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‘Everything I Do Is Wrong’

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Dear Polly,

I am exhausted, and I feel like everything I do is wrong.

First, the reasons I feel like I shouldn’t even write to you: I have a fantastic husband, a sweet dog, a fulfilling and challenging job, a welcoming and warm faith community, and a small but dedicated circle of friends that keeps me sane. I have hobbies I enjoy, I uphold healthy habits, and I’m privileged enough to be in good physical and financial health.

But I have this undercurrent roiling beneath the surface that critiques, chastises, and abuses me — and that awful voice sounds just like mine. I second guess everything I do, and I mean everything. I’ve written and discarded this draft 16 times.

I feel like I never measure up to this person I should be. I am never a good-enough wife, good-enough dog owner, good-enough job-performer, not healthy enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not enough enough.

And at the same time, I am too much: I’m too sarcastic, too dry, too cold, too analytical, too driven, too independent, too anxious, too serious, too content with being alone.

I know this is something every woman faces, but I feel like I’m drowning underneath it all. I am, again, not strong enough.

I grew up moving a lot and always being the new kid. I played sports and succeeded in school and had friends and boyfriends and all of the trappings that come with small-town high schools. My parents weren’t friends, and I don’t think they ever liked each other, but they imploded when I was 15. My dad had a secret affair for six years, a second family, a whole thing. He and I got back from a “dad-and-daughter vacation” and he just left his suitcase in the car and drove away.

I am certain that I was profoundly altered by that, and I think I am so tired because I hold onto things and hold up things so that I will never be caught off guard again. I hate surprises and change, and it seems like I assign blame to my actions so that I have a paper trail. I always need evidence, I need cause.

I go to therapy, and my lovely therapist talks about how traumatic that event was and how I have shaped myself around it, like you might favor a sprained ankle or sore back. I exercise and practice self-care and do all of the things, all of the time. I’m writing to you in the hope that your candid, searing words will make it through the muck of my headspace and help me realize that I can stop holding everything up. Things can fall, and I won’t. Hopefully.

All Wrong

Dear All Wrong,

There’s no way to overstate the trauma of spending time alone with your dad and then having him disappear immediately after that. It sounds like you’re facing that enormous tidal wave of sadness and loss in therapy already, but I want to say that I feel very sad for you just hearing about it. I’m sad for the girl and sad for the woman and sad for every version of you in between, every day since the day your dad dropped you off and then disappeared, up until today. I’m crying in the middle of a packed plane just thinking about how bad that must’ve been for you and how bad it still must be.

I understand feeling like nothing you do is good enough. A few years ago, I went through a rough time when I felt like a messy, embarrassing failure every single day. That’s not how I seemed from the outside, but that was my experience of each day.

A lot of good and bad stuff happened between then and now, but one central dimension of my life slowly evolved and changed: I resolved not to give myself a hard time every second of every day anymore. I figured I could just shut off that voice, but it wasn’t that simple. Once I noticed how often and how vehemently I disparaged myself, it felt overwhelming. It sounds like this is where you are now.

The full scope of my self-hatred and self-doubt shocked me. It almost felt like I was trying to track down one outspoken, angry ranter who kept yelling at me from a high window or a street corner or a passing car, but when I finally found her, she was hiding out in a church full of angry ranters just like her, and they were all mad at me for different reasons. Easy enough to shut down one voice. But how could I defeat an entire religion built on the foundation of my awfulness?

Standing up at the front of the church and shouting back at the congregation didn’t work. They wouldn’t listen to me. They thought I was the worst, why would they listen? Telling them I forgave them didn’t help. Why would they care? Trying to love them was impossible. They weren’t lovable to me. It was depressing to even think about them.

For a while I tried to celebrate them. “This is funny, really,” I would reassure myself. “It’s amazing how many of them there are. This is absurd and hilarious!” That at least gave me enough distance that I could hear their voices and notice when they were affecting my actions. Sometimes I would even sing their songs along with them without knowing it. Their songs were about this perfect, better person I could become, if I would just get my shit together and be less lazy and be less anxious and be more serene and organized and effective and beautiful and perfect and good.

But the more I visited the church, the more I noticed that my choices and ideas about myself mostly came from them. It was as if I was worshipping at the same church every day without even knowing it.

What does that mean, exactly? It means that I walked around looking for proof that my Church of Hating Me was a valid one. Every hint of hesitation from other people, every faint whiff of neutrality or mixed feelings or mild disapproval felt like an outright rejection. And each rejection and perceived rejection added to the enormous pile of proof that I was bad and I should fix myself. Even when I wasn’t interacting with other people, small glitches in my day always meant that those people in the church were right: Here are bills I haven’t paid, because I’m disorganized. Here is my misbehaving child, because I am a bad mother. Here is my blank unlovable face in the mirror, because I don’t know how to get a handle on my skin or style my hair or put off aging like everyone else somehow magically does.

So I couldn’t just shut down one voice. I had to go back to the church and study the basic beliefs of my religion in order to overthrow those beliefs. And the central belief was not just that I was selfish and lazy and bossy and I needed way too much just to muddle through the day, but that when people didn’t like me or even flat-out misunderstood me, they were catching a glimpse of my rotten inner self that was real. Even when the misunderstanding was preposterous — they thought I was incredibly full of myself, say, when I walked around all day feeling jittery with self-doubt — I was still beholden to those interpretations. I felt like it was my duty to fix myself based on their misperceptions, even when there was nothing to fix.

My sense is that a lot of women in particular feel unbelievably accountable to other people in general. That was one of the horrors of the Kavanaugh hearings. While Kavanaugh himself was shocked and enraged that someone of his standing should ever be held accountable for his past actions (not to mention held accountable for his lies about those actions), Christine Blasey Ford seemed anxious to apologize not just for gaps in her memory or any inability to understand the question. She seemed to wince every time she was misunderstood, as if that was her fault. A lot of us recognized our own shame in her demeanor. We were reminded of how often, as girls, we encountered other people’s laughter as a sign we were bad, a sign we were doing something wrong, a sign that we’d made some unforgivable mistake that would brand us as unlovable and irredeemable forever and ever.

I think lots of women feel accountable for other people’s misperceptions of them. But just think about how absurd it is, to collect and make meaning out of every time someone misunderstands you — not to mention every time you unfairly misunderstand yourself.

That’s where all of this praying to a bad religion leads, after all. It leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of your own motives and desires and beliefs. It leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of your own CHARACTER.

When you write that you’re “too sarcastic, too dry, too cold, too analytical, too driven, too independent, too anxious, too serious, too content with being alone,” you believe that these things add up to a bleak snapshot of who you are. What I see, as someone outside your weird religious cult, is someone I’d love to spend time with. What do I like more than independent, sarcastic, analytical, anxious women who like to be alone? Nothing! Everyone I know is sarcastic and anxious. Any of the women I really love could be described as cold or serious or independent.

And beyond that, one reason you might encounter yourself as cold or serious — hey, why not take the leap to “joyless”? — is that you feel like you have to use most of your energy and brain power just to ward off surprises or plot twists that could unravel your sanity at any second. Your seriousness comes from the amount of energy you exert every second, just to be good or almost acceptable or not a complete laughingstock or disaster. You aren’t even praying along with your congregation; you’re standing outside the church holding the doors closed so no one will know the truth about you and destroy everything you have. You expect the world to end at any second. Why wouldn’t you? You spent a great time on vacation with your dad and then he disappeared. Disaster comes without warning. You have to be ready next time.

Instead, this is what I want you to do: Walk away from the church and never look back. Will the parishioners at the Church of Hating You leave and tell other people about how awful you are? Will new people wander in and find out you’re bad? You can’t care anymore.

You do have the option of coming out of the church and telling people what you really think of yourself. I had an era where I liked to announce that I was neurotic and messy and ridiculous, over and over again. I’m not as interested in doing that anymore, because I see that it was yet another way of apologizing for myself, and I no longer feel that I have that much to apologize for.

These days, I just try to notice where I am without judging myself for it. I notice my moods, which seem to change more often than the weather. I notice how often I feel a little queasy or nervous. I notice when I’m getting sad or angry or elated. And I try very hard not to label either my moods or my everyday choices as if they’re horrifically embarrassing and wrong. I’m analytical and I’m also anxious, just to name two of your so-called flaws. I’m sensitive and I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about small things. I have a lot of fears. This is just how I’m wired, full stop. I experience mild challenges and surprises as very difficult and confusing a lot of the time. I don’t like feeling like my fate is in someone else’s hands.

But you know what? I’m a human being. Most humans are like me. Everyone has their stumbling blocks and baggage. I don’t know that many easy-breezy motherfuckers, God bless them, and they aren’t some paragon of specialness either way. We were all born to be exactly who we are.

That’s partly why I don’t use words like “celebrate the fact that you’re a mess” as often in this column anymore. Everyone is a mess on the inside, we’re just in varying degrees of denial about it. I don’t mind showing some of the things other people hide on that front anymore, at least not most of the time, because I don’t think it’s consequential. I do think of myself as slightly broken, but I think most people are a tiny bit broken and I love broken people.

The church tells you that you need to try harder. They say that you have to fix this. But they’re wrong. You don’t have to do a goddamned thing. In order to finally let go of everything you’re holding up, you need to embrace and welcome in all of your fears about what will happen if you aren’t prepared. You need to look at them and unravel them. And you also need to let go of this imaginary better version of you who’s always a few feet ahead but you can never catch up to her. She might seem close, but you know what? Forget her. She isn’t here, where you are. You are the better version of you, because you’re right here.

Be who you are now. Be disappointing and cold and solitary if that’s who you are. It’s not a moral failure to be less than perfect, less than warm, less than social. Yesterday I got a blowout for a reading I was doing in New York (go buy my new book of essays here!) and someone said I looked like Julia Roberts (not true, but thank you, someone!). Today my blowout looks frayed and crumpled; I look like an aging Tesla fan with a pill problem. Who cares? I’m done with this feeling like I’m always getting it wrong. I like myself just fine, at last, even as I astonish myself with my changing needs and my changing moods and my fragility.

You’re strong already and you don’t even notice it because that church full of confused motherfuckers is shouting so loudly in your ear. You’ll be able to handle surprises, once you forgive yourself for not handling them well. You don’t have to work so hard anymore to keep the church doors closed. Tell your husband and friends your fears about what’s terrible about you, and ask them to tell you directly that it’s okay to be angry and cold and sad and weak. Here I’ll say it first: It’s okay to be angry and cold and sad and weak. It really is. It feels good to admit that you don’t have control over much. It feels good to admit that you’re on a wild ride that’s yours alone. That’s what feeling truly alive is about: acknowledging your powerlessness and taking it all in anyway, instead of fighting it. Feeling alive is all about living in reality, as harrowing as that can be.

This lady next to me doesn’t love me for crying again, but it’s okay. This is how it feels to be alive without internalizing other people’s misperceptions all the time. I want you to stop trying to catch up with that perfect ghost they sing about in your church, and join me here instead. Let’s be broken and cold and anxious and sarcastic together. It’s not just okay, it’s hot to be old and really fucking weird. Revel in who you already are, effortlessly, and leave your imaginary impossible self behind forever.

It’s time to leave the church. It’s time to close the prayer book that was forever opened to that one reading about the little girl who was waiting, heartbroken, for her dad to come home. It’s time to stop trying so hard to prevent the next disaster. Let’s walk out of the church together, into the sunshine, into the pouring rain, crying and laughing, old and weird and hot and strange as hell and wide awake. We didn’t write these hymns. We can forget them. We are not accountable to other people’s misperceptions of us. The world will keep spinning with or without our help. We are free.


Order Polly’s new book What If This Were Enoughhere. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘Everything I Do Is Wrong’