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I want to start by saying thank you so much to you and your column. I had a rough year last year. I moved to the other side of the world, broke up with my boyfriend of seven years, subsequently found out he’d been cheating on me for five of those, got blind drunk, a lot, went on bad dates, and had meaningless sex that sometimes left me with bruises. I lost my grandfather and had to watch his funeral on a video afterward as I couldn’t afford to fly home.
I started therapy after I had a bit of a breakdown earlier this year and after reading your column about the girl obsessed with her boyfriend. I was that dull obsessed girl for most of my life.
Therapy made me realize I’ve been depressed for a long time, and recently I’ve started relearning how to feel. I’ve learned to stop thinking and start feeling. This sounds simple, but it has completely changed my life.
So here I was, feeling pretty good, feeling like I turned a corner. I felt happy. TRULY HAPPY for the first time in my entire life. That’s worth so much.
Then, last week, one of my friends told me that my cheating ex-boyfriend is having a baby with his new girlfriend and she’s already six months pregnant (it was unplanned, apparently). It shocked me so much I sort of sat there with my mouth open for about ten minutes before I could even respond. All I could think about was how I always thought he would be an amazing father, and I thought that a lot in our relationship but I never told him.
Anyway, I feel like this news has derailed me a little bit. In the same week, and as part of this process of finding myself, I’ve recently reconnected with my art and my writing and I wrote a piece of writing I thought was good. It was deeply personal and I submitted it and it got knocked back twice and now I feel unsure about that, too.
I’m feeling a bit at sea again, and a bit like I’ve taken three steps backward. I’m starting to feel some of those old feelings creeping back — wanting to be reckless, feeling totally disconnected in social situations, unsure and confused about who I am. I feel like there’s something in this baby news that links to my self-esteem and I just can’t seem to shake it.
I don’t want to go backward, Polly, I can’t. Do you have any advice about how to keep a good train on its track?
Dear Backward Girl,
Remember being the dull obsessed girl? It’s her ego that’s at stake here, not yours. You feel unnerved because this news has you flashing back to being her and valuing your ex above everything else. This news tells the old you that you’ve lost and his new girlfriend has won.
It’s perfectly natural and even predictable that this would throw you for a loop. Being happy doesn’t mean forgetting everything that came before happiness. Being happy sometimes depends on accessing painful memories and feelings, even when they’re ancient history. Unexpected news and jarring events can trigger a flood of chaotic, unsettling emotions, and at times like these, you have to think like an artist and WELCOME THE STORM. If you take in this news instead of treating it like a tragedy or trying to control or change it, you’ll feel in your bones how much you’ve grown in the past year.
One of the challenges of actually being HAPPY, as in happy enough to recognize it as a feeling, to dance around your kitchen, to smile openly, to feel proud of how far you’ve come, is that you can still have bad days, you can still feel lost and lonely, you can still feel unsettled by how much you have left to learn. The big challenge is not to make meaning around those bad days. You haven’t lost any ground, even if your brain tells you otherwise.
That doesn’t mean you know exactly who you are. Of course you don’t! You’ve been depressed for years. One of the terrible things about low-grade depression is that it blocks you from really knowing yourself. Or you define yourself mostly around the things you don’t like, the people you don’t trust, the stuff you don’t want to do.
And even though everyone and everything tells you that you should KNOW WHO YOU ARE and BE CONFIDENT and PROUD OF THAT PERSON — hey, I tell people this all the time! — the truth is that it’s normal not to know who you are on and off in your life. We associate that uncertain state with self-destructive messiness (because that’s how most of us respond to it), but there’s another way. You can be a calm question mark. You can admit that you haven’t figured it all out yet. You will revisit this feeling over and over in your life. Accept that uncertainty will never leave you completely.
Admitting what you don’t know is good for you. And in fact, that’s a big part of feeling your feelings instead of trying to control them. When you chop back the forest of neurotic thoughts that kept you depressed for years, it makes sense that your feelings would sometimes take you by surprise. That’s the way feelings are! You’re surprised by your own happiness, and also surprised by the way that happiness can unexpectedly give way to sadness and anger and other strong emotions.
Logic has nothing to do with it. Obviously, the dude who cheated on you for five years isn’t your ideal mate. What exotic variety of a douche-nozzle cheats for that long? Plus, you dumped him before you even knew about the cheating. Clearly, you decided he wasn’t your one true love a long time ago. Even so, if what you really want is to have a family of your own, it’s pretty jarring to discover that the star of your former Happily Ever After fantasy is about to live out that fantasy with someone else. It’s primal. You’re an animal. Don’t blame yourself for the way you’re built.
Having exes who move on and appear to live happily ever after without you gets pretty mundane as you get older, but that first time hits hard. I lived with a guy when I was very young and imagined us together forever, making babies. That’s pretty much all I could imagine, in fact, because we weren’t the greatest pair and didn’t have much to talk about, beyond our shared romanticism around marriage and kids. But he was handsome and fit the 2-D American dream in my head and seemed like he’d be a good father. I also think I knew that he was traditional enough that if I ever had HIS KID, that would seal the deal. Talk about regressive! But when you’re a dull obsessed girl, that’s your jam, sealing the fucking deal. Forget that you’d get bored within a millisecond because you prioritized sealing the deal over building a real rapport with the mate in question.
Anyway, when he knocked up his next lady (and then married her and stayed with her forever, true to my gut feelings about his sense of honor and loyalty and views of babymaker-as-divine-ball-and-chain), I got a little obsessed with their dreamy life together. It not only felt like HE belonged to me, but it felt like THEIR LIFE somehow belonged to me, like she’d stolen that fantasy right out of my hands.
Even then, I knew he wasn’t right for me. I wasn’t obsessed for that long. But caring at all about what he did startled me. I was unprepared to feel that loss. Yes, it was very regressive of me to feel that way, but it was also primal and FORGIVABLE.
You’re likely to feel this way again, too. You’re going to feel a lot of terrible things. Part of transitioning from someone who hates emotions to someone who welcomes them in is accepting that more bad emotions lie ahead.
On that note: If you want to be a writer, you have to resolve to take rejection in stride, because it’s a mundane part of life for even the best writers. My essays were rejected over and over again when I first tried to get published. I took every rejection as a sign that I wasn’t meant to be a writer, and never believed that these things could happen to “real” writers. I was so wrong about that.
It’s also true that when you first start writing, you often write very emotional, raw stuff — it can be inspired, funny, charming, a million things, but it might not be in the right shape for publication. You have to revise like crazy. You have to look for flaws in your work and mercilessly cut the weak parts. And when you’ve never written for a specific publication before, you have to be damn sure that the tone and style of your piece matches the pieces in that publication EXACTLY.
In other words, this part of your life is the polar opposite of your emotional life. In this area, you MUST get very practical, power down your sensitivity, and become a machine. Create, submit, revise, resubmit. Juggle several pieces at once if possible. Resolve not to wallow. Once you submit one piece, move on to the next without overthinking the fate of the first.
You have to be good to yourself if you want to write. You have to take care of yourself and give yourself praise for your accomplishments. Keep your standards high, and don’t expect anyone to hold your hand or pat you on the head and tell you you’re a genius. If you can’t manage those things, you shouldn’t be a writer. I feel sure that you can manage them, though! You can. Accept that challenge, take it on, and remember that it will make you stronger.
Your train has not gone off its track — trust me. You’re learning what it means to welcome in the full force of your emotions, and that’s a gigantic, daunting feat. Of course it’s horribly difficult! Of course it’s unpredictable and scary. Being alive is unpredictable and scary, even when you’re older and there’s less uncertainty in your life. It’s okay to feel imperfect and weak sometimes. No one gets to bypass those feelings. But that doesn’t mean that we’re going backward. We are messy and brave and we are barreling forward, through the storm, into the gorgeous and frightening future.
Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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