I seriously need your help. I need concise, precise advice, because I’m lazy, I have no work ethic, and have zero direction. I am constantly doubting myself and have no idea what to do with my life.
I’m 33 and currently completing my second degree (the first was in another subject). My prospects in the field aren’t that promising, so I’m considering a master’s in a third subject, because I know I’ll have to change fields at some point, as my job will be made obsolete and I don’t want to end up at 45 without a job. I know that sounds preemptively anxious, but it is a real possibility. I’m not even sure I want to do what I’m being trained for now. And that’s part of the problem.
In my mid-20s I had a bunch of jobs and I didn’t excel at any of them, nor did I gain any real skills. I always went in extremely excited and within a month was severely disappointed and bored. I do everything half-assedly. I work too quickly, and I can’t seem to slow down. Moreover, I’ve wasted most of my life on the internet. I filled my head with insecure thoughts like “If you miss something on Facebook or Instagram, you’re a loser,” and I became addicted to social media. I spend an average of four hours a day on my phone (and then some on my laptop), and I can’t stand myself. I have this grand fantasy of making it big and that means being rich and famous! I’ve polluted my brain into thinking that’s the only way to become a valid person. I also can’t seem to focus on one thing, career-wise, and it’s eating up a lot of my emotional energy. Every day I think of something new to do, that I am genuinely interested in, but not necessarily passionate about. I do this because I am anxious. That’s part of why I haven’t pursued being an actress, because I don’t think it would lead anywhere, definitely not to any stability. I also feel like acting would only serve to feed my ego, and I don’t need any more of that.
Everyone around me believes in me and has no idea that I lack work ethic, they think I’m “brilliant” — their word, not mine. I was supposed to be Peggy Olson, or Parker Posey in Party Girl, but I’m really just a dud. I’m starting to realize I’m not that smart at all. I don’t have a brain for sciences, I’m not particularly artistic (although I love the arts), and I’m so-so at anything having to do with social sciences. I am a jack of no trades whatsoever. I don’t remember things I’ve studied, meaning I have no credibility and hardly anything to offer employers. So where does that leave me? Hopefully, I have some emotional intelligence, right? Wrong.
No, I’m an emotional wreck. I was in therapy for nearly a decade to deal with daddy issues. It hasn’t seemed to get me anywhere. I still can’t get past the three-month mark in any romantic relationship. Until now, I just threw myself into the arms of literally any guy who was really nice to me, because my father never was. My father has borderline personality disorder and has disowned me and raised a hand to me too many times for me to feel stable or secure. I grew up desperate for his love, affection, and approval. I see myself being desperate and pathetic in relationships, and it makes me sick. It’s impossible to cut ties with my father because he’s mentally ill and doesn’t understand “Don’t contact me again.” I love him but I can’t stand him. I feel guilty because his health is very fragile and he’s in his 70s.
I don’t know what my problem is. I have mood swings. Attachment issues. Depression. But I’m functional. None of my therapists thought I had a mental-health issue that needed checking, either. I wonder if I manipulated them into thinking that. No one has ever accused me of being manipulative, but I know I can be.
In recent months, I’ve slept with two close friends who are both in long-term, monogamous, committed relationships. One of the girlfriends is becoming a dear friend of mine. Of course I will never tell her, because I believe the guilt is mine to carry, not hers. I also had a moment of complete self-destruction on vacation this summer after a Tinder date who I had a great time with didn’t follow up, leaving me to have a total meltdown. I felt so rejected that the next day, I let a total stranger, a sleazeball from the first moment, pick me up in broad daylight off the street and I fucked him and gave him a blowjob in his car (and I will spare you all the lies and grossness that went with it, it was seriously grim and could have been very dangerous, and there may or may not be a video of me circulating on the internet now). I thought this kind of behavior was behind me, but apparently not. You see, I like to think I’m a good person who has done bad things. My dad also thinks that about himself.
I guess I am good at being sociable, but I don’t care to meet new people now that I’m in my 30s, and in the past year I’ve had major arguments with four of my closest friends, only one of which was resolved. That said, my life is full of love and unwavering support from my friends and family, for all my BS. And I don’t know why. Because I don’t want to be accountable for anything. My emotions are so erratic. I want it easy. I don’t want to work hard.
So I don’t know what to do. How do I fix my work ethic? How do I change my unrealistic expectations for my love life, and my life in general? How do I become a better person? I constantly feel lost and aimless. These issues should have been fixed by now. I genuinely feel like I won’t amount to anything, and I’ll end up alone. I can’t keep having my friends try to convince me that I’m great. I need to believe it and change, become successful (and not in an Instagram way, in a good person way) and proud of myself. Please, help me.
Directionless and Floundering
Dear Directionless and Floundering,
If I gave you very specific directions — give up on the third degree, cut your dad out of your life, etc. — they would obscure the fact that the way you’re processing the world around you is broken. If you don’t fix your broken processor, you’ll just keep creating new problems. You’ll keep getting new degrees and cheating on the partners of new friends and milking everyone for reassurance and ego boosts instead of showing up and being honest and real.
You’re exhausted because you’re looking for love every second of every day, in everything you do. You’ve intellectualized this process so thoroughly that now, all of your desire for affection and approval has taken on a muddled or crass form: You want tiny hearts and follows and likes. You want excitement. You want to feel desired by your friend’s boyfriend. You want to feel powerful. But everywhere you look, you see the opposite of what you crave: rejection, indifference, despair. You work hard for a degree, then decide that it’s meaningless. You work hard for a boyfriend’s love without showing your true self from the start and then he dumps you. You cherish your friends, but you view their love as misguided (because you are bad and manipulative and unlovable, they just don’t realize it yet). Because you don’t love or trust yourself, because you have no personal faith or belief in your own future, because you don’t feed or protect yourself (you consider yourself unworthy of care), because you can’t feel your feelings (you hide inside your anxious thoughts instead), everything promising and good is turned into garbage. Your thoughts translate into self-destructive action, and your feelings are cut out of the mix entirely. Ambition becomes another way you’ve failed. Big dreams are reduced to anxiously scanning Instagram, feeling inferior. True love becomes a blow job in a car.
Your restless mind and desperate grab for reassurance (instead of patient connection) render everything that’s precious worthless.
Here is how you escape: Commit to seeing a therapist weekly and learn to feel your feelings. Accept how broken you are. Embrace your vulnerability. Live inside a giant question mark. Tell your most trusted friends that you are lost and afraid. Dig for the whole truth. When your mind circles, don’t listen. Stop trying to solve your problems intellectually. Make it your job to listen to your heart, to follow your heart, to trust your instincts.
Following your heart means abandoning your exhausting attempts to “fix” things using your mind. In some ways, your degrees are further attempts at intellectualization, as if you said, “Here are concrete career paths that feel arbitrary, but that’s my lot in life; I don’t deserve to love what I do. I should do something marketable. I should do something laborious and random. I should learn to be someone who’s better than who I really am: Someone who memorizes facts and looks like an expert. Someone with a clear role that is not emotional.”
Some part of you is trying to become an unfeeling robot. I’m not saying you have zero interest in those fields. There’s probably some connection there. But you almost sound like you see your jobs as a way of beating yourself into submission. You deserve punishment. You deserve to slog away at pointless tasks.
So your heart is revolting against this state of affairs, the way hearts always do. Your heart says THIS IS MISERY. Your heart says GIVE ME SOMETHING REAL. Your mind doesn’t know how to act on anything that comes from your heart. It’s a terrible translator of what your heart wants. It takes “I WANT REAL CONNECTION” and turns it into “I NEED A FIX, FIND ME SOMETHING THAT WILL MAKE ME FEEL BETTER. DO IT NOW!”
Your first task is to stop looking for fixes. No one is coming to save you. Fame would only exacerbate your state of distress and anxiety. Likes are empty calories that starve your soul. Love will never feel like love as long as you hate yourself. Anxiously searching for strange substitutions for love and reassurance, all day long, becomes a way of beating yourself up. You think you’re looking for affirmation, but you’re really scanning the world for signs of rejection. You see rejection in everything, because you dislike yourself and live inside your head. You also see the opposite of love everywhere because that’s all your dad had to offer: He couldn’t see you or hear you, he could only punish you for being human. You feel too many negative emotions because you’re constantly pushing your emotions away, so they get darker and stronger and bust their way in when you don’t want them there.
You need a rest. You need empty moments in which you tolerate your anxiety and circling thoughts until they slow down and stop circling. You need slow, quiet activities that ground you and remind you to accept yourself in spite of huge obstacles and bad thoughts. You need to put solutions out of your mind for now, and engage in activities that have nothing to do with your ego. You need habits that strengthen your patience and focus, but also feel real and not arbitrary. You need to abandon your glorious future and build your imperfect present instead.
That’s a way of life. You don’t just live in the present for a while, then refocus on the future. Learning to enjoy the present is your entire job. Everything you care about, everything you ever manage to do, grows out of that practice.
Resolve to finish your degree (since it sounds like you’re close), but while you’re at it, resolve to stop thinking about what happens ten years from now and ten days from now and ten minutes from now. Instead, invite your emotions into the room. Give them love. The “bad” emotions and the “good” ones. What you feel doesn’t make you terrible. What you feel makes you you. You are not as bad as you think. You are desperate. You are an addict. You are scared. You are lonely as hell, because nobody knows you, because you’re afraid to know yourself. You are just like everyone else in this way.
But you do need a therapist who can recognize how bad it is for you. That also means you need to tell your new therapist the truth about how desperate and self-destructive you are. Did you tell your former therapists everything? I’m guessing you started to subconsciously manipulate them so they’d give you reassurance and approval the way everyone else does.
Let me be clear, though: The word “manipulative” is a very unfair word for someone with an abusive past to use in describing herself. You’re a survivor, okay? You survived your father’s abuse in a million clever ways. You had methods of pleasing him in spite of his blind contempt and rage. These tricks and lies were your ways of surviving, your ways of getting love and support instead of getting hurt. Now you use them on everyone, in order to keep surviving. Forgive yourself. It’s hard to be honest when you were raised by angry confused fuckers who hated your humanity. FORGIVE. YOURSELF.
Everyone is a little bit manipulative. Get that word out of your mind. It turns everything good about you into trash. You ARE brilliant and charming in part because of your past. Feel proud of those traits instead of hating them. You can embrace and celebrate all of your survival skills and adaptive traits without feeling like a shitty person. You simply need to learn how to be honest. You simply need to learn how to connect without questioning your own humanity the way your dad did. You don’t even know yourself yet. You will learn to get to know yourself. You will learn to accept yourself. You will learn, eventually, to love yourself and others, generously, without lying to them or looking for approval or rejection or some verdict on your character, first and last.
Here is the starting line:
Quit all of your social-media accounts except for your favorite one. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, you can visit your favorite social media for 15 minutes total. Set a timer. If you can’t stick to those limits, you have to quit that account, too.
When you wake up in the morning, exercise for 30 minutes.
Buy or check out two books every week and read them by the end of the week. Squeeze these books into the time you used to spend on social media. If you want to get audiobooks and listen while you exercise, you can do that, but get the other book in print.
Write down ten words to describe yourself. Then write down one reason each trait might exist in you, given your past. At the bottom of the page, write, “I will accept you as you are.” Tape this to the wall. Do this every Monday, until your wall is full. Notice how the words you use to describe yourself start to change for the better. You need to start taking pride in who you are. That includes taking pride in where you’ve been, and how you’ve adapted in ways you never give yourself credit for.
During the day, when you’re tempted to look at social media, when you’re tempted to go on Tinder, when you’re tempted to do something that will hurt you, when you’re thinking in circles, when you’re trying to DECIDE something, stop. Say to yourself, “My first job is to slow down, to be still. My first job is to enjoy this day. My first job is to accept myself and feel my feelings.” Make a vow not to abandon yourself, the way you did with the sleazy guy and the boyfriends of friends. You don’t have to manage your father. You deserve better. Make that your mantra. You deserve better from yourself. You deserve protection from these things that hurt you. I know you don’t think you do. That’s your disordered mind talking.
You are precious, Directionless. When you slow down, you will feel that in your bones. You will feel disgusting and horrible, but slowly you’ll see that it’s beautiful, this moment of knowing how sick you are. You will find your will to go on in spite of how horrible it all is, how horrible you are. You will find your direction. Stop thinking about it and instead, submerge yourself in other people’s work: their art, their books, their lives. Your brilliance is waiting for you to slow down. Your path is waiting for you, patiently. You have to learn to trust yourself. You have to search for your broken, scared self. Not someone else’s idea of you. Not someone else’s approval. Your broken, scared self is the only self that can lead you forward from here.
I know it sounds impossible. I want you to know that I hear you clearly. You want me to know that everything is fucked, that YOU are fucked. I believe you and I know it hurts. I know it’s worse than anyone else can see. I know how it feels to live there.
I also know that you’re ready to live somewhere else now. You’re ready to face the truth. You’re ready to be who you are, even when no one is there to approve of you or give you love or tell you you’re great. You’re going to give yourself what you need now, and it’s going to feel a million times more satisfying than anything else you’ve ever done.
You are not lazy. You’re working too hard. Give yourself a break. Learn to slow down and savor who you are, today, right now — all of your crimes and mistakes, all of your circling thoughts, all of your broken pieces. This is your true calling: You are called to build something beautiful from this wreckage. You are called to trust your emotions and let them guide you for the first time. Everything else feels arbitrary and pointless because it is. Your heart has been waiting to lead you forward. Listen to your heart. Follow it.
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