I’ve spent most of my life living in distrust of people. One of my earliest childhood memories is of me eavesdropping on a conversation my friends and my brother were having about me, talking smack in whatever way 7-year-olds do. While growing up, I was given signals on a pretty regular basis that people — especially friends — are not to be trusted.
In high school, I spent a lot of time listening to people gossip about each other. My best friends and I engaged in it too, sometimes talking about close friends of our own. (But as super-shy, nerdy girls, I saw it as a defensive tactic, a way to make sense of and commiserate about the wrongs that had been committed against us, by people with worse characters than ours.) This backfired on me once, though, when said best friend (we’ll call her Friend 1) and I hung out with the friend we’d been talking about, and I saw Friend 1 act completely natural, while I, affected as I was by our gossiping, acted distant. I felt really unsettled by this two-faced behavior.
I even ended things with the last guy I was dating because I suspected, through various methods of social-media stalkage, that he was starting to see another girl. Of course, as true millennials, we were in a long-distance, non-committed relationship. But we made promises that if either one of us started to get emotionally involved with anyone else, we’d let the other know. Anyway, that didn’t happen, and they are now living together. I don’t even know if she knows that there was crossover between us and almost wish she was as paranoid as me to figure that out.
Recently, I confided in two colleagues of mine my plans to leave my company. I told them not to tell anyone else because I wasn’t sure I’d get the job (though I felt pretty damn confident I would). When the time came for me to announce the news to the rest of my work friends, I realized one of them already knew. This really hurt me. I was so excited to break the news to her and was disappointed that someone else had beat me to the punch. I only get so many chances to share happy personal news, and I felt robbed of the opportunity.
People left and right keep letting me down, and betraying my trust, even when I feel like I put measures in place (me telling my friend not to tell anyone my news) to prevent that.
I’m incredibly private about my personal life in general. A lot of it has to do with my early realization that other people’s input into my personal choices (like, a new partner, or a new job) will influence my own opinions too hard before I’ve had a chance to really sort through them. But the fact that I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember makes me wonder if this paranoia is just an extension of a chemical anxiety I was born with (that I’m seeing a therapist for). Whatever the case, it’s choking me to death emotionally.
One part of me thinks I’m overreacting, that I’m being too sensitive (I’ll never forget the time a middle-school friend who screamed at me that I take things too personally), and that I just need to chill the fuck out about people doing things that bother me to exaggerated degrees. People are imperfect, and I shouldn’t take it personally.
However, through my newest therapist, I’ve learned a lot about trusting myself enough to speak up, draw boundaries, and say no. This new, empowered part of me wonders if I should confront all these people or even excise them from my life. The only caveat with this is that confronting Every. Single. Person who does something that bothers me feels LESS like self-empowerment and boundary-drawing, and MORE like being an overly sensitive, entitled little bitch.
I do have a few people I can wholeheartedly trust: my parents, my brother, three friends. But I’m scared that eventually, with all the disappointments and all the shedding of friends, I’ll find a reason to distrust them too, to just be left alone in the world, with no one but myself to confide in and trust to keep my secrets.
Polly, I’ve been reading your columns for a while and even have two of your books (underlined to the nth degree). As objective as I’m trying to be with my situation, I can’t seem to figure out who’s in the wrong here: My anxious head, or the disappointing world? I know you’ve recently given advice about friendship situations, but I can’t figure out if my expectations are too high here, or maybe I just feel hyperaware of people’s failures, however small, because deep inside I know I’ll never be able to confront them.
P.S. Of course I sent this from a burner email address because I’m paranoid you’ll trace it to me and somehow reveal to the world and my friends that it’s ME whining about them.
Paranoia Paranoia, Everybody’s Coming to Get Me
Every story you tell has a moral. Have you noticed that? Even your anxiety is a kind of moral compass to you. When you’re anxious, it’s like your body is telling you to be more paranoid. Even mild stimuli — one bad text, one careless remark — set you on edge. You have no skin. You feel disappointment in your bones. You breathe in betrayals.
Your anxiety also tells you that SOMEBODY NEEDS TO FIX THIS. If the story really has a moral, then someone should be punished for something. If you suspect that a friend is judging you unfairly, that needs to be set right. If you believe that another friend is failing you, someone needs to correct her. But you have no intention of fixing anything or confronting anyone. You don’t even want to clear the air! Because clearing the air is morally wrong, too: You’d only be “whining” and being “an overly sensitive, entitled little bitch.”
Do you see how your anxiety and your beliefs and your choices are conspiring to make your life a living hell? It’s like you’re tied up in ropes, stuck in a fun house, and it’s burning down around you. Your nerves are shot, your stomach is churning, an alarm is going off in your brain that says “SOMEONE NEEDS TO ACT!” But if you do act? Then everything gets worse! Everyone thinks you suck even more!
By attaching a moral compass to your anxiety, you’ve turned it into a weapon you use against yourself. Your belief system has been built in this fun house with the faulty wiring. The causes and effects bounce back and forth and multiply each other until you can’t tell which is which. You get confused: When you feel terrible, when your body reacts, that means that someone is fucking you over. But feeling like shit also means that you’re broken, and you have no rights, and you’re entitled to nothing.
People with strong, functioning, robust belief systems can address the problems caused by their faulty wiring. For them, anxiety serves as a reminder: Treat yourself with care and give yourself what you need. By addressing their fears and their shame, they build normal houses with clearly marked escape routes. Smoke means that you should put out a fire. But you live in a twisted bonfire pile of wires and wood, surrounded by mirrors. Every whiff of smoke leads straight to calamity and confusion and disaster, and it’s all your fault. Every disaster makes you less trusting, more paranoid, more angry, more suspicious, more anxious.
Since your belief system is what keeps you powerless and keeps you crawling back into your badly wired, falling-down fun house, let’s examine it: You believe that people are fundamentally disappointing. Even with loyal friends and family (and you seem to have six people in this category, which is a LOT!), it’s just a matter of time before they betray you. You believe that you can hash out these disappointments with close friends, but only if you (a) know that the friend you’re complaining about has a “worse character” than both you and the friend you’re confiding in, (b) you take these disappointments so seriously that you can barely look the offending friend in the eye once you’ve “gossiped” about them (because smiling at them or behaving normally means that you’re two-faced/immoral), and (c) you never confront the offending friend with your disappointments (or else you’re a whiny, overly sensitive, entitled bitch). You also believe that other people talk shit about you, and look down on you, and betray you, and if they haven’t yet they will in the future. But the only way you’ll ever know what they really think is by (a) examining their social-media feeds, (b) relying on someone else to get paranoid or to report to you about them (but you can’t ask anyone to do this, and you’d need the moral high ground, and then you also can’t smile and act normally around people anymore once you discover what they really think about you). You also believe that you can’t ask anyone how they feel directly, because that reveals you as the whiny, oversensitive, entitled bitch that you are. And that would be terrible. Because you believe, more than anything else, that if anyone ever finds out that you’re a whiny, oversensitive, entitled bitch, YOU WILL NEVER HAVE ANOTHER FRIEND FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.
So here’s what I want to tell you: You ARE a whiny, oversensitive, entitled bitch. That’s what you become when you’re anxious but you have no compassion for yourself and anyone else. You’re whiny because you’re trapped. You’re oversensitive because you’re a detective of betrayals who’s never allowed to prosecute any of the crimes she discovers. You’re entitled because you want more, because you have nothing, because you give yourself nothing. Crimes are committed. Your house burns down. You are hog-tied. You are powerless. You are bad. It’s all your fault.
There will be more fires. They will be your fault, too.
You feel sick because you blame yourself for your sickness. And even before you read my recent column on friendship, you always suspected that the problem was you. You’ve always suspected that everything was all your fault. You’ve never felt that you had the right to do anything about how you feel, so no one else can have that right, either.
I want you to think about that, meditate on it. I want you to put down all of your resentments and disappointments and betrayals, which you’ve already decided you can do nothing about, but which you carry around like a backpack full of rocks everywhere you go, and I want you to pick up a single, smooth stone instead. On the stone someone has written these words: You are allowed to want things.
Walk around holding that smooth stone for a day, and repeat it to yourself: I am allowed to want things. I am allowed to be who I am.
Being who you are sometimes means being just as confused and weak and sad as you were when you were small. Being who you are sometimes means wanting things that other people see as indulgent or entitled or pathetic or embarrassing. Being who you are sometimes means feeling inadequate and whiny and needy and lost, out in the open, where people can see you. Being who you are means knowing that many, many people will take your whiny, needy lostness and CALL YOU PATHETIC inside their heads. Being who you are means feeling sad and angry about this at first, and then, eventually feeling okay with it, and finally (slowly!) starting to NOT GIVING A FLYING FUCK. I don’t mean trying not to care. I mean legitimately ceasing to care, without malice, without fear, without self-recrimination. It takes a long, long time. You get there by cultivating compassion for yourself, and for others. Every. Single. Day. It is hard work.
When you’re allowed to want things (and you take the time to identify what you truly want, which is also hard work and is also a by-product of showering yourself with compassion, every single day), when you’re allowed to be who you are, you are free. You can still feel shame and anger and hurt, of course. You can still be flattened by insecurity in the wake of a bad interaction. But you don’t take those feelings and trap yourself inside them. You are allowed to cry when your house burns down. You are allowed to escape instead of burning inside the house. These are not the moral litmus tests that you think they are.
Likewise: You are allowed to feel frazzled and sick when you think about your friends, when small things happen, when big things happen. You’re anxious. That’s how you’re wired. Other people can realize this about you, and it’s not a moral judgment.
I’ve spent most of my life carrying around the same backpack full of rocks. People let me down constantly. I didn’t trust people. I thought there was some magical way for them to earn my trust. I thought I could FIX things, CONTROL what people thought, MANAGE how people saw me. But I was always flip-flopping between overexposing myself and protecting myself. I was always exhausted from MANAGING AND FIXING. I was tired of running in circles, convincing people of things, explaining myself, reexplaining myself.
At the heart of it all, the problem was the backpack. I was preemptively disappointed at all times. I never got over anything. I never felt light and free. Instead of putting down my backpack and accepting that I couldn’t fix anything, I ran around screaming, “WHERE IS YOUR BACKPACK? WHY DO YOU THINK IT’S OKAY TO JUST BOUNCE AROUND THAT WAY, ALL LIGHT AND CAREFREE? DO YOU EVEN KNOW HOW RECKLESS YOU ARE?!!!”
But do you know what happens when you put down the backpack? You stop feeling guilty and ashamed of all of your past mistakes, so you forgive other people’s mistakes. You have compassion for yourself, so you have compassion for others. You let yourself be who you are, and you let yourself want things, maybe for the first time. And that makes room for other people to be who they are, and to want things, too. That doesn’t mean you love everyone everywhere. It just means that you give up on managing yourself and others. You let go. You brave rejection. You sometimes seem strange and eccentric to other people, because you’re very honest. That can be jarring, and inconvenient. Not everyone will like you that much. But you know that you don’t have any other choice. This is what feels right. This is what you believe in. This is how you want to live.
The other day, I was driving somewhere, and I caught a glimpse of my brand-new platinum blonde hair in the rearview mirror. I thought, “When I go to the beach with my family this summer, my sister is going to take one look at my hair, and she’s going to think, ‘My sister is the same self-obsessed whore she always was.’”
Yes, whore. I used that word because it’s the word that sprang into my head. We’ll get to that soon. That is my word, not my sister’s. I’m projecting, training my own twisted moral compass on myself. My sister is a cancer surgeon. Her hair is gray. She runs marathons. So when I had this thought about what she’d think of my hair, I immediately accommodated for it: “Whatever, it’s fine. She just thinks anyone who cares about their looks at our age is an attention-seeking idiot. It’s okay. I can let her be who she is, and think what she thinks, and I don’t have to take it personally.”
But then I had another thought: Isn’t my sister right about me? (Or isn’t my imagined version of my sister right, anyway?) When I was little, I craved attention and praise. I was a classic show-offy youngest child. I loved to sing and dance for guests, for anyone. I loved to stare in the mirror and tell myself that I was pretty. I loved to analyze everything everyone else did and said. As easy as it would be to take any of my sister’s opinions of me with a grain of salt, why do I insist on imagining that her view of me is warped, when it’s accurate? All that’s separating the days when I sang and danced and showed off from today is several decades of hiding in the dark, of trying not to want what I wanted, of trying to read clues without giving any of my own clues away, of smelling smoke but feeling powerless to put out any fires, of carrying around an enormous, growing backpack of rocks. Maybe my sister — and a lot of other people — could see me clearly the whole time. Maybe some of them were actually fine with the things I was trying to hide. But I was so determined to stay hidden, to evade my own moral judgments, which I projected onto other people constantly. I wanted things but I didn’t want to want them. I was ashamed. Wanting attention meant that I was vain. Feeling proud of my singing voice meant that I was conceited. Wanting to look pretty and show off meant that I was shallow. Analyzing everything meant that I was too smart for my own good, that I thought too much about everything, that I was TOO MUCH FOR ANYONE TO DEAL WITH. Being who I was and wanting what I wanted wasn’t just a mistake, it was morally wrong.
This strikes me as sad now. But in the car the other day, I had this feeling of freedom. “My sister is absolutely right,” I thought. “I’ve always been a self-obsessed whore. Lately, I’ve returned to my original state. I’ve decided to be who I am, finally. I’ve decided that I can want things.”
The word whore is not circumstantial or random. When women care about the very things that women are taught to care about in our culture — pleasing others, looking good, entertaining, seducing, turning the world on with a smile — they’re disparaged for it. We are instructed that the most important things about us are that we look pretty and sexy and keep everyone happy. When we follow those instructions obediently, we’re demeaned and trivialized and punished (the way sex workers are demeaned and assaulted and murdered because somehow providing that service, which people clearly want, also means that you deserve to be insulted and exposed and oppressed every day of your life).
I’m not going to swerve into a lengthy treatise on reclaiming language that’s been used against you. We don’t have time for that! All I want you to know is that for one day, I walked around saying, “I’m the same self-obsessed whore I’ve always been,” and it felt good. It felt good because I finally felt it in my bones: I can define this life for myself. I can want things without seeing them as a moral failure. I can be who I am, who I’ve always been. I can take the traits I was born with, mix in my dysfunctional past and my toxic cultural influences, and come to some strange, twisted, polluted ENJOYABLE landing point. People might snicker. People might applaud. People might ignore me. It doesn’t matter. THERE IS NO MORAL TO THIS STORY. I can want what I want, full stop.
I’m trying to tell you that your story is about more than just paranoia and disappointment. I’m trying to tell you that you will gain nothing if I merely play Judge Judy and tell you which of your friends is RIGHT and which is WRONG and what kind of punishments should be handed down. Because your story isn’t about that. Your story is about identity. It’s about your rights as a human being. It’s about owning your internal battles and your pain, and letting them show on the outside — wearing your secrets like a badge of honor. Sometimes, in order to break free from your biggest fears, your biggest embarrassments, your greatest sources of anger, your most intense wells of shame, it helps to expose them. Sometimes it helps to brandish a weapon that’s been used against you all of your life. The language of rap music is a testament to this. You bring your oppression out of the shadows, and into the light, where it looks more like salvation. Sometimes, the very words that sound the most self-hating and confused — whore, freak, oversensitive, bitch — are the ones that will emancipate you the most.
So don’t just put down that backpack full of rocks. Don’t just meditate with that smooth stone that says “You are allowed to want things” on it. Don’t just break apart your belief system, which is faulty and leaves you powerless. Don’t just knock down your fun house and move somewhere safer and more comfortable. You don’t have to be serene about this. You don’t have to do the “right” thing. You don’t have to clean this up and then hide again. Instead, stand where you are and take what you have and see, for the first time, that it is enough. You are enough. You don’t have to fix anything.
You don’t have to work so hard anymore. No one else has the “right” answers. You can take care of yourself when your anxiety flares up, instead of treating it like more evidence against your friends and against you. You can speak up when you want to, and bite your tongue when you feel like it. You have the right. You are free. You are real. You are blameless. You are whole. You can want things. There is no moral to this story.
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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