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My 27th birthday is coming up, I’m single, and I’ve just moved to L.A. My move was precipitated by several breakups that all occurred within weeks of each other, toppling some of my closest relationships and leading me to an identity crisis and subsequent move.
In the last four months, I was outed as being a sex worker by my sister (and close friend) to our parents. I have not spoken to her since.
In July, I had a falling out with my dramatic, lying/gossipy ex-best friend, and even though I don’t miss her per se, I really fucking miss having a bestie. This has also been difficult, because it sent me into a hermity hide-away mentality where I was kind of afraid to go out around any of our mutual friends … which were most of my closest friends at the time.
In August, my other best friend of five-plus years from back home comes to visit me in California. She has been having trouble lately, she fell in love with a man with not one, but two (!) baby mamas, and they have been on-and-off so many times I really couldn’t care less, but that is all she could talk about for months, including our vacation. During a camping trip, after nagging me incessantly and not paying for anything, she told me she didn’t want to be my friend anymore. Admittedly, I kind of lost my shit here and may or may not have told her I was going to leave her stranded in Yosemite. I didn’t. We “made up.” She went back to Texas, taking my spare $300 FOB car key, and I never heard from her again.
During all of this time, I had been dating some random loser I met on OkCupid who constantly embarrassed me in front of my friends. But hey, my friends aren’t perfect either, so why not keep hanging out with this knucklehead, right? Wrong. Things got really bad, I allowed him to push most of my friends away, and he became increasingly emotionally abusive. Taking advantage of my weakness and vulnerability, he started telling me things like, “You have no friends, you have no idea what it means to have people like you,” and you know it is so fucking crazy, but I believed him! All I can say is that I was so fucked up from losing the people closest to me, I wasn’t thinking straight. It got to the point where I spent a week crying on the floor wanting to kill myself because I believed him. Or maybe because I thought if this loser wouldn’t love me, no one else would either. LOL.
I up and moved to L.A. a month ago. I’m doing a pretty good job making friends and getting dates. I’m getting used to myself again, but picking up the pieces has been a struggle. I feel like a huge part of my identity has been lost, or forgotten, now that I don’t have these important people in my life and I’m trying to fill the holes. I know I’m not perfect. I have trust and abandonment issues, and I can be difficult to be around at times. But, deep down I’m a lover and all I wanna do is be surrounded by people who make me feel good, and I do the same for them in return. It is hard to love yourself, when everyone you loved tells you you are unlovable! Ugggghh. I know everything will work itself out in the end … right???
Adrift in L.A.
Dear Adrift in L.A.,
Every now and then, you’re driving down the highway of life, blasting your favorite song, and a giant billboard appears at the side of the road that says, YOU NEED TO CHANGE. You’re in a great mood, though, so you ignore it.
Then you drive straight off a sheer cliff. After you crawl out of a crumpled heap of smoking steel and drag yourself across a parched wasteland and finally stumble into a rundown gas station, the cashier doesn’t say, “Howdy, ma’am!” and he doesn’t say, “Are you okay?” He says, “YOU REALLY DO NEED TO CHANGE, YOU KNOW.”
He doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. He doesn’t mean that you’re unlovable. He doesn’t mean that you’ll never have close friends. All he means is that it’s time for you to let down your defenses and face the truth about yourself, at long last. You need to change.
But that’s tough for you right now, because you can’t tell the difference between the people who love you and want to help you and the people who don’t love you (or themselves) so they’re willing to kick you when you’re down. And of course, there are people who fall somewhere in between, flawed people who care about you but who are wrapped up in their own problems, or who express their concerns in ways that make them look selfish and pushy. In your crisis state, it’s hard not to generalize, globalize, and lump everyone into the same “enemy” category, sweep them all into the trash, and move on.
I want to urge you not to do that.
One of the biggest challenges of becoming an adult is learning not to overgeneralize about people. You have to consider each relationship separately. Even though you feel hurt by a few people at once, you can’t mix up one person with another person. Even if they all know each other! You must separate them. Some are flawed but supportive. Others are destructive and unfair. Allowing them to form a giant monster who proclaims you UNLOVABLE isn’t fair to you OR fair to your friends.
Overgeneralizing is common among people who grew up in dysfunctional families, who experienced emotional abuse or benign neglect but never had anyone to talk to about it. When you don’t have anyone to lean on as a kid, you say things like, “No fair, everyone’s being mean to me!” and “Why are they all against me?” Kids need help changing perceived mobs into separate individuals with their own feelings and motivations. Kids who don’t have help with that often have trouble developing empathy for other people. And your craftier kids start to construct elaborate defense mechanisms and escapist imaginary worlds. They know to immediately counterattack or to mask their insecurities in superiority complexes. Or they power down their emotions and withdraw. My guess is that you have a little of each of these things going on: a little superiority, a little self-protective narcissism, and some blind rebellion. When the shit hits the fan, it’s you against the world.
What’s interesting to me is that these kinds of kids often grow up to be clever, charismatic adults. All of that practice constructing elaborate defenses, imaginary worlds, and plans of attack gives them a running start. They win friends and influence people easily. But they often don’t respect other people, they never learned how to empathize, they’re not truly connected to other people, they don’t trust other people. They often drink a lot. They’re often lonely.
They also end up aligning themselves with attractive strangers a little too quickly. “Finally, someone is on my side!” they say. And also: “Finally, someone else can see what annoying assholes my friends are!” So even though you say of your ex, “I allowed him to push all of my friends away,” I’m guessing that’s not the whole story. He felt like an ally at first, and you savored having someone on your side for once. You fed that beast, you griped about them to him, and then one day you woke up and all your friends were done with you. Not surprisingly, once you spent less time with your friends, you and your boyfriend didn’t have a shared target for your anger and frustration, so you turned on each other. I know that sounds harsh, but I’ve been there and I get it. When you grow up lonely and your sadness curdles into anger, these things happen.
So now you’re thoroughly curdled, shot through with anger, and that’s why you’ve reached a crisis point. Throughout your letter, you cover up your hurt and your needs with indifference and contempt. Of your best friend, you write, “I don’t miss her, I just miss having a bestie.” Of your other close friend discussing her boyfriend, you write, “I really couldn’t care less.” You also write, “I may or may not have told her I was going to leave her stranded in Yosemite.” Of your knucklehead boyfriend you write, “Maybe I thought if this loser wouldn’t love me, no one else would either. LOL.”
NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE ME, LOL.
It’s time to acknowledge how sad you feel. It’s obvious that you’ve felt isolated and haven’t trusted anyone for a long time. You felt defenseless and disappointed as a kid, so you adapted. You grew sharp teeth and sharp claws and a sharp sense of humor. So now you’re a predatory animal, and you’re all alone. Ha ha ha, everything will work itself out in the end, right? Yes, everything will work out in the end. But: YOU NEED TO CHANGE.
We all need to change at some point. Some people don’t change until they’re pretty goddamn old. Some never change. But most of us face the music at about your age. When I was 27 years old, I moved to a new city and left a bunch of troubled friendships behind. I tried to keep different friendships separate, but they formed one big monster in my head. Every time something bad happened with one friend, all of my other friendships looked suspect. I had a bad habit of saying things like “FUCK THEM. THEY DON’T GET IT.” And my boyfriend would say, “WELL, CLUELESS FUCKERS ARE EVERYWHERE.” That was our thing: telling ourselves we were the only two sane people on the planet.
It wasn’t until I broke up with him that I was forced to take a hard look at what a fierce bird of prey I had become. I started therapy around the same time. I used to tell my therapist really sad things and chuckle at how sad they were. “That’s not funny, it’s sad,” he’d say, and I’d think, “Oh fuck you, you know it’s funny.” The last thing I wanted was to end up like my therapist: all soft and earnest.
But it was sad, and making a detailed case that all of my friends were nuts didn’t help. You know what helped? Admitting that I was sad. Admitting that I missed my old friends and my old life. Admitting that I had mixed feelings about myself, about them, about everything. It wasn’t laughable. I’d isolated myself on purpose, and now I was all alone. I listened to Cat Power a lot that summer:
Metal heart, you’re not hiding
Metal heart, you’re not worth a thing
Refusing to care doesn’t make you stronger. Hiding doesn’t save you from yourself. Laughing at something doesn’t give you control over it. Walking away from everything doesn’t make it go away.
It will take work to turn yourself from a bird of prey back into a soft, gentle thing, capable of taking in the world instead of attacking everything that comes near you. You have to start by admitting that you’re not always right, that you sometimes mess up.
When I finally faced myself, I had to admit that a lot of my friends thought I was argumentative and defensive, and my good intentions didn’t make that okay. If someone confronted me, I thought that meant I WAS BAD. No one had ever said, “I REALLY don’t like this behavior,” while making it clear they still liked me. When someone had a problem with me, I thought the choices were (a) admit that you’re wrong and bad or (b) tell the other person that HE or SHE is wrong and bad.
Someone does not always have to be bad! But this is the highest rule of law in the dysfunctional family: Let’s figure out who is to blame for this! There are no misunderstandings. No one talks it out. No one confides and is comforted. Someone is always to blame.
So listen to me closely: The fact that you have pure intentions is not enough. Everyone is “a lover deep down” just like you. You need to recognize this in other people, instead of perceiving them all as enemies. Even if you know that continuing the relationship won’t work, you still need to recognize this. And you need to change your behavior. You need to take apart years and years of carefully constructed defense mechanisms, until all of the gears and pulleys are scattered all over the floor. What you’re doing — pushing people away, threatening to leave them without a car in the middle of nowhere, cutting them off, saying “Fuck it, I don’t care anymore anyway” — these things don’t serve you. They presume a world where you’re the only one with good intentions, who wants to love and be loved. You aren’t the only one. You need to recognize the softness in yourself and in other people, or no one will ever treat you with the softness you want.
I know you probably feel defensive right now. But don’t tell me there’s something I’m missing. Don’t say to yourself, “She doesn’t get it. She doesn’t know what an asshole X or Y is.” That doesn’t matter. You have to stop arguing technicalities and looking for angles. You have to drop everything and look at YOURSELF.
It’s time to start hearing what people are actually saying to you. Did you listen to your friend when she told you your friendship was in jeopardy? Did you try to slow down and explain your frustrations? Did your sister out you to your parents because she hates you and she’s seeking revenge? Or does she believe in her heart that your choices are hurting you? You can disagree with her opinions and choices and still take the purity of her intentions into account.
You have to abandon your binary operating system, in which someone is always right and someone else is wrong. You have to examine how you feel about each person. Not what you think; what you feel. Do you know the difference? You need to find a therapist. You need to do a lot of hard work.
At first, if you take all of this to heart, you will feel ashamed. You’ll walk out of therapy and it will feel like you have no skin, like everyone can see just how damaged you are. You’ll feel embarrassed everywhere you go.
When you feel that way, I want you to remember this: You are more lovable than ever. Your vulnerability, your willingness to look at the truth, is everything. This is the beginning. You can retire the sharp claws and the sharp teeth and have a new life, with close, trusted friends. You can look back and admit your mistakes. You can stop being the angry one, the messed up one, the “crazy” one, and instead you can be the calm one, the generous one, the one who listens, the one who puts things in perspective.
You’ll be tempted to believe that you’re a million times more fucked up than anyone else. Don’t believe that for a second. This world is filled with former oversensitive children who grew into birds of prey. Some of us are still leading with our fierceness and anger. Some of us are hiding. Some of us stay sane by admitting, every day, how much we don’t know, how much we still need to try. The best we can do is keep trying. The best we can do is to notice when we fuck up, in spite of our best intentions. Birds of prey never notice. Don’t be one of them. Sometimes the closest thing to grace most of us can manage is this: Admitting that we are small, and unfinished, and imperfect.
It’s a strange conflicting message, I get it: Everything will work out, but you need to change nonetheless. You need to change because your intentions are good but your actions aren’t. You need to change because you’re numb and lonely. You need to change because you aren’t taking care of yourself. You’re lying to yourself. You’re shutting yourself off. You’re telling yourself stories.
It’s okay. Most of us did that, too. But it’s time to stop doing that now. It’s time to change.
Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.
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