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‘Someone Is Saying Bad Things About Me and I’m Losing Sleep Over It!’

Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I’ve fallen out with my long-term boyfriend’s sister over pots. Literally over washing up.

I think I felt it brewing for some time; we have a mutual friend who recently divulged a lot of nasty things the sister said about me in the past so I’ve been quietly harboring resentment, afraid to speak to my boyfriend about it for fear of causing shit. The worst one I’ve been told by this mutual friend is that my boyfriend’s sister got a lock on her bedroom door because I kept on stealing her clothes and stretching them out. I’m standing my ground here. I’ve been with her brother for eight years. When I used to stay over during college, I probably asked to borrow a pair of leggings and socks on a couple of different occasions, mainly because I’m well aware that I wouldn’t fit in any of her stupid clothes anyway because I’m much bigger in size ffs. This hasn’t stopped her from “borrowing” my baggy tops for pajamas and putting pics on Instagram (HONESTLY!!!!!!). So that one struck a chord because she essentially called me fat and, to be honest, I am a bit fat.

Anyway, over the past eight years I’ve tiptoed around sister-in-law because she can be pretty cutting and confrontational. It’s not rare for her to have a shouting and swearing match with her parents when I’m around, and she’s openly hostile when the mood takes her. She’s shouted from the bathroom, when her mum and I were taking about work, that we “were slagging her off like we always do.” I need to confirm that we weren’t. It made me think that maybe she’s a bit fragile if she’s worrying about stuff that’s not happening, so I’ve shaken a lot of it off until I heard the stretching-clothes story.

I’ve comforted her through hard times, and, for the most part, we get on due to a lot of effort on my part. Many of her friends and short-term boyfriends have left her after turbulent blazing relationships, and I’ve always tried to be there to pick up the pieces. But after hearing what’s she’s said about me, my mind-set has completely changed and I utterly resent her and feel total unease when I know she’s in the house.

Back to the pots. My boyfriend was cooking us tea when I got a message on my phone that said, “Make sure you wash up after ‘John’ or he will leave the pots for me.” I rolled my eyes and bounded downstairs with a massive hangover in a foul mood to find that she’d actually left all of her washing up from the morning. I lost my shit and I’m not proud. I shouted and swore at her and called her a hypocrite while I was washing her breakfast pots until she told me to fuck off and went back upstairs. We haven’t spoken since, and I haven’t dared go back to the house, as I’ve since seen shit-stirring mutual friend who already knew fully about the pots situation in stark detail and could also confirm my boyfriend’s mum was there and was obviously on her daughter’s side — a slightly different version to my own, but hey, after the stretchy-clothes story, I’m not surprised.

I won’t ask my boyfriend to get involved for a couple of reasons: It wouldn’t be fair, and he’s very accustomed to how she is with other people. It doesn’t faze him, and he shrugs it off as, “It’s just how she is with everyone.” But it’s starting to feel personal to me and I am adamantly refusing to apologize.

I’m writing to you in bed because I’m so wound up about it all that I’m losing sleep and can’t see a clear course of action. What I really want to do is drop shit-stirring friend in it and tell sister-in-law that I lost my shit because she told a nasty lie relating to a difficult truth about me that really touched a nerve and hangover pot-gate was simply my excuse. But I think this will hurt all of us and I’m not sure shit-stirring friend deserves to be outed as a source.

I really hope you can make me feel better about it all!

Sincerely,

Furious Fat Pot Washer

Dear Furious Fat Pot Washer,

Sometimes it is said that all larger-size humans have a thin and bony Skeletor-shaped human trapped inside of them, dying to come out. This is said mostly by irritating, deeply ignorant people who are content to embrace the arbitrary ideal offered up by a gaggle of ’30s-era capitalist schemers peddling diet pills and doll-size clothing.

Nevertheless, it is true that all women (and all secretly sensitive human beings) have a Furious Factious Pot Washer inside of them, dying to come out. Because most of us have spent our lives biting our tongues, trying to make ourselves more polite and agreeable. Eventually, we become so exhausted by these games of make believe that we not-so-secretly relish the idea of making a gigantic, ugly mess.

AND YET! And yet. We never become Furious Factious Plate Smashers or Furious Factious Fire Starters. Because we know that if we don’t stop short of smashing plates and fucking shit up, we’ll be proclaimed crazy and terrible and unlovable until the end of time.

So what do we do instead? We stand around, furiously washing dirty pots. God help us.

The Furious Factious Pot Washer is an archetype of what many women have been conditioned to fear in themselves. Because she is not just outwardly angry, which is a giant faux pas in the world of womenshe is CONSUMED BY RAGE. She is not just opinionated, she is dissenting openly. Worst of all, she doesn’t even get the satisfaction of throwing pots across the room or remaining upstairs in her boyfriend’s bedroom, pretending she never saw the text from the compulsively confrontational sister. She is OBEYING the tiny temperamental sister, the one who wears her clothes because she looks EVEN TINIER in them, the one who slags her off behind her back, to her mom and their mutual friend, implying that she is somehow inadequate and desperate simply because she had the audacity to borrow some doll-size leggings many years ago.

The Furious Factious Pot Washer is fucked because she has no room to breathe. She can’t show her emotions. She can’t disobey and let her boyfriend and his sister do their own dirty dishes. She can’t address the gossip that’s weighing on her. She is using every ounce of her strength not to stir shit. But shit is all around her. The walls are collapsing from this shit storm. Even after she yells at the sister, she is trying hard to Be Good by doing the dishes. She is not succeeding. Her heart is still racing. She feels like she’s losing control, and there’s no clear path forward from here.

But the sister is a Furious Factious Pot Washer, too! The sister tries to be cute and seem nice. She tries not to be temperamental and nasty. She doesn’t succeed. Her anger keeps bubbling up and spilling out all over. This happens because she’s working too hard to take a shape that doesn’t feel natural (and I don’t mean her physical shape). She’s insecure. Her mother acts like she’s on her side, but she suspects that her mother is not on her side at all. She suspects that no one is really on her side. Oh, sure, everyone loves her like crazy at first. But the second her Furious Factious Pot Washer emerges and starts sending angry texts or losing her cool, they exit, and she’s left all alone.

I know it’s hard to see this from where you are, but you and the sister have a matching volume of insecurities, obsessions, and troubling, circling thoughts. She gets to be outwardly negative and biting, but it doesn’t feel good. She sometimes seems furious with everyone. You have more control over your emotions, but you, like her, secretly suspect that other people see you as unlovable or thorny and say so behind your back. You are a people pleaser — a pot washer — with everyone. But that doesn’t feel quite right, either.

And you’re both a little paranoid. Yes, it’s true that she has been talking shit about you. But you talk shit about her, too, and if she had a transcript of it all (and who’s to say she doesn’t already know at least some of what you’ve been saying?) she would be enraged. Her mom has her back sometimes, but I’ll bet she also laments her bad choices and has your back sometimes, even if you don’t get to see that side of things.

The close family situation, where you’re a witness to the sister and the mom when tempers are flying, is a pretty fertile breeding ground for these kinds of paranoias and insecurities. And the shit-stirring mutual friend is the spark that makes the whole barn go up in flames.

Should the sister stop acting so furious? Should you stop washing pots? Are you both unlovable? Do you both need to change your emotional makeup, change the way you express yourselves, change your sizes and shapes, be less of this and more of that? Are all of your choices moral failures? Do your appetites make you unlovable? Can you want things, or do you deserve nothing and no one?

My perspective is this: You need to forgive yourself for having a weak moment of yelling and furious pot washing. You have known these humans for almost a decade. It’s fine. Once you forgive yourself instead of defining yourself as a Furious Factious Pot Washer, the worst of your worst fears, you will have more compassion for your boyfriend’s sister. You are furious at yourself for losing your typical restraint. Forgive yourself. You are a human animal who wants things. Let go of your inner compulsive people pleaser a little. The next time you get the cold shoulder or an angry text, say to yourself, “This is someone who has trouble handling how lonely, angry, and inadequate she feels. This is someone who shows her inner furious self often, but every time she does it, she hates herself for it. This is someone who deserves my patience and compassion.” Then go back to sleep and don’t do anyone else’s dishes for them. LET. IT. GO.

We have reached a juncture in history where human animals are under too much pressure to optimize themselves. Greedy marketing schemers have taken over the reigning narratives of our culture so completely that natural human appetites and proclivities and emotions are now largely encountered as moral failures. The mere fact that 90 percent of the sizes and shapes that female humans naturally assume are viewed as a kind of moral failure is its own kind of a moral failure: It’s a moral failure on the part of a culture that privileges tiny sizes over all others for no reason beyond greed.

But that’s the tip of the iceberg these days. Our marketing narratives are slicker and more intoxicating than ever, and they’re squeezing us all into tighter and tighter spaces where we can’t breathe freely. Women are not alone in feeling that way. Our culture is devoid of guiding principles and belief systems that support the human spirit, and most of the principles and systems that do exist are still just a front to sell us something we don’t need. No wonder we’re all yelling at the same time. WE ARE ALL FURIOUS FACTIOUS POT WASHERS. We are all losing sleep without a clear course of action.

But that doesn’t mean that YOU should take action at this moment. I agree with you that everything can’t be laid on the table, at least not all at once. The close quarters and the paranoia and insecurities in play dictate that an open discussion would be tantamount to a burning barn. Your boyfriend’s mother and his sister have tensions that they project onto you. You have insecurities and tensions with your boyfriend that you project onto them (trust me on this). And even if you had a transcript of every horrific conversation that’s happened behind your back, using that information as if it holds the key to THE TRUTH is like scuba diving in a toilet.

People talk shit about other people, period. When someone offers you a transcript, push it away. You can’t metabolize that information correctly. You will interpret the text through the lens of your own pain and longing. Often, in spite of the harsh words on the record, very little real malice is involved, and 90 percent of the real malice that is involved is just a projection of their insecurities.

I’m friends with some people who’ve definitely talked shit about me. Once I realized this was the case, I had a wave of insecurity and reckoning. But the worst, most debilitating wave came BEFORE I knew the whole, ugly truth. When I had only the faintest hints, I lost sleep and obsessed yet had no clear course of action. I obsessed because I was trying to hide my true self from these friends, because I was worried they would never like the real, opinionated me. I tried too hard to seem like a gorgeous cheerful rainbow unicorn when they were around, to throw them off the scent. I was quietly, furiously washing pots and feeling enraged inside the whole time.

The answer, in that case and in your case, wasn’t to hold a big group-therapy session. The projections in play on all sides were too tangled to be unearthed by me or them. The answer wasn’t to throw the pots across the room or insult anyone. The answer was to forgive myself for being an animal of a certain shape and size that makes certain kinds of sounds. I am not that terrible. I am just a female animal who does not fit into tiny doll clothes and does not sound natural when she speaks in a tiny doll voice. I am a rough and ragged donkey who does not have a horn in the middle of her forehead and is not made of love and rainbows. It’s easier to remain calm and make good choices now that I’ve decided I have a right to my size and shape and sounds.

Sometimes I think that sanity is merely compassion for your animal self. I can see now that my rage is 80 percent a projection of my fears about myself and 10 percent an ingestion of the world’s fears about me. I mostly make good choices now, but I’ll have a weak moment and make bad choices again, too, and I’ll forgive myself when I do. I forgive myself and my shit-talking friends every day. We are different species of animals with different needs and desires, and that’s okay. We don’t fit into the teensy doll clothes that this world picked out for us.

So be patient and have compassion for yourself. This storm will pass. Do your work on yourself, and let your boyfriend’s sister do her work. Don’t get needlessly entangled in what’s going on with her. Accept that she has some negative judgments of you, just like you have of her, and let it go. When you’re around her and her mom and your shit-stirring friend, step back and watch and listen. Think about what the animals inside of them want, and try to make some space for those things without struggling to please them or correct them.

But more than anything else, build a little birdhouse in your soul for your Furious Factious Pot Washer. That tired, angry early morning yeller is part of what makes you wild and weird and brilliant. Embrace her spirit and give her your love. That is your course of action: Forgive her. Give her your love.

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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‘Someone Is Saying Bad Things About Me!’