Ask Polly: ‘I Have Everything I’ve Ever Wanted But I’m Still Unhappy’

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Dear Polly,

I am a 35-year-old woman with an ostensibly good life. I am conventionally attractive, well educated, from a racial background that does not get excessively discriminated against in my country, and from enough money that I have never known true deprivation. I have a well-paying job with benefits in a glamorous, creative industry that I worked my ass off to get after suddenly pivoting away from a more stable and lucrative career path in my mid-20s. I live with my boyfriend, a wickedly smart and enormously kind man who shares the same twisted sense of humor as mine and thinks the world of me. I’ve traveled around the world and managed to make friends everywhere I go. Even though I’m introverted and often feel awkward and unsure of myself in social situations, many people would say I’m funny and charming. I’ve found the courage and strength to break off toxic relationships that were not improving despite all my best efforts; chiefly, those with my mother and my ex-husband. I have done so, so much work to understand myself better and break unhealthy mind-sets and habits. I am finally at a place in my life where I can do almost anything I want to do, and yet …

I am unhappy. I do not feel the sense of grace and gratitude I want to. Instead, I am a dissatisfied ball of longing and anger, and then when the anger curdles, great sadness. I am creatively unfulfilled with the glamorous job and have had enough similar jobs to know that a job change may not really solve anything but simply be a trade of one set of problems for another set that is equally bad or worse. I think I want to have my own business but don’t know what kind of business, and after watching a lot of entrepreneurs around me, I worry that having a business will just make my life harder in a way I will come to regret. As I type this, my boyfriend is passed out on the couch after going to lunch with a friend who often encourages him to drink to inebriation and, despite promising me he would not, drank himself silly, drove home under the influence, and will likely not be in any condition to go with me to the concert I’ve been looking forward to all week later tonight. We almost never have sex, and he once told me that he doesn’t think I know how to love. When he is not drinking, which is the majority of the time, he is everything I want in a future partner. I badly want this relationship to work out, but feel like I am somehow fucking it up without knowing how. Most of my friends are marrying and having children and don’t have space for me in their lives much anymore. This makes me sad, but I feel like all I can do is accept it as an inevitability. And even though I know ending communication with my mother was the right thing for me, I grieve the deep family ties I will never have.

And writing all this out makes me feel like I am so whiny because I know there are many people whose lives are far, far worse than mine. I know in my brain I am a strong and smart woman who can tackle many challenges, but in my heart I feel weak and afraid. Why can’t I be happy with what I have, which is so much more than others have, or get my shit together enough to change? What is wrong with me?

Still Not Happy

Dear Still Not Happy,

You’re afraid to feel your feelings in the moment and to attach them directly to what’s happening in the moment. You save up all of your bad feelings instead, to keep things clean, to avoid sounding whiny, to avoid making a mess. But as a result you’re becoming, as you put it, “a dissatisfied ball of longing and anger.” You feel like your only choice is to eat every last bit of anger and sadness, along with every disappointment that pops up on any given day. You must make these things a part of you, so ONLY YOU will be to blame for everything wrong in your life. Your question isn’t “What should I do about my boyfriend’s recklessness and broken promises?” Your question isn’t “How can I cultivate grace and gratitude privately, no matter what’s happening with my job or my boyfriend?” Your question is “What is wrong with me?”

Even when you’re able to identify some sources of your unhappiness, you don’t zero in on any action you might take to change the course of what happens next. You and your boyfriend never have sex and he once said he doesn’t think you know how to love, but instead of landing, even privately, even in your letter to me, on something like MAYBE I JUST DON’T KNOW HOW TO LOVE A GUY I CAN’T TRUST TO KEEP HIS PROMISES, you instead call your boyfriend “enormously kind,” and say, “I badly want this relationship to work out, but feel like I am somehow fucking it up without knowing how.” Once again, your story is that you’re messing everything up. Conveniently enough, your boyfriend’s story is also that you’re messing everything up. You get along now because you share the same inaccurate story.

You don’t even say, “I’m going to try to wake him up, and if he doesn’t wake up, I’m going to go to this concert alone, damn it.” There are no half-measures with you. You can both go to the concert and be happy, or both stay home and be miserable. You want to stay together forever because he’s perfect when he’s not drunk, but when he drinks he seems to forget all about you and your needs. Likewise, the alternative to the glamorous job you don’t love is starting your own business and running it all by yourself. You either have to quit your job and do something that’s even more impressive and lucrative (start a business by yourself), or you have to keep your job and shut up about how bad it is, since other people have it so much worse.

You’re a classic self-blaming overachieving perfectionist. Everything is your fault and you’re responsible for fixing anything that’s wrong, but because everything has been your fault since the dawn of time, you no longer have the will to fix anything. You don’t even have the will to acknowledge that there are things OUTSIDE OF YOURSELF that need to be fixed. That’s too scary. That’s too complicated. You can’t imagine ending your current relationship or running a business by yourself because being a ball of anger and sadness is already so exhausting. It’s easier just to blame everything on yourself and pretend that all of these terrible problems live inside of you.

So this is where you land, after eating all of the pain and the anger and making it a part of you: The world is devoid of possibilities. The world is scary. You have no options. You can’t do anything. You just want this relationship to work. You just want to cling to this one thing you have.

You know in your brain that you’re strong and capable, but in your heart you feel weak and afraid. This is true because you’re good at shutting out your feelings and working hard — neglecting your heart and following your brain instead. You’ve always been able to do that. But now you have no idea how to live in reality, how to feel the current moment. I want you to know this one thing, even if you ignore everything else: Nothing will bring you more real satisfaction than learning how to live in reality and feel what you feel, good and bad, ugly and beautiful, without guilt and shame.

So here’s some reality for you: Your amazingly kind boyfriend not only broke his promise to you, he drove drunk on his way home. How often does he behave this way? Are you really anxious to commit to someone who drives drunk and then passes out and blows off plans you were looking forward to? Does it make sense for someone with your background to sign on to to someone with possible addiction issues? How is this a step forward? You worked so hard to break free of your ex-husband, and now you’re with someone who acts like a reckless dick but has the audacity to tell you that you’re the one who doesn’t know how to love?

People who act the way you’ve described your boyfriend acting don’t tend to get nicer and more responsible after you marry them. The people I know who married guys who drove home drunk, passed out on the couch, and blew off plans when they were still dating grew into husbands who lied repeatedly, remained unemployed for years, developed new addictions, and ignored the baby they were supposed to be watching. Yet somehow it was always the wives’ fault. These guys just couldn’t work, stay sober, do a little housework, or watch the kid because their wives weren’t loving enough or were too bossy or were fucking everything up somehow.

I don’t think your current picture improves until you make it clear what you will and won’t accept moving forward. What sucks is that the last thing you want is to live in reality. Because living in reality means acknowledging how intensely dissatisfying your life feels at the moment. You’re in this self-protective state, watching everything from behind a thick layer of glass.

Just know that a lot of smart, successful, charming human beings hit a similar wall around age 35. I’ve been there. You aren’t TOO angry or TOO sad. You aren’t incapable of loving. But you have to start feeling your feelings and standing up for yourself or this passive, unhappy state you’re in isn’t going to improve.

You’re an incredibly emotional person, and you need more, much more than what you’re getting right now. You need a boyfriend who commits, who lives in reality, who doesn’t drink recklessly when he knows it’s a problem for you. You need a job that you love. You probably also need a creative pursuit that you can explore in your free time that feels deeply satisfying to you. You need to tell your close friends that you don’t want them to fade out just because they’re married or have kids. And you also need to work harder to make new friends that you can lean on and trust.

Needing all of these things doesn’t make you a whiny loser. You need a lot. I do, too. There’s no value judgment to be made about that. It’s not your fault. That’s WHO YOU ARE. You are a lot, and you need a lot. It’s time to start admitting that to yourself.

So say it out loud. You need a lot. And as you slowly learn to welcome in your feelings, to live in reality, to stand in your apartment with your supposedly amazing boyfriend passed out on the couch, you will feel in your heart that you ARE brave enough to go out into the scary world and get everything that you need.

Sometimes we cling the most tightly to the very things that are making us sink like a stone. Open your eyes and look at what’s happening. When you live in reality, when you welcome in your feelings, even the most lonely, imperfect life starts to feel a million times more beautiful than the shiny, successful life that you can’t quite feel, that doesn’t touch you, that you can’t trust. You can’t really connect with your boyfriend because your heart knows that if you made yourself open and loving and vulnerable to him, he might eat you alive. He is not looking out for himself or for you. That needs to change quickly, or you need to move on without him.

It’s time to trust yourself instead of blaming yourself. Even if everything falls apart from this moment forward, if you let your feelings flow, if you allow yourself space to breathe, your life is going to feel so much better. But you have to accept the reality of who you are. You’re someone who wants to work very hard with whatever she has. That’s such a good thing, but sometimes you end up working hard without noticing that what you have isn’t working at all.

You have to figure out what you really want from your life. You have to face your truest desires without fear. Once you start asking yourself what you want without telling yourself you’re whiny just for asking, you’ll be a lot less fearful. Reality won’t feel as threatening. Maybe you’ll even want to be in touch with your mother in some capacity, because you’ll find a way to tolerate some contact without taking her attacks personally. I’m not telling you that you should do that. I’m just suggesting that everything that feels lost to you is not lost. You have choices. And even if you choose not to speak to her again, that choice will feel much more comfortable and right once you learn to trust yourself and stand up for yourself in all of your relationships.

Even though you feel very afraid and overwhelmed right now, you do have choices. Let your fear into the room with you. Let your sadness into the room. Let your anger in. Breathe in this vulnerable moment. This is reality, and it’s more beautiful than anything that came before it. You can live here. You’re strong enough now.

Polly

Order the 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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‘I Have Everything I’ve Ever Wanted But I’m Still Unhappy’