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‘I’m Slow at Everything and It’s Ruining My Life’

Photo: Muhammad Asif Sherazi/Getty Images

Hi, Polly,

This letter should take me approximately ten minutes to write and proofread, but I already know it won’t. It will be 20 minutes, or 30, or even an hour, at the very least, because everything takes me a long time to do. When I say everything, I mean everything: getting ready; finishing a book; tweezing my eyebrows; college. I don’t know if this means I’m stupid or lazy or that something in my brain is broken. Please tell me one of those things or something better, because the prospect of living like this for however many more decades are left in my life — it makes me feel like I’m drowning.

I guess it started when I was in elementary school, when I never finished lunch by the time we had to go back to class. And then as I grew older, I noticed I was always the last one to turn things in, or that I spent three times as long on something as everybody else. I just figured that I was doing something right and everyone else was wrong: my grades were very good, I was considered intelligent, etc. But then I started working, and one of my co-workers who didn’t like me always jumped my shit for taking too long to run the vacuum, mop the floor, etc. I didn’t like her either, but only because I knew she was right — and even more so because I didn’t know what was wrong with me. What was taking me so long?

The slowness followed me into college and into my retail jobs during that time. At one place, I had to process new inventory for a clothing store, and it was supposed to take three hours and would take me five. At another, I was supposed to complete a consultation with clients in 30 minutes and it would take me an hour. College was supposed to take me four years, but thanks to some disastrously inconvenient health problems and a full-time job, it took me six.

Yes, I know that being in college for longer because of work and health isn’t necessarily a bad thing or “my fault,” but it didn’t make me feel any better about being a serial late-bloomer. It’s added to a deep-seated sense of alienation that just gets worse the older I become: I seem to be staying younger while everyone else grows up at warp speed. The possibility of catching up seems increasingly remote, and I wonder why I should even try.

As I’ve gotten older and taken on professional jobs, this slowness has seriously threatened my career. And what scares me is that it’s not just a question of working smarter rather than harder or whatever people say (although I’ve tried that, and everything comes out terrible). It just seems like my brain is wooden, like it won’t move when I want it to, and there are all these things inside that I can’t take out.

What’s particularly excruciating about all of this is that, when I do anything, I work the entire time, even though much of that work is just me staring at a page I’ve read five times and still can’t quite comprehend. I’ve gotten very good at hiding the slowness — starting things way before they’re due, working from home constantly, lying when someone asks how much time I spent on something (which means I’m working for free a lot). But I’ve just lost the will or the ability to compensate anymore, which means I’ve lost the will to do anything.

Two years ago, my ex abused me physically and emotionally; he was also a pathological narcissist. For the entire time I was with him, I don’t remember a single conversation we actually had about me, although at the time I thought that was acceptable because I’m ugly and unlikely to ever have a partner again. Anyway, the abuse seriously depleted my energy to keep up appearances, which affected my work. My employer at the time couldn’t have given two shits that I was a domestic-violence victim. I think it matters here to tell you that I’m gay, and that the fact that I’m a male did absolutely nothing to help my employer take me seriously.

The boyfriend and I split, and I could care less where he is. I left that job. But ever since then, I’ve been slower than ever at everything. All I want to do is sleep. I feel like I’m just too slow to survive.

How do I fix myself?

Yours in desperation,

Too Slow Too Stupid

Dear TSTS,

I want to confess that I don’t know a thing about why you are the way you are. I woke up at 3:45 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I ended up getting up and reading your letter at 4:30 in the morning. I’m a 48-year-old woman, and this is how we are sometimes; I don’t want to torture myself with it. I can either lie in bed and blame myself for not magically knowing how to get back to sleep, or I can use my insomnia to my advantage and get some good writing done before the sun even rises. No matter how frustrated or unnerved I might feel about it at times, I try to work with what I’m given.

I think you also have to work with what you’ve been given. This morning, thanks to you, I’ve ended up reading a bunch of websites about Highly Sensitive People and also about something called concentration deficit disorder (or sluggish cognitive tempo), which is apparently an “inattentive subtype” of ADHD, though neither of these categories seem to fit you perfectly. People with SCT are described as “listless” and feel like they have fog in their heads, which does seem to fit, but they also tend to make a lot of mistakes when they’re completing tasks, and that doesn’t apply to you at all. HSP is more of an anecdotal assessment like “codependency,” but it’s characterized by an inability to handle situations and sensations that don’t bother other people — noisy rooms, invasive smells — along with a self-protective reaction to speed, jarring stimuli, perceived rejection, scary movies. I do think you sound incredibly intense and sensitive, and I guess I wonder whether or not you might’ve ended up muting your natural powers of perception or turning down the volume on the world in part to avoid being tormented by invasive outside stimuli.

But I don’t want to indulge in random guesses about diagnoses I’m not qualified to make. I just wonder why you aren’t already seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist in order to discuss what might be going on with you. It sounds like you’re afraid of knowing more about what mysterious forces have been at play in your life for decades now. You already seem to stigmatize yourself and blame yourself for what’s going on, and maybe you think that the process of looking closely at these things with a professional will only make you feel worse.

I can understand that, but I don’t think it will be true over the long haul. I think it’s time for you to face this and try to investigate what’s happening inside your mind and your heart, so you can find a way forward that doesn’t feel torturous and shitty. When you start looking into therapists, will you feel overwhelmed and judged and nervous around many of them? Yes. Will you dislike some of them? Probably. When I’m feeling vulnerable and I need help, I tend to get prickly. Plus, how many busy professionals do you love the second you meet them, particularly in an upsetting situation where you need their help immediately? The whole thing probably sounds terrible to you. Maybe just thinking about trying to do these things makes you feel tired. Maybe you wonder how you’ll make the time, when everything else in your life takes fucking forever. Maybe the idea of trying to talk to someone and focus on them closely as your money flies out the window sounds excruciating and painful and terrifying.

So let’s start here: I want to know what makes you feel better. I want to know some of the things you do that work for you, right now. I don’t mean working through weekends to make up for the work you can’t get done during the week. Torturing yourself for being different clearly isn’t going to work anymore. I want to know what brings you happiness, or at least a sense of calm satisfaction, or a feeling of being in the right place. And I want to know what kinds of behaviors in other people help you and what behaviors slow you down. Is there anyone who accepts you for exactly who you are? Has anyone made a big adjustment for your benefit before?

I feel like merely asking that question is going to kick up a lot of self-hatred for you. And I have to tell you, self-hatred feels like your biggest challenge right now, because it paralyzes you and it exacerbates everything you’re already struggling with by making all of it feel like your fault. It’s almost like the emotional version of stammering. When I was in junior high school, I developed a stutter around this one friend who had fallen into the habit of yelling SPIT IT OUT! whenever I paused too long before I responded to something she said. You say this slowness has gotten worse since you were with your abusive boyfriend. I think you’re in a state where you feel like you can’t do anything right, and it’s making everything worse.

Look. This really isn’t your fault. You are who you are. You are here. This is you. Let’s just be here, together, and sit with that. What if it were okay to just be the way you are, right here, foggy and tired and sad?

I have to admit, it makes me feel extremely tired and very fucking sad to sit here, thinking about how bad you must feel. But it also feels good in a way just to think that you could read these words and imagine me, with you, feeling sad alongside you, accepting you for who you are, where you are, right here, right now.

My gut says that you need to feel met and seen and heard the way you are at this moment, even if this extreme fogginess you have right now is only temporary. But there are some hints in your letter that you don’t really want that. People who tolerate abusive narcissists for longer than they should (and I’ve been one of them) tend to want to be around people who will ignore them. Even though they feel ignored and lonely a lot of the time, being around a narcissist takes the spotlight off them and makes them feel busy and distracted and unselfconscious. If you stop someone like that in their tracks and ask them, “How do you feel? What do you need?” you’ll often get an angry or defensive or confused reaction: “Why do you want to know? Why do you care? Leave me alone!” That’s the natural response from someone who would rather hide than be seen clearly in all of their flawed, broken glory.

Beyond just feeling slow and sleepy and shitty all the time, you also feel ashamed. You’re trying to hide and you can’t hide anymore. You’re trying to work more quickly but your body refuses to comply. Something about this narcissistic boyfriend broke open a dam inside you and now the whole town is flooded and no one can move from where they are. Everything is still and silent now. But even once the water drains away, your plan is to stay in your house, to refuse to try, to melt into the ground, to give up.

That’s a completely forgivable reaction. You deserve that. You deserve some time to be still, to do nothing, to sleep late, to ignore the world, to finally not bust your own ass just to catch up. You deserve to ask the world to slow the fuck down and let you be. I know you don’t believe that you deserve that, but please let this in: you do. You need a break. Your body needs a break, and so does your mind.

I want you to take a break. Give yourself whatever you want. Tell yourself, for once, that it’s okay to do nothing. While you take a break, I want you to say to yourself: “I am different from most other people. That’s just a fact. There’s no moral failure in that. I get to do what works for me. I get to be exactly where the fuck I am, and I get to do exactly what the fuck I do, exactly how the fuck I do it.”

There are so many pressures in our culture to get everything right all the time, to be smooth and calm yet efficient and assertive. We’re expected to embody the exact “right” mix of values and beliefs and to communicate those things swiftly and gracefully upon command. We are supposed to care when we disappoint anyone under the sun — bosses and friends and lovers and complete strangers alike. We are to answer to anyone and everyone’s misperceptions immediately, and then we are to adjust, to recalibrate, to please them better and better. We should speak our minds but never step out of line or say a false word. No one should be awkward or anxious or depressed or withdrawn or unattractive or falling behind. No one should seem unconcerned or cynical or upset or lost. Everyone should be positive and cheerful and up to speed at all times, rocketing forward to victory without a doubt in the world. Everyone should be generously giving of themselves without fail, every day. Everyone should be an expert and an advocate for all of the good things, and an opponent and sworn enemy of all of the bad things — in private, in public, around the clock, without a moment off, without a single tiny burble or mumble or glitch.

I say fuck that noise. When you live in an unforgiving world, you are unforgiving to others. I don’t want to beat myself up and then take that rage on the road, and lash out at the behavior and attitudes of everyone around me. I want to learn and grow and make mistakes out in the open. I want to be who I am without shame, and let other people do the same. We all have bigger fish to fry at this moment in history.

When someone says you’re too slow, when they make you feel like shit about it, it’s hard for you not to internalize that and manufacture shame out of it. It’s hard not to notice your deficiencies. It’s hard not to feel a lot of anger and hatred and then turn that hatred back out at the world. Everyone is spoiling for a fight right now, too, because everyone is holding themselves and each other to higher and higher standards, with no room for human error, no room for half-formed opinions, no room for a pause before someone yells SPIT IT OUT GODDAMN IT and then TAKE THAT BACK. Meanwhile, the real enemies — indifferent corporate and political leaders who would sooner watch the planet die than take action or take a cent out of their own pockets — go on benefiting from our confusion and insecurity and infighting.

I don’t want you to turn your perceived shortcomings into shame and hatred. I want you to honor your reality instead. I wonder if you can stop worrying about how other people misperceive your slowness and instead delight in how palpably strange it feels to live inside your skin right now. What if you just leaned way the fuck into this and explored it? Savor that slow-motion feeling. Write it down. Turn it into art. Become a scientist and a cheerleader of your own affliction. Do things get slower when you try that? Do they speed up? Do you feel calm hearing these words? Do you feel angry? Write that down, too. Celebrate the odd sensation of being you, right here right now.

Because you have a right to be exactly how you are right now, without feeling bad about it. I don’t care if you move 15 times slower than you do now, and you just get slower and slower and slower, steadily, until you’re like a snail in slow motion. I know it sucks. I’m just saying, you get to do what you do. You get to do things at your speed. There comes a time in every life when we are asked to stand up for who we are in spite of great fear. You can stand up for this. You can be kind and compassionate to yourself, and to others, and you can gently assert your need for a slower pace in all things. It’s not an announcement of deficit. You do accurate, great work, you said it yourself — and it doesn’t seem like you’re prone to complimenting yourself about much else. You need to consider yourself an asset. You can accept that you’re different and still assert that you bring a lot to the table at any job, and in any relationship, too.

So take a break. Let yourself off the hook for once in your life. And after you really feel like you’ve given yourself a break, and you’ve allowed yourself room to feel whatever you feel when you do that, and you’ve worked a little bit to view that utterly unproductive time as valuable and important, simply because you existed without putting pressure on yourself, then you can get up and call a few therapists and set up a few times to meet them. Be assertive about whether or not they have a sliding scale for patients who can’t afford anything, if that’s what you need. Be clear about what you want from them, whether it’s answers or support or a listening ear or direction or all of the above. Be shameless about your needs.

I can’t take you past the point where you see a therapist, so please listen: You really need to look for a therapist, and find one you can trust, who seems smart, who seems patient, who makes sense to you. Please do that.

All I can do beyond advising you to look for answers is to tell you this: people are not exactly the same inside. We don’t match. Everyone is different. Our culture pretends to celebrate this, but in practice, we’re utterly intolerant of it. It’s okay to notice that. But you have to finally let go of this feeling that by being you, you’re letting the whole world down. I know that feeling well. But you deserve more than that. You deserve to feel good and whole and gorgeous and loved. You deserve to care about and protect yourself, to stand up for yourself. I want that for you. I think your whole life will feel very different once you can figure out how to accept where you are and who you are.

I know that it seems like the world wants everyone to be the same, swaggery and smooth, all-powerful and efficient and all-knowing. But I prefer to live on the Island of Broken Toys with the freaks, personally, because they have the biggest hearts. I like the angry weirdos and the sad dolls and the forlorn reindeer with the gaudy light-up noses, because they have big ideas and they love to talk and they’re good at listening and they get it.

The truth is, misfits make up most of this world. We live among broken toys everywhere we go. They’re all around you right now. Dare to reach out, exactly as you are, and ask them to be your friends. Dare to expect a good life. Dare to expect love and joy and sweetness. Be brave, and dare to want all of it, everything.


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

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‘I’m Slow at Everything and It’s Ruining My Life’