ask pollypalooza

Ask Polly: Do People Ever Really Escape Their Dysfunctional Families?

Photo: Ioannis Tsotras/Getty Images

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

It’s Ask Pollypalooza: In honor of the paperback release of How to Be a Person in the World, the Cut brings you a new Ask Polly column every day this week.

Dear Polly,

I’m a student in my late 20s. My question is simple and not simple. I guess the relatively straightforward version is: Are we ever able to transcend the dysfunctional patterns and behaviors established in our childhood?

The not-so-straightforward version: I grew up in a small, conservative, overwhelmingly Evangelical Christian town. My parents were pretty controlling. Partially because we lived in such an insulated environment, and partially because their professions relied on other people viewing them favorably, I was taught — in both subtle and more obvious ways — to subvert my feelings and desires if they appeared to conflict with the feelings, desires, or expectations of others. I remember standing with my father in church one day when a boy my age came up and slapped me (sort of hard) across the face; my father just stood there. Later, he told me it was hard for him to restrain himself. He’s deceased now, but I still want to scream at him, “Why the fuck didn’t you protect me? Why the fuck didn’t you stand up for me? Why couldn’t you let me be myself: a weird and complicated and messy person? Why did we always have to care so goddamn much about what other people thought?”

I still really struggle with this, even though my father has been dead for several years now. I struggle with letting myself be who I am unapologetically. Typing this feels like I’m whining, but the truth is that I continue to feel really suffocated and haunted by the male figures from my childhood and adolescence. The lessons my parents taught me about putting others’ expectations first led to some toxic and mildly traumatic romantic relationships. I struggle to ask for what I want or need without feeling selfish or high maintenance. When I once tried to have an emotionally heavy yet calm and reasonable discussion with an ex-boyfriend about how I felt during our relationship (mostly hurt by his cheating), I was told I was addicted to conflict. I often feel gaslighted in my relationships with men: Am I asking for too much? Am I secretly a leech who sucks the joy and energy and spontaneity out of other people when I state how I feel? I feel like the more I try to be a calm, rational, compassionate adult, the more I’m told how ridiculous and suffocating I am.

I haven’t been in a relationship for a long time, and I’m trying to be okay with that. I try to eat healthy and exercise; I see a therapist. But I’m upset with myself for wanting things like a partner or children; I feel like I should just be happy with where I am right now. (I should add that my childhood friends are all married and/or engaged with children.) How do I break this cycle?

Thank you for reading this.

Stuck and Uncertain

Dear Stuck and Uncertain,

I love your letter, because it points directly to the heart of what so many sensitive people from difficult families who struggle with relationships wonder: Am I asking for too much? The big problem of asking if you’re asking for too much is that most people will automatically tell you, “Yes, you’re probably asking for too much.” But that’s because a lot of people don’t require quite as much as a sensitive person from a difficult family does. Sensitive, formerly dysfunctional people need to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we’re not just being strong-armed or manipulated or used or treated like a sex doll or ignored or condescended to. So we do ask for a lot. And we ask a lot of questions. We freak out easily. When we freak out, we don’t always express ourselves without overdoing it. Or we’re defensive. Or we clam up until it’s too late and then get more angry than perhaps seems appropriate for the situation. It’s funny that you sign off as “Uncertain” because we sensitive, emotional people with dysfunctional backgrounds spend a lot of our lives feeling uncertain about pretty much every social interaction we have.

I don’t love calling that uncertainty “insecurity,” because that’s often the reductive answer offered up by people who are skilled at the American flavor of bullshitty confidence that lands you jobs and sexual partners (and sometimes, frankly, a lifetime of feeling slightly dissatisfied and angry but not quite knowing why). And we sensitive disordered types who think and feel way too much (by societal standards, which, whatever, fuck off) have certain varieties of swagger and bluster that these shallow-by-choice bullshitters tend to lack. We often have rich imaginations. We drag around with us lush emotional landscapes that, if we’re forgiving ourselves enough, flow forth and bring the people around us untold gifts of insight and thoughtful digressions and brilliant, unusual angles on the world. As I used to say, back when I felt the need to market myself around the clock to the men I was dating (because I was very uncertain), “I have some flaws, but I am definitely not boring.” I didn’t mean that I was unpredictable and scary. I meant that every new day brought me new surprises and new ideas. I was born to write, and discuss, and debate. This makes me very popular among people who love talking about ideas, and very unpopular among people who don’t like women who say opinionated shit without apologizing for it.

But I am still sometimes uncertain. Why? Because we live in a culture where many people are not just suspicious of complexity but are, often, actively repulsed by it. REPULSED. And yes, part of the problem is that I still, in spite of my best intentions, have to ask other people to tell me how a regular human should react in some situations, because I am pretty fucking sure I’ll mangle it. That’s one of the costs of being an emotional weirdo who’s moody and intense. It’s not that I don’t have days when I’m just casually coloring within the lines of social expectations without thinking much about it. It’s that I also have days when I am blindfolded in the desert. And when I feel that way, I feel uncertain. And I admit that I feel weird. And I think carefully about how to respond, or I hold back a little, or I just dive in and mangle away and then regret it afterward. But what I mostly do better than ever is this: I consider the consequences. I can consider the consequences because I want to protect myself from bad situations.

So. That probably sounds terrible. It probably sounds like the real answer I’m giving you is that people from dysfunctional families never really get better. And in some ways, it’s undeniably true that some of our essential traits never change. But mostly what I’m saying is that we simply are who we are. We do our absolute best and we still fuck up, but our absolute best gets better and better, because we try to slow down and think and feel and understand what worked before and what didn’t work. We also have to — often! — remind ourselves of what we deserve. We have to remind ourselves that we deserve to be with partners who love complexity and ideas and emotions as much as we do. And we have to remind ourselves to stop trying so goddamn hard to please people who just do not like emotional complexity and never will.

So, are you a mess? Maybe you are. It is not at all uncommon for someone with your family background to be a big mess in her late 20s. Are you asking for too much? Maybe you are, for now. But the only way forward from where you are, as far as I know it, is to persist in asking for everything you want. You will do this because you are certain of one thing: You’re worth it. So you need to be certain that you’re worth it.

What makes you worth it? It’s not just your big ideas and your big emotions and the fact that you’ll never be boring that makes you worth it. What makes you worth it is the fact that you struggle so much. Struggling like crazy makes you fair, and generous, and kind, and grateful. Struggling makes you look closely at yourself, every day. You interrogate your motives.
You want to honor the other person. You want to give that person the benefit of the doubt. You are a deeply ethical person with others, because you don’t want to deny other people what they deserve.

But these very ethical traits also make you a potential doormat. They also make you willing to settle for tepid assholes who just like the fact that you have a nice ass and who merely want to keep fucking you until something better wanders along. Seriously. They also make you deny yourself what YOU need. So even though, sure, you ask for a lot (but in a wavering, uncertain voice!) and talk too much (about what you deserve, without ever drawing a line or walking out the door!), even though you seem bossy and self-involved from some angles, the truth is that you fold too easily, you’re too giving, you’re too interested in disappearing the way you did when your dad chose not to see you, because seeing you would mean doing the very uncomfortable work of protecting you.

God, that makes me sad! I know it makes you so heartbroken, too. I am right there with you, okay? It’s so fucking sad to grow up feeling invisible, feeling like you don’t matter. But the only way out of that trap is to resolve to spend time with people who see you clearly.

Now we come to the tough part: Once you decide to only spend time with people who see you clearly and care and want all of what you have to offer? You have to tolerate those people. You have to tolerate feeling like you’re a wolf who went to go live with the bunny rabbits. Are these people weak for seeing you? Are they pathetic for caring? Aren’t the bullshitters who were grossed out by your complexity more attractive, more carefree, sexier? They aren’t. And you’ll know that you’re about to experience a mind-bending change in your life when you finally look at the bullshitters without your sad filters and you can finally see, with certainty, that they are not sexy and are in fact running scared from themselves.

Last night, I watched La La Land for the first time. This is a movie I should love. It’s a musical, it’s romantic, it’s about love and following your dreams, it’s nostalgic! But the worldview of that movie, to me, is the worldview of a macho bullshitter whose central good idea was that jazz and freewheeling creativity and true love and old movies and starry skies and dancing in the streets and following your muse are the only things worth living for. Now that sounds pretty great, right? Those things are amazing! But this movie doesn’t understand what those things are actually made of, how they’re formed, how messy and scary and vulnerable they are. This movie makes those things seem clean, like a stack of cash. Ironically, all the protagonist (Ryan Gosling’s character) knows is that those things HAVE SOUL.
But he doesn’t have soul! He can channel some soul through his music, but he otherwise has nothing original or thoughtful or jagged or strange or witty to say. His love interest (Emma Stone) is not the protagonist, of course; she’s just a charming, vulnerable lady-shaped entity who knows how to cry on command. We watch Gosling play the goddamn piano over and over, but we don’t even see a second of Stone’s one-woman show! We know she wants a career as an actor, of course, but the one time she makes herself heard in any meaningful way (incoherently, of course) our hero says, “Back off, lady!” This is a movie that is repulsed by complexity. This is a movie written from the perspective of someone stupid enough to believe that IN THE OLD DAYS, THINGS WERE SIMPLER! And also SOUL IS EVERYTHING. But these characters are too fucking shallow to actually conjure real SOUL, because they don’t know or trust themselves. They never ask for too much from each other! They hate messes! They hate struggle! They just dance sweetly and kiss! It’s so clean and pretty! But soul is not clean. The closest these fuckers can come to soul is when they see an old movie or visit the goddamn Griffith Observatory.

And also, there are like two songs that repeat over and over and the lines are all “starry skies, dreamy dreams”? It’s a simple dude’s vision of what’s cool, with no layers underneath. It’s so fitting that Rebel Without a Cause is the movie they see. IDEALISTS ARE TOO PURE FOR THIS WORLD, DUDE. And then of course, the one true love who mattered is the one who you never really knew at all, not the guy who’s raising your baby with you.

What’s gorgeous and perfect is that this is the real, unintended moral of La La Land: This is what you get when you bullshit. You are haunted by the notion that you never really asked for enough. And you know what? I say fuck that. I say keep asking for too much. Because some day, you’ll get it.

And when you do get it, you’ll know better to believe that your Happily Ever After will be pure smooth sailing from there. You will feel terrified and electric and happier than ever, and you’ll also feel worried and vulnerable and conflicted, like the people dancing in the middle of traffic in the first and best scene in La La Land. That’s what actually embracing your complexity and having a little soul feels like. It’s not like dancing among the stars. It’s like dancing in traffic.

That’s also the simple answer to your letter (and it’s the gift of being you): Your struggle never ends. Accepting that will make you happier. Accepting that may just be the key to all happiness.


Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

All letters to become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

Ask Polly: Do People Ever Escape Their Dysfunctional Pasts?