Ask Polly: ‘I Moved Back Home and No One Else Is Single!’

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Dear Polly,

I moved back to Texas after ten years in New York City. Although life is much easier now, there’s something gnawing at me I can’t shake. I’m a 34-year-old single woman who is career focused, creative, extremely independent, funny, attractive, etc. BUT I can’t keep a man and the locals won’t let me forget it!

I’m a brassy broad; I drink too much, I curse, I say what’s on my mind. I could get away with that behavior in the big city because everyone was like that. But these Texas folks are different. They seem to be intimidated by outspoken, ambitious women. My contemporaries also settled for the kids/husband/house/car lifestyle in their early 20s, so we don’t have much in common. I don’t have any of those adult-y things and didn’t care about having them before I moved home. Now I desperately want them!

The thing that really bothers me is how people treat me like I’m a sideshow freak for being single. They make these little comments about my solo status that, I’m loathe to admit, make me feel incredibly insecure. In NY, most of my friends didn’t have a partner. But here, I don’t know any singles. Life passed me by while I serial dated and goofed around, and now I’m paying for it. I’m completely hyperfocused on the fact I’m alone. I’m terrified that everyone here thinks something is wrong with me or they suspect I’m a closeted gay person or a slut. I know I should just live my life and not care, but I can’t stand feeling misunderstood. It’s gotten to the point where I avoid social interactions just so I don’t have to field the questions.

I want to scream at these people that I’m trying the goddamn best I can! It’s really fucking hard dating in your mid-30s. The men here are repelled by me. I’ve had a lot of bad romantic experiences in the past. Nothing has stuck. Now I’m so scared I’ll be the town pariah if I never find anyone that it’s making me depressed and paranoid.

I see a great therapist about this. But I want stop giving a shit about what these people think. Part of me is craving to assimilate. I used to be such a badass rebel who enjoyed being the misfit. Now I’m the local oddball and I hate it. Is there something I can do to make this deep insecurity go away? How can I stop feeling like a broken, unlovable loser? It’s exhausting.

Rebel Without a Man

Dear Rebel Without a Man,

First of all, you should drink less. This is advice I almost never give, since I love to drink myself. But when you enter a brand-new, unexpectedly insecure era, drinking unsteadies your whole ship. You go out on the town and start talking too much about how IT’S FINE BEING SINGLE IT’S GREAT I LOVE IT. But the whole time, the conflicted, jittery, queasy motherfucking high seas that are splashing and roiling at the center of your being are crystal clear to every human being you meet. Your stormy nightmare seas are going to show no matter what you do, of course, but when you drink, that shit turns into a hurricane and you wake up the next morning feeling regretful and ashamed. And even if you steady yourself and start to face where you are and how you feel, the next time you drink heavily, all of that progress is erased.

That said, even if you stay sober, you’re still unsteady right now. This change has thrown you off balance, and you’re not going to seem sane or happy or adjusted to anyone until you get your sea legs. You’re also not going to meet anyone great — potential friends or potential partners — until you get your sea legs. But getting your sea legs requires reckoning with exactly how unsteady and queasy you are first. You have to admit to yourself just how bad this feels. You have to accept how vulnerable you feel, and then you have to own that vulnerability the same way you own your accomplishments.

You sound a little defensive right now because you’re angry about what’s happening to you. You can’t believe that you actually care what other people think about you. You can’t fucking believe that you, badass misfit that you are, could feel this dopey, this needy, around these conventional Texan fucks with their pesky offspring and their crappy minivans. This moment is beneath you!

You HAAAATE yourself for feeling what you’re feeling. And when you hate yourself for feeling something unexpected, bewildering, pervasive, and insecurity-inducing, something that unseats all of your most cherished myths about your own invincibility and independence, that’s seriously hard to take. Even when you’re trying very hard to fit in and please other people and trying not to offend or condescend, you still look like a shipwreck in the making.

So here’s my second bit of advice: In the words of Aaron Burr (Sir!) from the musical Hamilton: “Talk less. Smile more.” In other words, explain less. This is important for anyone who suddenly feels insecure or out of sorts: Resist the urge to explain yourself or to justify your life choices. The more you try to go into detail or paint a pretty picture (while also mumbling things about wanting love and kids but ugh, look around, look around, where are all the good men right now?), the more you’re going to sound like a malfunctioning animatronic pirate. (“Ahoy, potential m-m-mateys!”) Don’t sing that Lin-Manuel Miranda–style sea shanty, either! (“Oh gosh, I envy your mediocre life / as a dairy cow – er, oof, I mean a wife! / No no, I don’t feel superior, I am your inferior, in spite of my fur-i-ous interior! / Understand, I’m happy as a clam, except I want a man / Plus some kids, and an open floor plan!” / Oh wow, did I just say that out loud? / I used to be so proud, now I’m a wannabe dairy cow!”)

Forgive me, I’m deep into Hamilton and I’ve gotta make some lemonade from these behind-the-curve lemons. That’s what you’ve gotta do, too. You’ve got to take this disappointing moment and turn it into something much sweeter.

I know how tough that can be, when no one seems capable of understanding you. Moving from the city to a much more suburban area of L.A. a few years ago sent me into a tailspin, but I didn’t even realize it at first. I just wanted to make a few new friends instead of keeping my distance, but I threw myself into it without assessing the lay of the land first. Soon I became a malfunctioning pirate, drinking a little too much, talking a little too much, waving and yelling ‘AHOY!’, making new friends indiscriminately, trying to sound cheerful when I wasn’t, trying to sound chill when I was feeling mutinous, avoiding heavy subjects, avoiding neurotic overanalysis, going to see Middle-aged Lady Buddy Movies (that part was good), biting my sharp tongue, high-fiving, nodding my head, and then crawling back home feeling a tiny bit sick inside.

It was only a matter of time before that ship hit the rocks. I kept telling myself that if I stayed open and vulnerable and listened and reached out instead of withdrawing, everything would fix itself. But my very judgmental head was having trouble catching up to my heart. I thought I was successfully hiding my strong distaste for, I don’t know, almost everything people my age do with their time? But I wasn’t hiding a thing. They were right to be suspicious of my chirpy “Ahoy, mateys!” and my obvious insecurities and my superiority complex. But their suspicions and their indifference upset me. I didn’t expect it.

It sounds like you’re in a similar state right now. You’re conflicted about the people around you, but you still want them to like you. It’s sort of like meeting a guy you’re not sure is your type yet, but wanting him to fall in love with you anyway. You figure that once he’s into it, THEN you can decide whether or not you’re crazy about him. This is the kind of bad, insecure decision-making that ends up leading to one-sided relationships and really draining obsessions. You become obsessed with someone who’s not even right for you partially because you can’t believe a guy who’s not even “good enough” for you doesn’t like you that much. That’s the way it works with friendships, too. As a former New Yorker, part of you is sure that you’ll be the belle of the ball, only to discover that people think you’re a little bit weird and not that relaxed about it, either.

But sometimes in life it’s good to feel like an embarrassing, broken robo-pirate. Because it’s liberating, actually, to recognize that, over the course of your lifetime, lots of people won’t like you that much. You can’t make yourself like everyone out there, either. It takes a while to build a new kind of strength around that truth, and to stop trying so goddamn hard to win everyone over.

What’s surprising is that when you lean way the fuck into being exactly what you fear, that can feel great. I had a long list of ways I didn’t want to SEEM. I didn’t want to seem unfriendly, or weird, or snobby, or dorky. You say you don’t want to seem like a closeted gay person or a slut or a sideshow freak.

Well, maybe it’s time to seem like a sideshow freak. Who the fuck cares? What if your true self is closer to sideshow freak than it is to polite lovable Texan gal? Personally, I’m closer to sideshow freak than anything else, and the people I enjoy the most are people who appreciate how odd and irascible I am at heart.

This crisis is designed to teach you how to stop monitoring how you seem. I know you think you stopped doing that a long time ago. I thought that, too, and I was WRONG. I had to cut that shit out, and so do you. You have to stop making choices based on how they’ll seem to other people, and start making choices based on how you feel. Your goal is to feel good, period. Does it feel good to drink too much every time you go out? I doubt it. Do stuff that feels good instead. Try new activities. Branch out. When I had my crisis, I stopped throwing parties and I started writing more, exercising more, seeing my oldest friends more, and spending more time with my kids.

I learned to stop forcing things so much, and to show up for the people who cared the most. But I also saw that I admired some of the people around me, and that was true whether they were my friends or not. You probably can’t stand a lot of the people you run into right now, but that’s your shame talking. I’ll bet you have a lot to learn from this new crowd. And you may have a lot to teach them about their own insecurities and anxieties, if only indirectly. Never forget that everyone battles unexpected insecurities at different times in their lives, for totally unpredictable reasons. Forgive them for being who they are. They’re doing their best, just like you are.

You’ll find the single misfits soon enough. In the meantime, remember that you really do like who you are, underneath the weird knee-jerk shame that’s been kicked up lately. You have to dig through that shame now and find the person you like. Dust off that person and give her some fresh air. Let her seem like all of the bad things: too alone, too brassy (while sober!), too independent, too freaky. It’ll feel good. Don’t make a big show of it. Just be exactly who the fuck you are (again without too much drinking!), and tune into how it feels to be disapproved of or rejected. Don’t get drunk. Show up for the rejection. Look it right in the eyes.

Staring right at men who don’t think you’re attractive and women who don’t think you’re worthy of a friendship can be very liberating. You have to be present and take it in. The irony of rejection is that when you fight it, when you’re afraid of it, when you’re hoping it’s not true, it feels painful. But when you welcome it in (“OHHH look, this guy thinks I’m super-gross!”), it’s more like pointing at passing sea monsters from the safety of your smoothly sailing ship.

You have too much personality not to find and make lots of new friends, even in a smaller or supposedly less sophisticated city or town. You know that and everyone else knows it, too. Sure, some of them just love the idea that moving to the big city for your career somehow rendered you tragic. That’s just the story people tell when they never made it out of their hometown, never sailed the high seas, never felt the sweet spray of a nor’easter on their arrogant pirate faces. That doesn’t mean that they’re envious of you. It just means they tell themselves tragic stories about your empty big-city life so that they never have to go through the same kind of reckoning that you’re going through right now.

But you shouldn’t start telling that same story about yourself, either. Having a career wasn’t a big mistake that left you loveless. Plenty of people make love their first priority but still don’t find it until their late 30s or 40s or 50s. And plenty of the people you know in Texas will end up divorced and starting over in a decade or so.

You need this reckoning. But even before you’re at peace with every dimension of it, you still have to show enough of yourself to other people that you’re not completely bored. Even if you’re talking less and drinking less and explaining less, you still have to take up SOME slightly messy, slightly wild space. You deserve that. Own that space. And when a guy acts like it’s weird or unacceptable, look at him calmly and remember that you like yourself, and no run-of-the-mill brassy-woman-hating scaredy-cat is going to change that.

Most people aren’t that great at showing their weird mutinous interiors. Once you get your sea legs, you’ll see how magnetic it can be just to be a slightly freaky pirate on dry land. New single friends and lovers will be rolling up on your port side sooner than you think, so soon that you might not even have your balance before they get there. You might second-guess yourself and feel a rush of shame and break into an eerie sea shanty to cover your tracks every now and then. But when that happens, live in that moment. Feel the shame and the self-doubt and the longing there.

Don’t hate yourself for feeling that way. Welcome it in. These are the things that make you who you are. These feelings don’t make you unworthy of love. They make you all the more lovable. This is a crazy time in your life, so savor it. Stormy nightmare seas are rare and amazing, which is why there are so many great paintings of them. Relish this stormy nightmare moment like it’s a painting that’s hanging over your couch. Look at those gigantic waves! Not everyone could handle being out there, among those waves. But look at how brave you are. The sky is inky black and your ship is taking on water and everything is exactly as it should be.

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 Moved Back Home and No One Else Is Single!’