ask polly

‘I Will Never Be Who I Want to Be’

Photo: Valeria Tsolova / 500px/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I will never be who I want to be. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But then again, that’s honestly how I feel right now — like all my sneaking feelings of being an impostor, of not being smart enough or strong enough or confident enough to get what I want in life, are becoming demonstrably true, and not just in my head any longer. It’s impostor syndrome, but I really am an impostor and people are just now figuring it out.

I have a great job, a boss-lady job, at which I am performing only adequately. This is not just in my head; at my recent annual review, my boss said I am “struggling.” He is often disappointed in my answers and my follow-through. I am always behind, short of answers, barely keeping up. I don’t remember all the things I’m supposed to manage. I delegate projects and then forget I delegated them. I feel sluggish, stupid, I struggle to make even easy decisions. I feel simultaneously underappreciated and like a waste of space. My workload is heavy, and my therapist says maybe the expectations are not reasonable. But others at my level manage to meet their expectations just fine, so that feels like an excuse. This is the first job where my reviews have been anything but glowing, which I would like to think says something about this job but I think says more about my previous jobs and how little they expected of me. Or how little attention they were paying.

On the outside, I have the life I always wanted. I own a beautiful home. I’m in an amazing, honest, supportive, wonderful relationship. I have an enviable job. I always wanted to be a kick-ass career woman, a boss, someone who accomplishes a lot. I want people to see me as capable, confident, even powerful. And I want to feel good. I try all the things — cleaning up my diet, working out, yoga, meditation. And they help, kinda? But I don’t stick with them. And I come back to feeling like I’m drowning and I just want to run away. I fantasize about quitting my job at least once a week. And my job is objectively great! My instinct is, it’s not the job’s fault. It’s mine. I am just not smart enough, not energetic enough, not strong enough to actually succeed at this level.

I’m not sure what I’m asking of you. How to stop feeling like this would be ideal, but that seems like a stretch. An excuse to just give up would be nice, too, although ultimately unproductive. I guess I want someone to tell me, for sure and for real, that there’s nothing wrong with me and it will get better.

Never Enough

Dear Never Enough,

You have a well-defined religion that’s based on the mantra “I’m not smart enough, energetic enough, or strong enough to succeed.” You say your prayers to your god of I’m Not Enough every day. Every time you stare down the barrel of your heavy workload, you say to yourself, “I am bad at this job. I will fall behind.” Every time you feel tired or overwhelmed or bored, you say, “I feel these things because I’m an impostor, I’m lazy, I’m weak.” Every time you exercise, you say, “This won’t help that much, and I won’t stick with it anyway.” Every time you imagine quitting your job, you say, “I only want to quit because I’m pathetic; I’m an escapist and a quitter at heart.”

When other people, like your therapist, tell you that your boss is unrealistic and your job is too demanding, you know in your heart that they’re wrong. You don’t listen to your therapist or your friends. And look at your wider circle of friends and family: Anyone who says you need to work harder, you’re not doing enough, you’re slacking? These are people you listen to. You respect them. You believe them. Anyone who thinks there’s something a tiny bit wrong with you? These people are interesting and worthy of attention. Anyone who thinks you’re doing fine and you need to be kinder to yourself? Well, these people are soft on you. It’s a nice quality, sure, but they’re wrong about you. They’re just blinded by their love for you.

I’m going to bet that your current partner falls into the second category. I’ll bet that your partner is paying close attention. Your partner notices how hard you are on yourself. Your partner wants you to slow down and enjoy your life instead of torturing yourself. You feel lucky to know your partner, because your partner is one of the only people you’ve ever known who is always on your side, who stands up for you more than you’re willing to stand up for yourself.

Why won’t you stand up for yourself? Why are you so committed to taking the blame for everything around you? Who taught you to do that? Who told you that “responsible, mature” women soak up all of the dysfunction and disorder and messy rage and condescension and sadness in their midst and then charge forward anyway, every day, without fail, without stopping, without reflecting? Who taught you that POWERFUL BOSS LADY WITHOUT A MOMENT OF DOUBT is the best, most admirable, most magical thing to be in the whole wide world?

Your brain bought that message. But your heart and your body don’t buy it. You don’t feel connected to this work you’re doing. You don’t feel like your real self can show up anymore. You’re playing a role that doesn’t suit you anymore. Maybe you do love the job itself, but you’ve started to play along with other people’s opinions as a means of maintaining power, and you can’t really be present and honest anymore. Or maybe the job itself makes no sense to you.

But on top of all of that, your religion of I’m Not Enough is grinding you down into the dirt. Your religion is based on the myth that human beings should always be strong and conquer what’s in front of them and do as many tasks as they’ve been assigned, without complaint. Your religion is based on an inhumane view of existence. Your religion does not acknowledge the natural limits of the human body. Your religion does not understand that mere survival can be wildly taxing.

Instead of listening to the gods of I AM NOT ENOUGH, you need to listen closely to your partner, and you need to start repeating the mantras that your partner repeats: You’re doing enough. You need a break. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. You should slow down and appreciate what you have. You need to see how hard you work already. You need to reconnect with who you are and what you love, so you can figure out what you want to do next. You need to stop scolding yourself, every second of every day, for not measuring up to some arbitrary, unfair, absurd ideal inside your head. That ideal is old and dusty and needs to be destroyed and replaced.

Here’s the truth about energy: Most people don’t have much of it. Yes, it’s true that SOME people have a ton of it. God bless those people! I am in awe of them. But the rest of us have to work very hard to take care of ourselves, just so we can make it through the day.

I never really understood this until I met my husband. My husband and I are both easily daunted. If you say the words, “What’s for dinner?” within earshot of either of us, we immediately crumple up like plastic wrap on a hot stove. Even when we’re both at our absolute best — working hard, firing on all pistons, exercising vigorously, sleeping well — we are still tempted to throw it all out the window so we can sit and eat aged cheeses and watch something stupid on TV. Because we’re both guilt-driven former Catholics, we both get angry at ourselves constantly just for being slow-moving animals with needs and emotions. This guilt also makes us obsessed with anything that sounds “indulgent” because we equate indulgence with a temporary escape from the guilt-inducing sounds that our brains make.

My husband and I are not energetic human beings. Not only that, but we have trouble locating a good “reason” for doing most things. We can talk ourselves out of any activity. We associate a lot of worthwhile pursuits with “hassles” and associate living like hermits with comfort and safety. These are the baked-in traits of anxious, emotional people, though. Doing new things makes us nervous, so we try to avoid that. Encountering unforeseen hassles makes us anxious, so we try to anticipate roadblocks ahead of time. We are also very self-pitying. We often talk to each other about how difficult very basic, easy things are for us, as a means of admitting just how pathetic we can be sometimes. We make fun of ourselves. We like to say, “I don’t want to do anything, ever,” in whiny voices, as we lie face down on the carpet. This feels good, for some reason.

But honestly, a lot of people are like us. Sometimes you have to be really, really loved by another person to admit just what a tired, anxious sack of shit you are at heart. I think that’s the gift we give to each other, every day. The gift of accepting our own SACK OF SHIT essence.

But my advice to you is not “Maybe you’re not enough, maybe you’re right, maybe you should just give in and be your giant-sack-of-shit self instead!” My advice is that you should do what my husband and I do to cope with our laziness and guilt-driven self-battering:

1. Exercise regularly. My husband and I both have to exercise almost every fucking day because we both have very little energy, ever, and we drop off to NEARLY COMATOSE the second we start slacking off from exercising. Obviously, some people cannot exercise, and this is a wildly unfortunate situation for them. But it sounds like you can exercise. So you need to force yourself to exercise.

Right now, as I type these words, I am walking at my treadmill desk. I’ve walked six miles today, so far. In a few minutes, my husband and I will do a half-hour exercise routine with push-ups and weights and shit like that. It is torturous. I am not looking forward to it. I don’t want to do it today or tomorrow or the next day. I would rather go to bed with a block of cheese. But I do it anyway, and I will always do it if I’m able, because without it, I am overwhelmed and exhausted around the clock. I know this because I try to quit regularly, and I regularly discover that without a lot of exercise, I am anxious, I snap at my kids, and I am ever so slightly depressed about stupid, trivial things. But with exercise, I feel like leaving the house and doing stuff for the hell of it. I don’t think of 15 million reasons not to bother.

You sound like someone with very little energy and a tiny bit of anxiety baked into your being. You’re the kind of person who needs to commit to exercising every day, or close to every day. You have to make the time, even if it’s just a half-hour. You need to understand that when you don’t bother, you’re basically choosing to feel like shit.

Instead of blaming yourself for feeling tired and unmotivated, think about what a dog would do if you tied it to a tree all day instead of letting it run around the yard. It would bark all day and then it might bite someone’s face off. That’s you! Exercise.

2. Talk openly to your partner about how you feel like a giant sack of shit most of the time. Your partner knows you’re not worthless, obviously. You need to discuss just how often you blame yourself for everything. You need help putting your self-blaming into perspective. You need to notice that you don’t JUST feel guilty for not working hard, you also feel guilty for NOT WANTING to work hard when you ARE working hard. You blame yourself for being alive and surviving and having brains inside your skull, in other words. You’re like a dog that’s tied to a tree but still blames itself for being tied to the tree. “You shouldn’t need to run around,” you tell yourself. “This tree should be enough for you.”

You need to sort through the bad stories you tell yourself every day about who you are. You have to spend some time on this. You have to make an effort to deconstruct your religion of I’m Not Enough until it stops weighing on you so heavily. Because right now, you’re blaming yourself for being human.

I mean BOSS LADY? Who could be unfailingly good at that? The words alone make me want to eat a large pizza and then take a nap until next week.

3. Consider giving up. My husband and I do this all of the time now, as a means of understanding exactly what we want from our lives. My husband has a tendency to blindly take on extra work commitments because he sees it as the “right” thing to do. So I often ask him, “Do you really want to spend time on that, or could you just relax instead?” I’ve been pushing both of us to define work and relaxation in clearer terms. When you have a history of being both ego-driven and driven by guilt, it really pays to consciously reevaluate your priorities and deconstruct your assumptions about what you want to do with your life.

Personally, I find that the less ego-driven I become, the happier I am. Many of the things I’ve always wanted to be, and many of the things that I used to see as Big Life Victories, don’t really hold much water for me anymore. I’ve been trying very hard to tune into what actually brings me joy on any given day, and those things are less about career accomplishments and more about small connections with other people. When I get into an ego-driven state of mind, I notice that I immediately start to feel less happy. When I manage to wriggle out of that, I feel so much better.

Even when you’re not remotely about to quit your job or move to France, asking yourself “What if I quit my job?” or “What if I moved to France?” can sometimes serve as a useful thought experiment. By considering big changes (and allowing yourself the right to be a person who is NOT A NATURAL BOSS LADY or SOMETIMES WANTS TO QUIT THINGS), you also allow yourself room to be a boss lady and to not want to quit. Right now you don’t have any room to be anything.

You’re also alienated from what you truly want. This is where you land when you’ve spent a solid decade or more telling yourself that the only thing that you SHOULD WANT is to be an all-powerful career-focused conquistador, and everything else you might want is BAD and A SIGN OF WEAKNESS.

If you want to feel good in your own skin, if you want to feel hopeful about your abilities and your day, if you want to believe that you are strong enough and smart enough and energetic enough to do anything you set your mind to, you have to give up your current religion and honor your heart and your body instead. You have to make some room for REALITY instead of expecting too much from yourself (which is why you live inside of your escape fantasies). Instead of daydreaming about what it would feel like to quit, you have to sit down and ask yourself “What would it really mean to quit? How could that work?”

Instead of punishing yourself for being a human being, you have to honor exactly the kind of human being you are. You can quit or not quit, but either way you have to work with what you have without judging it unfairly around the clock.

Most humans are tired and overwhelmed and dream of quitting their jobs regularly. The ones who are happiest are the ones who honor these feelings and take them seriously instead of telling an elaborate story about how these feelings mean that they suck. Forget whether or not you’re good at your job (which is a very ego-driven fixation) and forget whether or not you’re objectively “strong enough” or “smart enough” or “confident enough.” Who is watching and measuring? Who is strong and smart and confident most of the time? No one. These things are illusions. We’re all insecure and dumb and afraid, because we’re animals. Trade in “Am I enough?” for “Do I deserve to be happy?”

I think you do.

Treat yourself to this moment, with all of its uneven, uncertain delights. Treat yourself to this feeling of joy that lives in between this flittering self-doubt and these anxieties around what comes next. There is joy here, if you reach for it. Let it in. Learn to value your time more than your money or your position in life. Learn to trust yourself and be good to yourself. Stop asking what you don’t know yet, and learn to treasure what you already know. Once you do that, you’ll know in your heart that you are already who you want to be.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

All letters to become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

‘I Will Never Be Who I Want to Be’