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Ask Polly: Am I Too Selfish?

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Hi, Polly,

I’m writing because I need to get what is maybe a stupid problem off my chest before I spontaneously combust. I haven’t eaten or drunk anything all day. I can barely get much work done because I’ve been crying so hard. I think there’s lots more crying to do, because I can feel the unshed tears like a leaden weight from behind my face.

So I’ve become upset recently because of something you might think is really dumb. Two years ago, an older man who is a family friend called me fat at a dinner. He came up to me, asked me what the hell I’d been eating, and put his hand on my stomach. I was really upset and told my parents I didn’t want to hang out with him again. They said do what you want. Two months later, it’s my father’s birthday, and I’m flying home for it. My mom refuses to tell me who’s on the guest list, and I find out why. He’s invited. I tell my mom I might not be able to make it then, and she tells me to “get over it,” that I am putting my father into a bad situation, and that it’s a virtue to put my emotional needs on the back burner (she actually said this). So I get upset and tell her how I really feel, and she accuses me of “spewing venom” at her, my poor defenseless mother.

So how do I really feel? Only that this seemingly trivial occurrence is a long-standing pattern in our relationship. Throughout my life, she has communicated to me that my feelings are always less important than everyone else’s. She allowed a maid who emotionally abused me from infancy to stay in my family for 17 years, punishing me when I acted out against the abuse. She told me to get over my depression and my autoimmune disease that cropped up a few years ago and that “other people had it worse.” In the midst of my illness, sadness, and a grueling graduate-school program, she constantly threatened me with money, telling me I was so ungrateful for all her sacrifices.

I posted about this story online and got a fair amount of support from people asking why the hell I was letting family walk all over me. But I also had commenters tell me I was the narcissistic one for making my father’s day all about me, that I was being petty about something so trivial, and that I needed to grow up and get over it. So I exploded. I’ve been told all these things all my life. Get the fuck over yourself. Stop making everything (anything) about you. Stop ruining things for everyone else. So I ripped these commenters a new one in the most vicious way I could think of and got banned, of course.

The thing is, part of me wonders if they’re right. I’m sad, confused, really depressed. Am I selfish? Am I not selfish enough? Am I being a brat or a pushover? I don’t know what the right answer is. I’ve been here before, this horrible limbo where everything seems wrong and nothing seems real. I hate it.

Upset & Guilty & Angry

Dear U&G&A,

The terrible paradox of growing up around people who tell you directly, over and over again, that your feelings don’t matter, is that the only way to assert your right to have feelings at all is by acting like a huge asshole. They’ve essentially given you no choice, because every tiny protest is met with the same response: “Your needs don’t matter, and in fact you’re an asshole for mentioning your needs at all.” No wonder it’s hard to tell whether you’re being an asshole or just being a regular person. Emotionally, you’re in a straightjacket, wrapped in heavy chains, packed into a tomb, and submerged in a shark tank. You either have to magically become Houdini overnight, or you have to burn it all down, yourself included.

It’s true that you’re putting up with a lot of callous, unfair behavior from your family. It’s also probably true that you’ve acted like a real dick, now and in the past. “Simmer down over there, no one wants to hear from you” was their standard response to your feelings. “Shut up, your feelings don’t count.” At first maybe you tried whispering “I’m sorry, I know my feelings don’t count, but …” And you were interrupted. So then you tried nudging. Then you tried speaking, and then shouting. Then you tried weeping into your hands. Incredibly, your feelings still didn’t count. Not only that, but now that you’re shouting and crying, you’re also informed that you’re a hysterical bitch who ALWAYS RUINS EVERYTHING. Why do you selfishly insist on ruining everything? What is your fucking problem?

A lot of people I know, myself included, grew up this way. And yes, it did turn us into assholes at first. The reason I’m starting off by telling you that this group includes me — and A LOT of other really interesting, sensitive, creative, smart, broken, angry, passionate people — is that I know exactly where you are right now, that “horrible limbo where everything seems wrong and nothing seems real.” I’ve been there. That’s the place where you can’t tell the difference between whispering that you need more from the people around you and kicking them all in the fucking kneecaps. Either action incites the same negative response, so why differentiate? Why not go ballistic? If you’re bad, why not be truly awful? After being treated like a subhuman half-person for decades, you’re tempted to burn some bridges and never look back.

You feel like no one understands and no one cares. But I understand, and I care. And lots of other people who are reading this understand and care, too. They know exactly where you are. They remember having that terrible feeling that everyone hates them. You ask for something small, and everyone says, “No! Shut up about that!” And then you ask for something bigger, and everyone says, “No! You’re bad! Stop making noise!” And then you’re furious and you’re fucking shit up and everyone is avoiding you. Am I bad? you wonder. I must be bad since everyone thinks I’m bad. But something inside you says, I’m not bad! I just want to be heard! I just want to be understood!

When you feel like no one can see you or understand you, you do crazy shit. You feel unfairly judged. You feel like no one will take the time to listen. You have to yell instead. You have to make them listen. You have to put your foot down. Or you have to get reckless, lose control, scream, swear, drink too much, destroy yourself in the town square.

And to people on the outside looking in, who don’t understand and can’t see your straightjacket and your chains, you look like you’re making it all about you. “Why does everything have to be about you?” they ask. “Why don’t you get over yourself?” And you want to say to them, “I’m not trying to be the center of everything. I’m just trying to get the smallest fucking thing. I’m just trying to be an animal in the room, a rat or a fly, not even a person. I just want to be visible, that’s all. I just want to make a small sound without being swatted away.”

I relate to that feeling so deeply that I can’t even express it. And I know exactly how embarrassing and terrible it sounds as it comes out. You’re trying to squeak and it sounds like a fucking roar. You just want something small, a gesture, something teensy-tiny, a glance, a moment, but when you try to reach for this tiny thing, somehow you look like a histrionic, self-obsessed diva.

Ironically, you look “bad” from the outside, but you’re this sensitive, emotional, deeply moral person. You’re ruled by guilt. You ARE grateful to your mother, and you know she has good intentions. But she’s a fucking nightmare, too, and she’s horribly unfair to you, so you’re enraged. The abusive maid alone is just beyond-the-pale unfair. Your mother makes you want to bash your fist into the wall, because she refuses to listen. You want something tiny, and she acts like you want the whole goddamned world. It’s heartbreaking and impossible.

So here’s what I would do if I were you: I wouldn’t try to fix your family. Table it. Play the part of the eternally grateful daughter for now. Show up, eat your big platter of shit, leave. Go to the parties, see the dicks who say you look fat. Give them your poker face and don’t say a word. I know it sounds like I’m saying “Shut up and be good.” That’s not it. I’m saying you can’t take on your family right now, because you don’t know which way is up. I want to give you this gift: You don’t have to do that work at this point. You can just play along. It will be easier on you, trust me.

Because asking for what you want from them is injurious to you. It hurts. You’re putting your hand on a hot stove, over and over again. Pay attention to that image, because every single fucking thing in your life — your work, your love life, your friendships — will mirror that image if you’re not careful. If you’re asking for something, then begging for something, and people are shrugging or backing away? Don’t do that shit. That’s a dynamic that can control you, thanks to your background. You have to keep your eyes wide open and watch out for that. You could live there for-fucking-EVER.

So this is the rule with your family: Show up, eat shit, leave. You love them, and you’re also furious at them. Live with that for a while, but don’t stir up trouble, because you’re the one who’s going to pay the price. Don’t punish yourself. Keep your fucking hand off the stove. You can’t afford the luxury of authenticity in the presence of your family. Maybe, once you’re stronger, you will be able to afford that. But not yet.

Next crucial item on your agenda: Find a smart therapist immediately. Make it happen, no matter how much money you have. You can’t sort through this without a therapist. You are someone who needs therapy badly, not because you’re crazy or you’re bad, but because you were very deliberately raised not to know where you end and other people begin. You were molded into a half-person. That’s not your fault, and you’re not alone there. Maybe most people were molded into handmaidens and foot servants. But it takes work to sort that shit out! You need to know what’s bad and what’s just human. You are in the dark. It will take a long time to step out into the light.

That said, some light is shining in now, isn’t it? Can you feel it? Because you’re smart and you’re sensitive and you’ve fought so hard for your feelings, for your rights; in spite of great obstacles, you also know the sound of truth. You are meant to do great things. You’ve been forged in some white-hot flames, and you are hard and brilliant now. But you don’t want to be hard and half-asleep, like the zombies who powered down their feelings, some of whom are probably your brothers and sisters. You don’t want to be a pushover, either, who rolls over for everyone and everything. You don’t live to serve. They can cut off your balls and lobotomize you and chain you to a tree, and you’re still going to rage and seethe. You are not giving up without a serious fight.

Start by forgiving yourself. Sure, it would’ve been nice to just say, “Whatever, that guy said I was fat, he’s a dick, I’ll shut up and go to my dad’s birthday party and ignore him.” If you had mentioned it to your mom and she had said, “Look, baby, I’m in a bind. He’s coming to the party and I hate that it’ll make you feel sick inside, but just ignore him and come and sit by me if you feel bad. I have to do this for your dad”? You would’ve made an adjustment. Instead, you used this jerk to wage a symbolic war against jerks, yes, but also to wage a war against your jerk parents, who are never ever willing to discuss your needs or feelings IN ANY CONTEXT. You used this dick as a match, to start a flame, because your mother never says, “Ugh, I know this is hard for you.” You are JUSTIFIABLY furious, because you never hear those words.

The problem with starting a fire, though, is that most people want to stamp it out. That’s why you hear “Your feelings don’t matter!” shouted by an angry mob. Some of those people were told their feelings don’t matter, too, so that’s become their mantra. Here’s the thing: Never ask a mob to hold court on your value.

That’s what we do, people like you and me. We put ourselves in that position over and over again. We ask strangers to hold court, to judge us. We ask friends to tell us the truth about what’s wrong with us. “Am I bad? Did I fuck up?” We put the question to the universe, because the people we really want to answer our question always have the same answer — YES, THIS MEANS YOU ARE BAD! — and that answer feels wrong to us, no matter how many times we hear it.

You’re not a bad person. You’re a kind, ethical person who is confused and upset and tired of being chained and drowned in a shark tank. You need help to get out of this trap. You need a great therapist and good friends who want to talk things out. You probably don’t have any really good friends yet, because you’ve always been afraid to tell people what you need, because you were told that your needs are unacceptable from your first day on earth. You probably don’t know much about being in love, either, because you don’t know how to show your feelings without feeling ashamed and embarrassed by them, because you were told from day one that feelings are shameful and you have no right to feelings anyway.

You have been fighting so hard for your right to have feelings, for so many years! I’ll bet you’re exhausted. Listen to me: You don’t have to fight anymore. It’s time to lay your weapons on the ground. You can surrender. You can lie down and say “I am weak. I need love. I need understanding.”

The crazy fucking thing is that when you surrender, when you lie down on the ground and refuse to fight, love appears. You can’t half-surrender, though. You can’t say, through gritted teeth, “I need love, Goddamn it!” You have to let go completely.

The bravest thing that any human has ever said is this: “I am fragile. I am afraid. I feel sad. I feel broken. I feel ashamed of how broken I am.” Strangely enough, this is how you grow into a towering, formidable force in the world. This is where you begin.

You are not bad, and you are not a pushover. You will learn to treat yourself with the care that someone as precious and gentle and good-hearted and sensitive as you deserves. You will learn to protect yourself by faking it with the people who can never tolerate how formidable you are. You will learn to be vulnerable and authentic with the people who know how incredibly courageous that is. You are impossibly strong and impossibly broken.

Show up and bite your tongue, or show up and sing, loud and strong and clear. You are powerful, and you get to choose. You don’t have to talk when you don’t feel like explaining yourself. You don’t have to ask permission. You don’t have to debate with anyone. You can simply make the call all by yourself, by trusting your heart. Never apologize for how you feel again. You own those feelings. They are precious. You have waited so patiently and fought so hard for those feelings to finally belong to you. Never let anyone tell you how to feel again.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: Am I Too Selfish?