ask polly

‘I’m a Nightmare Person! Help!’

Photo: Andrea & Chris - Images/Westend61

Hi Polly.

There’s this part of me that is pretty convinced I’m a nightmare person. Actually, I mostly like myself — a lot more now than I used to. But I’m terrified of vulnerability. I have this friend who is really good at just expressing her desires, and she’s so open with people and authentic and cool. I wish I could be more open like that. For example, I often try to give people the impression that I don’t need them, because admitting I do feels extremely uncomfortable.

I also left my husband when I was 28, and it was incredibly sad. I have some shame about that. We’re still friends, and I think we both feel incredibly lucky to still have each other as we navigate this bizarre new single life in our 30s. He’s a good guy. It’s a long story.

I have been asking the universe lately to just open my heart wider and wider, and some days it does feel like that’s happening. But I’m always comparing myself to others — seeking to be as cool as them, or part of a special community in some way (that’s a remnant from an isolated upbringing with a single mom who worked the graveyard shift at the post office).

I want to be okay taking up space and asking for help, while also being grounded in myself. What if I’m the type of person who doesn’t appreciate others and always wants more? That’s terrifying.

Also, I tell white lies often. They’re usually not premeditated and I tell them in circumstances when I want the other person to think that I am very interesting, happy, and sociable, with lots of friends, and that I don’t need anything from them personally. Sometimes I genuinely feel like I’m all these things and other times I feel like I’m isolating myself out of fear of being rejected if I’m just me, or fear of making other people uncomfortable with my needs. I think I’m okay at feeling my feelings, but I still feel like I’m doing something totally wrong.

I’m sorry this was so long. I think I’m hoping you can help me understand how to be more vulnerable, and also whether I should be harder or easier on myself? I don’t know.

I love your writing and I often print out the letters and your responses and read them at night. Thanks for everything you do.

Why Is Vulnerability So Goddamn Hard?


Vulnerability is hard because most of us were taught to be tough and hide who we are from each other. If you have a parent who doesn’t respond that well to needy moments and requests for help, it doesn’t take long before you bury your genuine, sensitive self under layers of nonchalance. I liked myself just fine as a kid, but I remember believing that what I showed to other people had to be a polished performance. I remember thinking that no one could possibly love a person who was sad and needed help.

Growing up, I felt like an isolated misfit. Neither of my parents were from my southern town, so I had to learn to make the openhearted, conventional sounds of the natives. My parents were suspicious of those sounds, so they experienced my cheerful, “Hey y’all!” exterior as complete bullshit. Separating the bullshit from the real became a kind of obsession for me, but I was pretty terrible at it. I would analyze every tiny detail of my interactions, but my conclusions were always the same, and they were always an echo of my parents’ beliefs about the world: Everyone was full of shit, and the only real, authentic things in the world — sadness and longing and loneliness and romantic love — were embarrassing and needed to remain hidden at all times.

I’m telling you this stuff because you need to know not only how common it is to feel this way, but also how incredibly difficult it can be to scrape away at these kinds of belief systems. It seems so simple to look straight at the core of your problem: I need to hide who I am and how I feel or no one will love me. Anyone can identify this sentiment in themselves and others. Look around. It’s everywhere! The tough part comes when you start to excavate the layers of belief on top of that core illusion. My layers include: People who say they love me are bullshitting me because (a) I’m not lovable and (b) all people are full of shit at heart. Because people are full of shit, they can’t be trusted. Because people can’t be trusted, I feel angry and disappointed constantly. I feel angry and disappointed all the time, therefore I am selfish and bad and I want too much from everyone and everything.

All of your confusion and shame leads back to the same belief: I am a nightmare person. I want too much. I can’t trust people and I can’t be trusted. I will never be enough for anyone.

When you grow up isolated from others, it’s very hard not to spend your life craving connection to the point where it makes you anxious and depressed. But you also seem to believe (as I did) that this need for connection makes you unattractive and unlovable. So you try to hide your needs and hide your genuine self. Hiding makes it much harder to connect with other people. You also have trouble trusting people who aren’t hiding at all. You can admire them and sometimes even lean on them — like with your friend and your ex-husband — but you still crave a love that’s “better” than the love they have to offer. You crave love from people who don’t want to give you love at all. Somehow, people who don’t care enough about you are the ultimate prize. They are the least full of shit people, in your estimation, because they’re “strong” enough to hide their emotions. (You can consciously admire people who are open and still subconsciously privilege those who aren’t.) You imagine that if you ever win love from a “strong” withholding person like this (by lying and hiding your weaknesses, of course), it will at least feel real. It will feel like love from an isolated, overworked mother who only loves you conditionally — when you’re good, when you’re quiet, when you don’t ask too much. It will feel like love from someone with high standards — someone who sees through the full-of-shit natives and their cheerful, loving exteriors. Someone who sees through you (a nightmare person).

This longing for a fantasy love that you can actually feel explains why you always want more than what you have. You have a lot of trouble loving yourself and taking in the love that’s given to you. You have trouble believing in the love you’re given — trusting it and enjoying it. You still believe that it’s not completely real. You still believe that you can’t trust that love, because it comes from someone who is healthier than you are. In your mind, if someone is healthier and therefore better than you, that person will eventually reject you. That’s a really hard belief to notice in yourself. It took me years to see that I believed that people who loved me and showed it would only leave me in the end. I couldn’t lean on them too much. I couldn’t ask for exactly what I wanted. And I needed to seek out people who loved me less, because it was better to live inside a fantasy of “winning” devotion from a disinterested person than it was to grapple with my inability to accept the love that was right in front of me.

Do you see how all of these factors reinforce feelings of isolation and reconfirm your belief that you’re a selfish nightmare person who always wants too much and will always be isolated from other, healthier people? You always want more because you can’t feel what you have. Even if you feel your feelings generally, if everything you feel is weighted down by layers and layers of beliefs that you can’t quite unearth and examine, you’re still living in a bewildering, murky world where nothing makes sense. And every time you’re confused, you blame yourself for it.

So should you be easier on yourself? Yes — a million times YES. You can work harder, exercise more, force yourself out into the world more. But inside your head and heart, I want you to be the unconditionally loving, present, patient mother you never had. I’m not blaming your mother, of course. There are few things as difficult as working full-time and parenting on your own, let alone working all night for bad wages and then trying to parent your kids during the day when you’re exhausted. But you need to treat yourself to an existence where you’re allowed to want what you want and feel what you feel.

At first, the things you want and feel will convince you that you’re bad news. Because you’ll feel like an animal being let out of its cage. You’ve never had permission to be who you are without shame before. And when you ask people for what you want, and express who you are, you’ll feel a lot of shame about doing that. That’s another thing that it’s really hard to learn: When you were taught that you shouldn’t ask for things, you were also taught that feeling shame meant that you were fucking up. It’s incredibly hard to believe that you’re allowed to want things and ask for things when you’ve spent your life feeling ashamed of the things you’ve wanted and needed, and spent your life using that shame as a sign of how you’re doing as a person.

In fact, shame is the only real navigational signal you have, since you can’t feel love for yourself and you can’t feel love from others. You’ve been tricked into taking your own shame too seriously. So every time you ask for something, you’re immediately sure that you’re an asshole who’s overstepping her rights. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that you have, in fact, acted exactly like an asshole who’s overstepping her rights in the past. Why? Because you couldn’t feel love. You didn’t love yourself, so it was impossible to value the love you had or the people who gave it to you. You left your husband because you didn’t value yourself or him. You couldn’t feel any of it.

It’s strange how perfectly our stories match each other, isn’t it? You never need to know that many details to get the whole picture. It’s all so fucking simple. And that’s also why community is so important. Because when you reach out to other people with an open heart and you tell them the truth? You’ll hear your own experiences bouncing around in their stories. You don’t need a “special” community, as you put it, to get that. You can find it anywhere. You just have to be yourself and tell the truth. Because people aren’t that complicated. We are all fumbling around for love and connection in the same imperfect, confused ways. It feels good to recognize that and take it in with an open heart.

But look, open-hearted connection isn’t always easy. I don’t even think it’s smart to expect that of yourself every single day. Personally, I think it’s a major mistake for someone with a background like yours who struggles with vulnerability to treat healthy, honest people like they’re joyfully bouncing around in a world of brilliant light while the rest of us slog along in the darkness. I spend a lot of time in the sunshine and some time in the dark, too. I’m a very solid, generous person and I’m also a little bit of a nightmare person. No matter what I do to honor other people’s needs, I still sometimes get confused and feel shame and anger. I still expect too much of people and overreact when they disappoint me. I move quickly from disappointment to distrust to contempt, even, thanks to my history. I have to retrace my steps, back up, forgive, and question my assumptions. And sometimes, people are shitty and careless. It’s unavoidable. The main difference for me these days is that most shittiness now looks more like carelessness, and most carelessness is ultimately forgiven. We all have our shit.

The bottom line is that you’re growing and opening your heart more, every day. When you feel selfish and disappointed in yourself, notice how angry you are at yourself. Notice how you blame yourself at the slightest provocation. Notice how you live inside your shame and you distrust the love that comes to you. Try to question your beliefs about the world. Write them down. Ask yourself what guiding beliefs are looming behind your tears and your longing and your self-hatred.

You can notice when you feel like an angry, scared animal without trying to take control or punish yourself by getting back into that cage. Most people are swimming through shame every day just to exist, just to work and function and deal with each other. Noticing your shame is the only way to dissolve it slightly, to push it to the side and work around it.

You will feel uncertain about how much of yourself to show others. You’ll often feel like a little is too much. You’ll often feel that, at heart, you’re just a bossy bad person who needs too much. And look, I feel this way about myself even now. You never completely shake off the belief systems you grew up with. That’s something few people tell you. When times are tough, you revert to believing that you’re still a nightmare person, that you don’t have a right to your own feelings and desires.

That’s why you have to be committed to taking it easier on yourself. You have to believe that you deserve love, from yourself and others. Believing these things is a daily practice. Believing that you’re a good person — which you are, or you wouldn’t be asking such difficult questions or maintaining bonds with your friends — is part of that practice. It’s a good sign that you admire your friend who’s open and you know that you crave connection to a larger community. Most people with your challenges take years to get here. You’re more open than you realize, in other words.

You’re doing better than you realize, and you’ve made more progress than you realize. Part of being easier on yourself and accepting more love into your life lies in taking stock of what you have and noticing how far you’ve come. You’ve worked very hard to get here. Can you see that? Give yourself some credit. The more you can look around and feel proud of yourself — I mean really feel it — the less you’ll be tempted to lie and hide. For those of us who are used to scolding ourselves around the clock, feeling proud is maybe the hardest part of feeling vulnerable. We see pride as a moral failing. It’s time to fix that.

Remember, you don’t need your lies to be loved. You don’t have to be better than you are right now. Real life and real feelings are ordinary. Real people are ordinary. Real love is ordinary. But there is nothing more extraordinary than this ordinary moment, right here, right now, when your words and my words dance together and form their own strange allegiance to each other. We are just sad, isolated children reaching out to each other, you and me. I am grateful for you today, and you are grateful for me. All of the love in the world is manifested in our fragile, imperfect connection, in this moment. Let it in and carry it with you. We can build a lot from this one small connection. We can feel the love that’s here, and everywhere else, finally. Finally.


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 a Nightmare Person! Help!’