Ask Polly: Am I Too Uptight?

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Dear Polly,

A lot of your writing deals with owning who you are — even reveling in it — rather than allowing other people to stomp out your personal “magic” or make you feel small because your worldview (and way of living in the world) is different from theirs. But I also know you’re an advocate for making personal changes when necessary, especially if the end result will make that person happier or, at least, less miserable/conflicted.

My question for you is how do you know where to draw the line between behavioral changes you probably should make for your own sake and changes you’re making solely to be accepted by other people (that will inevitably quash some of that so-called magic)?

Here’s a recent example. I met a guy last weekend while out at a bar and had instant chemistry with him. Not only did he seem very interested in me, but he was super-attentive toward the sister and friend I was with (behavior that is more rare than it should be these days). I was a few drinks in, in good spirits and very relaxed, so we had a great night, kissed a bit, and rode the subway home together, having made plans to get dinner this week.

The thing is, I’ve had supposedly great nights like this many times with guys who simply disappear the next day or fade away quickly, so I don’t put much stock in them anymore in order to protect myself. Perhaps because he’s older than most of the guys I date, or just genuinely likes me for once, this guy did not fade away, texting me every day and following through with our dinner plans. He even called me (CALLED ME — me, a phone-averse millennial) to confirm details before, and the conversation was so easy and normal that I wanted to vomit a little afterward (“Might this be something?”)

Cue the date. The first half-hour was weirdly tense, missing that relaxed vibe from the weekend prior. A lot of his personal ticks bothered me — he was too chatty with the waiters, seemed to think he was very funny, etc. In my brain I immediately went to “Okay, this is definitely not something” mode, and I’m sure it showed. He even told me later in the night, when things had warmed between us, that he thought I was more uptight than last time. It stung.

Why? Uptight is a word my parents have been flinging in my direction forever. They’re not wrong — I am uptight. It’s tough for me to really relax (making last weekend an anomaly of sorts), to stop overthinking everything, and to curb my endless worries. I’m 25 going on 45 (ironically, this guy is 46) — wanting to go home earlier than all my friends most nights, not wanting to drink every night, obsessing over what I eat and how often I work out (the residue of past anorexia — but that’s for another time). Some of this is because I know I can’t function living the lifestyle some of my peers do — I always get a hangover when I drink, I can barely get through the work day while hungover, and I crave alone time to replenish both my energy and spirit. The rest of it stems from, I guess, some combination of self-loathing and a need to control everything as a salve. So I’m not a ball of fun, but I do have my moments.

I felt like this guy really saw me — he pointed out my combination of arrogance (i.e., pride in superficial things like running seven miles regularly) and insecurity (i.e., how much it hurt me when he called me uptight). He called me out for being uptight, but he did it in a way that (in hindsight at least) wasn’t a diss, though it was wrapped in the suggestion that lightening up might not be the worst idea.

And that’s where I’m stuck. Should I lighten up? And, if so, how much? My closest friends and family know all of these things about me and seem to appreciate me anyway. My family knows I will always shorten my vacations with them to survive (missing my routines and alone time). My best friends know I’m not usually the girl to call when they want to party ’til 3 a.m. or dig into an endless feast of fast food. I sometimes wish I could be, but I’ve mostly come to terms with the fact that I can’t … until now. So I’m asking you to help me parse if this is just me being stubborn, and holding myself back, or if I should resign myself to these quirks once and for all (and just hope that enough people will like me anyway).

Love,

Tightly Wound

Dear Tightly Wound,

Trying to balance what the world wants from you against what you want for yourself is a truly formidable, lifelong challenge. And honestly, most people don’t see themselves clearly enough at age 25 to even try it. Moreover, high-strung people who deal with their worries and stress by carefully controlling their lives are some of the least likely people to look closely at their behavior and adjust it. After all, what could cause you more anxiety than recognizing that there’s something off-kilter about how you encounter and manage your world? What could be worse for someone who prefers to feel like she’s in control than noticing that the very things that seem to keep her sane are the things many people would like to change about her?

So it’s not easy. And because you’re smart and it sounds like you’re pretty assertive about your opinions and needs, I want to tell you that merely being a smart, assertive, young woman who knows what works for her and what doesn’t can be a fucking shit show. People expect 20-something women to be malleable, to go with the flow, to keep their more aggressive opinions to themselves. Even now, at age 46, other people sometimes encounter the things I love the most about myself as liabilities, if not outright offenses. But there’s a lot of stupid out there, man. A LOT of stupid. There’s a lot of aggressive ineptitude. And even though I’ve made it my policy to play nicely with others and to shut the fuck up about the stupid I see in the world as much as I possibly can, every now and then I say to myself, THIS WILL NOT STAND.

I have to admit I kind of enjoy it. I enjoy training my focus on problematic shit that falls into my path. There are just so many fucked-up things! And when one of them is in my cross-hairs, I get a kind of laser-focus. I unpack my adjectives. A little voice in my head says, “Comin’ in hot, Striker!,” but I can’t hold back, because another little voice in my head is saying, “Yes. Bring that nugget of stupid to its FUCKING KNEES, woman.”

That doesn’t mean we can ignore what happens next: Stupid wobbles to its feet, dusts its knees off, and vows to make me a lifelong enemy. Stupid is insecure that way, because it might be stupid but it’s sometimes just smart enough to suspect how stupid it is (though admittedly there are deeper shades of stupid that can’t even manage that). Sure, you can try to backtrack a little, to appease stupid, but you’re not going to get back into stupid’s good graces after you grind stupid’s face into the carpet and make it say “Uncle.” Stupid isn’t flexible, see? Stupid doesn’t forgive or forget. Stupid doesn’t put on its big-boy pants and call a truce. Stupid always wants your fucking head on a stake.

Stupid is adaptive, too. It knows how to circle the horses. Horses will circle for stupid, because horses are jumpy and easily spooked. Horses might secretly want to bring stupid to heel, too, but horses are fucking high-strung and they worry and they don’t want to cause a stir. They have a strong instinct for self-preservation.

Sadly, the world is populated by a lot of stupids with giant teams of jumpy horses. The horses are smart enough to know better, but they’re too chickenshit to change a thing. They preserve the status quo at all costs, just to make sure there’s some grain in their goddamn feed sacks. “GROW A SACK!” you want to say to the horses, for using all of their wild strength just to circle a bunch of fucking wagons pointlessly, over and over again, just to protect stupid.

Even though it seems like I’m pretty goddamn far afield of your question by now, I’m really not. Because sometimes, even though you’re just doing what you do, the fallout can be enormous. Going against the grain, even when the grain is stupid, can be anxiety-inducing. You have to consider that. Sometimes you have to decide whether you want to be a stupid, a horse, or a really angry motherfucker ready to scalp the sad sacks of the world at a moment’s notice. It might be hard to restrain yourself sometimes, because let’s not mince words: There’s nothing quite like riding down the prairie with a fresh scalp in your hand, knowing you not only showed stupid its true weak, pathetic nature in front of all of its stupid friends (and its horses, who are openly envious of your horse, which is superior in every way because it’s fighting the good fight AND it gets to wear ribbons in its fucking hair like a fucking boss).

But there’s also kind of a hangover to being aggressive and outspoken. Hell, there can be a hangover to just being who you are and doing what you do, even when it’s totally innocuous and harmless, if it’s not in step with what other people are doing. Sometimes there’s a voice in your head that says, “Don’t you have enough already? Why do you have to wave your freak flag or flaunt your sharp blades, just because you have them and lots of other people don’t? Why can’t you be more gentle and generous? Why do you have to sing your full-throated battle cry when you could just say your piece calmly and then ride off into the sunset with quiet dignity?”

So. Even though it seems right to call out stupid wherever it lies, time after time I discover it’s not the best choice for me. My temperament doesn’t tolerate gazing upon that scalp collection, after the fact. I can use my scalping blade to cut paper snowflakes instead. Even if I won’t circle the wagons for stupid, I can at least let stupid maintain its dignity. After all, there’s just So. Much. Stupid. out there. We all know it. Are we going to rage a war against all of the stupid? That seems like a hard life. I guess I admire the sorts of people who can pull it off, but that’s not really my thing these days, at least not most of the time. And I know that even though I’m good at scalping, indulging it too often makes me feel uneasy.

Here’s my feeling about this 45-year-old guy who called you uptight: Even if he’s right, he shouldn’t be throwing that word around on date No. 2, as if you’re supposed to quickly adjust your personality to fit his preferences. Maybe he did it gently, but naw, I don’t like it. Moreover, observing that someone is a mix of arrogance and insecurity is super-basic for a 40-something. That’s no great insight into humanity. By the time you’re my age, half of the people you know are arrogant yet insecure. Big fucking deal. He himself was (1) insecure enough about the fact that you found his Old Guy Jokes cheesy that he had to turn around and (2) arrogantly call you uptight just to soothe his tiny little ego. He wants to be the sexy older man who knows everything, not the crusty old fucker who’s deeply uncool. And who can blame him? Also, to be clear, I like yappy banter and bad jokes just fine. But clearly you don’t. Maybe you partially don’t like them because they remind you of the generation gap between the two of you. When I was 30 and dating a 41-year-old, I cringed at half the shit he said, partially because it was just so BOOMERY. I felt like I was practically fucking one of my parents’ friends, and that was Not Sexy.

My guess is that you loved the attention this guy paid to you, but you didn’t necessarily like HIM all that much. Letting him wriggle his way into your pants just by putting you down is no way forward. That is the path of the weak. Don’t do it! In retrospect, my older boyfriend also got into my pants by seeming “mature” and “intense” and acting like he could see right through me. That seemed intriguing, until I realized that he was farsighted as fuck.

So even though normally I’d say, “Give a cheesy joker a shot,” I want to urge you to look for guys who pay close attention to you and are also within a decade of your age. They do exist! High-strung women are easily seduced by old-guy arrogance, because old-guy arrogance says, “Take your mind off yourself and please me. I will make sure you are never quite good enough, therefore I will serve as the ultimate distraction from the hell of your jittery self-consciousness and self-doubt.”

Don’t fall for that shit! That’s like following stupid out onto the prairie in a covered wagon, just because he said there’s gold in them thar hills. I know you like an adventure, but you will lose your fucking scalp. You’re too smart for that.

And I do think you need to practice letting go of control a little. Taking care of yourself is so important. Don’t stop doing that. Standing up for yourself is good. But what I’’m hearing from you is, “I don’t always know if my controlling ways benefit me.” and also “People — even relative strangers — can see clearly that I am high-strung, and that pisses me off and makes me doubt myself.” Even though your being bothered by this feedback is itself an outcropping of your need for control, the fact remains that you don’t like this feeling. You feel haunted by his words. That tells you something.

So this is how you balance your magical, real, flawed self against a world of stupids who sometimes seem to want you to put your magic under a bushel: You ask yourself how it feels. How does it feel to leave your family vacations early? What if you experiment with staying one more day but also trying to get more alone time while you’re on vacation? How does it feel to be a little less careful about your diet than you usually are? How does it feel to go with the flow at a time when you’d normally protect yourself from the noise in your head that kicks up when you don’t know what’s going to happen next? What if, instead of telling the same story about what you can and can’t tolerate — which, in my observations, can harden into a pretty rigid way of life among the high-strung — you told yourself a new story, one that says, “Maybe I’m changing a little, evolving. Maybe I can handle more than I think I can.”

I’m not going to talk about anxiety meds because something tells me that, given your openness about your anxiety, you’ve considered them or you’re on them or you have some experience with them one way or another. And I want you to know that only YOU know how anxious you are and how debilitating it is, and nothing I write here should be misread as “Oh whatever, it’’s all in your head, chill out, think less, relax already!” No way.

I also don’t think that acting kind of flat on that date because you weren’t completely digging that guy was any reflection of uptight-ness on your part. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not sensitive about that word, uptight, for a good reason, one that might point to ways you really want to grow and challenge yourself moving forward.

And I have to tell you this: The people I know who’ve made their lives smaller and cleaner and more controlled and more predictable — myself included! — have not always benefited from that. Maybe in some cases I have no idea how much more fucked they’d be if they exerted less control over every single dimension of their lives. But a close relative of mine is going through a health crisis and I’m really seeing the perils of complete, unflagging control close-up right now. I’m seeing how the smallest curveball sets his head spinning. He never defined himself as anxious, and now he’s trying to think his way to a solution and it’s only making things worse, because for the first time in his life, nothing is certain. His complete inability to be led, to let go, to trust other people, to listen to a new plan, is adding panic attacks to an already trying situation. I’m not saying I’d handle any of it any better than he does, mind you. But it’s clear that he doesn’t believe he is worthy unless he is in complete control, and that belief is hurting him right now. So the people around him, because we love him, are now forced to confront him (gently!) and urge him to try some things he never in a million years wanted to try before. I mean, this is a guy who thinks using valet parking is PURE MADNESS BECAUSE SOMEONE ELSE DRIVING YOUR CAR WHAT HOW THAT’S NUTS.

You can structure your world however you like. But I would urge you to interrogate the things you do to keep the world OUT. I would urge you to watch when your aggression acts as a salve, a way of grabbing the fucking tiller instead of enjoying the ride. I would urge you to watch when you toggle between total control and wanting to be led by some parental figure like a tiny, helpless baby. I would urge you to envision yourself fucking up all of the things you have always been afraid of fucking up. Picture yourself becoming the so-called worst version of you: You are overweight. You are not successful. You are poor. You are alone. I would encourage you to imagine that chubby lonely poor woman as the most wonderful, loving, magical soul there is. She has a brilliant, worthy heart, and she knows how to breathe in each new day. Maybe she’s even happier than you are now. Challenge some of your assumptions about what happiness is made of, what it looks like, what it sounds like.

Don’t live in a sterile bubble where everything is calibrated to keep you safe and perfect. Don’t set out on a hunt for stupid, determined to bring stupid to its fucking knees. Above all, don’t become stupid’s jittery, jumpy beast of burden just because it’s better than living in your own head. Follow your feelings to a new land. You are loved and lovable and you are still evolving. You can make a choice and change your mind and make a different choice. Don’t push yourself to evolve and grow just to please some watchful judge who calls you “good” or “bad” and expects you to be the same person day after day without fail. You will be many different people along the way. Push yourself to evolve because it feels right. Feel your way to what works for you. Notice when you feel calm and confident. Notice when you’re trying too hard to win back approval that’s already been rescinded.

Clean and sharpen your blades just in case, but respect how sharp they are. Don’t bring a scalpel to a picnic. Play along when that’s more relaxing. Shut the fuck up when that’s more relaxing. Remember to enjoy yourself. Learn how to do that. Learn how to serve yourself while also being generous to others. Remember that you have nothing to prove. Remember that silence speaks volumes, and sometimes watching stupid walk away can be the most satisfying feeling of all.

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 Uptight?