'I've Been the Problem All Along!'
Congratulations, the best part of your life has just begun.
Sitting on Cushions Dog (1855) by Gustave Courbet
What do you do when you realize you’ve been your problem, all along?
You’ve written that you have had the tendency to “love people who ignore me and roll my eyes at people who give me exactly what I want.” I’m realizing that I’ve spent my life doing the same thing, and it’s left me very alone, with a wake of self-destructive decisions and abusive relationships behind me, and in a state of real grief and self-blame at how much I’ve fucked up my life.
I’ve known the origin story of this for a long time. I’m the youngest in my family, and my older sister had a lot of issues growing up. By the time I came along and my own issues started manifesting – the usual checklist of depression, an eating disorder, a teen sexual assault – my (really wonderful) parents were just tired. My value was being the daughter who didn’t cry and could handle shit herself. So I did – which of course meant not really handling it, but swallowing it and pretending I was fine. Enter an older guy and my first abusive relationship was born, which led to the second, which led to me having no idea how to sit with people who are nice to me, how to differentiate between feeling safe and feeling utterly bored and disconnected. I’m 32, and when I think about how many dates and flings I had with truly lovely men in my 20s, men I ignored and patronized and didn’t call back all because they treated me with kindness and respect, I am genuinely terrified at all the chances I wasted, and mortified by the terrible people I dedicated years – years! – to.
I’ve known this for a while, intellectually at least, and have been focusing on recovering from the last abusive relationship and learning how to appreciate good men who treat me well.
But in the past month, I’ve had a blinding flash on the road to Damascus moment: My pattern of ignoring decent people and investing in people who do not care about me? It’s not just my romantic relationships. It’s literally everything in my life. I’ve moved around a bit and always thought I was just bad at keeping in touch, but the truth is that I’ve been a terrible, temporary friend. I kept chasing after social groups that weren’t invested in me, ignoring good friends who were there for me. I was stand-offish with people who tried to get close to me, and I spent all my time talking about how I wanted to be somewhere else, somewhere “better.” That’s how I felt, but I never once realized what a nightmare I must have been, complaining to the only people who repeatedly turned up for me, saying I hadn’t found my people, that I needed to go find them, that I deserved more than this. More than them.
And every time something terrible happened — the assaults, the abusive relationships, my breakdowns after them — I always chose to confide in people who’d never indicated that they were willing or able to be there for me in the ways I needed. And when they blamed me or ghosted me, I felt furious and betrayed. I’ve spent so long feeling furious and betrayed, spent so long thinking I was a victim of all these people, that it was important and even empowering to declare that I was a victim, to acknowledge how people were terrible and kept failing me. But I was failing me. I was picking the wrong people, so they could fail me, so I could feel betrayed.
And I’ve done it professionally, too. I write and teach and want to do more of both. But I’ve realized that I’ve given away far too much of myself and my traumas in my published writing, tweeting my vulnerabilities and fears to thousands of strangers who silently follow me but are never going to turn up at my house and make me tea. I think I’ve genuinely been waiting for the day when a huge crowd of people turns up at my door, declaring, “We see all you’ve done, all you’ve survived! Let us embrace you and avenge you!” Of course they never did, never will. And I’ve spent the past ten years feeling both furious about it, and utterly convinced that if I just write another trauma-revealing article or another oversharing tweet, the world will finally come save me.
I’ve done it all wrong, Polly. I’ve done everything for the wrong people, the wrong reasons. And realizing that is terrifying and sad, knowing all the good friendships and relationships I could have had, and the healthy relationship with work and writing I could have had. And yes, it’s slightly exciting too, realizing that I get to do it differently now, maybe. But how do you start doing that? I’m 32, single, with very few close friends and a very dysfunctional relationship with my writing audience, in the midst of a global pandemic. I have a vague plan to move to a new country again once the world opens up, and now don’t know if this is running away again, or getting a fresh start, and if it’s the latter, how to not fuck it up again.
When you’ve spent a lifetime batting away the good, how do you start sitting with it, or even daring to seek it out?
Learning to Save Myself
This is a party, not a funeral. You just discovered the most important piece of your puzzle. Sure, it’s easy to recognize that you’re chasing unavailable or abusive men. But it takes most people a literal lifetime (which is longer than 32 years, btw), to realize that they’re pushing away their friends and family, and seeking puzzles and gauntlets and funhouses and agility courses instead of sitting still and feeling the love that’s all around them.
Most people figure that out on their death beds. I’m not kidding! You are an overachiever, so you made it here very early — infuriatingly early, in fact! Yet you still insist on beating yourself up for how long it took!
This is a party, motherfucker. Put down your puzzles and feel the love in this house. You think everyone left, but they’re just packed into the kitchen now, yelling about Call Your Agent. This is the part where you get to enjoy yourself. Don’t rush off to some new country. Slow down and feel this.
You want to move instead of slow down because you were raised to solve puzzles and dash through gauntlets and navigate funhouses and leap through agility courses. Your parents wanted you to quietly fix your own problems, and you put in 300 times more effort than you needed to, because that’s who you are. You’re a working breed of dog but you’re also extremely sensitive and jumpy. And you’re easily bored. Even though working breeds can do the same repetitive shit over and over, if you don’t give them anything to do at all, they will quietly murder your couch.
Dating swaggery old men who were secretly insecure was you murdering your couch. Your anxious mind was bored with those lovely 20-something guys. And let’s get real, straight guys in their 20s are SUPER FUCKING DULL unless they’ve already been through some shit. Most haven’t. They’re the simplest machines on the planet. They’re not even simple the way working dogs are simple! They could never dodge and zig zag through a field of sheep, expertly nipping this heel and that one in order to form the perfect circle of braying beasts of burden. They grind their little gears in the same way repeatedly. Am I implying that they’re bad in bed? Yes, definitely. But the really bad part is when they open their mouths and say things like, “Wow, the Lakers really need to make some adjustments in the paint…” Oops, I just got so bored I blacked out.
But goddamn, do I love mixing metaphors! It’s a lifestyle. I need to fuck shit up a little, even when it’s pointless and stupid — oh, especially when it’s extra pointless and super stupid. I like to take a simple thing and make it strange or tangled, or take an impossible thing and forcibly bend it into a possible shape, until it feels real and concrete inside the dangerously unregulated factory of my mind.
Am I easily bored? Of course I am! I forget that sometimes because I’m usually just getting shit done or wandering through the back rooms of my polluted factory, barking orders at my resentful, recently unionized employees. So let’s not tell an overly reductive story about how damaged and terrible you are. People in their 20s and 30s experiment a lot and drop friendships easily. Everyone is trying to figure out what they like. Did you run away repeatedly, expecting too much, tormenting the nice people who loved you? Absolutely. But look, you learned a lot from trying new things and having new adventures! And trust me, it wasn’t just the indifferent friends who didn’t have the capacity to help you with your problems. Lots of people struggle to do that. You just don’t know that because you preferred to make the most sluggish employees work harder instead of giving the outperforming try-hards some on-the-job training. You disliked the try-hards because they reminded you of yourself.
You’ve changed. But the past is still forgivable! You were just a Border Collie staring at a ball in the middle of a crowded room. You knew you didn’t have opposable thumbs so you couldn’t throw the ball for yourself. But there you were, surrounded by opposable thumbs! They were everywhere, dangling at eye level! So you nudged a few hands. Perfectly natural! Maybe you pissed on that one guy’s shoe, but you felt guilty so it only happened once.
Writing about your trauma for an audience that’s still working through their trauma was you leaving the room full of opposable thumbs and advancing to the next level, a field full of sheep who secretly want to be herded into a neat ball or an oval or a trapezoid. That wasn’t a mistake! You were delivering what they wanted while also exercising the parts of yourself that were dying to break free from that room full of thumbs! Finally you could commune with strangers, nip some heels, break into a mad dash!
And you learned to write, didn’t you? You worked with what you had: first a rubber ball in a crowded room, then a field full of sheep. Now you’re bored with the sheep. Many of them don’t understand the finer points you want to make. And some of them just want you to repeat the bad things that bad people did to you, over and over again. They haven’t stopped blaming themselves for what happened to them yet, so they haven’t cultivated compassion for others. When you write about love and happiness and forgiveness, they’re going to feel angry and betrayed, because they don’t know how to give those things to themselves yet.
But that’s a smaller segment of your audience than you know. Connecting with real humans on social media can be confusing as fuck. Sometimes you mold yourself into a shape you think other people want, and not only are you underestimating their intelligence, but you’re also blocking your authenticity and will to live. That’s when you get sluggish. You let a few sheep escape. Fuck it, maybe they’ll move to New York and take up interpretive dance or whatever. Anything’s gotta be better than bumbling around in the same muddy field all day.
But guess what? Once you give up on pleasing everyone, that’s when your life as a real artist begins! Now you can dig for new ideas and emotions without fear. Soon you’ll realize that you’re smarter than you thought – more inventive, more interesting, and more wild, too! And sure, a few random people who only want your pain won’t like your work anymore, but did you sign up to play “Wonderwall” over and over again until you die? Or did you sign up to, you know, have some fun, fuck about, meet some birds, have a laugh?
Okay, Liam Gallagher might not be the best model for your future, but pay attention because we’re getting to the good part: You don’t want to show up for every funeral dressed for a party anymore. You can’t fix everything and everyone. You can’t change people who don’t want to be happy or don’t believe in happiness or just don’t want you trying to change them. You’re ready to respect people’s boundaries now. You want to let the funeral be a funeral, and let the party be a party.
So wake up and join the party! You’re wearing black, it works. But the other part — the sobbing into your hands, the apologizing to everyone for being terrible, the offering to clean the toilets while you’re here? That’s the working dog in you. Stop working. Stand in the middle of this crowded room full of chattering people with big hearts and big problems and lazy opposable thumbs dangling off their anxious hands, and FEEL THE LOVE.
We’re almost done, but there’s a denouement, so stick with me: Feeling the love isn’t always easy. Yesterday, I moved from the Cut to Substack. I fucking loathe writing goodbye messages because they sound like marketing copy to me. There is nothing I hate more than insincerity, to the point where I sometimes mistake sincere things for insincere things. That’s my inner Liam Gallagher talking. But I’m also a simple hippie who cares more about feelings than agility courses. Yet when I write hippie shit, my working dog (his name is Liam) shows up and says, “You sound like a geezery guru who eats groat curds for breakfast because you suck ASS!”
So I revised my goodbye letter six times. When I finally got to my hello letter, my second dose of the Moderna vaccine was starting to kick in, I was shivering under five blankets, and the only thing that felt authentic to write was, “Am I running away or getting a fresh start? MAYBE I’M JUST FUCKING UP AGAIN!”
So what did I do? I wrote something that felt inadequate and I forgave myself for it. And in the morning, when people started subscribing and sending me nice notes (Holy shit, thank you for the notes! God, do I appreciate them!), I tried to just feel the love, accept it, and refuse to judge it. Inside the polluted factory of my mind, attention always comes with punishment. So sometimes, I flinch in anticipation of a blow when I should be relishing the moment.
That’s what you’re doing now. You’re waiting for hatred or despair to arrive, but this is a party, not a funeral - for me and for you. Even though we’re both fuck ups at some level and plenty of people dislike us (mad respect for the haters!), our job is to take the love that’s here and feeeeeeel it. What’s fucking incredible is that, ever since I learned to slow down and feel it and accept who other people are and respect their limits instead of trying to change them or herd them in tight circles, my life has become so much more relaxing and rewarding. I’m a better friend, a better mother… I hate the word wife so let’s just say I’m a better concubine.
The more space you give people to be who they are, the more they show you who they are, without you even asking. For a working dog, that’s super weird! It’s like walking into a crowded room where EVERYONE IS HOLDING RUBBER BALLS AND THEY ALL WANT TO THROW THEM FOR YOU.
That’s your life now, you big dummy! So stop crying and start dancing. Retire your old story about who’s wrong and who’s right, the good boring people who loved you and the bad exciting people who treated you like shit. You don’t have to sort wolves from sheep anymore. As long as you love yourself and respect your desires, you’ll naturally protect yourself and spread that compassion to others. Just stay open. And be patient with yourself when you feel bored all over again.
You’re a complex animal. You will feel all kinds of things. But as long as you’re feeling the love, first and foremost, before and after, today and tomorrow until your last day alive, you’ll be a happy animal. So here’s the big bottle of champagne I brought for you. Love that dress, you dirty thing. Thanks for inviting me, by the way. We’re going to have a fucking blast.
We will sit with the good that’s here. We’ll feel it. Then we’ll dare to seek out even more good things. We’ve worked hard enough. It’s time to relax and have fun now. We deserve this.
Ask Polly will be published here twice a week and will include all kinds of strange new things, so sign up now and forward this to all your friends! Need advice? Write to askpolly at protonmail. Underemployed? Drop me a line and I’ll comp you a six-month subscription. Thank you sincerely for being here! Whew, am I grateful for you. Ugly-cry grateful. Now get out there and feel the love. It’s out there, dummies! Look closer!