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‘I’m So Shy and It’s Ruining My Life!’

Photo: Tim Graham/Tim Graham/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I’m transferring to a big university this year, and I’m worried I’m going to be lonely there, too.

I always make declarations to myself the night before the first day of school (I’ve done it since something like fourth grade). I decide to be more outgoing and less self-conscious, to speak up more and tell jokes instead of just thinking them, stuff like that. I actually have these moments of resolution quite a lot throughout the year. But then, when I’m in the moment, when I’m face-to-face with another person, they just seem like an alien I need to get far, far away from, and then I need to make sure I never see them again so I can live in peace once more.

I’m 18 and I started community college when I was 16. I got my associate’s degree, which made my parents happy, but every person I managed to talk to at that college and every number I have in my phone from then … they didn’t end up meaning anything. I wanted to be gone and to forget all of them as soon as I could, for no reason other than I couldn’t take it.

I’m worried I’m going to somehow graduate again but go on to live a life of even more running, from everybody and everything. Right now, there’s barely anyone around to ground me. I have some old friends from high school, but I haven’t seen their faces in months (and before then, more than a year), and we don’t even text now. I’ve tried to make friends online, through my art and interests, but even then I’m afraid to speak up half the time. I don’t know if people will listen when I talk, and the thought of being unheard is demoralizing and humiliating. I think I come off as cold, because I won’t try at all to make someone understand or hear me.

I have tried on my own to be different, though. I’ve looked up a lot of guides and self-help, I’ve filled up so many diaries, and I’ve gotten better — I can look people in the eye now, I warm up to strangers faster, and I manage to be very happy sometimes. Even so, I’m worried for myself. I didn’t even think about graduating and just bumbled into it (which doesn’t spell a great future for me), I am sometimes paralyzed with fear over the most basic social interaction, and I have a weird thing about being alone. There’s just something about it: It both comforts me and drives me insane.

Most of all, I guess, my problem is that I feel like nothing. And also, sub-problem: I really miss hugging my old friends. I want to hug somebody again.

I’m not sure if I explained myself well, Polly, but if I did, I’d appreciate any help.


Worried and Alone

Dear Worried and Alone,

What you’re describing is anxiety that keeps you isolated and a hatred of your own problem that makes you an enemy to yourself. In calm moments, you promise yourself that you’ll be less self-conscious and more outgoing, but that promise isn’t fair to you. You aren’t acknowledging how hard it feels to be around other people, how it sets you on edge and forces you into the prison of your own head. Your resolutions need to take reality into account: the reality of your anxiety and fear, and the reality of your vast emotional needs that have never been met, by you or anyone else.

That sounds pretty bleak, but trust me, your life will feel so much less scary and bleak the second you can acknowledge what’s happening. Right now you’re ignoring reality and then blaming yourself for not being magically strong enough to change who you are. Instead, you need to plant your feet in this reality: You are anxious and emotionally sensitive and insecure.

I want you to say that to yourself: I am anxious and emotionally sensitive and insecure. Don’t say it like it’s a fucking curse. Say it like you’re describing something obvious and objective: There is a cup of tea on my desk. The air outside is chilly this morning. I am anxious and emotionally sensitive and insecure.

Let me help by saying this to you: I am also anxious and emotionally sensitive and insecure. I always have been. And when I was little, I was surrounded by other anxious, emotionally sensitive, insecure people. They couldn’t give me what I needed, though, because they were pretending to be calm, unemotional, confident human beings. Their energy was consumed by pretending. They were capable, charismatic people. They could do many things using all of that anxious, sensitive, insecure energy: get published, get promoted, earn praise, seduce people, make friends. They were loving people, too. But there wasn’t enough love for me, not even close.

I was a very stubborn little human. I wanted ALL OF THE LOVE, but I also wanted to say the things that no one else in the room would say out loud. I learned to play along with confident, withholding, calm people everywhere I went, but I never believed there was real connection underneath our pretending. I learned to seem capable and charismatic, too. I won many things using my anxious, sensitive, insecure energy: free drinks, cute boyfriends, entertaining friends. I wrote cartoons and then criticism and then books. I won people over, but eventually, the scared, sad, needy monster hiding just underneath my skin would burst in and fuck shit up. The monster knew I was pretending. The monster wanted to live in reality, and that motherfucker was going to force everyone else to live in reality, too.

The monster was the most beautiful part of me. It was a fairy monster. It was there to show me a path forward, out of my loneliness and isolation.

Your fairy monster wants you to show your true self to the people you meet. Resolutions and pretending will never work for you, the fairy monster knows that. LOVE ME! The fairy monster insists. I’M RIGHT HERE AND YOU KEEP IGNORING ME. LOVE ME FIRST!

Loving your fairy monster means opening your heart to yourself and listening to what you actually need to survive. Loving your fairy monster means having preferences and desires that might not match other people’s preferences and desires. Loving your fairy monster means being who you already are and forgiving yourself for being that person.

But loving your fairy monster also means saying: I’m anxious and that makes things hard for me. I should talk to someone about how anxious I am and look into what could help me to feel less anxious, instead of constantly beating myself up for feeling this way.

Your path out of this mess is actually short and direct: You just have to stand up for who you are and love yourself for who you are. You just have to connect with yourself first, before you try to connect with anyone else. You have to say to yourself, “I am here with you. I’m not going to abandon you. We can be here together. When we feel really bad, we get to leave, without blaming ourselves for it. When we feel nervous, we don’t have to talk. No one is going to yell SAY SOMETHING DO SOMETHING YOU SAID YOU WOULD FIX THIS in our ears anymore. We’re allowed to be where we are, and be who we are. We have rights.”

Loneliness comes from believing that someone will save you from yourself. I felt lonely for the first three decades of my life. I wanted to be saved. I sacrificed so much, just to tag along with anyone who might not leave me alone. I was sure that I was too broken to deserve more. That’s not how I sounded to the people around me. But that’s who I was underneath the pretending.

How did I break free? I resolved to love my monster. I decided that my monster was lovable, period. Making that decision changed my day-to-day experience. I enjoyed my own company for the first time in my life. I stopped performing and started admitting that I was conflicted, anxious, demanding, complicated. And then I met my husband, and I told him that I was terrible and also good and he would have to love all of me. And he did.

I try to skip the husband part normally, because it doesn’t take a husband. First there is you and your conviction and your trust in yourself. Then you walk out the door and you say to someone else, “I want you to believe in me. I want you to trust me the way I trust myself.” The more care and patience you share with yourself, the more care and patience other people are willing to share with you. But it starts with you.

It’s hard to do these things when you’re very lonely and all you want is a hug from a friend. I know exactly what you mean by that. I used to have a lot of dreams about looking for a friend, wondering who my friends were. My core self always felt isolated and distrustful of others. I believed that I was born to be abandoned and neglected. I believed that there wasn’t enough love in the world for me. I believed that other people were a million miles away and I could never reach them. I believed that I would always fuck it up.

I needed to move out of my head, which was a prison overseen by a merciless guard, and move into the real world, where real people lived and felt things and spoke honestly about their feelings. That’s what you need to do, too. Get a therapist, please. Find a way. Go online and look. Make that your resolution. Maybe you’re severely anxious, or maybe you have other issues. Every time I run a letter from an anxious person who can’t connect with others, people write to me telling me their diagnoses. But it’s not my job or my place to speculate, and my advice to you is pretty much the same no matter what diagnosis you might receive. Mostly I don’t want you to be afraid of ANY clinical terms, because what you’re describing is familiar, common, and not at all impossible to overcome.

Just remember that this isn’t about changing you or fixing you, not remotely. This is about giving you some room to be who you are right now. This is about forgiveness and acceptance and understanding. You went to community college when you were only 16. Why? Who decided you should be around people who were much older than you at that age? What merciless guard has overseen your life all these years? You can remain firmly committed to staying close to your family (I can tell you’re very loyal from your letter) and still ask some tough questions about why your emotional sensitivity wasn’t taken into account. When you’re raised by people who ignore your emotional needs, you learn to step in and take over their jobs by ignoring your emotional needs, too.

You deserved more then, and you deserve more now. But you’re not broken and unlovable, please know that. You’re lovable right now. You’re the best kind of a friend. You’re loyal and devoted. You’re my favorite kind of person: needy, stuck in your head, trying to be better. When I meet people with this personality, I’m immediately thrilled. These are my favorites. Because anyone can be a pretender. Anyone can bullshit along in the dominant key.

You think you’re off-key and out of tune. But you’re just singing in a different key. Sing louder. Your song is divine. Let them hear it. This stubborn melody believes in your happiness. This sly harmony says the world is yours, fairy monster. Enjoy this glorious day.



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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Ask Polly: ‘I’m So Shy and It’s Ruining My Life!’