‘I Feel Hopeless About Everything’

All of your guiding beliefs are inaccurate and they're making you miserable.

At the Window (1872) by Winslow Homer

Polly,

I'm writing to you with a whole fuckload of bullshit. I know 22 is an age that’s conducive to a lot of drama and handwringing over not knowing what you want, but here I am anyway, handwringing because I don't know what I want. I know I need to fix myself and be something palatable, something worth being proud of.

I'm currently alone in the flat I share with my roommate, who is also my closest friend. I could go to my parents' place, where I spent the first part of lockdown, but I don't feel at home there at all. It's messy and uncomfortable and there's no space there that's still mine. I can't imagine going back there again. The trouble is that I'm in my final year of college, and it's not going well. I'm an art student (it's okay, you can laugh), and I've been struggling to put out any work lately, let alone any work that is good. So I'm behind. Every time I make something I get more and more sure that I'm never going to make anything worthwhile.

On top of all this, I have a complicated relationship situation. My ex and I are both still in love with each other. We still enjoy each other's company a lot - we spent nine hours on the phone the other night - but it was always very long distance. We broke up because there was no endpoint to that distance in sight. I asked her if she would want to give it another go if we were ever in the same place, and she said yes. But to make that happen, I'd have to spend maybe another year saving up so I could get to her.

It seems as if everything worth living for is so far from me. I'm so tired of being so alone. I don’t think I can handle it. And what if I do everything right, and I get my stupid, worthless degree, and I get to her, and we find out we don't work in person? How long will I have to be lonely then? Another year or two? Another five? Another decade? I can't think of a way to be better than I am. I don't have infinite shots at this. I am unbearably sad. The people I try to be friends with don't want to be friends with me, and never reach out in return. I don't know what to do. I know I should be in therapy, but I can't pay for it right now, my university's counseling services aren't running right now, and I don't want to be seen by someone like that, honestly. The only reason I can write to you is because it's anonymous.

I know I should exercise, and I do every now and then, when I can get up the nerve to think about my body. I know I should call people and ask for help, but I can't imagine them responding with anything other than annoyance and disgust.

Is there anything left for me? Am I just useless? Is there anything I can do?

Please Help Me Become An Okay Person

Dear PHMBAOP,

You’re telling an inaccurate story about who you are and where you are.

Here’s are the false beliefs at the center of your current story:

1. You are a failure and art school is a joke. When you mentioned art school, you wrote, “it's okay, you can laugh.” Why would I laugh? I wish I’d gone to art school or stuck with poetry or music. Those were the things I loved the most as a child. But I felt too ashamed of myself to give myself what I wanted. I was inadequate and broken, therefore everything I wanted was stupid and bad. My emotions were unacceptable, therefore everything that sprang from those emotions was disgusting and embarrassing. Because my emotional needs caused my parents and siblings to back away from me in disgust, I developed a belief that whenever I felt any emotion, everyone around me would reject me and remain annoyed and disgusted with me indefinitely.

2. You can’t make anything worthwhile, your degree is pointless, and nothing in life adds up. These core beliefs, which are inaccurate, mean that anytime you try to work on your art or your assignments, you’re flooded with the most severe feelings of shame and self-loathing. You write, “Every time I make something I get more and more sure that I'm never going to make anything worthwhile.” Do you know what those feelings are telling you, paradoxically? They’re telling you that you’re nearing the center of all that is vitally important and therefore unbearably embarrassing to you. Those feelings of self-hatred and disgust that rise up when you make art ACTUALLY MEAN THAT YOU ARE A NATURAL ARTIST. L TO THE O TO THE MOTHERFUCKING L. CUE ECHOING CLOWN LAUGH TRACK THAT NEVER ENDS.

3. No one likes or loves you. When the rare individual does appear to love you, that love is tenuous and doomed and requires huge sacrifices on your part (but not on the other person’s part). You believe that the people who would deign to love you and give you their time are rare. Thanks to this belief, you’ll move mountains and give up everything to cling to the one person who will give you love. But even considering this option feels dangerous, because you know how weak it’ll make you feel. You’ve been there before. And you already suspect, with or without a move to be with your ex, you’ll spend your life begging for scraps of love from people who are superior to you. You aren’t remotely worthy of their love so even winning their love can feel painful and full of longing. BUT paradoxically, in spite of your claims about people not liking you and not wanting to be your friend, you are loved more and more by those you show your true heart to. You have an ex who’s willing to spend 9 hours on the phone with you (which might not be ideal for your current life but I get that times are tough at the moment). This ex seems to care a lot. Evidence suggests that you become more and more lovable WHEN YOU SHOW YOURSELF. You just don’t happen to show yourself to that many people, because your core belief is that…

4. When you show true self, people become disgusted because you are weak and unworthy. You write that, “I know I should call people and ask for help, but I can't imagine them responding with anything other than annoyance and disgust.” This central belief that your true self is repugnant and unlovable is what blocks your art, renders you degree worthless, renders all love doomed, renders all friendships impossible, and renders your entire life crumpled and irretrievably fucked. You’re ashamed of everything you are and everything you do. You write that, “The only reason I can write to you is because it's anonymous.” Hiding is the only way for you to express your truest feelings.

5.In order to succeed in life or be loved, you need to improve and “be something palatable.” But you write, “I can't think of a way to be better than I am.” When you spend each day not by following your natural desires and whims and appetites and ideas and concepts, but by scolding yourself for who you are and punishing yourself for not somehow magically becoming “better” than you are, you numb your desires, appetites, and ideas. You’re like a kid who’s been slapped on the wrist for reaching for a donut so many times that you’re starving but you can’t feel your own hunger anymore. You’ve severed your connection to your natural self and your deepest desires.

So this is your job: to stop punishing yourself for everything you feel, say, think, or do. You will even be tempted to punish yourself for how much you punish yourself! You have to step outside of your shame and feel your day without recrimination or fear or self-loathing for a change.

That effort is going to feel just as bad as trying to make art or complete an assignment at first. It’s going to kick up a mountain of shame and dread and self-loathing. You need to know that at the start, and try to brace yourself for it. It would help to have a therapist who can keep you company through that process and talk about it and process whatever comes up. You also might benefit from treating your depression medically until you feel less fearful and bleak. So the first thing I’d do is call your family, inform them that you’re suffering from severe depression, and ask them to help you pay for a therapist. If you don’t want to deal with them at all, then I would make some appointments (or televisit appointments!) and ask about what adjustments can be made to accommodate a student on a budget at a time when their school’s counseling services are not available.

This is one of those moments when you’re going to HATE taking the first steps, and you don’t even WANT TO KNOW what any therapist has to say, but you have to push through that. You have to remember that people reach out for this kind of help all of the time, all over the world. The only people who think it’s embarrassing are people like you and your family. That’s a curse but it’s also a blessing: this crushing shame toward your own emotions is what forged you into an artist in the first place.

I also want you to notice that underneath this belief that you’re horrible, you retain this strong belief that you’re a real artist with something to express. Look for it under there. Your belief in yourself and your art feels gross and delusional and embarrassing most of the time, sure. THAT’S HOW IT FEELS TO ALL ARTISTS. We are artists because we are at once compelled to show our truest selves, and we are AT WAR, CONSTANTLY WITH OUR TRUEST SELVES.

Luckily for you, there’s a path out of this war you’re waging against yourself. You don’t have to man the torpedoes and storm the beaches. You don’t have to burn every village to the ground, over and over again. You can walk away from this war and never look back.

But you have to take a leap of faith, one that says the opposite of what you’ve always believed, and that’s this: The voice in your head that’s ACCURATE is the GOOD POSITIVE ART-LOVING VOICE, the one that tells you that you’re a lovable person, you’re charming, you’re talented, and people definitely warm up to you over time the more you show yourself. And the inaccurate voice is the SHAMING, SELF-HATING, PUNITIVE VOICE that tells you that love is impermanent, everything takes forever and it never adds up to shit anyway, you’ll never make anything worthwhile, and you have to be much, much better than you are for you to be lovable.

For your whole life, you’ve been taught that the good, supportive voice is wrong and delusional and the bad, and the demeaning voice is accurate and true. Your job is to reverse that belief until you understand, inisde your cells, that the good voice makes perfect sense and makes you feel better about everything in your life, and the bad voice is an absurd, exaggerated, inaccurate demon. But in order to start that process, you have to understand, at a deep level, that the bad voice only comes up when you’re close to what you love: it comes up when you’re moving toward what you want, it comes up when you’re doing something you love, it comes up when you care, it comes up when you’re invested.

Depression is the act of avoiding all of the things you love, simply because you can’t stand to hear that bad voice again. Depression is giving up on art. Depression is deciding you can’t make anything that’s worthwhile. Depression is avoiding people because you’ll only annoy and disgust them. Depression is dropping everything to move to wherever your ex is and then feeling like a piece of worthless shit once you get there because you cared so little about yourself that you didn’t set up a job or a life before you showed up. When you ask that someone else take care of you at the expense of everything else in your life, when you treat one person like the answer to every problem, what you do is you place yourself in a position where everything else can melt away so that one person can save you.

You’re testing that person. You’re going to see if that person lets you down the way that everyone else in your life let you down up until this point. And if you chose that person before you learned to really appreciate and value yourself, nine times out of ten you’ve chose the exact person who would 100% refuse to save you under duress. You’ve chosen an echo of a neglectful parent, or an echo of the bad voice.

Why would you do that? Because right now, you respect the bad voice and you disrespect the good voice. The voice that says you’re a lovable artist who deserves affection and protection and respect is a voice that’s stupid and pathetic. The voice that says you’re a worthless, needy mess who can’t survive on her own is the voice you respect and admire.

This period of isolation presents an unprecedented challenge for most of us. And like most unparalleled challenges, it also presents an unparalleled opportunity for growth. You have a chance to shift the polarity of your magnetic realm, so that all of the forces that are dragging you down will pull you up instead. In order to do that, you have to get a therapist, and you have to write down all of your feelings, and you have to buy a bunch of self-help books (off the top of my head, I’d say Buy Yourself the Fucking Lilies by Tara Schuster is a great start; it’s about learning to be a good, protective parent to yourself but it’s also very funny and sad and fun to read). You have to work through the upside-down world you’re living in. You’re unhappy not due to your current circumstances. You’re in a beautiful, fruitful, exciting place in your life. You’re unhappy in part because you were probably treated with benign neglect as a kid. Your needs were ignored or worse, treated as repellent or irrational or threatening. Your emotions were encountered as toxic. Your honest expressions of truth were sidestepped and feared. Your family doesn’t have to be evil or even bad for that to happen. They can just be self-centered or struggling with their own demons. They can just be human. Many, many human beings shame and punish anyone who asks them to show up emotionally.

Just know this: You didn’t land here by yourself. Nothing that’s happening is your fault. And now you have a chance to become a different kind of human being, one who welcomes and supports other people’s emotions instead of blaming them for being vulnerable.

It’s time to start recognizing that you are not the problem. Your past is the problem. Your brain carries around a map of the past. You’re following that map and it’s a bad map so you’re winding up lost and scared and alone and desperate, over and over again. You need a new map. You can’t draw a new map all by yourself. You need help.

Write this down: I AM GOOD ALREADY. I JUST NEED A LITTLE HELP. IT’S IMPORTANT. Call your parents and ask for money for a therapist. Call therapists and ask who offers sliding scale, pay-whatever-you-can televisits. Send me your address and I’ll buy you a copy of Tara Schuster’s book. You need to study a map forward. It will help.

But first of all, you have to take this in: You’re more than an okay person. You’re a good person. You have time, you have space, you have everything you need. Right now you’re living inside an illusion. Your illusion is that you’re completely fucked. You are not fucked. You can do much worse and you’ll still be a good person. You’re good where you are. You’re good how you are.

You’re an artist who’s full of love and you’re looking for ways to make art and be loved and give your love. At age 22, these are incredibly hard things to feel and be and do and become.

I don’t know if there will ever be a harder time in your life than this one. And once you get through this, you know what you’ll think, whenever times get tough? You’ll think, “This is bad, but it’s not NEARLY as bad as that year I turned 22 in the middle of a global pandemic and I was lonely and lost and convinced that I sucked and absolutely sure that no one would ever love me and I would never amount to shit. THAT WAS ROCK BOTTOM.”

This is rock bottom because this is the moment that all of your broken, false beliefs are acting on you at once, but you don’t recognize them as false. You think that they’re accurate.

But this is also the most illuminative, exciting, transcendent crisis of your life, because this is the moment when you begin to rewire your brain. Everything you thought was bad is actually good, including you. You don’t have to do a thing to improve yourself. You just have to correct this errant, misfiring message that tells you that you’re shameful and annoying and disgusting and doomed.

Love and art and beauty and joy are right at your fingertips, closer than you can even imagine now. Open your eyes and feel your desires without shame. Cue the echoing clown laugh track, and laugh along. Can you believe you were so tricked for so long? And now, your cells are singing you a lullaby, to wake you from this deep sleep. You were cursed by an evil witch, and now you’re waking up to a world of sunshine and flowers and forest animals, a place you don’t have to struggle to believe that the good voice is accurate. You can feel it in your heart. Walk through these patches of sunshine, among these singing birds, and mourn the life you had before. Life will never get that dark again. You might feel sad, but you won’t punish yourself for it. You might feel lost, but now you have an accurate map: the map of your cells, your hunger, your desires, your beliefs. You can trust yourself, at long last. This is the day you become a true artist, a companion, a friend. This is the day you become your true self.

Polly


Heather Havrilesky is the author of the essay collection What If This Were Enough?, which was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of 2018. You can read Heather’s latest Ask Polly column on New York’s The Cut, where it’s published every other Wednesday. The other Wednesdays, Ask Polly lives here, so sign up, it’s free. And don’t forget Molly! Write to Polly: askpolly at protonmail.com.