ask polly

‘I’m Defective as a Human Being!’

Photo: NIMIT VIRDI/Getty Images/500px

Dearest Polly,

Even after all your advice on “embracing your flaws” and “letting your freak flag fly,” I still feel like I’m defective as a human being and because of that, I’m uptight about everything I do and say. This all started a year ago when I had a falling out with two of my friends. The whole thing can be summarized in two parts:

1. I had just gone through a breakup after a yearlong relationship, so it was a vulnerable period for me. At that time, I was a turbulent person who acted on my emotions, so you can imagine how irrational and difficult I was to the people around me. I lashed out, I made spiteful and hurtful remarks when my friends offered me advice I didn’t like hearing, and I often asked the same repeated questions for reassurance. I’m not sure why I wanted to hurt the people who were trying their best to help me; maybe it’s because I wanted them to be able to understand how overwhelming my emotions felt, and I got defensive when they didn’t understand. This is a problem of mine I still struggle with, and I fear I’ll never really be able to control my emotions before they get the better of me — hence leading me to lose more people I love.

2. I went on a holiday with aforementioned friends not too long after the breakup. During the holiday, I did quite a few things which annoyed them both and now we’re no longer friends. Back then, I considered them my closest friends — though looking back now I see that our friendship lacked deeper levels of honesty and maybe even genuine love (though I can only say this mostly on my part, as I can’t be sure if that’s how they felt).

Anyway, back to the holiday which soured our relationship. I’ll use the names Allison and Becca for anonymity. Allison said I had been irrational and impractical and too emotional, and she just couldn’t deal with it because she’s the opposite of all that. I know I was selfish. I wanted some things to go my way, made some impractical decisions that indirectly inconvenienced them, and sometimes behaved like the world centered around me. Towards the end of the trip, in the midst of having a conversation about my breakup with Becca, I insulted her unintentionally when I compared her situation with mine (something along the lines of, “That’s easy for you to say, you have a boyfriend”). And that pretty much concluded the entire episode, and also our friendship.

Since then, I’ve grown a great deal by trying to be more independent. I try my best not to make waves, and I keep my wants and desires to myself as much as I can so that I won’t inconvenience others or go against their own wants and desires. I try to be more selfless and thoughtful, and in general I’m happier with the person I am now. I no longer have to pretend or act like a good person. I genuinely feel more at peace with who I am: someone who tries to place others above herself.

But I still feel scarred by what happened with Allison and Becca. I overanalyze everything I do in fear of people leaving me because of how I function as a person. It feels like I’m constantly walking on thin ice: I worry when I catch myself saying something that can be misinterpreted badly, when I’m clumsy and mistreat someone’s belongings, when I’m short-tempered, when I’m honest about what I want but I’m afraid that it would go against what others want … It’s just constant worrying for me. I know I can’t expect myself to be perfect, and I shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes. I think I’m also extra hard on myself so I won’t repeat any mistakes I catch myself making, hence preparing myself so that I won’t turn my future friends against me.

I know you’d probably tell me that the trauma of losing two friends has led me to believe I’m somewhat inadequate as a human being, and it’s probably just paranoia that’s leading me to believe I have a huge problem within myself. I would agree with that, but I can’t shake the idea that my idiosyncrasies and flaws are not the type that the majority of people can accept.

Throughout my life, I’ve angered and unknowingly hurt many friends because of the things I’ve done or said — most of which were unintentional. Some of them have told me that they found it hard to believe when I stated that I genuinely meant no harm, as “it was very obvious those actions would lead to such consequences.” Everything has lead me to feel like my thought processes are vastly different from everyone else’s, and I’m afraid I’ll continue making mistakes that will cost me all my friends and loved ones.

Apart from all that, I also struggle with competitiveness and comparing myself to my friends, which makes me feel like I’m not a good friend either, because what friend doesn’t want to see someone they love succeed? Or rather, I’d love to see my friends succeed, but it makes me stressed out and worried when they succeed more than me. I get this bad feeling in the pit of my stomach when I wonder if I’m not good enough or too slow in my career, but then I stop and remind myself that everyone has their own path and their opportunities aren’t going to take away mine.

I even get competitive about physical possessions (I know, how silly, right?), and I always want to have the nicest stuff or acquire the clothes my friends own that I like. When I see them with stuff I don’t have, I get really uneasy and feel less than. Thus I end up shopping and spending a lot of money on things I don’t need and probably won’t have time to wear in an effort to make myself feel more worthy, and it’s a whole perpetual cycle of feeling lousier when I see how much I’ve wasted.

I respect your opinion and would love your insight on all of this. Part of me is tired of being so hard on myself all the time. I’d love to scream at myself to just chill the fuck out, but part of me feels that letting my guard down opens up the possibility of making more mistakes and pushing people away.

Uptight But Trying

Dear Uptight But Trying,

The only way to let your guard down without pushing people away is by honoring who you are. That’s what’s missing from the dramatic transformation you describe. You have a clear sense of what might’ve been driving your insensitive behavior in the past — you became emotional and reactive whenever you felt misunderstood. But you don’t talk about how you got that way, or how it felt for you to be in those situations. You don’t talk about who you are and what you want. You’re more concerned with what other people want from you.

Because I often suggest ways to “fix” bad behavior and address the layers of emotion and experience underneath that behavior, it’s sometimes easy to read this column and think “I just need to try very hard to fix myself, so I stop messing everything up!” But the truth is, it’s impossible to “fix” anything when you don’t have enough compassion for yourself. Right now, all you can see is a field of land mines. Why ask for anything from anyone, when it always backfires? Why show up when you’ll only get told that you’re a selfish mess? Better to disappear.

Yet all of the failings you describe in yourself are utterly human. Being competitive is natural, particularly at this shallow, internet-driven, comparison-fixated point in human history. It’s almost impossible not to sweat these things when you’re young and you’re trying to make a place for yourself in the world. This might not be the most delightful trait when it comes to sustaining friendships. But it’s still common, not to mention useful. Some days nothing else will motivate you to get out the door and make shit happen.

It’s also understandable for you to be competitive when so much of your life story is about what other people think of you. Even when you screwed up and pushed people away, you were trying to get them to understand you and feeling frustrated when they didn’t. Now you’re just trying very hard not to screw up — that’s your central motivation — but you’re living in a new kind of hell where you can’t be yourself without worrying about someone misunderstanding you. That transit from insensitive, stompy, needy, selfish friend to more considerate but paranoid friend is familiar to me. Strangely, both states are driven by a focus on other people’s perceptions. First, you work very hard to avoid being misunderstood or to answer misperceptions with your insistent, repeated explanation of who you are and what you need. Then, once friends react badly or dump you, you become ruled by these perceptions. And when other people and their ideas about you are that important, why wouldn’t you also be a little bit resentful of them and prone to comparing what you have to what they have?

I’m guessing you were raised by extremely competitive, image-focused people who never admitted how competitive and image-focused they were. My parents were always extremely skeptical of status, but even that can be just another way of placing yourself above other people’s values. It took me years of scrutinizing my parents’ photographs to see it: They cared a lot about how they appeared, particularly when they were young, even though they never wanted us to think so. They were self-conscious, neurotic, superior, and judgmental. Obviously that’s not that rare or exotic or awful. I still fall into each of those categories regularly. But it was confusing because they claimed to be completely unconcerned about other people’s perceptions of them. Even though they pretended to be above silly things like status (and also silly things like human emotions!), that superiority was just one of their ways of remaining safe from other people’s judgments, which they actually experienced as so threatening and invasive that they built their lives around escaping them.

In other words, my parents were ruled by shame, which often manifests itself in either diving into or completely avoiding social measures of worth. I love my parents so much; they were both very interesting, entertaining, lovable humans. I just want you to understand that it’s not a small thing to be raised by people who won’t admit who they are, who don’t have the emotional energy to deeply understand who you are. If feeling misunderstood is at the center of everything for you, that tells you a lot: You didn’t feel seen and you felt very insecure because your needs weren’t addressed most of the time. This is why you grew into a person who felt like she had to grab anything she could, because no one was going to give you what you needed. You were preemptively angry at others because you always perceived them as having more than you, thus perpetuating the shame and injuries that your parents inflicted on you without knowing it. And now you feel like you don’t deserve things, which is also an outcropping of believing that no one can or SHOULD EVEN TRY to address your needs. In trying to correct for past grabby actions, you’ve become an overapologizing ghost.

I did that, too, and people liked me even less than they did when I was pushy and selfish. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. But sometimes the problem lies in the fact that you’re neurotically TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU’RE DOING WRONG all of the time instead of just calming down and honoring your heart and feeling your way forward.

Someone wrote me a letter the other day asking how I reached this point where I feel balanced and at peace. Obviously, I don’t feel balanced and peaceful all of the time, but I do think I’ve exited the ego prison that I lived in for a lot of my life. I don’t overexplain myself or analyze other people’s reactions to my way of living nearly as much. I don’t constantly second-guess myself. I’m okay with seeming like a freak to other people, as long as I can connect and breathe and feel happy inside. It’s not like nothing bothers me, but I have guiding principles and a life philosophy that feel good and make sense to me, and when someone decides there’s something “wrong” with how I present myself, it doesn’t get under my skin in the same way it used to. I know my own heart and I trust myself. I have compassion for my screwups, so I can pass that compassion on to the people who can’t see me that clearly, or who see me clearly and dislike what they see.

I had to break out of my own ego prison to get here. An ego prison is a place where your needs don’t matter to anyone else, so you either have to grab what you need or pretend you don’t have needs. An ego prison is a place where your brain is obsessed with SEEMING BETTER (more serene, hotter, more stylish than ever!) instead of actually FEELING BETTER. An ego prison is a place where a voice in your head takes every experience and image and conversation and translates it into the same message: You will never be as amazing as her. You will never be as smart or as respected as him. You are broken and strange and no one really likes you. You will never be enough.

Try to notice when you hear those voices. Notice how irrational and absurdly negative and paranoid they are.

Yes, you realize that your past behavior was inconsiderate and sloppy. You understand, intellectually at least, that you lash out when you feel invisible or misunderstood, but you often end up feeling even more misunderstood after you lash out. You want to seem better now. You want to have friends and be loved. So every day you strategize on how to act. You think about what people must be saying about you and you adjust your behaviors and movements accordingly. You imagine the person you could be, if you worked harder and dressed better and were more loved, and you pursue goals that will make you into that person. And you worry about fucking it all up again.

You’re on the right path intellectually. You’re trying to solve this puzzle. But you aren’t using your heart to find a peaceful place to just exist. You aren’t treating yourself as a person who has her own idiosyncratic needs, who has a right to say “I just want my friends to understand me at a deeper level, even if that sounds incredibly unrealistic.” Didn’t your friend have a right to say that she was the opposite of “irrational and impractical and too emotional” and that’s why she didn’t want anything to do with you? If she has the right to be her way, don’t you have a right to be the way you are? And by the way, no human under the sun is THE OPPOSITE of irrational, impractical, and too emotional. These are the distinguishing characteristics of humankind.

See how I arrogantly proclaim that some people have it wrong? That’s me being a tiny bit like the pushy show-off I was back when I was younger. I’m drawing on something that’s directly linked to WHAT MADE ME AN ASSHOLE and using it for a new, positive purpose. Because these puzzles are not black and white. We can’t just select all of the good shit in our personalities and kick out the bad shit. The very best things about you live right next door to the worst things. When you try to KILL OFF your “bad” self, you kill off your good self, too.

And I know there are good things about being impractical and too emotional. I use those things in my life all the time, to be a better mother, to be more compassionate, to write music, to create a strange interior world for myself that makes me feel more alive and electric.

You don’t have to feel twitchy and apologetic just because there are a lot of sanctimonious motherfuckers out there who want you to think that you’re an irredeemable piece of shit just because you were once confused and disordered and wanted more from your friendships than you were getting. People used to distrust my good intentions, too, saying things like, “How could you not know that you’d fuck things up by acting this way?” Some people truly don’t understand what it means to be so disordered that you can’t connect actions and consequences within high-pressure relationships. For me, the more sure I was that other people saw me as inferior, the more confused I got about what impact my behavior would have on them. Sometimes I lashed out, and sometimes I just tried too hard. I was confused enough that it all looked messy and aggressive, but that’s not where my heart was, even then.

That said, I was at my worst when I found myself among the kinds of people who said stuff like, “I’m the opposite of too emotional.” That kind of statement goes hand in hand with saying that you always, always support other women, no matter what, or that you think having a nemesis is for weak losers and you never, ever compare yourself to others because you’re above that. I’ll bet that this friend of yours steadfastly refuses to admit that she’s remotely competitive with her friends (while, oddly enough, undermining those friends with surgical precision with her above-it-all pronouncements).

It’s a type. And it’s a type that people like you and me, who are competitive and self-conscious and insecure and disordered, tend to find irresistible. Because we’re in awe of anyone who presents the illusion that they can bestride the mortal world like a colossus. Our competitive self naturally aims way too high. We don’t want to be better, we want to be the BEST. Our ego prison mind-set tells us that THIS IS WHO WE WANT TO BE. And by the way, all we’re doing is chasing and imitating our parents’ way of moving through the world, which didn’t work for them and isn’t working for us, either.

Be yourself instead. Sure, you’re wound up about clothes and you want to do as well as your friends. That makes you exactly like about a third of the human population, as far as I can tell. You are not the Dalai Lama. It’s okay to want to fix a lot of your problems and also want to be understood more deeply by others. It’s okay to admire truly healthy, incredible people (LIKE THE DALAI LAMA, not your friend, who sounds frustrating and not that honest) but also live inside your own lopsided, grabby skin.

I write this column about wisdom and navigating the shit of life every week, and guess what? I’m still a grabby, pushy know-it-all some of the time. I’m not being self-deprecating; I’m just stating the facts. If I didn’t enjoy the fucked up nature of my personality, and accept it, and work very hard to model that kind of peace and self-acceptance for my kids, in my opinion I’d be a shitty writer, a shitty mother, a shitty friend, and a shitty wife. Even if the core features of my personality sprang from a toxic fermented brew of my parents’ good and bad choices, muddled along with my own weak nature, this is what I have to work with, and I choose to see it as a gift because when I see it that way, IT FEELS LIKE A GIFT AND ACTS LIKE A GIFT.

I have tried to change and I can’t change that much. Mostly I try to accept who I am. That sounds lazy, but it’s at the center of all growth. When I accept myself, I’m also less selfish and reckless and unfair to other people. But my competitive spirit hasn’t gone away. When you’re naturally very competitive and you were raised in an absurdly competitive home, your competitive spirit springs up like a weed growing in the cracks in the sidewalk. You can’t beat it back. God bless the people who just don’t compete, authentically, truly. But I do, motherfucker. I just DO. What’s strange is, the more I let myself be a rapacious animal in my interior life, the less competitive and comparison-focused I am in my real life.

You have to exit this paranoid, ego-driven lockdown and resolve to be your own scrappy uneven, inconsistent invention. You have to learn to look in the mirror and say to yourself: I am okay when I’m ugly and confused. It’s okay to be lumpy and lost. I can stand right here, feeling broken, and I am still lovable. I deserve love. I deserve honest, loyal friends. I know I can be that kind of a friend, too. But I can also dress up and show off and look great and take up a lot of space, and guess what? That’s who I am, too. I am a complex human and I need some room to grow right now. I need friends who get it.

Once you stop looking for image-conscious friends who match your ego-prison vision quest, you’ll find the best friendships of your life. That’s what happened for me. I started to notice that I love conflicted people who are open about their feelings and ideas AND their flaws. I love weirdo artist types who figure out what works for them and confidently assert their rights, no matter who’s around. I like people who are angry but have made peace with that, for the most part. I like people who broke out of ego prison and are now doing exactly what the fuck they want to do.

Ironically, those are also the people who seem to seek understanding the most, instead of telling you how you should be. I don’t think your friends really wanted to understand you, even when you were doing the hard work of trying to understand them. Go find friends who care, who listen, who love you for who you are. That’s what you deserve. You’ve worked hard for it.


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 Defective as a Human Being!’