'How Do I Just Be a Fucking Adult?'

By taking yourself and your life seriously again.

My Shanty, Lake George (1922) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Dear Polly,

I am lost. 

I turned 25 last week. I still feel 17. I'm a high achiever, but I'm becoming sick of achieving anything. For the first 22 years of my life (ok, less than that because I didn't form this goal until several years after being born), I wanted to leave my tiny upstate New York hometown and hack it in New York City. I had the dream that everyone who moves to New York has. To borrow some of your words from How to Be a Person in the World, I thought: "it is [my] life, and it is going to be big and bold and beautiful." I thought this would be IT for me.

Well, I did the thing. I said goodbye to my best friends and my parents who I am likely unhealthily close to (only child), and I packed up all my things and moved to the city in the spring of 2019. But my life doesn't feel very big, or bold, or beautiful, and to boot, I think that maybe all of the things I've wanted for so long are not actually what I want. 

Growing up, I wanted to be a journalist. Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, or one of those muckrakers from the early 1900s. Well, I became one. I landed a job less than a year out of college at a small, niche magazine. It isn't a coverage area I particularly care about, but I excel as a big fish in a small pond, and I've written stories I'm extremely proud of. I'm now three interviews in for a job at *insert name of top American daily newspaper here* and I believe they will make me an offer (similar coverage area that I don't care about). I don't want it. Everyone is telling me I'd be an idiot not to take it. I might actually be. But I'm just so tired.

I find myself in a constant state of homesickness, but I think it's more than that. I wish I could turn back time. All I really want is to be a kid again with no real responsibilities or rent to pay, fucking around every day with my best friends whom I now only see a couple of times a year. Obviously, none of that is an option.

If I gave it all up and moved home, I'd probably work for the state or the county, or go back to being a waitress/bartender. No more constant deadlines, just one punch on a time clock in and out everyday. I could have an actual bedroom again, rather than 170 square feet in an old lady's basement that costs, like, 39% of my net salary. I could have my own car again and drive wherever I desire, rather than be beholden to late trains and inconvenient subway routes, and getting harassed on said trains for money or for the simple fact of being a woman. I'd find some guy I probably already loosely know, and have his baby. I'd have a quiet, simple life, maybe on the lake if I'm lucky. And I would be soooo bored (probably in a few months).

I am looking upon my hometown and my old life, which bored me so much and I wanted so desperately to escape, with rose-colored glasses these days, much like how I suppose I once looked at New York City. The grass is always greener, but it feels dead anywhere I look. I guess the heart of the matter can be summed up with that old saying No matter where you go, there you are.

And this isn't to say I haven't made a mostly pleasant life here for myself, either. I have made a core group of friends whom I love dearly, almost entirely through work — which means they're all significantly older than me and mostly men. While we go to the bar together 2-3 times per week, I'm by myself a lot of the time (which I actually do like a lot of the time, but perhaps not this much). We're tight-knit, and we talk every day via various text threads, but most of them aren't the kind of friends I can invite over to eat pizza and watch a movie on a random night.

Polly, I realize I haven't asked a question yet because I'm not sure what I need to ask myself. But I'll try: How do I decide what's important to me, what's right for me? How do I make any single decision without feeling paralyzed by looming regret and dread and failure? Given that I cannot travel back in time to four years ago, how do I just be a fucking adult?

Growing Up Badly

Dear GUB,

You are a fucking adult, and you’re not growing up badly.

Moving away from home, getting a full-time job, paying your own expenses, making work friends, pursuing a more challenging position at a bigger publication: These are grown up things that many other people can’t manage at this merciless juncture in human history.

But like most overachievers, you’ve been barreling forward without taking care of yourself, rewarding yourself for your hard work, or taking pride in all you’ve done. You can’t feel good about your life because you can’t feel your life at all. You’ve powered down your feelings in order to cope with all of the huge stressors of living independently.

And now you’re tired and depressed. That’s where overachievers who’ve learned to shut down their feelings land once they secure the lives they thought they wanted. They arrive somewhere great and it doesn’t feel great. They can’t feel anything because they don’t know how to value what they’ve created and accomplished. They’re afraid to feel because they don’t want to discover that it’s all meaningless.

The only thing that’s meaningless is a life without feelings.

You want to go back home and rest because you’re sad and lonely and tired of working so hard. You spend your leisure time drinking with men you work with. More power to you, but you also need some real friends – not just for pizza and movies, but for vulnerable conversations about how difficult it can be to live on your own and miss your hometown and your family. You need to talk about how you long for a simpler life sometimes. You need to confess the emptiness and confusion you feel when you have free time and you’re alone.

I want to cut straight to the chase because your path forward is actually pretty clear and I don’t want to obscure it in a giant word salad: Take the big job, get a therapist, and learn how to feel. If you retreat to your hometown at this moment, I think you’ll regret it. You’re already beating yourself up just for having the urge to go home. How do you think that self-recrimination is going to play out once you’re sleeping in your old bedroom?

You’re tired of what you write about. I’ve been there. But you won’t figure out what you want to cover or how you want to write moving forward if you don’t embrace this reckoning fully, and that means refusing to run away from it.

You’ve got to battle the state of mind, not the state of your life. Because your life is fine. Once you start to pick apart the pieces of your current reality – the way you overwork yourself, the way you refuse to show other people your vulnerable heart, the way you downplay your achievements and refuse to see how incredibly mature and capable you are compared to so many people you know – you’ll figure out how to enjoy where you are without feeling exhausted.

Your body and your mind are rebelling because you’re not good to yourself. Find a therapist and learn to be good to yourself. Take the job but set boundaries and give yourself more rest. Add an exercise routine and sign up for a group or club (ugh, yuck, I know, but do it!!!) and experiment with opening up to the people around you slowly in ways that don’t adhere to the social norms of beers-with-older-work-buddies.

But most importantly, learn to slow down and value the most imperfect moments of your life instead of speeding past them on the way to somewhere better. That’s how you’ll get that comforting, supportive hometown feeling: by drinking in the flawed minutes of your day and letting yourself feel melancholy without trying to fix it.

I also questioned my path a lot throughout my writing career. I did really well as a TV critic but it started to feel empty to me and I had to shift gears. Those kinds of changes happen all the time in media. You should feel grateful that you’re noticing what you want at all, because a lot of writers don’t. Everyone works you too hard. Lots of the people who do this work neglect their personal lives and frankly their emotional development because they’re all avoidant (raises hand) and would rather talk about current events than how we’re really doing. And lots of the people in this field wake up at mid-life and question why they worked their asses off for 30 years for achievements they can’t feel.

Your job and your life will seem less empty once you learn how to feel. Depression isn’t a sign that you’re too emotional, by the way. It’s a sign that you’re afraid of feeling too much and getting derailed by it. When you say you don’t want anything, you just want to rest, you’re saying you can’t move toward the sadness you’re experiencing in order to learn. You’re holding this reckoning at arm’s length. You feel like a baby because you don’t want to face WHY your life seems so empty.

But you can’t just DECIDE what’s important to you. You have to feel your way there. You can’t resist it. You have to welcome this crisis, let it under your skin, and take the risk of being changed by it.

Right around your age, I had a crisis, too. My dad died and I looked at my life and all I saw was a lost, drunk girl who didn’t know how to connect with the people around her. I spent two months at home pulling ivy out of my mother’s backyard. I stopped drinking so much. I started reading and listening to music. I decided I would say no to the parts of my job that felt meaningless. I went back to work and announced that I would only be doing the parts of my job that I liked. (This part is hard to pull off, admittedly, but it worked.) I stopped hooking up and fell in love with someone nice. I started taking myself seriously.

The only thing that’s immature about you is that you don’t take yourself seriously anymore. Once you let yourself feel your sadness and also joy, you’ll know it, because you’ll also let yourself be naïve and foolishly enthusiastic again. You’ll get Rory Gilmore back. Whether you change beats or stay the course for a while, you’ll realize that it’s not always the subject that matters, it’s the craft itself and the joy of learning and the thrill of inventing new ways to infuse your work with meaning. Because as hard as writing and journalism can be as a career, it’s built for high achievers like you, who want to redefine how a subject is explored and explained and even reinvented.

I woke up at 4 am today (a common occurrence!) and looked at Twitter (I know, I know, WHY?) and someone had just quoted an old column of mine where I’d written:

Savor the work itself.

The quote was unattributed. The only reason I saw it was that someone else tagged me in a reply. And even though savoring your work is a pretty simple concept, it reminded me that I’ve written a lot of good shit that I haven’t collected anywhere or repeated on speaking tours or plastered onto merchandise. Sometimes I think it’s one of the great victories of my career that I’ve avoided these things. But other times, I think I have a steadfast commitment to undervaluing my work and not taking myself seriously enough.

As dorky as it sometimes feels, we deserve to take ourselves and our work seriously. That’s what adults do. And it’s hard to savor the work itself when you keep telling yourself that everything you do is stupid and empty. Pay attention to the FEELING that your work is empty, because it will show you what you’d prefer to cover instead, but lose the STORY that everything you’ve made until now is worthless.

Becoming an adult includes telling good stories about where you are and how far you came to get here. That’s something I often forget. I feel like I have more than I deserve already. I don’t want to be too self-congratulatory. But when you can’t feel where you are, when you’re not proud of all you’ve done, when all you can do is say OH GOD YOU FUCKED UP, IF ONLY YOU COULD START OVER? You’re needlessly flogging yourself for being human.

You are not an all-seeing god. You are a human being and there will be missteps along the way. You are feeling your way in the dark like everyone else.

You should pay attention to your restlessness, for sure. Because it does sound like you want to branch into new subjects. You’re ready for a new challenge, and sometimes that restlessness disguises itself as depression at first. But don’t denigrate how far youv’e come to get here. Stop backing up and saying you want to redo everything. Wanting to start over implies that you lost something along the way or wasted time or made huge mistakes. I don’t see any mistakes here. All I see are vivid life experiences. All I see is courage.

Be good to yourself, reward yourself, learn to slow down, learn to feel. Once you do those things, you’ll start to notice that your life IS big and bold and beautiful. You’ll feel it under your skin as you’re waiting for that late train. You’ll see it in the reflection of a puddle on the sidewalk. You’ll open your heart wider and you’ll let the sensations of your day in and you’ll suddenly feel proud of where you’ve been and who you’ve become. It will get easier to make close friends your age once you do that.

Some day you might move away and fall in love and have a baby, and maybe you won’t. You might crave a simpler life and you might get bored with that life and move your whole family back to the city with you. Anything can happen from here. Be patient. Personally, I’ve moved toward excitement and then resisted that and moved toward simple relaxation, back and forth, for most of my life. It’s hard to have both things at once, so if you love both things, you end up with a little longing no matter what you do. It’s time for you to accept that life is always imperfect. When you expect to live a huge life – and you should – you tend to want anything that’s out of reach. As you said, the grass is always greener.

I feel you there. So today, let’s sit in this crackly yellow grass and enjoy it. We didn’t get here by accident. We’re supposed to stare at this jaundiced lawn until we see ladybugs crawling on the dirt and smell rain in the air and remember how it was to be small and cling to dreams that might never come true. We’re supposed to sit here and admit to ourselves that our dreams came true. This is how it feels to arrive: Your feet itch a little. The sky is flat white like paint. A cardinal flutters by. Your neck hurts.

You want more than this. Of course you do! You’re a human. Feel the yellow grass tickle your feet and breathe in the wet air and be low and humble like a ladybug for a minute. Everything will change and shift more quickly than you will believe. But for now, you’re in the right place.

Practice saying that to yourself when you’re desperate to escape or erase the past or retreat to your childhood bedroom: I’m in the right place. Say it on the subway. Say it on the sidewalk, in the rain: I’m in the right place. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Life is a series of moments, strung in a line. Feel where you are. There’s nothing to regret and nothing to dread. Some days you’ll feel satisfied and other days you’ll feel disillusioned. The more you feel, the more joy will seep into your life. Soon, you’ll find a new dream that’s big and beautiful enough for your taste. That’s when you’ll remember how to be bold again. But for today, savor the work of being right here.

Polly


Thank you for reading Ask Polly! Sincere thanks to everyone who offered help to Drowning Woman last Friday. I learned a lot from your posts and I’m so grateful that you’re here! I also did a guest stint on Today in Tabs last Friday and answered the eternal question “Am I burned out on my job or burned out on LIFE ITSELF?” Send your advice Qs to askpolly at protonmail.com. Know someone who needs a little Polly in their life?

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