Ask Polly: Should I Live Alone So I Can Act Weird and Not Feel Ashamed?

Photo: Ed Reschke/Getty Images

Hi, Polly,

I’m a second-year university student (sophomore) who’s just lost her closest friends in her college town after a none-too-fun year living together in an apartment. I had hoped for the dream — bonding over late-night gossip sessions, crazy dance sessions, parties, heart-to-heart sleepovers — and got none of it. I’ve been left with a sour taste in my mouth and a whole lot of beliefs that I was a big contributor to the problem.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been ashamed of myself — stemming from an Incident when I was 8, after which I hated myself. Words such as disgusting and disappointing lined my prepubescent brain whenever I thought about myself, and, as I grew older, this mutated into a sort of general shame about anything I did.

Not even big things. I like to write. Does anyone know? No — I’d never dream of saying. I like to take photos, like to lie in bed during the day, like to eat big lunches, like to spend time alone sometimes — all of these translate into things I should hide, or people will judge me and I will feel inferior. I’ve always envied people who say things like “I’m learning Spanish” — for me, that was always something to do in private, to hide.

I’ve been thinking recently that my being a shut-in sometimes during this past year — not wanting to hang out with my flatmates or be too open with them, holding them a little aloof — and this behavior throughout my whole life is a reflection of my general shame. I felt bad about spending time alone and boxed myself away, so when I heard other people having a good time I felt even more ashamed and scared, and continued to hide. I got more anxious and depression started to creep in (again — I’m a succession of failures).

So, I’ve also been thinking about the possibility of moving into my own apartment, alone. I can afford it; I work a fair amount. I figured it would give me a space to indulge myself in anything I wanted to do without being scared of judgment or vitriol. I could lie in bed all day without someone looking at me as I shambled past saying, “Oh, you’ve been hiding in there all day, have you?” I could paint in my underwear at 2 a.m., or sing along to Taylor Swift, or spend a whole day learning how to do yoga. I’m not able to do those things as it is. I feel much too scared. I don’t have the self-belief to buffer any judgment; it just cuts right through to my core.

But I recently moved home again for a break and I’ve come up against my 17-year-old sister. She is, in essence, everything I have wanted to be for my whole life, even though I’m the one who’s older (I’m 21). She’s living that classic teenage dream. She’s smart, talented at music, dance, and drama, has a boyfriend of eight months she’s been secretly seeing, and frequently goes on late-night drives with her friends, just hanging out together and kicking back, getting fries. I haven’t seen that much social action in … well, my whole life. If my friends had ever called me up at 11 p.m. to ask if I wanted to drive around, I’d tell them I was too tired, I couldn’t possibly. I don’t spend nearly enough time around people for someone who purports to find a social life important.

I want close friends I can do things like that with. But now I’m second-guessing the living-alone situation. Will it harm the whole “be more social” thing? What if I come home every night to an empty apartment and feel scared instead of empowered? What if I instead move into a big flat with people with potential friends? Alternatively, what if I end up stonewalling my roommates again because I haven’t dealt with the fundamental problem of being ashamed of everything about me?

Your help would be much appreciated.

Living Lonely

Dear Living Lonely,

I don’t think you should live alone. You’ll love living alone when you’re older, and that’ll be nice for you. But living with people, tolerating differences, and learning to stand up for your personal choices are all important challenges you need to face. Living alone might feel like a relief at first, but in my opinion, you’ll end up isolating yourself. That’s a bad idea at a time when you need to stop reinforcing this illusion that your preferences and desires are shameful and make you a misfit.

It’s time for you to accept and embrace exactly who you are. You’re not a herd animal, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not like your sister — not because of some failing on your part, but because you need a lot of time alone in order to feel happy, and you’re not interested in dropping everything to follow a herd around. That doesn’t mean you don’t like being around other people. Maybe you prefer smaller groups or one-on-one interactions. Many people do. These are things you’ll figure out about yourself eventually, but you’ll only do it by being around other people and staying open to them in spite of your differences.

One of the biggest challenges for most of us is learning not to define our peculiarities as flaws. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible NOT to feel shame about who you are and what you like and don’t like when you’re smart, self-conscious, plagued by depression and self-hatred, and you’ve never lived with strangers before. Every single living situation I had, from age 18 to age 25, included some feelings of shame. The fact is, young women are very dismissive about each other’s choices at that age.

When I was 22 years old, I lived with three other women in a great Victorian apartment in San Francisco. I would come home after a night of drinking and reheat my then-specialty (a kind of curried shepherd’s pie that only a drunk 22-year-old could love). I’d bring a big bowl of it to my room and eat it while blasting Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” on my headphones. My roommates were fashionable smart girls who loved whimsical art and vintage furniture. They subsisted on expensive lattes, American Spirits, and various tasteless zucchini recipes. They’d be moisturizing their faces at bedtime and they’d peek into my room and there I’d be, sitting on the floor, shoveling curried hamburger and potatoes into my mouth and mumbling, “It’s like this and like that and like this and uh …” They thought I was a fucking rube.

I was a rube. And even though I was overconfident in many ways, the cool-girl energy in the house kicked up some serious shame in me. They disapproved of my late-night feasts and couldn’t stand my clothes (“Oh my God. How long have you OWNED THIS?!!”), and they were pissed that I closed my door at night so their cats couldn’t roam around, knocking shit over. They didn’t like the songs I wrote on my guitar (“Make the lyrics funnier and harder to understand!”), and they didn’t think my ex-boyfriend was worth mooning over (“You can tell he’s a soulless frat boy just by looking at him”). One of their cats revolted against my closed-door policy by slamming his enormous body up against my door at 5 a.m. to wake me up. I responded by opening the door and covering his entire face with the palm of my hand — not a smack so much as a gentle shaming method, which cats find much more devastating than physical violence. That cat never woke me up again, but the event still incited a house meeting at which my roommates proclaimed YE SHALL HENCEFORTH LEAVE THINE DOOR OPEN AT ALL TIMES AND YE HATH NO RIGHT TO DISCIPLINE FELINES IN ANY WAY, EVER. If I’d had more shame onboard, I would’ve either moved out or caved in but resented them. Instead, I agreed not to further embarrass or publicly mock the cats, but I stood my ground on keeping my door closed at night.

Living with those women taught me so much. I thought I’d been exposed to a wide range of people growing up, but I’d never met confident women who were firmly committed to creative careers and could deconstruct the shortcomings of mainstream culture without quoting Hunter S. Thompson or reciting the lyrics to some repetitive song by the Grateful Dead. Sure, they trafficked in a few mean-girl behaviors I had grown to loathe in college. But if I’d concluded that this made them BAD and holed up in my room every night, I would’ve missed out on a lot.

I’m still close friends with one of these roommates, 22 years later. And I still think she’s a little bit of a snob, and she still thinks I’m a little bit of a rube. We are more like siblings than anything else, and since we both had fairly dysfunctional upbringings, conversations can swerve unexpectedly into flinty territory for us. We also know and understand each other better, in many ways, than our own families do. We’ve slowly learned to talk about the strange emotional dimensions of our friendship. Newer friendships are much easier for us in some ways. Our friendship maintains some of the tumultuous dimensions of intimacy between two sensitive young people plagued by anxiety and shame.

I bring this up because I want you to understand how powerful shame is when you’re young — powerful enough to stretch on for decades — and I want you to know how rocky and imperfect the road to intimacy with female friends can be. Deep, meaningful friendships with women are not about high-fiving and eating fries around the clock. They’re not that easy. When you’re young, female friendships can feel absurdly taxing. It’s natural, I think, for smart, sensitive women to want to hide in their rooms or hide in their romantic relationships or hide among big groups of high-fiving men instead of trying to navigate the crazy obstacle course of trust and shame and high expectations that female friends present.

But hiding is a mistake. Don’t hide.

You MUST find a therapist, someone to help you change the way you talk to yourself. You’ve wasted more than a decade telling yourself that everything you do is disgusting and disappointing. This isn’t a rare affliction, by the way. Most of us have to disable the negative soundtrack in our heads. The first step is to notice the soundtrack, to hear what it’s telling you, and to marvel at just how fucked up and insane it is. My soundtrack repeatedly told me that I was unproductive, nasty, and pathetic. I wrote impossible to-do lists every morning, and then all day long my soundtrack would inform me that I was a failure, essentially because I couldn’t break the laws of time and space. Your soundtrack is similarly absurd. It tells you that the things you love — writing, lying in bed, eating big lunches — make you a disgusting weirdo. BUT THESE ARE THINGS THAT MOST PEOPLE BRAG ABOUT! Peruse Twitter for a few milliseconds, and you’ll discover a writhing mass of humans who want to lie around in bed and eat giant lunches and write whatever they feel like writing without being asked to do anything else. That pretty much sums up the motivations behind my entire professional career. Write, nap whenever I want, eat giant lunches. With desires this universal, why would shame enter the picture at all?

Your shame arises from a faulty emotional compass. I don’t know what happened when you were 8 years old, but it broke your GPS, big time. You need a good mechanic to help you fix what’s broken. Get a therapist. Saying these “shameful” things out loud — I like giant lunches! I like to sleep a lot! — will help almost immediately. Right now, you realize what’s wrong. Therapy will help you to FEEL how wrong it is, but it will also help you to feel better, stronger, and less ashamed.

Those of us who are sensitive and prone to overthinking have to work very hard to keep shame from messing with our good lives. We have to remind ourselves that it’s okay to need time alone, it’s okay to crave extra sleep (particularly in college), it’s okay to not be perfectly in sync with the people around you.

If you don’t work hard on this problem, you’ll end up dealing with your shame by making other people feel bad about THEIR choices. If a roommate says, “Why do you sleep so late?” you’ll react defensively or counterattack. You’ll remain aloof and you won’t tell your roommates your vulnerabilities. You’ll criticize your sister for being shallow instead of admitting that you envy her.

You have to give yourself room to be who you are. If you continue to feel that the things you want are creepy and embarrassing (even though your rational mind knows better), you’ll have trouble making room for other people, and you’ll find it easy to blame other people for your own problems.

Thanks to a rough childhood, some people spend their entire lives in a dark cave, mumbling and sharpening their spears, waiting to be attacked for who they are. You don’t have to live that way. The key is vulnerability. The key is gently standing up for your needs while admitting that you’re not perfect. The key is making fun of yourself while also asserting your needs. With your new roommates, you’ll say, “Yep, I’m a little weird. I like what I like. As long as it’s not hurting you, try to accept it, okay? Everybody’s different. Anyway, I’m going down to get a milkshake, want to come with me?”

You need help to get there. And you will fail and make mistakes, big mistakes and small mistakes, over and over again. You’ll feel like your failures mean that you’re a freak, full stop.

We are ALL freaks. We are ALL odd aggressive animals and lonely misfit toys. We all have bizarre preferences and big, embarrassing dreams. We are with you. We are on your side. We feel shame, too. We feel lonely and stupid, too. Dare to tell the truth about how you feel. Dare to appear weak and weird and wistful. This is how you love. This is how you become a good friend to someone who needs a good friend just as much as you do. Stop getting distracted by how you look, how you seem, how you sound to other people. You know what they care about? How THEY look, how THEY seem, how THEY sound. Stop trying to gain their approval, and, instead, give them a little bit of what they need. Make it safe for them to tell you more.

Even when there is hostility in the air, even when you feel dismissed, even when you feel misunderstood, even when you feel angry, even when you feel unsafe, there is still, sometimes, a chance to connect. There is still a chance for love and a lifelong friendship. A rube and a snob can be lifelong friends. An ashamed shut-in 21-year-old and a carefree 17-year-old can be lifelong friends. The most defensive and remote people in the world also need love. They need YOUR love. Let go of the perfect friendships you’ve imagined, and form some imperfect ones, between imperfect, weak, wistful people who simply understand each other, who simply need each other.


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Ask Polly: Should I Live Alone?