‘I Am So Extremely Embarrassed by My Entire Life!’

Humiliation is a hazard of writing. The payoff is learning not to hide who you are.

Jane Reed and Dora Hunt (1941) by Clarence Holbrook Carter

Dear Polly,

I am so extremely embarrassed by my entire life, and I’m worried that I will spend the rest of my life hiding myself from the world because I hate feeling vulnerable. 

I’ve been writing since I was a child, and I never minded when people read what I wrote. I loved my writing and I was proud of it, even though I look back at it and think it was juvenile. Because I was a juvenile! It was okay. Now, at age 24, I’ve found my voice. I’ve found happiness and comfort writing personal essays. I choose funny subjects but keep myself witty so that the bulk of my writing is really my personality. No matter what I’m writing about, it’s really about me and my thoughts. 

I set boundaries for what parts of me I share. Still, sharing my opinions and thoughts and really, my truest self, feels humiliating. I treat the internet like a massive world stage and I feel like I’m performing but I forgot my pants. I worry constantly what people think, if I’m too honest and they’ll think I’m crazy. 

I am conflicted because I have never enjoyed writing more or been prouder of what I’ve written, but the second it’s published I’m so vulnerable it makes me sick and ashamed. This anxiety has crept into my life to the point where posting a cute picture of my cat on social media frightens me. 

Even though I’ve found my voice, the humiliation is overwhelming. I have such a desire to be seen and heard, yet also such fear of being seen and heard. I write about breakup songs I like and things like that, and yet I feel like an exhibitionist! Like my writing will be used against me. Like the whole world wants me to fail. 

Sometimes I want to fail, so that I can live a life of agoraphobic anonymity. I feel like I’m running out of time. I know I’m not, but the awareness doesn’t make me feel better. The anxiety of succeeding is as painful as the anxiety of doing what I need to do to succeed. Which is write. 

Am I doomed to feel embarrassed of myself forever, or do writers overcome self-doubt? Do writers enjoy being vulnerable, or is shame part of the job?

Humiliated By My Own Words

Dear HBMOW,

Do writers overcome self-doubt? Are you asking because I seem sort of insecure? Did you read my memoir or something? You know that was ten years ago and I’m a lot more mature now, right?

Yeah. So, uh. Writers never overcome their self-doubt.

But here’s the catch: No one does. Writers are just forced to reckon with their self-doubt repeatedly. That’s not just a hazard of the trade — a side effect of foisting your fears and desires on the general populace and hoping you aren’t seen as pathetic or irritating or disgusting as a result. IT’S THE REASON WRITERS WRITE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Writers are people who want to explain things. More specifically, personal essayists are often driven to explain their conflicted desires because they want other people to understand them, and also because they want to understand their own ambivalence, and also because they want to stop feeling guilty just for being human.

That’s something most of us want, whether we’re writers or not. We want to stop beating ourselves up for having regular human urges and flaws and needs and complaints. And at this moment, our culture is not all that friendly to our very human appetites and demands and obsessions. Even though we were wired this way in order to survive, even though we’re terrifyingly neurotic and weird simply because that kind of tunnel vision worked for a while for animals like us (or, okay, some adjacent trait like strong vision or relentlessly humping inanimate objects promoted our genes and the neuroticism hitched a ride on the backs of those adaptive traits), modern society does not seem to accept and welcome our most basic humanity. Our culture is inhumane, anti-desire, anti-complaint, anti-failure. We are not supposed to feel ambivalent, conflicted, guilty, or bewildered. We’re supposed to know exactly where we’re going and how to get there.

My daughter got a Marvel board game from a friend as a birthday gift recently, and on the box in purple letters it says INFINITE POWER. That’s our culture in a nutshell. Our shared delusion is that more is always better, power is always the best, and taking those abstracts TO INFINITY AND BEYOND is the ultimate challenge and goal. We are meant to empty out all of our other very human feelings of hesitation and bewilderment and ACHIEVE SUPERNATURAL TALENTS AND CAPABILITIES, ACCUMULATE MAXIMUM WEALTH, AND HOLD DOMAIN OVER ALL OTHERS.

The complicated thing about writers is that we’re perfectionists but we’re also obsessed with our own flaws. Even though we often write just to dig ourselves out of some pre-existing pit of shame, we also find ourselves drawn to our most humiliating stories like moths to a bonfire. When I was writing that memoir I mentioned, my outline did not include a chapter about losing my virginity to an indifferent dude at my high school who had a clearly expressed crush on my best friend. But when I sat down to write, what did I find myself writing? The Frogger-themed scene where I crossed four lanes of traffic in my green Gorin’s Ice Cream apron on my lunch break so I could find the guy I randomly slept with the night before in a drunken stupor, and tell him not to tell anyone what happened.

For a full year after I turned in the final draft of my book, I cringed every time I thought of that chapter. But when the book finally came out, not only did I discover that everyone already knew about me and that guy (SHOCKER, HE DID NOT KEEP HIS PROMISE!) but most people had a similarly humiliating Loss of Virginity story to tell in turn. In other words, as people read that chapter, they weren’t thinking about ME so much as THEMSELVES.

That’s the beauty of evocative first person writing. If you can conjure a scene well enough, you’re not just helping yourself to understand or embrace or cultivate a sense of humor about your past experiences. You’re helping someone else to accept and appreciate their own experiences, too.

In other words, when you write honestly about difficult or embarrassing experiences, you’re offering other people the gift of empathy. You’re showing them how to forgive themselves for their mistakes. You’re modeling self-acceptance. You’re demonstrating that it’s possible to reshape our reductive, blockheaded, INFINITE-POWER-obsessed culture, just by showing our fragile hearts to the world.

That takes a little courage. But it’s also the crucible you’ve chosen for yourself for a reason. This is your central fixation. Self-acceptance is the big puzzle you want to solve. Through your writing, you’re trying to figure out how to show up and be a real person around other people without hiding your flaws and your fears and your past. Some part of you believes in who you are, and loves that person, and that part of you wants you to drag that person into the light so she can love and be loved, utterly and completely, with reckless abandon, without shame or apology or fear.

And maybe she also wants to show this inhumane world exactly how conflicted it feels just to be a person – not just for her, but for all of us.

It’s not easy. Some days you indulge your own story too much and it gets boring and you have to edit big chunks out or throw it away, because it’s not interesting or helpful to anyone else. Some days you hate yourself and you can’t write a thing. Over the years, the self-doubt does back off slowly, if you write all the time and work hard to make peace with the process. These days, I can stay in the zone for months at a time, loving the work itself, savoring every dimension of it, feeling smarter than ever. And then at some point, stress descends on me or I’m not getting enough sleep or someone writes a comment that embodies all of my fears about myself, and I shrivel up and feel stupid for a full week. Sometimes my crisis of confidence even leaks out into my friendships and my identity and I’m just grossed out by my entire personality. What’s interesting is that when I was younger, I was much less confident while I was writing, but I was also much less concerned about criticism from strangers. I guess that’s what happens when you grow a big ego and then you have to feed it just to remain industrious. Another hazard of the trade!

Writing is a weird mix of humbling yourself repeatedly and huffing your own noxious fumes, in other words. You can’t do it unless you’re completely honest, and that makes it a lifestyle that has reckoning and self-doubt and growth baked right into the mix at all times. I want to tell you, though, that I really can’t imagine living any other way. Because it’s so easy to hide from yourself these days. It’s so easy to get stuck and not hold yourself accountable for it. It’s easy to seek power over everything else in the world: feeling, beauty, love, creativity, generosity, desire.

I love writing because it gives me space to celebrate the things I know are the most important to me, which are also the values I want to endorse in the wider world. I love writing because I’m anxious to bend this poisonous world into a more humane shape.

I think that’s what you love about it, too. Please notice that the good, pure, optimistic part of you loves writing more than anything else on the face of the earth. That’s the part of you that you need to listen to most closely, not the humiliated part of you. Ashamed, guilty, afraid parts of you might keep you from danger at times, but they also keep you from feeling wide awake and alive.

So many people go through life sleepwalking. That’s what happens when the world doesn’t support your humanity: You power it down and hide it. Don’t take that path. Show yourself. Don’t throw everything onto social media, though. Craft your essays until they’re great, and then let the world see who you are – your weaknesses, your delusions, sure, but also your sense of humor, your insights, your optimism, and your willingness to take a huge leap of faith into the void, in spite of your fears.

That’s how it feels to write, every day: You open your heart as wide as it will go, and you leap. And even as you’re falling, it feels so good. Because you trust yourself, and you trust that someone else out there will understand, see themselves in you, and build up the courage to leap, too. That’s how we change the world: Leap by leap.

Polly


Thank you for being here. Keep leaping!