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‘I’m Graduating But I Have So Many Regrets’

Photo: Raimund Linke/Getty Images

Hi Polly,

I ended up taking an extra year of college and will be done with classes in three days. This comes as a huge relief, and I am happy. Nevertheless, I envisioned my college graduation as one experienced with my closest friends and filled with pride. Yet I am no longer close with any of my friends from my year (they’re already in the real world working — I’m still on good terms with most of them, we’re just not close). I don’t even plan on walking this year. I know that’s sad, but I’m filled with too much shame knowing I would be walking alone and with a class I have no connection with. And yes, my parents do know this and respect the decision.

To be clear, I do have friends, but they’re all people I met this past academic year and they’re either in graduate school or in the workplace. I’m seeing people from my class living in the real world who are still close with the people they were friends with in college, and I just can’t help but feel I did the social life of college wrong. Socializing was always more important to me than I would like to admit. I struggled a lot with friendships in college, growing distant from people every year over incompatibilities. I really did not fucking know who I was in college and befriended a lot of people for the wrong reasons.

As you’re probably guessing, I can’t really turn to my family for emotional support for certain reasons, so instead I have turned to my friends. But turning to a bunch of people in their early 20s can be, well, sometimes laughable. I understand why I’m not close to my old friends, and in all honesty I don’t even want to be. But I’m still feeling so defeated over how hard it was for me to socialize in college. Isn’t college supposed to be the easiest time to make friends? What does this mean for me going forward, when making friends in the real world is supposed to be even harder? I’m beating myself up for even caring about this! I do have friends and I’m graduating, period. So why do I even care? I could really use your help!

Graduating College Totally Shook

Dear GCTS,

Yes, it’s easy to make friends in college for some people. It’s really fucking hard for other people. I had no trouble making friends in college, but keeping them was another matter. I didn’t like that many people and maybe didn’t like myself that much yet. I fucked things up repeatedly. It took a long time for me to figure out how to be a good friend, how to listen, how to show up without feeling impatient or insecure or confused about how people open up and trust each other.

None of this stuff was clear to me back then, though. I thought I was charming and fun and that everyone should be nice to me. I also didn’t know who I was. I blamed other people for being weird and distant to me when really, I was the weird, distant one.

It’s easy to do college wrong, in other words. Purge that concern from your mind once and for all. It gets easier to make friends when you’re not confused. You’re less confused now than you were when you started college. Focus on that. Focus on what you’ve learned.

Your ability to thrive in this world relies on your storytelling about yourself. The friends I have who struggle to make good decisions about their lives, marriages, jobs, etc. are the ones who tell bad stories to themselves about themselves. “How did I fuck this up again?” they ask me. “Why am I still in this situation?” Somehow the bad storytelling feeds into an inability to move forward. They don’t trust themselves so they’re afraid to make permanent decisions. They question themselves every step of the way. Their brains spit out a running narrative: “Here is Chelsea, fucking everything up again,” a voiceover proclaims as Chelsea gets out of bed and unloads the dishwasher.

Let me just say I have empathy for that because I land in the same place roughly every three weeks, like clockwork. Chemically, I’m an oceanfront mansion that turns into a shotgun shack for five to seven days each month, then becomes a mansion again. When I’m in the shack, it is a serious challenge to remember what the view from the mansion looks like. Sometimes I can’t conjure it at all. Sometimes I just sit on the dirt floor and I blame myself for having rotten walls and no view.

I was planning to tell you that my storytelling has changed, but I want to be honest with you. I am really in the shack today. I just feel like I’m too old to land here. I feel like normal old people don’t fucking do this. I usually get out of bed in the morning feeling good, ready to work, prepared to face the day, but this morning I woke up and I thought, “You are going to fuck everything up. You’re in too deep.”

Then I imagined every single thing on my calendar for the next two weeks and I told myself a story about how I’d bungle all of it, not in a small way, but in a big, irreversible way.

So fuck storytelling for a minute. I think the stress of graduating has you in the shotgun shack with me. I think you’re trying to bend that story about college — It’s fine! I have some friends! I’ve changed! Nobody’s perfect! — and it won’t bend right now because you’re anxious about graduation.

I also think you knew that your parents would let you avoid graduation. “Sure, whatever, who cares?” they said. Maybe they’re avoidant so they let other people avoid things. Maybe they don’t really want the hassles of showing up and sitting in an auditorium or a stadium with hundreds or thousands of other parents, listening to a bad commencement speech and waiting through a long list of names and cheering for family members. Maybe they’re bad at showing up, for their own lives and for yours.

I don’t blame them or you for wanting to avoid that discomfort and those hassles. I’ve avoided so many more important things in my life. That’s just part of life in the shack. But I think you’re writing to me because you want to go to your graduation. You want to walk across the stage in spite of the fact that it’ll feel weird to be around all of those people celebrating with their close friends. I think you’re going to regret not doing the hard thing right now. You want to do the hard thing, even though you’re in the shack about it.

That’s what I need, too. I need to see that when I’m in the shack, every part feels like the hard part. I need to let myself be where I am. I wanted to write something funny this morning to pull me off the dirt floor. Instead, I’m going to stop right here and drop to my knees and feel this. It’s okay to feel outmatched by your own life. It’s okay to feel humbled in the face of a big challenge. It’s okay to feel like you’re the only person who can’t handle simple things, the only person who can’t move when the gun goes off and everyone else dashes forward.

I want you to do the same thing: Be right here and feel it. I want you to picture everyone popping Champagne corks and hugging each other. It doesn’t matter that you have perfectly good reasons for not knowing the people in your class. Somehow their happiness is a verdict on you. The fact that they’re laughing means that you’re a loser. The fact that they have friends means that you have no friends. The fact that they’re not embarrassed means that you’re a big embarrassment.

Even if it’s too late to go to graduation now, I want you to think about how absurd it is to take the outside world so personally. I want you to notice the shame you carry around that makes you think and feel that way. Because when I kneel in the shack, what I notice is that I’m ashamed of getting older, in spite of myself. I’m ashamed that I don’t have every goddamn thing in the world figured out. I’m ashamed that I can’t always just bust out 1,000 brilliant words on command. (I mean, what the fuck? Who do I know who can do that? Okay, bad question.)

I’m ashamed that I still take the outside world personally on the wrong day. I think my shame has been conquered and then it returns unexpectedly. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t grown past this yet.

I went to my stepson’s graduation last week. It was a long drive and I had other shit to do. He said he didn’t care if we went or not. It was in a gigantic auditorium, and at times it felt like it didn’t exactly matter if we were there or not. The commencement speaker was hilariously shitty. She talked about how important it is to return other people’s emails, and that was the only unique statement in her entire speech. It was breathtaking, really, to watch someone stand up in a gigantic auditorium and spout a steady stream of clichés for 15 minutes straight. “Be brave. Never stop reaching. Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you, go out and get them.” Some people could honestly use a little more shame in their lives.

But I showed up for all of it, and it was good. I felt proud of my stepson. We laughed about how bad the speaker was, we took some photos, we chatted about nothing. The sky was gray. It started to rain. My husband and I sat in traffic for a long time. We were late picking up our younger kids from school.

Life does not progress in a straight line, always improving. You fucked up a few things in college and you got other things right. You made some friendships and you destroyed a few others. Nothing you do forms a permanent verdict on you as a person. Maybe I am in too deep. Maybe I’ll mess up this week and next week and it will be embarrassing. Maybe it will be impossible not to take it all personally. I feel better when I remind myself that I probably can’t be that good all of the time. I feel better slowing down and saying, “I’ll take this day as it comes. I’ll make some space to just feel where I am, to see the gray sky, to sit in traffic, to feel disappointed in myself. It’s okay to muddle through the shit, as long as you’re showing up.”

It helps me, in an odd way, to picture you, alone in a crowd of celebrating friends, feeling like you messed something up. I want you to go to that crowd and tolerate being there, doing the hard thing. Think of me in my shotgun shack. These things aren’t personal indictments on who we are. Maybe you and I will feel this way a lot: outmatched. Overwhelmed. What if that’s beautiful somehow? What if feeling our shame, noticing it, letting it humble us, is the whole fucking point? What if the hardness itself is the point of doing the hard thing? What if I went to graduation mostly because the universe felt strongly that I needed to circle campus for almost an hour, looking for a parking spot?

Tonight I’m going to my young daughter’s school talent show. It’s always very long and the acts are not always so good. It took me years to figure out that the Not-So-Good–ness is what makes the talent show so goddamn great: The kid who is slightly off-beat during his entire song. The girl who yells instead of singing. The girl who stops singing entirely, mid-performance. The grumpy, exhausted parents. The microphone that feeds back. I used to get annoyed: Why are those radio mics buzzing like that? Who told that kid to get onstage without coaching him on how to keep a beat first? Why isn’t this better? Who fucked this up?

Now I show up and savor every fuckup. It’s a Wes Anderson movie, all fumbling and awkwardness. It’s “Parks and Recreation.” Everyone is always screwing up. That’s how life feels for everyone, almost every single day: like a microphone that won’t stop feeding back. It’s okay to notice that you might’ve “done college wrong,” but the truth is that most of us do a lot of things wrong, over and over again, over the course of our lives. Don’t let the hugging friends at graduation fool you. We’re all in the shotgun shack together. Even the people with a literal mansion and a view sometimes feel like they’re sitting on a dirt floor, wondering what comes next, wondering what blunders got them here.

Maybe the hard part is the best part. All I know is, you are not alone. Show up for your life. Show up for the hard part.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I Regret My College Social Life’