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I’m a 27-year-old woman and I’m completely uprooting my life. I’m about to move to a new city halfway across the country for grad school, leaving behind a wonderful set of family and friends and a city that I love. But I feel that I’m in a rut here, and while I had the option to attend programs close to home, I’m choosing to leave in part because this feels like something I just need to do.
While I’m admittedly already feeling sort of homesick (I haven’t even left yet, yikes), I’m excited to start this new chapter. And scared, of course. But fear is just a part of life. I have horrible anxiety and I’ve come to accept that just getting out of bed every day is scary. If I’m not doing something that scares me, I’m not living. That being said, my anxiety has kept me on a lot of safe paths in my life thus far, which is how I’ve ended up in this miles-deep rut. I have a job that doesn’t challenge me; I’ve been in a series of sub-par monogamous relationships (all of which I’ve ended) for the last ten years. Upon ending my last relationship a few months ago, I realized that I needed to be alone for a little while and I’ve set about getting comfortable with myself (it sucks, it’s horrible, how do people do this?). Further, because I’ve always been so socially anxious, I have a small number of intensely close friends. My life here consists of seeing mostly the same people, spending weekends with my family, and passing the time in between watching sitcom reruns in bed. I realize that the rut I have myself in here isn’t sustainable, and that if I weren’t leaving for grad school, I would be in deep shit. I’m like a high-school senior, just passing the time until college orientation.
But of course, I am leaving. And much like a bright-eyed 18-year-old leaving for college, I’m viewing this move and life change as an opportunity to reinvent myself. As a result, I’m putting a lot of pressure on what I want my grad-school experience to be. I want to be so far out of my comfort zone that it’s in a different Zip Code (kind of literally). I want to be sociable and outgoing and meeting as many people as I can. I want to leave grad school a better version of myself, I don’t ever want to be in a rut like this again. But I also know myself. I’m a socially anxious introvert who really likes to come home and watch sitcom reruns alone. I like my ruts, but I also rage against them. So Polly, my question is this: How do I reinvent myself during this experience without completely destroying my introvert self? How do I enjoy this experience without crushing it under so much pressure? How do I change, but stay true to myself?
Desperate for Change
Dear Desperate for Change,
Dramatic attempts at becoming a new person tend to end in disappointment. No matter how well you transform your appearance, your behaviors, your talk, and your habits, your old self is still there, feeling a little pissy about being shoved into a closet so your new self can shine. Eventually, the old self crawls back into view. So you talk a little louder, try a little harder, make happier sounds, until you sound anxious and conflicted to everyone you meet.
You’re asking good questions that suggest that you’ve thought through a lot of this already. Even so, I want to strongly recommend that you bring your current rut-loving self with you to grad school, to live side by side with your brand-new, rut-breaking self. Welcome your old self into your brand-new apartment. Reassure her that, although you’ll be meeting new people and doing new things — going to class, hanging out with your fellow students, going to parties — there will still be some space for her in your new life. You’ll watch out for her feelings and try to take notice when all of the excitement and pressure is too much for her. You’ll pay attention to when she’s feeling shy or overwhelmed, and you’ll remind her that it’s natural to feel that way. You’re on new ground, it’s unfamiliar, it’s wild and impossible to predict. There will be times you have to push through the bad feelings and be brave and introduce yourself to strangers. There will be times you fail to do this, and that’s also okay. And there will still be times where you watch reruns in bed. You’re still allowed to disappear and feel the comfort of solitude. You can still heat up some soup and make a grilled cheese sandwich and call old friends at home. In fact, you should plan on it.
If you try to leave your old self behind, she will find you and haunt you. You’ll miss home a lot, out of the blue. You’ll feel weird about your new life. You’ll feel angry at yourself for sometimes viewing all of the things you once loved as expendable. These things are likely to happen either way, but the experience will be harder on you if you don’t anticipate it. Trying desperately to banish weakness has a way of making you feel all the more conflicted and torn. You end up seeming like someone who’s at war with herself, who’s trying to pack away her old self and her most vulnerable emotions and put them in some dusty attic where no one will ever find them. But these things won’t stay boxed up for long.
I did that over and over in my 20s and 30s. I kept turning over a new leaf. I kept ending relationships and beginning new ones. Everything was always much better now than it was a few months ago. Everything I did a few months earlier was stupid and messy and ridiculous. I disowned myself over and over again.
But every single time, my old self was still there. Changing my circumstances didn’t make her disappear. I was an emotional person no matter where I was planted, and I didn’t want to face that. I also didn’t want to face the contradictions inherent to my personality: I was relaxed overall, but I was also pretty anxious. I was ambitious, but I was also completely unmotivated. I was an extrovert and an introvert. And every time I said, “That’s it! I’m free from the mistakes of the past! I finally get it!,” every time I made big changes or moved or dumped someone or got dumped and rearranged my whole life, I told myself that nothing would ever be the same again.
That’s understandable. It’s pretty hard to get up to escape velocity without believing that you’re going to escape for sure this time. But often, when you try a whole new life on for size, you’re secretly hoping that the things about you that you dislike will disappear into thin air.
These selves never disappear. They just take new shapes. So I want to recommend that you look closely at the things you don’t like about yourself, and examine how they function in your life. What if some of your most embarrassing traits are actually strengths and charms, or they’re closely tied to your strengths and your charms? What if some of your most shameful habits reflect deeply felt values of yours? What if the person you’re trying to bury is the person you need to treat with compassion and kindness, to resurrect and embrace?
You’re in a rut because you love safety and security. You’re somewhat fearful and anxious. I hear that loud and clear, and I relate to it. But those aren’t the only reasons you love being alone, being with old friends, doing nothing. I’m a big RUT person myself. I’ve always wanted my own house, my own yard, and my own pets in part so I could disappear from the outside world for days on end. I’ve always been filled with an urge to cancel every plan and put on soft pants and eat cheese in bed while watching a million hours of TV in a row. Bailing and doing nothing feels like the ultimate luxury to me, and it always has. I can’t look at a calendar full of plans without wishing they would all get canceled so I could read a book or play my favorite video game for a few days straight instead.
I used to be ashamed of my shut-in self. I never had trouble owning up to my very extroverted, social self. But I often designed my life around her as if she were the only person there, and neglected the needs of the soft-pants-wearing introvert who didn’t necessarily want to host another party or hang out with friends every night of the week. Neglecting my introverted self also meant ignoring my emotions, tuning out my vulnerability, turning my back on how sensitive I can be around other people. When I pretended these dimensions of me didn’t exist, I tended to drink too much, and I tried too hard to entertain people without listening to them. I couldn’t listen to them because I was trying hard not to listen to myself.
One of the best things about being over the age of 40 is that you stop trying to become someone else. There’s not enough time to pull it off — plus, who wants to work so hard, at this point? You can challenge yourself without expecting to slough off your more embarrassing selves; you know they’ll never leave you either way. “What would it mean to just be who you are?” you finally ask yourself, after a few years of hating the idea of being middle-aged, which according to our culture means being more boring and more ugly by the millisecond.
You know what keeps you from being high-strung and dull as mud and miserable at my age? Inviting all of your selves into the same room together and saying, “Here we are. What do we feel like doing?” If the answer is “We feel like reading stupid magazines and eating chocolate pudding,” that’s what we fucking do, without apology. Suddenly it’s possible to allow some space for everyone. For me, right now, this process is almost like throwing a party. I can watch my angry artist self talk with my touchy-feely hippie self without breaking into fisticuffs. My drunk-girl self and my merciless-snob self can play cards together without hating each other. My apathetic-bystander self and my Mommy self can make snide jokes in the corner together.
I also know how to give myself what I want and what I need without placing a moral value on it. That’s something I think we all struggle with, but it’s an affliction that’s particularly intense among those who are in their 20s and 30s right now. It’s like you’re all former Catholics; maybe that’s why I relate to you so well. From your perspective, almost everything you do and feel is a moral failure.
Instead of separating your behaviors and choices into good and bad categories, you need to learn how to let yourself be a human of many seasons. Respect your natural ebb and flow. Respect that you’re adventurous and you’re also a stick in the mud. Respect that you’re taking a huge leap and you’ll probably miss home often. Make some space for your own longing and ambivalence, and resolve not to treat these as moral failings on your part. Let go of the guilt that kicks up around being who you are.
This is how you’ll stay out of a rut: by letting yourself be a rut-loving motherfucker sometimes. This is how you stay out in the world: by giving yourself the freedom to hide when you really feel like it. Declare your habits acceptable, within moderation. There is not a good way and a bad way of living. You can do anything you fucking like. Use your times of quiet, private laziness to fuel your outgoing, brave bursts of covering new ground. Reward periods of hard work with small indulgences.
Because once you manage to find balance in your life, you develop the ability to savor the work and the reward. You savor the courage and savor the fear. You’re proud of your toughness and you’re also proud of your ability to remain vulnerable and open in spite of all you’ve been through.
Occasionally you’ll still get a little stuck. You’ll retreat too far into yourself, you’ll indulge too much, and you’ll avoid the world again. Forgive yourself in advance for these things. Allow yourself some space to be human. Sometimes when you try to embrace a rut and really enjoy it instead of fighting it, that makes it easier to get out of a rut. I’ve been noticing this a lot lately. When I find myself strenuously avoiding my work, I try to give myself a little time to relax and be lazy. I try to step back and take in the moment without punishing myself for not being industrious around the clock. I try to be a friendly, forgiving boss to myself instead of a merciless tyrant.
Did some touchy-feely old hippie once say that a rut is just a groove that lasts too long? Or did that spring from my own touchy-feely hippie brain, because I’m always in the fucking groove these days, thanks to the fact that I accept myself as I am and I give myself what I want? I’m not sure, but I do know that as long as you listen to your true feelings and treat yourself with patient respect, you’ll do just fine. Your ambitious, outgoing grad student self and your introverted, rerun-watching shut-in self are about to have an incredible adventure together.
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