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‘I Don’t Know How to Feel My Desire’

Photo: Sean Fleming/Getty Images/EyeEm

Dear Polly,

I’ve always been a very ambitious (careerist, if you want to be unkind) person and, annoyingly, used to say “My reach must exceed my grasp” a lot. Recently, I’ve realized that parroting this phrase is bullshit because, in fact, I am terrified to have my reach exceed my grasp. I can be ambitious in an abstract way — I am hard-working, apply for jobs, am “productive,” keep moving forward, all of that — but I don’t know how to desire anything that I don’t think is at least somewhat within my grasp. Ambient, aimless desire feels unsafe. My condition is this: Either I have no desires and that feels scary because it reminds me of depression, or I do have a desire and it’s scary because it feels like deprivation I can’t handle. Wanting highlights what I don’t have and makes me feel not okay. I hate being dissatisfied or envious, especially because I am generally happy with my life and feel like I’m on the right track, and wanting puts me in that space.

Let me use a very silly example. I know plenty of people who have celebrity crushes and will sometimes fantasize about Channing Tatum (or whoever) falling in love with them. They know it’s not going to happen, but it makes them happy to fantasize. I can’t let myself do that. It just feels shameful and pathetic, like, “You stupid bitch, celebrities don’t even know who you are! This is not going to happen! Also, you have a partner.” I didn’t used to be like this, but now I can barely even start daydreaming without judging myself.

To my mind, desire is okay if it’s useful (i.e., inspires me to work harder for a job or be healthy), but it’s a waste of time and actively dangerous if it’s not. (I could get lost in desire and never do anything in the real world and also then become more dissatisfied with the real world.) I could probably find a way to reinterpret “aimless” fantasies into something useful and motivating, but I think that misses the point. I can feel that my life would be better — richer, bigger — if I weren’t afraid of desiring things that I don’t think I can have.

I was talking to my therapist about this, using the celebrity example and asking why other people don’t feel ashamed. Immediately, she said, “Some people are just okay wanting things they know they’ll never have.” I’d like that, and I know that you often talk about the importance of owning your desire. Do you have any suggestions for that first step?


Make Desire Safe Again 

Dear MDSA,

Our culture seduces us and amps up our desire, then it treats desire itself as shameful and treats us as weak and embarrassing for feeling desire. One of the most direct escape routes from this untenable position is art. Art is the opposite of shame. Daring to make art is audacious. When you live like an artist (by striving to encounter people, places, and things on their own terms, outside of our culture’s jaundiced framing of them), or you create art, that’s a way of boldly standing up for desire and making the right to your own desire a top priority. These identities and belief systems and actions are powerful and empowering even when they’re private.

But they require some courage of conviction. Because our culture tells us that we can only create art if we are already artists, stamped and approved by invisible men in black horn-rimmed glasses sipping Pinot Grigio in some loft in Soho. Our culture tells us we can only write if we are already writers, armed with M.F.A.s from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and embraced by The New Yorker and buoyed by a room full of Ivy League graduates, eager to earn their own notarized licenses to write.

Desire asks, “What are you worthy of, really?” Desire unearths our unworthiness. Our culture tells us that if you want sex and you’re not hot, you’re unworthy of sex. You look in the mirror and your desire, echoing our culture, says, “You are ugly and you are a fucking joke and no one wants to fuck you, ever.” If you want to be someone who creates music or poetry or sculpture or classes or lectures or textiles or spaces or events or feelings, desire asks, “What do you know about this? What’s so special about YOU?” We take our desire and push it through a cultural megaphone that warps and distorts it until it sounds like shame.

Some of us were told by our parents that we could do or become anything we wanted to be. That’s the first step toward desire. Some of us heard, “Your desires matter.” That felt good. We started to trust ourselves, and trust our desires.

But then we tried to say, out loud, what we desired. “I want to be a writer.” “I am in love with that boy across the street.” “I feel sad right now.” “I want you to see me clearly and hear me when I say emotional things.” “I want you to love me.” “I want you to stop looking away when I talk to you.” And that’s when many of us learn that our desires would not be understood or respected, no matter what anyone said about it. Instead of living inside of that rejection, we learn to tell ourselves that not only will our desires never, ever, be met, not only can’t we do or become anything we want to be, but that DESIRE ITSELF IS EMBARRASSING. When you state your desires directly, as a child or a young adult or even as a mature adult, you quickly learn that desire embarrasses other people. Desire is often treated as the enemy. Desire can make us (and everyone around us) feel needy and small. Desire is so painful and shameful that many of us decide that it might be better not to feel any desire at all.

So we power down our desires. We start to feel numb. We feel depressed. Nothing is worth doing. We define ourselves as unambitious. Or we view ambition as some kind of escape from desire, and we work ourselves into the ground without feeling a thing.

For the stretch of my entire life, I’ve muted my own desires. As a kid, I had so many giant dreams and fantasies, as kids often do. I wanted things that were so far beyond my reach that I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I was a fool for wanting them. I could feel inside my cells how impossible my desires were. And when your parents are willing to respond to you intellectually but not emotionally, you quickly learn to translate all of your desires and transcribe them so they can exist on intellectual terrain. You become hyperintellectual, hyperneurotic, hyperanalytical. This column is a manifestation of the insecure attachments of my childhood, in other words.

And even this column felt embarrassing at first, for someone like me, who was more used to taking all of her love and fear and need and translating it into A+ STUDENT TERM PAPERS and LENGTHY, THOUGHTFUL ANALYSES OF EMOTIONAL STUFF (about TV, about books, not about me, this has nothing to do with me!). Until recently, my words always felt like dancing about architecture. It wasn’t enough. Actually, dancing about architecture makes some sense. My words felt more like writing math problems about falling madly in love.

I wanted to write songs about love instead. I did that for a while, but because that path included BECOMING A ROCK STAR and because there is nothing in the world more shameful and embarrassing and terrifying than saying “I want to be a fucking rock star” when you just have a guitar and a wavery voice and maybe you’re secretly shitty at this but no one will tell you the truth and also you CRY BIG SALTY TEARS every time you sing a song for anyone, anywhere, I couldn’t continue on that path. It was too fucking shameful.

And I loved it more than anything else by far, hands down. I even had a therapist who said to me, “You have to write music.” And I would sit there and cry for a solid hour, thinking about how much I believed in my talent and trusted it like it was my own personal religion and how I wanted music more than anything else. But my shame blocked off my path.

In order to remove that obstacle from my path so that I could pursue music, I needed to keep digging into my shame and addressing it and also dancing with it and playing with it and living next to it. But I didn’t do that. I hid in my romantic relationships. I hid in booze. I hid in fractured, incomplete friendships with people who half-disapproved of the most shameful, embarrassing, soft parts of me. Those are the kinds of friends you make when you don’t approve of yourself: friends who disapprove. Contingencies are palpable when you talk to these friends. It’s like you always feel slightly uneasy and unloved. Limits and boundaries and buried insults bubble up and bounce around the room.

But until you face your shame (and dance with it, motherfucker! Don’t forget to sit with it and love it and hate it and care for it and break it apart, too!), you can’t even tell who disapproves of you and who doesn’t. The people who love you for who you are sometimes sound exactly like the people who don’t love you at all. Your lack of desire clouds your vision. Your shame blots out the sun. They all sound the same. They sound like the shame that tells you, YOU MUST ALREADY BE EVERYTHING YOU WANT TO BE and YOU MUST ALREADY KNOW EVERYTHING. You must be beyond reproach, like your parents, like the experts, like the gods themselves. Until you face your shame, every voice in your life sounds like shame. And what shame tells you, more often than anything else, is that desire is the most shameful thing under the sun.

Funny how most religions tell you the same thing. Funny how our culture is built around shaming all desire into the fucking ground. And if you’re a woman? If you’re a man, even? If you’re a black woman or an Asian woman or an Asian man or a disabled human? Wow, you really, truly don’t deserve desire. There are twisted justifications for denying every single different flavor of humanity of the right to desire. And when you are a human whose desires are denied, over and over again, or shamed, or made to look disgusting, your job is to interrogate that until you can crawl out from under your shame. Your job is not to say, I HAVE IT BAD, TOO, MOTHERFUCKER! to everyone else who feels desire of any kind. “FUCK YOU!” becomes the sound of your shame. We hear that sound a lot these days, coming from people who’ve turned their own shameful desires into a weapon. That’s why compassion is such a necessity today. Compassion for yourself and everyone else is our only path out of this mess.

Back to you, MDSA. This is the first step: You sit with your shame and you develop compassion for yourself and your shame. You look around with new eyes, and all you can see are people living inside their shame. You can see how dramatic other people’s shame is for them. You notice these things, and you forgive them, and you forgive yourself repeatedly, too.

Do we all get up in the morning and put our fucking pants on and deal? Of course we do. But there is a vast sea that lies between living inside your shame (and therefore disowning your own desire), and living WITH your shame (and OWNING YOUR DESIRES). Owning your desires means making space for other people’s desires. Watching your compassion grow and expand means showering the whole goddamn world with compassion.

Desire is the key to this lock. But it’s very tricky. Here’s how I see it: You welcome your desires and let them flood in and you try your very best not to either feel ashamed of that or burn your life to the ground with it. Because most people are ruled by shame, a lot of people will experience you as some form of demon alien the second you start to own your desire. You have to anticipate that and sit with it. You sit with disapproval the way you sit with shame: You let it sink in, you remind yourself that YOU ARE STILL HERE, GETTING YOUR OWN BACK. That means you don’t retreat into your neuroticism or your shame. You don’t hide in circular thoughts, if you can help it. You don’t make weird escape routes with your brain. You sit where you are and feel what you feel and you tell yourself, “Desire is good. Desire is living and breathing and surviving. Desire is beautiful.”

It’s all very fucking dramatic because the world becomes very, very dramatic the second you stop feeling ashamed of your desires. But it changes everything.

These days when I write, I feel like I’m writing music. I am much more daring and I trust myself, the way I did when I wrote music in my 20s. I am also WRITING ACTUAL MUSIC.

And look, even writing music opens up Pandora’s box for me. There’s so much shame there, just like there’s shame in showing your heart and embracing new adventures and believing in connection with people who can see past their own shame occasionally, people who are happy or stable or curious or open enough to want real, intense connection, not just garble barble nice to see you now fuck right off. When you feel your desires intensely and you encourage your desires, shame rises up to greet them. You uncover brand-new layers of shame that you didn’t even think existed. You feel shame at desire itself, often. And when you meet people who own their desires — which is what you want, after all — it’s also very common to feel like you’re lagging behind them, and that in and of itself can feel shameful.

I have lived like a monk, though. This is a market correction. I couldn’t experience myself in the world at all. I couldn’t let myself feel things that were unrealistic or foolish or just FUN. I couldn’t say things or write things that didn’t adhere closely to an essentially powered-down, fearful vision of the world, one that might keep me safe from shame, one that might prevent me from feeling abandoned. I valued safety over everything else under the sun.

If you had insecure attachments as a kid, you associate desire with chaos, and insecurity, and need. You associate desire with being a bad person. You associate desire with being a pathetic little fool who no one really loves or sees or hears or understands or wants to understand. And that, my friend, lies at the white-hot center of becoming an artist. Because you tap into a source of pure, clean light when you reacquaint yourself with that desperate space of WANTING AND NEEDING. When you feel that kind of anxious desire, it’s easy to feel very afraid. But instead of trying to escape it or turn it off, you keep your desire company. You tell yourself: This desire is a gift. It belongs to me now. This doesn’t have to leave me.

Your desire will tell you that someone must come to save you from this unbearable wanting, this need. That’s when you need to dig deeper, and sit with your desire, and breathe, and wait patiently. If you are patient enough, your need itself will say, in a clear, heavenly voice: This need is all you need.

Desire is not shameful. That’s one of the central illusions of modern life (and ancient life!). Desire is light and heat. And the more you own your desire instead of making it into something that is BAD and makes you LESS, then the more you can feed yourself and the people around you and the whole goddamn planet your compassion and your love — your bright, white-hot, glowing, unrelenting, irrefutable LOVE. Do no harm, respect other people’s boundaries, be patient, and use your desire to cultivate love for yourself and the world at large. Use your desire to make art or to live like an artist, whether you make art or not.

I know it’s hard. I know. Your tears are a river that lead to joy. Let yourself breathe and feel more, not less. Let yourself feel the love you have to share with this world. You have so much to share. Dare to be foolish. Dare to look for fun. Dare to forgive yourself for wanting the impossible. Because this world wants what you have to give. This world is waiting patiently for you to hear the call of your desire.

It’s not over. It’s never over.


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 Don’t Know How to Feel My Desire’