Ask Polly: When Will I Feel Worthy?

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Dear Polly,

I’m writing you from a far-off land known as a personal journey. I started going to therapy about a year and a half ago as a way to really work on myself, and for the most part it’s helping. I am definitely more self-aware of my emotions and I’m coming to understand a lot about who I am. But I’m terrible when it comes to challenging my own inner critic (who makes Regina George from Mean Girls look like Mother Teresa).

I’ve always operated from a place of self-loathing. Sometimes it’s dull, just simmering there waiting to come out at a party or during a work meeting. Other times, like when a guy cancels a date or ghosts me, it bubbles over like lava and consumes every part of me. I sob because I feel so unlovable or incompetent. I tell myself that it makes sense that I didn’t get that promotion or that third date — because why on earth would I get it over someone else?

I also feel this mindset seeping into my other social connections. Recently several of my friends got into relationships. Of course I’m super-happy for them, but I’m also starting to pull away from them too. If one of them has plans with their significant other later in the evening after we’re supposed to hang out, I tell them to just hang out with their SO and forget about me. If another wants to invite their partner to hang out with us, I internalize it as this confirmation that I’m not enough to hang out with solo. And on top of all of that, because I am single, I see my friends’ success in relationships and my lack thereof as an indication that I’m missing something. Something about me is not good enough to date. Or even just hang out with.

I think the worst part of all of this is that it’s coming from my own mind. I want to see myself the way my friends and family tell me they see me: A 20-something woman who made it in NYC all by her damn self, has a great job, and is a kind and beautiful person. I’m desperate for a breakthrough. Some sort of epiphany that washes over me and says, Aha! Now you finally get it. Now you finally understand how much you have to offer.

When will I actually start feeling worthy of love and validation from men, from my career, from my friends, and, most importantly, from myself? I know that I am worthy of it — I just don’t believe it. I don’t feel it. It doesn’t sit with me comfortably. And it’s starting to feel like this journey I’ve embarked on is more of a failed mission.

Sincerely,

Wanting to Feel Worthy

Dear WTFW,

In order to feel worthy, you have to feel, period. Feel what you feel first, without interpretation. Right now, your interpretations are taking over the whole picture. For example: (1) A guy ghosts you. (2) You feel disappointed. (3) You think, This proves that I am unlovable and incompetent. (4) You sob and feel terrible over how unlovable and incompetent you are. Whenever you feel sad or disappointed or angry, your brain steps in and tells you that it’s your fault. Emotions are bad. Emotions mean that you’re messing up.

Somehow, the rest of the world makes sense, but you don’t. This worthy guy very logically disappeared because you are unlovable. He made a rational decision. You feel bad, you hate yourself for feeling bad, and you tell yourself that you’re destined to feel bad forever because you’re unworthy and weak and doomed to be rejected over and over again. Likewise with your friends: You need to step out of the way and let them enjoy their time together. You’ll only make things bad for them. Instead of thinking, Jesus, I’m valued enough that these two people want to spend time with me, you think, They’re just doing me a favor because I’m a loser. They should just cut me out. That’s the only rational thing to do, since I’m unlovable.

When you’re inventing such extreme interpretations, when you give yourself shit just for existing, when you tell yourself that you’re a blight on the face of the earth and everyone would be better off without you, it’s natural that you’d grow to hate your feelings. Eventually, it’s not just the feelings you have to fear, it’s the miserable interpretation and the self-hatred that accompany them.

As someone who spent the first three decades of her life treating every so-called negative emotion as a kind of moral failure, I fall into the same bad habits occasionally. When I feel down, it makes me angry at myself. I’m supposed to be balanced and happy! Some ancient scroll tucked in the dusty recesses of my brain tells me that my sadness and my anger are part of what makes me broken, a mutant, less capable than others, less generous and good than others. People will need to work around me, because I am too damaged just to be happy. Maybe I deserve to be accommodated, thanks to some other qualities, but it’s a pretty enormous inconvenience. It’s a damn shame I’m not stronger. It’s a damn shame I insist on inflicting my shitty emotions on the world. It’s a shame I’m so weak.

When I hear that, I feel broken. But these days, even when I feel broken, I still feel worthy, because I have faith in what comes next: I’m going to listen to these sounds, watch these images play out, sink into these feelings, and create something out of it all. I might be imperfect and inadequate (as all human beings are), but I’m going to cobble together my vulnerable, lost, broken parts into a giant junk robot and I’m going to FUCK SHIT UP WITH IT.

Feelings are scary, but if you stay vulnerable to them, if you refuse to apply the same old nonsensical stories to them (I feel feelings, therefore I am unlovable, therefore no one wants me around), if you reject those stories outright (which includes rejecting people who tell you those stories), if you tell new, powerful, brilliant, exciting stories about what it means to feel and what you can build from feelings, then … well, then you get to be a formidable motherfucking junk robot who roams the earth, busting heads and singing loud robot songs and kicking bitchy junkyard robot ass in general.

Feelings are your portal out of the ordinary, scared, fearful world. Yes, that sounds nonsensical! How could FEAR be the answer to FEAR? You have to let your feelings exist without judgment. Let your feelings show you what they want to show you without pushing them away or stopping short at because you’re a loser or because you’re weak. Be patient with yourself, and your feelings will point you back out to the world, to new ideas, to new principles, to new adventures.

Feeling worthless is a sure path into a cave, a cave where you can feel sorry for yourself. Everyone gets pushed away. You’re not good enough for them, yes, but they’re also not good enough for you, right? There’s a comfortable superiority afforded by not staying open to other people’s generosity with you. If you stayed open and showed up to hang out with your friend and her boyfriend, you’d have to tolerate being a third wheel. You’d have to tolerate being less valued than your friend by the boyfriend. You’d have to tolerate their comfort and love for each other. You’d have to feel vulnerable with witnesses. You’d have to be patient with them and patient with yourself.

Ask more from yourself. That’s how you grow. Instead of hiding, do things that require more of you — even though you feel like doing less. Tolerate your own ambivalence. Tolerate the ambivalence of friends and strangers. Let them show you what’s in their hearts. Tolerate it when they don’t.

When you use your thoughts to push your feelings away over and over, you teach yourself that the only safe place is the isolated, lonely place where you are at the center, the terrible, unlovable queen of reality. You are sad and angry, but you’re still fighting what’s there. Your thoughts are racing. You’re not at peace with who you are and what you’re feeling. You’re still trying to think your way into a safer place, but it’s not working. You just feel isolated and pissed off at yourself and everyone else.

When you feel your feelings instead of always getting defensive and self-defeating and self-diminishing, you teach yourself to be patient with the world as it is instead of trying to keep yourself removed from it because it’s too good/not good enough for you. That inferiority/superiority complex is so real. When you reject the world out of defensiveness, you’re nothing but you’re also everything, because you won’t let anyone in. You become the center of everything. When you accept the world as it is and don’t allow your shame to make every single bit of stimuli a verdict on your value as a person, you are just another human being on the face of the planet. You are neither nothing nor everything. There is room for other people. There is room to be big and dangerous. There is also room to be generous, to be brave, to make the world a better place.

Staying trapped in some perpetual referendum on your own value is the ultimate self-centered act. When you let the world in, and allow your feelings to give you power instead of enfeebling you with old stories, you don’t need anyone to tell you that you are worthy. You simply feel worthy.

Dare to take yourself seriously. Dare to build something gorgeous and formidable out of feelings that the world told you were worthless. Strive for more connection and less living alone in a bubble of weird little microchallenges.

Everyone feels worthless now and then. Let it be. At some point, I had to admit that I was going to relapse forever. I was going to go back to feeling weak and damaged regularly. Once I accepted that, things improved, because I wasn’t placing my damage at the center of everything and using it to explain every situation I couldn’t tolerate.

I learned to tolerate how I am in the world, the noises in my head, the longing in my heart. I learned to tell new stories about it. The old stories still come back when shit gets dark, mind you. I feel anxious and weak sometimes. The difference is, when it comes to a head, when I’m crying, when I’m shutting people out, there is a breaking point. At that point, instead of believing, Now it’s all over. Now everyone will reject me. Now I’ve proven, once and for all, that I’m worthless, what I feel, in my heart, is a weird sense of possibility. This is the bottom. I’m in the junkyard now. I know that all I can do is start bolting shit together. I am going to have to work harder. I am turning a corner. I am about to fuck shit up.

Stop fighting and work with what you have, even when it looks worthless to you. You are just another person. You are not at the center of everything. Thank God! Because the center of everything is a lonely place, a place where you either have to be everything or nothing at all.

Happiness is knowing what you have to offer. You don’t need someone outside of you to tell you what you have to offer. You don’t need love and validation in order to know your path. You aren’t missing a piece. This collapsed, rusted-out place where you are right now is beautiful. You are surrounded by your broken, dented, fucked-up gifts. Nothing is perfect. Do what you can with what you have. Build something out of this precious junk. Build something ugly and frightening and divine.

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 appears here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: When Will I Feel Worthy?