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‘How Do I Start Over Now That I Know How Damaged I Am?’

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Dear Polly,

Over the past year, I’ve only just begun to acknowledge how very damaged I am. Whether the constant reminders in the news (#MeToo was less uplifting for some of us who were comfortably living in denial for multiple decades), increasing self-awareness, or finally becoming fed up with the horrible, toxic relationships I continue to nurture, I finally realized I could no longer hide from my history of sexual abuse.

This abuse/assault spanned over two decades and was the doing of multiple abusers, from being molested by a babysitter as a child for many years to losing my virginity in a date rape (also known as just “rape,” I’m trying to remind myself) as a teen, and beyond. On top of all of that, I grew up with a narcissistic father and a neglectful mother, though I do think they were trying their best.

I’ve embarked upon unhealthy relationship after unhealthy relationship, culminating with a full year of are-we-aren’t-we-dating relationship with my best guy friend (surprise: I thought we were, and he didn’t). I was stuck in a male-dominated job where I was unappreciated and the victim of workplace sexism. I increasingly realized my friends always expected me to drop everything when they were in need, but rarely returned the favor. I felt like I was silently drowning in despair.

I decided recently to make a big change and relocate to a town where I have a network, but a much smaller one. I got my own apartment and get to work from home. I think spending a lot more time by myself will make me happier and allow me to embark on what I know will be the really difficult work rebuilding myself. My first order of business is to find a therapist I can see regularly.

But I’m terrified of one main thing. Because of the nature of my upbringing and my chain of failed relationships, I have trouble feeling close to anyone. I’ve only ever told two people about my history of abuse, and they were two love interests, ten years apart. Worse still, I only told them after I knew without a doubt that things weren’t going to work out between us. The most recent, of course, was that guy friend, who gradually started pulling away when I divulged this information, despite my having been there for him through some really difficult family stuff this year — a real double whammy for me. I think I chose them because I knew they wouldn’t ever bring it up again; they had already decided I was unimportant to them.

I’m now struggling with the idea of being more open with friends, and relying less on lovers. I’ve made it a habit to mask my vulnerability with successes in school and my career. Many, I think, see me as strong, independent, and successful. But the truth is that I’ve been burned so many times in very serious ways by friends and family, I don’t feel like I can trust anyone. Even among my two or three closest, most understanding friends, I find myself making excuses to not share with them (will they just think I’m whining?). I am deeply, profoundly lonely. I know part of the reason I keep seeking romantic relationships is to have a secret keeper to confide in, but that never works.

I’m so closed off at this point in my life that I struggle with showing affection to those I really care about, to the extent that I can’t even sign “love” at the end of birthday cards because it makes me uneasy. I feel like an absolute fake and that nobody really knows me in any real way.

I honestly have no idea where to start or how to change and be more open. How do I begin to trust a world full of people who have always disappointed me? How can I become someone I wholeheartedly think I’m not? Realizing how deeply fucked I am at age 29 after being in denial for my entire life makes me feel like I’m standing at a fork in the road, where one path leads to a pit of snakes and the other to a jagged cliff.

How do I begin? Where do I begin? Who can I really trust?

Recently Realized Daddy Issues

Dear RRDI,

When you’ve spent a lifetime among dysfunctional people, operating out of self-protection, competition, and a compulsion to please without expecting reciprocation, everyone seems untrustworthy and disappointing. This is an illusion created by years of you treating your value as conditional (you must be charming and successful to have value) and keeping everyone at arm’s length out of fear. It’s as if you’ve spent the first three decades of your life building a castle out of bulletproof glass. You’re protected but you’re looking at everything through a warped window. Your vision is warped. Your reflection is warped. The way other people see you is warped. Reality is impossible to understand or let in. In fact, reality feels like a looming threat that you’ll never see clearly, like a monster in a suspenseful horror movie.

Your own emotions are a kind of creeping monster, too. They threaten to ruin all of your already fragile relationships, and they compromise whatever limited attention you’re getting from the distracted friends and lovers you seek. When you finally mention your history of abuse to someone, it serves as a desperate means of regaining some shred of moral high ground after you already sense the other person is halfway out the door, but it makes you feel even more like the monster in the horror movie. You’re fearful and fragile, yet your sudden confession makes you seem unsteady and out of control, an echo of some dark reality that no one wants to acknowledge or consider, least of all those who aren’t that invested in the first place.

So this is where I would start: Ground yourself in reality. Walk around your castle of bulletproof glass and examine how warped it is. Watch how you move away from people who actually care, or lump together bad friends and good friends in an effort to keep yourself safe. Witness how you ingest your own shame, every day, telling yourself a story that you’re not good enough because someone took something from you. But this isn’t solely an intellectual exercise — that’s just where it starts.

Notice how hard you try to keep people around. It might look desperate to you now, but that kind of concern for connection lives inside of you and it’s beautiful. Notice how hard you had to scramble, to make yourself seem whole when you didn’t feel whole. Those efforts might look weak to you now, but you picked up a lot of skills and a little magic in those efforts. Notice how fast you had to run away from anyone who might recognize that you were broken.

Then consider what it means to be broken. What if you could proclaim yourself sick and hurt and sad and broken and malfunctioning, every single day, and still believe that you deserved love? What if you could sit in the rubble of your shattered castle, and still feel compassion for yourself? Because compassion for the self is the same thing as passion: That’s where inspiration and beauty are waiting for you. It’s also where your passion for your life begins, where a real, sustainable passion for other people can begin. It’s a leap of faith into a new world where you can look at reality with clear eyes and not feel afraid. The monster from the horror movie is wheeled out onto the set in the light of day, and it’s just a mess of blinking red eyes and shiny scales and rubber claws. There’s nothing to fear.

Once you ground yourself in reality, and dare to give some love to your true, broken self (that part is very difficult at first!), then you can finally approach the world as you are. You don’t need to be entertaining or sexy or clever or useful to be lovable. You don’t have to prove your value in order to be valuable. You can simply be what you are.

Being what you are looks like this: You enter every room as a calm, neutral observer. You are average. You don’t have an agenda. Your only job is to listen and observe and offer your support. Your only job is to watch and learn and allow room for yourself, even when you don’t say a word, even when you don’t look that good, even when you seem useless. There you are, giving yourself the right to be without running or hiding or dancing. That is grace. It matters.

Being still and silent and broken is its own kind of religion.

Doing this — existing around other people without proving yourself — works well because it feels good. It feels good when you’re not trying hard to win people over. It feels good to stand without adornment and know that you are enough. But it also works because good people respond to it. Trustworthy people will accept and embrace your listening and support and your silence. Untrustworthy people will think you’re a fucking weirdo, or believe that you’re not worthy enough because you’re not dancing or running or staying half-hidden and building suspense.

In contrast, it is exceptionally difficult to feel connected or close to other people when you’re sure that your value is conditional. You can spend decades in this state, and the more energy you put into keeping other people happy, the more convinced you become that no one is dependable and no one loves you for you. That doesn’t mean that you haven’t withstood abuse or tolerated selfish friends. But refusing to give yourself the right to simply exist is a way of preventing other people from simply existing. Everything is bartered or traded. No relationship is what it is: lopsided and weird and flawed and sweet. Every effort must be reciprocated with equal and opposite force (even if your emotional accounting is never shared with anyone) or you’re being ripped off or taken for granted. No one is allowed to be broken. You have to be better than you really are, and so does everyone else.

Once you develop an independent faith in your own value (this takes constant, repeated reminders to be compassionate and patient with yourself for the first time ever), then you can start to treat other people as valuable even when their value isn’t immediately apparent. You can enter the room as a broken person, sit with your brokenness without hiding it, and let it exist out in the open. You don’t have to share your own secrets straight out of the gate. You can ask people about the things that broke them, because you understand that being broken is interesting and includes a good story, or maybe 100 good stories. You listen to their stories not because you expect that then they’ll listen to yours, but because you’re making it your goal to take in reality, to connect, to get closer to the real world and the real people who live in it.

This is the hardest thing for someone like you or me to do: to crave the real world. We had to create imaginary worlds to survive, and it’s hard for us to resist the temptation to live there now. We are fundamentally self-involved because that was the only way to survive neglect. I wouldn’t characterize my childhood as abusive, but self-involvement is also a way to survive abuse. It’s not an inherently negative thing to be self-involved, as long as you have enough compassion for yourself that you can channel your secret worlds into some activity or point of focus that feels rich and sustainable and renews your faith in yourself and others.

I started working from home around your age, for some of the same reasons you are. I had a few friendships fall apart, my co-workers drove me nuts, and I was disappointed and distrustful. I knew a lot of narcissists, and I was a narcissist myself probably. I gave too much but I didn’t really show up a lot of the time. I didn’t believe that I deserved love unless I was useful or entertaining or special, and I didn’t really know how to give myself what I needed.

It’s easy to become isolated under those conditions, so you should work hard to schedule breaks and force yourself to get out of your place often. Exercising somewhere else, joining a running club or other group that meets regularly, setting up weekly plans with certain friends can all help to keep you from feeling alienated and bugging out alone.

But working from home did really help me to slow down and figure out a lot about myself. I also got a therapist who helped me to understand that connecting with strangers was possible. I felt better, but I still had a lot to learn. It took years after that to welcome reality, to believe in my worth without feeling ashamed of that belief, as if it were hopelessly self-indulgent. It took years to learn how to listen; I said I cared about listening long before I felt the sensation of real, honest connection with a good friend and knew that it wasn’t just a weird twist of fate that we landed there. It took years to show up and make some room for the real world, in all of its glorious disappointments.

The more compassion you have for yourself, the easier the next year will be. You’re doing something that’s incredibly difficult. Every single day, every single minute, you need to push away the feeling that you’re uniquely screwed and you’re running out of time. Because you’re surrounded by people who feel many of the things you feel, and you’re still very young, and you have plenty of time.

We all have plenty of time, though. A day can feel like a divine eternity when you spend it letting the world in with an open heart. You let the world in, and it hurts, and you sit with your hurt. You let reality in, and you feel shame, and you sit with that shame.

You invite in the things that make you hate yourself, and you let them exist without judgment: This was how I learned to run very fast. This was how I learned to dance and sing. This was how I built a castle all by myself. This was the warped view from my castle. Everyone looked so small from my castle tower. The days flew by, and even when I wasn’t alone, I felt so alone. I thought I would die if I ever came down from my tower, but once I did, everyone looked big and scared and sad, just like me. And time stood still.

This world has been waiting for you to catch up. This world has been waiting to show you its treasures. Your monster finally gets to stand in one place, feeling the sunshine, knowing that it’s okay to be broken. This divine moment is yours.

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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‘How Do I Start Over Now That I Know How Damaged I Am?’