Photo: Thai Yuan Lim/Getty Images/EyeEm
I would like to be a joiner. I would like to be able to go to social gatherings — get-togethers, church groups, public classes — and meet people. I’ve never really admitted that out loud before, not even to myself.
It’s not that I don’t know how to find and attend events. Every few weeks, I manage to make myself go be a part of something. Because of this, I can tell that I want this in my life. But how do I face the fear that I might get to know someone? Especially when that’s all I really want?
I’m most afraid of going back to places. I can handle those first few moments of awkward, sometimes-effusive introduction. But if I go back, I might meet the same people again. People might remember me. How do I handle that? It feels like, if I go back, I risk them knowing me. I risk them realizing that I need more human companionship in my life.
And that’s shameful … right?
I know it’s not. I know it shouldn’t be. Shame isn’t supposed to play into the desire for company. It’s extremely human to want others around.
But I guess that’s the crux of it. Surely, everyone else has made all their friends long ago, right? I am the only one who is somehow nearing 30 and friendless. They will smell the desperation on me, and it will push them away, as it did when I was a child.
Some part of me knows this isn’t true. That part realizes that people have times they need new friends, and new communities, throughout their lives. Yet I can’t convince myself of that.
The reality is, the contempt I feel is my own. I am the one who believes desperation is unsightly, who pushes away lonely souls and tells them I am too busy to make a commitment to being around for the next event. I am the person who judges people for looking alone and afraid.
And now when I need my own kindness the most, I judge myself the hardest.
How can I let go of the belief that it is somehow shameful not to have your social life all sorted?
Conflicted Ball of Self-Loathing
Your social life will never be completely sorted. You can have tons of friends and those friends can move away or dump you or die. Even if you have a few close, dependable friends, you can find yourself friendless among other parents, or friendless at the office, and that will bother you more than you expect. So it’s important for all of us to resist the urge to treat friendlessness as a personal failure, either in ourselves or others. We all find ourselves without enough friends more often than we want to admit.
It’s also important to notice how much shame you feel over your emotions in general. If you feel ashamed of seeming desperate or lonely, you probably feel ashamed of feeling sad or depressed or anxious, too. You probably feel ashamed of getting angry or upset over small things. You probably feel ashamed of the most natural, predictable states, like feeling tired, or sick, or not up to socializing.
And for those of us who judge ourselves the hardest, everything we do is shameful. We don’t just blame ourselves for unfortunate things like failing to maintain solid, long-term friendships or having extremely difficult, dicey relationships in our lives. We don’t just fault ourselves for things like getting dumped by boyfriends or moving to a new city. We eventually become so accustomed to self-recrimination that we blame ourselves for everything that happens on any given day.
You wake up late and that’s your fault. You misplace your keys and that’s a reflection of what a disorganized person you are. You have lint on your sweater at your first meeting of the day and that means you’re a slob who will never get her act together. You say the wrong thing. You have laundry to do. You eat too much for dinner. You are gross, in general!
You also feel guilty for not calling your mom this week, and guilty for not walking your dog today, and guilty for not doing better in school 15 years ago, and guilty for not being a bigger success.
How do you break free of this prison of shame and guilt and grossness? First, you notice it. You step right into the fire. You feel just how wrong and disgusting and hapless and pointless you are. You notice how incredibly unforgiving and guilty and ashamed you feel, constantly, just for trying to survive. You see that your gray hairs are a failure. You notice that your bad moods somehow mean that you’re letting down the whole world with your inability to be happy. You reflect on what a bad choice it was for you to eat that hamburger, to take that nap, to finish that book without enjoying it, to go to that event and sweat and then leave prematurely because you weren’t in the mood and couldn’t muster the necessary small talk.
You notice how you’re to blame for the whole universe.
And then? You resolve to stop blaming yourself for everything, and instead you own who you are. Start here:
I am someone who blames herself for everything, and feels late, and sloppy, and guilty all the time.
I am someone who feels like a failure just for being 30 years old.
I am someone who feels angry at herself for failing to bend the laws of time and space.
I am someone who doesn’t love herself enough.
I am someone who believes that her desperation is disgusting.
I am someone who is a tiny bit broken.
Then you make a small turn:
I am desperate for friends, but I am still a good person.
I don’t love myself enough, but that’s a common problem.
I think desperation is gross, but I’m pointed in a new direction, toward acceptance.
I’m working on my compassion for myself, so that I can be more compassionate toward others.
I am broken. From some angles, that’s beautiful.
Now listen to me closely, like you’re listening to a stranger you’ve met twice, and you’re not sure you like her yet: I have spent years trying to be better. I have spent most of the almost two decades since I was your age, 30 years old, trying to seem like a smooth, cool, happy, successful person. And none of my Herculean efforts to polish myself, to be less of a weirdo, to be more of a calm, attractive, confident person worked until I decided that it was okay just to be the neurotic, angry, confused, sloppy, unreasonable freak that I am. I never felt that I deserved to take good care of myself, or deserved to take a minute to look okay or feel okay, until I knew that who I was inside was not just acceptable but worthwhile, whole, strong, precious.
I never felt like I had enough friends until I admitted that I struggled with friendships because I struggled to have a voice, to ask for what I wanted, to take up space. I never felt like my social life was even partially sorted until I decided that my social life would never feel completely sorted. I never felt really, truly beautiful until I decided that growing older would be good and fun instead of some kind of an embarrassing tragedy. I never felt unashamed — NEVER! — until I noticed how much shame I was carrying around everywhere I went.
I was carrying giant loads of shame. I can’t even tell you why. I still don’t understand it completely. But everything I did was wrong, so fucking wrong. It took a crisis with a friend to notice that, whenever I was in conflict with someone, my underlying assumption was that I was the problem. I was the messed-up one. I was the one who couldn’t act normal. I was obsessed with how frustrating and crazy-making other people could be, but only because underneath that, my mind and body were still obsessed with how wrong I was.
What I learned, more than anything else, from that crisis was that I had become extremely high-strung in an effort to mute or hide my flaws. I needed to divert all of the energy I put into “seeming” healthy into actually being healthy — feeling good, supporting and protecting myself, doing what I wanted to do, and giving generously to the people who already supported and protected me.
My efforts to seem normal and chill and unflappable were killing me. I was gathering too much feedback from other people’s faces, yet I was trapped in my own little ego prison. This is a common state of paralysis that smart, sensitive people who suddenly want to please others can find themselves in. It’s unhealthy and weirdly self-obsessed, even though the ultimate goal is to forget yourself and be just another person in the room.
The way out of that trap is giving up. That’s something you don’t hear in America very often: Quit. Give up. Surrender. Be the desperate loser you don’t want to see in the world, and give her your love. Right now, you’re observing your desperate self and trying to love her, but you can’t. Instead, you’re blaming yourself for not loving her. Don’t do that! That’s just as bad as avoiding a REAL LIFE desperate, lonely person who might be your future BFF! It’s okay to be turned off by yourself and others. That’s just you struggling with real emotions. That’s just you digging for the truth, the whole truth.
Let the whole truth in. Ask yourself: Why is it gross to seem desperate and awkward? Why is loneliness pathetic to you? And what are your fears around being known, being seen, being heard? Why does it feel safer to stay hidden? What happens after you’re rejected? Are you supposed to take it seriously? Are you supposed to crawl back into a hole then? What if you chose not to? What if you kept trying to connect instead?
When I started to dig for the whole truth, I realized that I was afraid of NOT making a huge effort with people, because then they’d realize that I’m a grumpy curmudgeon with a lot of ideas and opinions that I can’t hide. If I made that clear in most circles, I assumed I would have no friends. Who wants a friend who has so much to say, who has so many conflicting ideas and emotions inside, and they all come tumbling out at once? I was disgusting. I was a messy explosion. I had no control. I believed these things, and I still nurtured a few bad friendships with people who lived inside of the same type of self-hatred.
Someone let you believe that being seen and known was dangerous. Someone made you feel like your real self wasn’t lovable. Your biggest challenge is to question that assessment, to wave off the rejection you’ve encountered instead of working it into the proof against yourself that you’ve been writing all your life. Your big task, right now, is to decide for yourself that you can be desperate and weird and lonely out in the open and that will be beautiful in its own way. Once you stop trying to hide it, people will encounter your full, lonely, loving, desperate, generous self in a new way. They will embrace your touching, adorable, lovable openness. They will feel drawn to it. They will want you in their lives in a permanent way.
They will see you clearly. And you will feel seen. And it won’t feel scary and terrible and nasty. It will feel like divinity. It will feel like waking up in a new life, where you can become anything you want for the first time.
Fear is at the heart of your shame. You’re afraid to be yourself and be seen. You’re afraid to dig for the whole truth and live inside of it. You’re afraid of your own pain and fear. But so much beauty is waiting for you inside of that pain. Stepping into those dark places can bring joy into your life in ways you won’t understand until you try.
I just read the memoir Heavy, by Kiese Laymon, and I wish I could buy a copy for every single person who reads this column. When you read that book, you can see clearly how brave it is to be vulnerable and honest, even when the whole truth feels scary enough to crush you and everyone you love. Laymon leads you right into the center of his experience, offering up the vivid story of how it felt to grow up as a “big black boy” in the state of Mississippi, with an incredibly strong, volatile mother, surrounded by racist white people and sexist men and unfair teachers and confused kids. Laymon struggled to connect with other people, he struggled with his weight, he struggled with his mother’s violence, he struggled with addiction. He admits at the start of his book that he wishes he didn’t have to include the whole truth.
But every step of the way, he admits his fear, his hesitation, his conflicted heart. He tells you how ugly and sick he once felt, and somehow, all you can think about is how beautiful he is. He describes scenes where he’s pushing people away when he should be opening up and being honest, and it feels so familiar. His shame is so gigantic, even as he searches for some feeling of pride, some sense of abundance, some way to connect. I wish I could write the way Laymon does. I wish I were more vulnerable, and more honest about how scary life can be, out of the blue. I have so much guilt, still, over how long it’s taken me to tell the whole truth. I feel like a fucking hothouse flower, too. Who cares what some old white woman feels about anything? Aren’t we the absolute worst, the most pathetic humans around? I still think so sometimes, even when I try not to.
Shame takes so many different forms. It’s there in everything we do. We carry it around, and it keeps us from seeing ourselves and each other. Heavy is about using the things you see as embarrassing and shameful about yourself to build meaning, to make something that’s weighty and proud and real out of your fears. When you can do that, then you can spread that love to other people who are struggling.
You believe, right now, that your fear should have meaning, that you should make decisions based on that fear. But when you finally start to own your shame and your fear, you can feel afraid in public. You can let people see your fear. Your fear won’t go away, but you can coexist with it. You can let people see you. That is emancipation, pure and simple.
When I was reading Heavy on my flight home from Chicago this week, I cried on the plane for a long time. Finally I put down my book and looked out the window and thought about how much I’ve always feared becoming who I am now: Older, not gorgeous, not special, middle-aged. But it doesn’t feel bad. It feels good to be here.
Then I heard this woman behind me talking about wanting to fill out a credit-card application, but she couldn’t see it. “I have macular degeneration!” she kept saying loudly, in a cheerful voice, but no one seemed that interested. The girl sitting next to her didn’t offer to help her fill out the application. The flight attendant said she would come back later, but she didn’t seem anxious to help, either. So I stood up as the plane was deboarding and said to the woman, “I can help you fill that out.” She smiled at me brightly. “I have bad eyesight, too,” I told her, and she said, “You do?!” like it was the most wonderful thing she’d ever heard.
I filled out her address for her. Even though we were at LAX, 30 miles away from where I live, she happens to live a few blocks away from me. “It’s good to meet a neighbor!” she gushed. I offered to give her a ride home, but she told me that she drove herself. “I can drive during the day!” she said proudly. Her face was so bright and happy. She looked so grateful to be talking to me. Her smile was so beautiful. Not old and a tiny bit beautiful in spite of that. Just plain beautiful.
I filled in her birthday on the application. It’s tomorrow. She’ll be 93 years old. She had two canes and a bag. I carried her bag. Then I wrote down my phone number in huge print on a piece of paper and handed it to her. I’m going to bring her a birthday card tomorrow, if I can remember or figure out her address. I will seem like a stalker. Her kids or her friends, if she has any, might think I’m a weirdo or an opportunist. I might seem desperate. If she doesn’t have any friends, she might start to rely on me to help her run errands, or she might want me to sit around and talk for hours. She might seem desperate.
I don’t have any free time as it is. She might not like me that much. She might be a racist. She might make me feel guilty. She might not want to be friends at all.
We are neighbors. We’ll just see what happens. Nothing will ever be sorted. We are all a little bit broken. All we can do is be honest. All we can do is try. I am bad at this, and so are you, and so is everyone else. From some angles, that’s beautiful.
Order Polly’s new book, What If This Were Enough, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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