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I used to be a very social, very extroverted, strange, creative, and fun person. Where I previously thought of myself as cutting edge, ahead of the crowd, and misunderstood in a young-creative-person sort of way, I realize now that was just arrogance to cover up a lack of social skills, which I should have been developing as an adolescent instead of pretending to be too cool for everyone. I remember my teachers always telling me how smart I was, but I don’t feel smart anymore, and it’s because I lack basic social skills, and now those skills seem like they matter in life MORE THAN EVERYTHING ELSE.
Anytime I speak out loud, I see people get a look on their face like “This woman has something wrong with her.” I used to speak passionately about my everyday experiences and how I related to the world, but after I turned 29 that talk became unacceptable, every conversation is now “Who do you know?” and “What do you do?” I have had several major social upheavals over the last 20 years where it seemed one sort of “alpha” type of woman would feel annoyed by my nonconformism, or threatened by me, and she would eliminate me from the crowd with gossip and manipulation, to the point where entire groups of people would shun me. I don’t know what to do to change this.
I am excluded because I don’t seem to have the correct tone, or my humor is terrible, or my job doesn’t sound cool, or I’m just sort of dull to talk to. Something about my manner is off-putting to people. I keep thinking maybe it’s because I gained weight, maybe it’s because I’m older and not pretty anymore, maybe it’s because these people are couples and I’m single, but this was happening even when I did have a significant other for years
I was really depressed and suicidal as a teenager. Both of my parents were very self-involved and hypercritical, and I was filled with hopelessness because no matter what, I was never going to get approval for anything that I did, although I was an A student and stayed out of trouble. I entertained the illusion that once I got out of my family home, I could be enthusiastic and happy and I would simply belong. Every major event in my life since then seems to dismantle this hypothesis, and I don’t know how to reorient myself to feeling positive toward people anymore. I now distrust and fear everyone. I regard all people with suspicion. I do realize this: If I’m looking to find proof that people are wicked and horrible, then that is all I will see. But my lack of understanding about social dynamics has limited my perspective to only seeing mean, selfish, jealous, backstabbing people. When someone is friendly to me now, my first thought is What do they want from me?
I now work from home as a programmer, so I have unwittingly made it possible to never leave the house again. I used to perform onstage in nightclubs all over the country and I brought a lot of happiness to a lot of audiences, but my lack of abilities in the competitive social atmosphere among entertainers behind the scenes prevented me from pursuing it. I was good at being fun and loud and flashy onstage, but having to be a person talking one-on-one in a down-to-earth crowd of folks befuddles me. The same thing has happened in my life in other areas: with relationships with men, and in my former career. I always feel like I’m being targeted by people who see what I have, be it a great boyfriend, or great work contacts, or fun friends, and they know how to push my buttons to make me look bad, or gossip about me, so I get upset, and then I lose the boyfriend, or the job, or the friend because I don’t know how to respond properly when someone creates a competitive dynamic with me.
I’ve had people give me all kinds of advice. I’ve had people say I have low self-esteem and that I always assume I’ve done something wrong. So I tried to reverse this, and I tried the “me first!” attitude, and I’ve tried the “not assuming it’s my fault” when someone does something vindictive toward to me, but that’s only made it worse. I get frustrated when someone does something mean to me, and she isn’t held accountable. Instead, I’m faulted for reacting, speaking up about it, or defending myself.
I used to sparkle. Now I am dull and heavy from fear. This feeling is so palpable I sometimes see people shudder when they talk to me. I don’t blame them, if I had to talk to me I would hate it, too. I can think of three therapists I’ve tried who seemed like they couldn’t wait to get away from me when I tried to talk about these problems with them.
I am most confused by the phrase “Who cares what other people think?” It seems to me that the people who pretend to feel this way are the ones who care the MOST about what other people think, and they are the best at manipulating what other people think.
I really need some advice, please help me.
Dear Losing It,
Your view of the world is twisted. You can’t see what’s happening around you accurately for one reason: You are in extreme pain. You think that you need to present obvious value — good looks, entertainment, smarts — to other people in order for them to care about you. You think that even when you’re valuable, people will still manipulate you and attack you and turn on you. This came from your parents. They were self-involved and indifferent, so you learned to tap-dance and swallow flaming swords for their love. You learned to turn cartwheels and juggle and dive through flaming hoops and walk the high wire for their love, and they rewarded you with more indifference.
Now the only people who excite you are people who hold, behind their eyes, the promise of more indifference. If you at least loved yourself through it all, you could back away from these people and forge real connections with people who really need and deserve your love, people with dents and bruises who need your help, people who would see through the cartwheels and the juggling and the diving through flaming hoops, straight through to your fragile, shivering heart.
But you can’t see your own heart. You can’t feel empathy for yourself, so you can’t feel empathy for anyone else, either.
You have to know the faulty formula that runs your whole operating system: You gave love, you asked for love in return, and your parents told you to tap-dance faster, to swallow more flames. And when you did that, they said that your dancing was clumsy, and your flame-swallowing was half-assed and pointless. They not only didn’t reward effort, they didn’t reward results. They made you think that you MIGHT win love for being perfect, Shirley Temple meets Albert Einstein, and then, when you came close, they shrugged and ignored you. Conditional love was hardly ever on offer; unconditional love wasn’t even in the realm of possibility.
You worked so hard for love and you got nothing. Until you grasp the fundamental tragedy of that and cry a sea of tears over it and feel real empathy for your young self, for all of that exhausting effort you put in with no reward, for the tireless fucking tap-dances that never ended, you won’t see anything or anyone clearly. You have to understand the cruelty of that basic formula, memorize it, and consider it over and over, while also FEELING in your bones what you lost along the way.
Why? Because you are projecting that formula everywhere, always, without knowing it. This is your repeating story: You give love, you get contempt in return. You make an effort, you are kicked in the teeth for it. People want what you have, and take it. They make you look bad on purpose. You are the innocent victim. The tiniest bit of empathy you have for yourself depends on your supposed innocence! You are terrified of losing that privileged position, and as a result, your faulty formula runs your life.
I want to acknowledge for a second that blustery women do have a tough road. It’s also true that if you say the wrong thing around a group of friends, that group of friends will keep itself safe by kicking you to the curb without hesitation. THIS IS THE WAY OF GROUPS. As a blustery woman who spent many years compulsively saying the wrong thing around groups — but also tap-dancing faster and faster to win them over! — I’ve seen this reaction a lot. On top of that, blustery women with powered-down emotions are often prone to a tone that makes other people suspicious of us. The smallest little “What was up with that?” remark, the kind of thing that other women can say and it’s no big deal, sounds absolutely malicious out of our mouths.
Or it does until we realize that we’re not really connecting with anyone, we’re just performing. I used to think that no one would love me unless I impressed them and made them laugh. I didn’t know how to just show up and be another person in the room. It took a lot of crawling over broken glass to figure out how to do that one simple thing.
I had to slow everything down. I had to pay attention and listen instead of just dumping my bag of snakes out on the middle of the table. I had to stop trying to manipulate other people into liking me, and I had to ask myself how I felt about them. I had to put myself second. Eventually, I learned to love the feeling of serving others with an open heart instead of grabbing as much love as I could, without ever feeling satiated or secure.
All of these things happened after I learned my own faulty formula: I made everyone laugh, and I was loved. But if I really cared, if I was vulnerable, if I was too sad to be clever, if I looked for comfort, if I cried, then I was either ignored or told that I was awful and unlovable.
“YOU ARE BEING RIDICULOUS.” I heard this whenever I cried as a kid. These words were shouted in rage. Crying didn’t just make me weak, it made me scary and unlovable. I had a recurring dream when I was little that I was a monster, and even though I told people “I WON’T HURT YOU!” they’d still cower and eventually pick up stones and start throwing them at me.
My mother’s mother was an alcoholic. So when I cried, my mother would react like I’d pulled out a gun and pressed it to her temple. In her mind, raw emotions only came from scary drunk people who could hurt you. I have empathy for that. She had it worse than I did.
Most of the time, she was a great mother. But when I was vulnerable and sad about something that didn’t seem worthy of my tears, what I got back was unfiltered anger. So that’s my formula: Be vulnerable and give your love and become a monster. Ask for love and get stoned to death.
I’m telling you this because even though I’ve worked through it and I forgive my parents and I appreciate them for who they are/were, even though I love vulnerability now and people don’t let me down that often, which is amazing and miraculous — the faulty formula is still operating on the wild frontier of my psyche.
It’s a small frontier, but every now and then, when I’m inexplicably drawn to indifference in others, when I try to explain and I feel misunderstood and then I start to feel angry, I’m digging up a dusty archival reel and projecting it onto an indifferent blank surface of a human being. I’m showing that old film again, the one where the scared girl turns into a monster and everyone is afraid and then the mob stones her to death.
I feel disappointed in myself when I go looking for that dusty reel. But that’s not fair. Most people have a last frontier! I have to forgive myself for it. And sometimes I have to cry for that girl again, as absurd as that sounds. And sometimes I also have to feel empathy for my sad parents, who hated themselves and each other for so many years. And sometimes I have to step back, and say IT’S OKAY, YOU DON’T HAVE TO FIX ANYTHING to some sick part of me that’s lacing up her tap shoes and pouring lighter fluid all over her favorite hoops.
This is your prayer, Losing It: It’s okay, little girl. You can’t turn their indifference to love by being more perfect and more clever and more everything. It’s not your fault that you thought you should try. It’s not your fault that you got tired and went into hiding. It’s not your fault that you’re confused and you see hypercritical, manipulative people everywhere. I know how sad you are, and I’m so sorry about the years you’ve spent feeling abandoned and wronged, always when you were doing your best to keep yourself under control.
You need to find a therapist and you need to stop projecting disgust onto that person. Pick someone who isn’t afraid to show his or her empathy. Ignore what you think you see in that person’s face. Suspend your disbelief.
Then, you need to learn to love the little girl no one has ever loved. YOU HAVE TO BE THE FIRST ONE TO LOVE HER. It will take a long time. Eventually, you will be social, extroverted, strange, creative, and fun again. But there are no shortcuts. You have to love that girl with all of your heart first.
After that, you can go out into the world, and you can see, with clear eyes, how hard all of the damaged people are trying. Stop seeking out people who already disapprove of your imperfection. Seek out the openly imperfect. Present yourself to them, with all of your dents and bruises, without disclaimers. Stop listening to “Who do you know?” and “What do you do?” and listen to the vulnerable questions underneath that: “Who do I know? What am I doing?” When you look at other people and they seem full of shit, strain to see the fragile hearts behind their swagger.
Then put your own swagger aside and say: I am trying. I am lost. I am not alone in this. I want to show up instead of hiding.
If all goes exactly as it should, you will be crawling on your hands and knees for a long time. Listen to me: I’m still crawling, too. I’m still heartbroken when I wander onto that wild frontier by accident.
But it’s okay to crawl. Forget what you think you see in other people’s faces when you talk. Instead, go to the grocery store. Get on the bus. Look around you, at the blank faces and the angry faces and the sad faces. Open your heart and forget what you know. We are in this together.
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