Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
I think I’ve survived the past two years of my life on your columns, and I’ve finally mustered the courage to write to you myself for some help. I know I shouldn’t have much to complain about, but I can’t help this feeling of failure and missed expectations.
I’m an only child who grew up in a loving suburban household. I am pretty, incredibly personable and friendly, was popular in prep school, and then went to one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I then got the “right” job in consulting, which I slaved in for two years because it built the right brand (which is supposed to get me married and able to live happily after as a Stepford Wife). Then, I got my dream job working for another prestigious fashion company (upward trajectory! success!). I peaked. Then, I got laid off and can’t seem to find a job, which would have been so easy to land before. I have been pushed down the mountain of glamour and success — and for once I don’t have a life people are jealous of. I know I sound like a narcissist.
In addition to all of this, I’m consistently on and off with a man ten years my senior (we were colleagues at said prestigious company) for no reason — I don’t love him, there are no sparks, he’s not nice or in love with me, I don’t think he’d be a great father, and he isn’t that attractive. However, he’s good on paper and checks the boxes, and for some reason keeps coming back to me (though won’t commit). Is someone only going to love me if I check the boxes, too? How do I get over the need to keep checking the boxes (even the boxes I created for myself)? I thought I did everything right. Why isn’t it paying off?
Any advice on how to stop being so obsessed with my personal brand would be appreciated.
Obsessed With Making People Jealous of My Perfect Life
A long time ago I was also with a man ten years my senior whom I didn’t love. I spent a huge amount of my time sprucing up our house, rearranging the furniture, buying interesting new plants, and gazing at gardening design books. I was afraid to confront how fucked up our relationship was, so I decided to throw him a fancy party for his birthday instead. Perfectly logical, right?
I went out and bought this glossy, expensive Martha Stewart hors d’oeuvre cookbook, the kind with full-color photographs of fancy bite-size foods on every page. I spent hours staring at all of those gorgeous appetizers, trying to decide what to make. I spent hundreds of dollars I couldn’t afford at Whole Foods, buying ingredients and good wine. The day before the party, I sweated in the kitchen for eight hours. I spent hours peeling the skins off a million boiled fava beans because this recipe for fava-bean crostini demanded it. The day of the party, I rearranged the furniture again. I washed the floors on my hands and knees. I stood back to examine how guests would experience each room. Would they be envious of our shiny, pretty life? Would they imagine that I was happy and relaxed and also hopelessly stylish and an amazing cook to boot? I spent hours spreading colorful little pastes on little toasts, and arranging mint and basil at jaunty angles on individual squares of bread.
Here’s what I remember from the party itself: I felt nervous. My boyfriend acted genial yet imperious as he poured the wine. I drank too fast. I talked too much. People looked at me like I was a little weird, a little pathetic. And all of those colorful pastes tasted like … PASTE.
Now, let’s be sure to address the most important lesson here first: Martha Stewart, the godmother of personal branding and the bane of every perfectionist’s existence, was once the absolute queen of incredibly photogenic, stupidly labor-intensive, tasteless food. I assume she’s upped her game since then, based on this recipe for a far-easier, peels-included, modern, rustic twist on that fava-paste nightmare of old. But I guess that’s what prison does for you. It grinds you down to your core self, and suddenly you’re asking yourself really tough questions like, “Will the world actually end if I don’t weatherize the goddamn begonias in a timely fashion?” and “Is vintage Fiestaware overpriced fucking bullshit or is it just my imagination?” and also “Who the fuck cares what food looks like as long as it tastes good?”
Which leads us to the second-most important lesson here, which is that the more you primp and fluff and shine up your life for its next photo op, the more flavorless and stupid and pointless your life is going to be.
This sorry old man you’re dating is like an $8,000 vintage Fiestaware soup bowl in a rare shade of turquoise. You look at him and you think about his top-tier pricing and the fact that anyone who knows anything about prestigious schools and prestigious companies would think you’d be flat-out nuts to trade him in for some dude who’s far less successful and won’t check all the boxes. So you’re going to hang around indefinitely, afraid to change anything, and then one day that $8,000 piece-of-shit boyfriend of yours is going to fall off the edge of the counter all by himself (when he meets someone else he likes better, maybe) and you’re going to be on your hands and knees, picking ugly turquoise shards off the floor and you’re going to say to yourself, MY GOD HE’S NOT EVEN ATTRACTIVE AND HE’S NOT EVEN NICE AND HE’D BE A SHITTY FATHER AND I SPENT EIGHT YEARS WITH HIM. WHY?!!! And the answer will be: Because he checked the goddamn boxes. His imaginary version of “perfect” matched your own imaginary version of “perfect.” You are both spread across crostini in the most delightful green swirl, only to taste like wall Spackle.
You say that after being laid off, you don’t have a life people are jealous of anymore. Listen to me: No one was jealous of your life before, either. They could see you, frantically peeling fava beans. They could see you, talking too fast and drinking too much just to impress a crusty old dude who isn’t even nice to you. They could see you, looking for your next fix of glamour and success, aiming to work at one of the most prestigious companies in the world, aiming for more, more, more and never ever just “some” or “a little” or “enough.” They could see that you weren’t that happy, and they felt sorry for you, and they still do.
Now that you’re down in the dumps, though, pay attention to who is nicer to you than ever and who’s not. I’ll bet Mr. Checked Boxes is a bigger asshole than ever. I’ll bet you suddenly can’t help but notice the way he sneers when you talk, and backs away from you when you cry, and has a look in his eyes that foreshadows the soul of a very bitter, dissatisfied old man (perhaps one with a much-younger wife?). And I’ll bet some of your oldest friends are showing a renewed interest in you. I’ll bet they’re asking about how you are, and listening when you stumble on your words, and growing less interested when you assure them that everything will be back on track in no time.
Some of your oldest friends are hoping that getting laid off might change you for the better. They’re waiting outside the prison, hoping you’ll emerge with a whole new perspective on the world, finally brave enough to ask yourself really tough questions like, “Will the world actually end if I don’t check all the boxes in a timely fashion?” and “Are the most prestigious universities in the world overpriced fucking bullshit or is it just my imagination?” and also “Who the fuck cares what my life looks like from the outside as long as it feels joyless and tasteless and empty on the inside?”
You should thank your lucky stars that you got laid off. Because now you can see clearly what a nightmare you’re living. You haven’t been tasting anything for years. All you’ve cared about is how it looks to everyone else. But no one gives a shit!
And if you think no one gives a shit now, just wait ten years, because when you hit 40, 45, 50, that indifference ages into outright scorn. In our culture, middle-aged women are painted as either worthless, slow-moving domesticated animals or loathsome, envious, high-strung, self-immolating bitches in $100 yoga pants. You think all of that prestige will save you from feeling invisible? Har har har, said the pirate of postmodern high-capitalist doom.
Your only option now is to learn how to TASTE. You need to learn how to feel again, to feel enough to notice that it feels bad when the rich, noncommittal loser sitting next to you isn’t even nice. You are better than this. You deserve to feel alive, to feel loved, to feel inspired, to feel satisfied. You deserve to FEEL, period. You deserve to look around and think, I never fulfilled my destiny as the gorgeous, special envy of the world, so why do I feel so goddamn good anyway? You deserve to step back and look at your life, not to imagine how someone else will see it, but to FEEL how amazing it is to be right here, right now. You will not wonder who is jealous. You’ll wonder what you can do to help other people feel less jealous over stupid, empty, flavorless things.
Go read an interview with Martha Stewart from 16 years ago, and then read a more recent interview, from the last two years. Today’s Martha Stewart is very different from the Martha Stewart we knew long ago. She seems relaxed and happy now. WTF, right? Martha Stewart, happy?!! If Martha Stewart is happy, who’s going to peel all the goddamn fava beans?
Let Hannibal peel the fava beans. You don’t want to work that hard for nothing anymore. This is your wake-up call, Obsessed. It’s time to stop checking boxes and get a fucking life — A REAL LIFE. A life that tastes good.
Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
All letters to firstname.lastname@example.org become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.