Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
I’m a millennial woman. I’m living the easy life of good finances, with a loving, funny husband. I own a home and a dog, and I have a blooming career at a workplace that I am proud of, and where I feel very supported. I take care of myself with a regular therapist to help my anxiety and I go to the gym. I like the person I’m growing into, and my life has become something I like.
Obviously, I wouldn’t be writing if everything were milk and honey.
With all of these things in my life, I tend to stay very busy. However, whenever life stops for more than two days, without fail, my personality turns into a snarling piece of harebrained shit. Every. Time. I find this happens when I stop having a schedule, work, or anything on my calendar, and I’m forced to entertain myself. Stuff starts seeming meaningless, my hobbies like stupid things to fill the time until I croak. I become more desperate for friends to respond to my texts, and I find myself clawing my phone when they don’t reply within a day to hang out with me. I get lonely in my room I used to love, sobbing, and lash out at my husband, as he seems so at ease in the house on day two of wearing only his robe. It’s terrible and vindictive, yet I don’t know how to stop.
During the Thanksgiving holiday, other than the day itself, my husband was sick and confined to the house. I didn’t have any plans, so I was there making him tea, running out to get him medication, watching dumb TV shows, and sitting in the house alone while he recovered. My birthday is next Tuesday, and despite his sickness I’m secretly livid with him for not having something completely planned for me with friends, something I’d never expect of him normally. My resentment is growing, despite having no conversations or communication with him about this. It seems I can get mad at him without even talking to him. I try to keep busy, but I start hating things I liked. My knitting projects and my hobbies seem dumb, and every book I read suddenly makes me think, What is the point? They’re all terrible and purposeless. I don’t want to do anything.
Traveling is terrible. I love new cities, and new experiences, but without a plan, I suddenly find myself bored in the middle of a bustling city like London. Resorts where you’re lying at a beach every day? Forget it. By day three, I start to fidget and wonder why my husband just wants to lie in total laziness like a sloth. On day six, I start feeling like I don’t love him anymore. Two days after I go back to work, it evaporates.
So here I am, on day three of a vacation. My husband is sick, and I’m up at 8 a.m. crying because I don’t have anything to do except be by myself, and nothing I have here brings me joy. I signed myself up for a shift of volunteering this afternoon, and my stomach is cramping at the thought of the hours until then, when I have to sit here, waiting. My husband suggested I go to a coffee shop, and I was a breath away from screaming at him for it. Why would I pay to sit in a room of strangers to do the same thing I’m doing here: sitting still and being unhappy? Isn’t he just trying to kick me out of the house so I don’t distract his lazy ass from sinking farther into his computer chair?
Polly, what is wrong with me? I should enjoy vacation, not feel purposeless and like a hurt animal in a cave. What can I do?
Dear Nervously Still,
I love your letter, because you’re so spoiled and nothing is wrong. A lot of people have that problem. And even though it’s the ultimate luxury to have a great life AND have plenty of time and energy to figure out why you’re unhappy, it’s also a cause of misery for many people — more people than most of us realize. People with good jobs and good relationships. People who feel empty in spite of everything. People who hate how pointless everything seems the second they have time to see it all clearly.
I felt that way a few years ago, after I had kids. I was busy all the time, normally. I had too much work: writing work, kids to deal with, constant chores. But when I went on vacation, I didn’t feel relaxed. I felt annoyed. I wanted to savor my time off, but there were still so many interruptions: screaming kids, more chores. And when I really did have free time — there I was, on the beach, fruity drink in hand! — I didn’t enjoy it at all. I told myself that this was true because I was always about to be interrupted by more work, or by my kids. But that wasn’t the whole story. The truth is, I didn’t know how to relax. I didn’t like being alone with myself.
My honest feeling now is that I didn’t like myself enough back then to be alone with myself. That was what I found when I had a little time alone. I felt angry and disgusted with myself. I felt embarrassed by my impatience and my dissatisfaction. I was always trying to BE BETTER, but it was just frustrating. I often failed, and that made me dislike myself even more.
And sometimes it wasn’t even that clear. I just felt pissed off at everyone I knew. I felt annoyed with other people a lot of the time, but that was my self-hatred talking. I was taking all of my anger and guilt and restlessness and blasting it at the people around me. I felt like a spoiled ingrate. I had always defined myself as tough and hardworking, but I didn’t feel tough, and hard work felt pointless, like it does for you.
So here’s something I had to do, but it’s really hard to put into words that make sense to someone who hasn’t done this yet: I needed to develop and nurture a good relationship with myself. I didn’t know that’s what I needed, mind you. I was just trying to quiet the negative voices in my head. But along the way, I learned to befriend myself and to treat my feelings not just as inconveniences that slowed me down, but as a road map to what I truly wanted.
I suspect that you need the same thing. You’re a hard worker, right? Hard workers are often mean to themselves. “Work faster, asshole!” is the kind of thing we say to ourselves every day for decades in order to get our careers off the fucking ground. But once we’re doing okay, and we have more time, things can get weird, because we only know how to call ourselves assholes. We don’t know how to say things like, “How are you feeling?” and “What would you like to do next?” We hate the sound of those questions in other people’s mouths, too. We hate people who care about us, because they’re drawing attention to things we’re trying very hard to ignore. When they’re nice, it’s a reminder of what fucking ingrates we are. We insist on defining ourselves as a big waste of time.
When you’re a big waste of time, your hobbies are a big waste of time. Nothing feels worthwhile. Everything is pointless and stupid.
But when you start to talk nicely to yourself (really!) and sit patiently with how you’re feeling, you get over that. Here’s where it starts: You say to yourself, “I can do nothing and that will be fine. Today I am just making tea for my husband, and that’s enough. Maybe I will make him some chicken soup. If I can’t focus on a book or anything else, I’ll sit here and let my thoughts circle themselves, and I will forgive myself for feeling so restless and angry. I will look directly at my feelings and I won’t look away. I’ll make space for my feelings, even though I hate myself for feeling the way I feel.”
The violence and rage you’ll encounter in yourself will be shocking at first. You have to sit with it. You have to keep accepting it and insisting that it’s not abnormal, that it doesn’t make you bad or hateful. This is just a part of where you are. You’re navigating through something important right now. It’s OKAY.
The more you accept the full scope of what you feel when you’re still, the more present and relaxed and loving you’ll become. But it does take a long-ass time.
And you’re going to hate what comes up. You’re going to really MARVEL at how fucked up you are. Because you’re someone with a lot of emotions onboard, always. What you need to remember is that these emotions are still there when you’re working. Even though you feel calm as long as you’re busy and heading somewhere, there’s still turmoil underneath the surface. Your busy life will feel much more real and satisfying to you if you can also sit still with yourself. This isn’t just about meditating or being calm. This is real talk about the real you: You’re carrying a heavy burden. And whether you know it or not, you’re exhausted by it, EVEN WHEN EVERYTHING FEELS FINE.
So get serious about this, because it’s a real opportunity for you to become a lot happier and less self-hating. Stop telling stories about what a fucking restless, impatient, hateful loser you are. I used to do that. I couldn’t stop focusing on the flaws of every situation. I was just anxious, but I blamed myself for it. Everything that happened was my fault. “I should’ve planned this better,” I would tell myself, or, “If I were a better, nicer person, this wouldn’t bother me so much.” I considered myself in control of reality, so when reality was bad, I was bad.
This is a common problem for people who work hard but don’t forgive themselves for being human.
Every time you start to focus on something that you should’ve controlled or fixed, I want you to focus on forgiveness and vulnerability instead. You can tell your husband you feel angry, but make sure that you keep the truth of it — you’re the MOST angry at yourself for being such a bitch — close at all times, and remind him that this always lies at the center of your anger. Explain to anyone who’ll listen — FIRST AND FOREMOST, YOU YOURSELF — that you are working very hard right now on being flawed and living a flawed life without fighting it all the time.
This is the beginning of a better life. It’s the moment when you form a RELIGION OF ENOUGH. Embracing a religion of ENOUGH means divorcing yourself from our culture’s restless search for more, for upgrades, for better. When you embrace ENOUGH, you can see the current moment for what it is, every tiny, irritating, perfect fold of it. You are in your house and you have a headache. Everything is wrong. Tune in to the details of the wrongness around you. Right now, I’m on a plane and my kids are hogging the armrests as they use their iPads. I’m typing, but I’m very cramped and squished. I will be here for another hour. It’s cloudy. I have a headache.
And yet, here I am. My kids are just the right age where they will still talk to me. My younger daughter is listening to Hamilton and playing Ticket to Ride. My older daughter is playing Toca Life: City, a weird little game where you move cute animated people around in a city and dye their hair and make them food and put them to bed. I will remember this feeling, sitting cramped between two lanky girls playing games. I will remember what cute, lanky, weird rabbits they were at this age. I will remember how much I loved writing this advice column, back when people were crazy enough to pay me to do this.
My brain spent a lifetime telling me I was doing everything wrong. Now all I want is to teach people to forgive themselves. The only reason I was ever able to forgive myself was that I recognized, from writing to people week after week, that I still needed to do it myself. I still blamed myself for everything, and as a result I still couldn’t FEEL THE MOMENT. I still couldn’t see what I had, and how amazing it was.
Now I tune into the moment many times a day. I do this particularly when things feel aggravating and annoying. I try to notice the small, exquisite, twisted details, even the ones that are pissing me off. If I cry, I try to notice when I still feel ambivalent or ashamed of my tears. If I feel impatient, I try to notice that I feel that way but I also remind myself: There’s no rush. When things feel a little bit useless, I try to remind myself: Just make this bit of writing the best it can be. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to feel like it’s the best use of your time. You’re just finishing what you started and making it as good as you possibly can.
It’s really hard, but I’m getting better and better at it. I really savor the moment now. This makes it possible to enjoy my kids in a way I rarely did before. This makes it possible for me to be present and show up for my husband. But it also makes everything we do more fun — the fun stuff, and the taxing bullshit, too.
Embracing ENOUGH means living with what you have and loving the fuck out of it, beyond reason. It means building a religion around the way things already are, and “giving the mundane its beautiful due,” as John Updike once put it.
I know that sounds like a leap. I can only tell you that once you start to reframe everything and start saying to yourself, “I am good enough,” and “I am trying hard,” and “I am okay the way I am,” and “This moment is enough,” you will start to savor every single dimension of your existence. Suddenly, you don’t want to make vacations more interesting or make your husband less of a slug or make yourself less angry and irascible. You can live with what is. You stop feeling nearly as angry at yourself. Instead, you feel real joy at who you are, in all of your pissy ridiculousness.
What emotional people often don’t realize — particularly those of us who see ourselves as in control, as hard workers, as “impressive” or cool — is that underneath all of our capable forward motion, we are both melancholy and effusive, enraged and madly in love with the world. We don’t know how to do justice to the raw, bubbling, wild JOY we have inside of ourselves. We’re resentful and also temperamental because we really want to be singing crazy loud songs and cracking jokes and dancing like lunatics in our kitchens. We discover that we want to express not just our rage but also our elation and our freaky fucked-up mad ideas and our stupid dance moves. Learning to be still also means learning to dance.
Be still and you’ll see. Your spirit is coiled and poised to spring. It wants you to be your true, glorious, effusive, sad, brilliant self. It’s waiting for you to slow down, so you’ll finally realize how much more you have to give.
Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
All letters to firstname.lastname@example.org become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.