell ourselves we want something different. We project our damage and our judgments onto other people. And when someone who’s truly capable of loving us appears, we walk away from it.

That was true of me for years: I walked away from care and love and I walk toward chaos. That was just part of my personality. I thought nice people were boring because I was bad at showing up. I wanted to chase other people who were bad at showing up instead. These days I don’t sow chaos, but I still have a little piece of my brain that says WOW, REMEMBER SOWING CHAOS? GOOD TIMES.

If you grow up being told that your power as a woman lies in your body, guess what? You’re going to find yourself wanting to use that power sometimes. You’re going to want people to admire that power. You’re going to want to hear things about your power. Because when a man says, “This is your power,” sometimes you can accurately hear that he doesn’t know or care a thing about your mind, your ideas, your imagination, your wit. The way some men talk, it’s easy to imagine that your sexuality is all you have.

But sometimes that’s you projecting. The man in question does care, and what you’re hearing is a distorted echo of the distant past.

But forget gender for a second. It’s easy for all humans to hollow each other out, to project their fears and desires onto each other. The bottom line is this: Almost every human alive deserves your compassion. Some men can feel their feelings and some can’t. Some women use their sexuality to get the love they need and some don’t. Lots of people on the face of this earth feel undervalued, ignored, invisible, unappreciated, voiceless, roughed up by the cultural tides. Throw in an orange menace and a global pandemic and you’ve got a nationwide hot mess of humanity on your hands.

Whether you can feel this when I tell it to you or not, you’re a woman who needs a lot of love and attention and is easily threatened. You’re like a stray cat who’s very fearful that no one will ever really love her in a meaningful way that goes beyond her looks and charm. Secretly, this stray cat wants to be loved even when her fur is matted and her tail is broken and her eyes are red from exhaustion. But she doesn’t love herself when she’s like that, so why would she ask anyone else to do it? Now throw in an adorable loving boyfriend who’s still on the rebound, his threateningly appealing ex, and a shy roommate who kicks up insecure echoes of the past. What does our stray cat do next?

She wins love from the adoring boyfriend then quickly grows bored and takes him for granted, seeks more love from the shy, withholding roommate, and does battle with the ex (not just because she kicks up our heroine’s insecurities, but because she adds value to the sweet, dull boyfriend just by being fabulous).

All of these stray cat behaviors are at once questionable and 100% understandable. But what’s missing for our stray cat? The feeling of being loved when her fur is matted and her tail is broken and her eyes are red from exhaustion. She doesn’t get that from anyone else and she doesn’t get it from herself, either. And don’t step in and say, “Oh but the adorable boyfriend loves her that way!” Because we don’t really know that, do we? We don’t know it because this stray cat DEFINITELY FOR SURE NEVER, EVER shows people her matted fur and her broken tail and her red eyes. Never. Because if she ever did, that would kick up ALL of her shame, and then she’d remember how many times she felt unloved as a child, and that would make her feel extremely sad and worthless and she’s probably run out and find a THIRD, ALLURINGLY INDIFFERENT MAN and win him over using her charming superpowers.

She might even run off with him forever and tell everyone a story about how she used to sow chaos but that was before she found this amazing guy, and now everything is 100% cool. This time it’s FOREVER LOVE! (Sound the trumpets!)

But deep inside, our stray cat wouldn’t be so sure. She’d have cold feet. Her shame would tell her that she’s not lovable — in fact, she’s ragged and wretched and evil, but luckily she hides it well.

Thinking of yourself as evil and understanding your weakness as disgusting are two sides of the same coin. If your essential premise is that you’re bad, then that means you can’t trust your own desires and you can’t trust anyone who likes you. You have to work hard to win love (because you’re not lovable unless you’re trying to be better). You feel bored by people who give you attention (you’re secretly evil so they’re suckers for liking you) and excited by people who don’t give you enough attention (they’re better than you and can tell you’re unworthy). You enjoy the hard work of winning people over and hate the hard work of staying connected to a people you’ve already won over.

These things happen because you don’t have a good relationship with yourself. You believe that all of your power can be reduced to your looks and charms, and that any unguarded thoughts and tender emotions threaten to obliterate that power. You also equate your desires with selfishness and equate your distaste with duty.

Right now, you believe that in order to be good, you have to hate yourself, fight your desires, and do your DUTY, i.e. do the things that you absolutely, positively don’t want to do. Because you’re bad, you have to do distasteful things in order the be good. You deserve punishment for being bad. You deserve to pay a steep price for walking straight into a situation with two male paramours and a female enemy.

I’ll bet your past has a lot of male paramours and female enemies in it, too. Somewhere along the line, you learned that your job was to please men and make enemies out of women. Women are complicated. Women don’t know how to love you enough. Your body forces men to love you, but without a body to love, women see you for the evil person you are.

This is your mind I’m describing, not mine! In my mind, you’re just fine. If you were my friend, I would adore you for who you are, and I would tell you very firmly that until you start to understand your own needs and desires and face your shame and care for yourself AS YOU ARE RIGHT NOW, without judgment, you’ll just keep feeling confused and guilty. Even once you claim that you’re “over” drama, if you aren’t comfortable with showing someone your matted fur and broken tail and red eyes, then all love is performance, all connection is manipulative, all interactions are aimed at acquisition.

Here’s the heavy moral: Most people live that way. Our culture is in denial about the fact that everyone makes messes everywhere, all the time, and the only way out of our gigantic, shared mess is compassion. We’re all sowing chaos in our own ways when we don’t face down our shame and love the weakest, ugliest, most unattractive version of ourselves. And look, even once you find someone who loves your broken-ass tail, guess what? It’s still hard to stick around forever. That’s not a threat, it just is. Sticking around is hard work, the end.

So should you try to improve yourself? I don’t think that’s the best framework for someone as self-hating and competitive as you are. I mean, I wrote a whole goddamn book about this, that’s how corrosive I think self-improvement paradigms can be in our culture.

What do you need? You need to understand yourself and love yourself and accept your true desires. How do you do that? You stand up for your desires and you forgive other people who stand up for their desires instead of being threatened by them. You befriend women who know themselves but who still have patience for women who don’t. You accept the enormous shame that goes along with knowing women (and humans in general) who have their shit figured out a little bit better than you do (but who are still challenged and intense and taxing in their own ways - since everyone is!). You stop calling yourself evil. You make some room for vulnerability. You stop calling vulnerability disgusting and weak. You stop making fun of vulnerable people. You trust your instincts when you’re exhausted or bored with someone, and you move toward people who excite you instead.

That’s not immoral! We’re not talking about YOUR CHILDREN, here. We’re talking about people you can freely choose to hang out with or not, at a time in your life when you’re trying to figure out WHAT YOU LIKE. You can’t figure anything out until you let yourself have more of what you want and less of what you don’t want.

And sometimes I really want to come out and say: MEN! THIS MESSAGE IS FOR YOU, TOO! Because men roll around in shame constantly. They call themselves evil and it keeps them locked into this position where they experience love as either titillation or duty. Instead of trusting their desires enough and allowing enough room for their weaknesses that they can feel love inside of their cells, they power everything down in order to be “good.”

Men aren’t the enemy. Their exes aren’t the enemy. Your desires aren’t the enemy. You aren’t the enemy. The enemy is the voice inside your head that tells you that unless everyone adores and admires you, you’re invisible and worthless. That’s the enemy you need to grapple with. That’s not “improving” yourself. That’s dealing with reality.

Forget the chaos unfolding around you. Apologize for starting it, if that’s helpful to anyone, but then push it to the side. Take this very cloistered, unyieldingly bleak time and use it to cultivate compassion for your broken tail, your matted fur, your bloodshot eyes. Your sadness and self-hatred are just as lovable as your looks and your charms. I wouldn’t have believed that about myself, either, at your age, but some small piece of me thought it might just be true, even then. Cling to that tiny, stubborn piece of you that says “I’m not evil. I just need real love.” And then give that REAL love to yourself, by honoring what you love – and yes, that can include hard work and being cute and charming the pants off men on that list. Who the fuck doesn’t like those things? I mean, WHAT IS THE POINT OF LIFE? WE HAVE TO HAVE SOME GODDAMN FUN AROUND HERE, DON’T WE?

The strange paradox of self-acceptance is that once you get your true desires out in the open, it becomes far less likely that you’ll hurt someone with them.

Look. Maybe you don’t really want to be loved by the adoring boyfriend because you know in your heart that he wouldn’t love your matted fur. Maybe you suspect that the shy roommate has more of a taste for broken tails. Maybe you don’t want either of them. Maybe what you want more than anything is to become friends with the exgirlfriend whose career you admire. I’m not making any guesses there OR telling you what to do with any of those people, because you haven’t told me enough for me to understand what you really want or need — probably because YOU don’t really know what you want or need yet.

What I’m saying is you have to figure out how you feel all by yourself. As long as you believe that you’re evil, you won’t be able to trust your feelings. You’ll stay confused and bewildered and self-hating. People who hate themselves do weird, merciless shit to each other. That kind of behavior is everywhere right now. Don’t surrender to that darkness. Even when you’re uncomfortable with your own desires, moving through the world with compassion and respect for others goes a long way.

It’s not easy. It almost feels like our lives are on hold right now. You should try to take advantage of that. Slow down and listen — to yourself and to the people in your life. Stop wasting your time debating and persuading. Make some room for quiet observation and forgiveness. Practice showing yourself when you feel sad. Let go of harsh judgments and reductive morals and figure out how to love who you already are.


Ask Polly publishes here every other Wednesday and the other Wednesdays Ask Polly is on The Cut. If you’re unemployed and want me to comp you a 3-month subscription, send me an email: askpolly@protonmail.com