ask polly

‘I Give Up!’

Photo: Anup Shah/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I am writing to you because I need your help and I know you’re the only one who can give it to me straight. I’m only 28, but somehow I’ve developed the jadedness of someone much older. Maybe this is because I’ve lived in New York City for most of my 20s, where everyone seems to be moving down the same, linear path of “career, marriage, children.” I too want these things for myself, but I feel like no matter what I do, I am always one step behind my peers.

I see this as a double-edged sword, since I now have the tools to better deal with rejection. I’m just not sure how much more pain I can endure. Some part of me has always believed that all of this bad luck (breakups, job rejections, toxic friendships, etc.) would eventually lead to something worthwhile and that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.

But as I approach 30, I am starting to wonder if my efforts have been for nothing. Over the last six years, I’ve tried everything to get to where I need to be, but none of it has worked. I’ve switched industries three times, dated men who didn’t check all of my boxes, enrolled in creative-writing classes, practiced yoga and mindfulness (to no avail), ran three half-marathons, attended countless happy hours and networking events, read every self-help article and book under the sun, sought advice from friends, family, and trusted mentors, and when they were tired of me, found a therapist who I could trust and rely on for guidance.

Even though I’m doing as much as I can to grow as a person and stay positive about my future, I still feel like it’s not enough. I am running out of hope. So many people have told me to just live in the moment and stop trying so hard, but doing nothing feels just as unproductive as doing everything. How do I find the middle ground?

Doing Too Much But Also Maybe Not Enough


You’re going through life like a good student who’s dutifully completing each difficult assignment without feeling any of it. Your logical, problem-solving mind is always narrating the scene, analyzing which methods are “working,” and wondering when (WHEN WHEN WHEN?!!) you’re finally going to get what you want.

It’s funny, though. You never tell me what you want. I have no sense of what drives you. Love? Your career? Writing? Art? Close friendships? I’m not saying that most people aren’t looking for a balance of things, but the fact that you don’t even hint at your priorities leads me to believe that you’re not even sure what they are. Yet after each new task you ask, “I did the work you assigned, where’s my goddamn A?”

When you can’t feel anything, you don’t know what matters to you. You work tirelessly but at best you’re just going through the motions. You don’t trust your own instincts or ideas, so your work has no flow to it. You’re never in the zone where you stop thinking and you just feel your way forward. You never glean new insights as you move through the work. And you’re exhausted because you’re working without feeling connected to what you’re doing.

Look closely at how you write about each of your endeavors, because it’s really remarkable. You “switched industries three times,” but did you learn anything interesting along the way, or did every switch feel arbitrary? You say you’ve “dated men who didn’t check all of your boxes” — in other words, you took someone’s advice to stop expecting too much, and guess what, all that happened was YOU GOT LESS! You “enrolled in creative-writing classes.” Notice the emphasis is still on signing up, but there’s no talk of whether or not you enjoyed the writing itself. And best of all, you “practiced yoga and mindfulness (to no avail).” Here I picture a woman standing on the street in yoga pants, shouting at the sky: “I PRACTICED MINDFULNESS, TO NO AVAIL!”

You completed each assignment, but you weren’t really there. You couldn’t feel it. Every step of the way, you chose your brain over your heart and your body. Some part of you believes that your true feelings are too wild — they’ll only bring trouble and pain to your life that you can’t handle. You wanted to stay safe. I know it’s hard to recognize these things in yourself, but trust me. Something very frightening is at stake here. There’s some reason you don’t want to let down your defenses.

The subject line of your letter is “How Do I Surrender?” but there is nothing about surrender or letting go in what you’ve written. There’s not a single word about how you feel, beyond the very abstract word “pain.” There’s no vulnerability here.

My guess is that your one safe place, historically, is being right about everything while everyone else is wrong, dead wrong. So you’re deeply invested in proving that nothing works and nothing will ever work. Your firmest belief is that people will get tired of you and let you down, over and over again. But you get tired of them first, don’t you? Because you don’t trust anyone. Because you have no compassion for other people. Because you have no compassion for yourself.

Being merciless with yourself makes things like half-marathons easier, I guess. It makes things like starting new jobs in new industries easier. You’ll do the work, won’t you? The one thing you won’t do is feel.

But as long as you don’t make space for your feelings, you’ll live in a confusing maze where nothing adds up. You keep asking for guidance, but you don’t really want it. Your shame won’t let you take it in. You find reasons to reject anyone who sees you clearly and knows how fragile you are, behind your busy and productive exterior.

I have a friend just like you. She’s very smart, so it’s easy enough to see why she’d trust her mind so much. For a solid decade, whenever she felt emotional, she would call me and say, “TELL ME WHAT TO DO. JUST TELL ME!” She was retreating from the despair of feeling, grabbing for concrete instructions, a way out. So I’d try, but I wouldn’t get a sentence or two in before she started telling me all of the reasons each suggestion wouldn’t work. “You don’t understand!” she’d always say angrily. “No one understands!” This happened whether I was adamant or gentle, whether I pushed the issue or immediately dropped it. Answering her question made me her enemy. And then she’d disappear for a few weeks, because it wasn’t okay for anyone to see how vulnerable she was. Her shame made it impossible for her to have an intimate friendship, to stay open, to trust someone, to take a leap of faith.

Like you, she was exhausted because she couldn’t feel her way forward. She was working so hard, around the clock. She didn’t want someone to guide her. She wanted someone to understand her and take her side completely and save her. She didn’t want to work so hard anymore. She wanted to be a child again: idle, cared for, loved unconditionally. I was like that in my 20s. Everything I did was really about winning love and being saved by someone. The work was arduous and painful because I didn’t care. I just wanted to rest. Paradise, to me, was doing nothing at all.

But craving an idle paradise is almost like wanting to be dead. It’s the desire of someone who’s so afraid of their own feelings that they would rather feel nothing at all. Feelings, to a person like this, incite anxiety and fear. “Feelings” mean sadness. Joy and lust and hunger and delight aren’t even real, or worse, they’re immoral. Wanting things, wanting more, craving more is dangerous and pathetic.

This is why your letter is angry, underneath the rapid lists and the control. What you’re really saying to me is WHEN DO I GET MY FUCKING REWARD, YOU CHARLATAN ADVICE GIVER! AND FUCK YOU, BY THE WAY!

But I will eat your “fuck you,” nom nom nom! Because I get it. On days when I’m doubting myself or I’m too punitive with myself, I move through the world with a lot of FUCK YOU in my system. On days like this, I hate gurus. I don’t like their frothy, clichéd language, so empty! Give me an edge to hang onto, you flaccid ghosts! Your hollow words taste like the Eucharist on my tongue, drying into a hot paste. Body of Christ: desiccated, weightless, flavorless.

This angry reaction is born out of my shame. It’s the reaction of someone who believes, at some stubborn level, that wanting things is immoral. Now compare that religion to the religion that Tori Amos sings about in her song “Icicle.” Here she is performing on Leno in 1994:

I need you to do a deep dive with me, here, okay? I need you to take a leap of faith. First, look at how she’s dressed. She’s wearing what looks like a very short, pink nightgown. Pure vulnerability. Look at how she stares straight at the camera. Pure power. She sings that the Good Book is missing some pages, and she looks at us with rage. FUCK YOU, she says, and we love her for it. Nom nom nom.

Now think about what it took to become her. Did she take a yoga class to land there, motherfucker? I don’t fucking think so. When she sings, we feel the pain that brought her here. What you’re seeing is art that was forged from shame. You’re seeing someone who dug through a mountain of shame until her fingernails fell off, just to arrive here.

Imagine the phone call from her agent, telling her that Jay Leno wanted her to perform. “Okay, but I’m singing my song about getting molested, otherwise the answer is no.” This was 1994. The mood was not friendly around vulnerable confession. Trust me, someone tried to convince her to sing something else — anything else! But what you’re witnessing is a human being who has learned that salvation comes from working very, very hard on things that make your cells feel electric. When you find that kind of work, you don’t need to be right. You just hold your ground when it matters. And you don’t mind if that means sometimes looking inferior in other people’s eyes. Imagine what the people on that set were saying about her during her sound check, in her pink nightgown, with her pretty face, with her messy hair. Crazy girl, is what they said. Little freaky fucked-up psycho chick. I was 24 years old that year, so I know. My misogyny was so internalized that I wished that Tori wouldn’t sing about molestation. I wished she wouldn’t sing about masturbating. I wished she weren’t so overdramatic. I thought it was a little uncool. But I loved her secretly, because she was doing something I didn’t know how to do, something I was way too embarrassed to do myself.

Now watch (at 2:30) as she sings “Getting off, getting off,” and you can see that her legs are wide open, toward the audience, and she’s just wearing black tights! What?!! And look at her mean eyes. This is the bridge: HEART CRUSHING. Now listen to her sing, “Feel the word, feel the word, feel the word, feeeeeel it.” This is the opposite of that dry Eucharist wafer. This is the opposite of an Instagram guru with something to sell. She’s singing about being abused, but she’s also singing about how deep the delusion goes with some people. But most of all, she’s singing about how good it feels to feel something, to take what she wants, to give herself what she knows she needs. She is upstairs alone, doing the true work of the Lord. She’s showing herself so much compassion that she can almost forgive the ignorance of the people downstairs. She’s singing about the hypocrisy of making other people feel religion and then using them for what you need, but she’s also embodying how it feels when you really do feel the word. She trusts herself so much that she herself becomes divine in front of our eyes.

When you feel the word (the word that you believe in, the song that breaks your heart) and you feel the work (the assignment you give yourself, the work you trust will transform your life), you can taste your fucking life, motherfucker. You are in the zone. You can’t fuck it up. You are pure electricity.

If you don’t feel all of that the first time you watch that clip, watch it again. That performance of “Icicle” is more flawless and heart-wrenching than the recorded version. Imagine, being that young and playing that beautifully and moving that shamelessly, in front of that crowd. A studio audience. JAY LENO. Holy God almighty.

And at the end, you can feel Amos withdraw. “I’m done with you,” she says with her eyes. She gives herself completely, but she also protects herself during that performance. She’s in complete control and she knows exactly what she’s going to do, but she’s also feeling every note and moving with it, and that’s part of her plan. She is fully surrendered to the music, but she’s not giving more than she wants to give. Do you feel me? BECAUSE SHE CAN FEEL. BECAUSE SHE TRUSTS HERSELF. BECAUSE SHE IS NOT ASHAMED.

So ask yourself this: What would it mean to give yourself what you really want?

Because I think you want much more than most people do. You want something enormous, and nothing else will do. But you see this desire as selfish and stupid and embarrassing. So you keep working hard at things that don’t matter to you instead.

Don’t do that. As long as you do that, you’ll feel angry. You won’t have compassion for yourself or anyone else. You’ll move through the world armed with a big FUCK YOU.

The paradox here is that reaching for the gigantic, embarassing things you want makes you more humble. Because finding your power takes more than signing up for a fucking class or completing the assignment as directed. You have to crawl on your hands and knees. You have to dig until your fingernails fall off. You have to tap into the deep pain that lives inside of you. Personally, I had to be humbled for years in order to recognize that I was just another human on this earth, just as bad and just as good as anyone else. I couldn’t be vulnerable with myself or anyone else until I was at peace with being ordinary. I couldn’t feel right until I was okay with being wrong. And once I was finally comfortable with being a regular mortal human, I could recognize that my needs weren’t immoral. What I wanted and needed and loved mattered, even when it seemed frivolous or shameful or it was more enormous than I could stand.

So take your humbling. This feeling leads straight to a life you can finally taste. You will feel your way in the dark, toward your truest desires. You have plenty of time, so TAKE YOUR TIME. This is your time to feel inferior, to feel your shame, to feel your giant need for love, to feel your weakness and sadness and longing. These things will feed you. These things lead to joy and lust and hunger and delight. You are about to feel the word. You are about to taste your own divinity. Slow down and really taste it. Taste the fuck out of it. It’s been here all along.


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 Give Up!’