I love how you can take people’s problems and strip away the layers to reveal the raw human emotions and desires underneath. Compared to some of the heartbreaking submissions you get, I know I really can’t complain about my life. But that’s why I’m asking for your help.
You see, Polly, I’ve dealt with bouts of anxiety and depression throughout my 20s, but I’ve chalked it up to this decade being such a transitional, confusing life phase. I would often think things like, “Once I have a fulfilling job, I’ll be happy,” or “Once I have a loving partner, I’ll be happy,” or “Once I have kids, my heart will be so full of love and joy that I’ll never feel unsatisfied again.” And now, in my late 20s, I have a lot of these things! I have a wonderful partner, supportive and fun friends, a stimulating and high-paying dream job, no kids yet but a healthy, happy family and enough independence and stability to do whatever I please. And yet, I’m still so bad at being happy.
I’ve been ruminating on this over the past few months as these Things That Would Solve Everything have come into place. Why do I get into the same patterns of negative thoughts? Why do I cry for no reason on a beautiful beach vacation, get mad at my loving and aging parents as if I were still 12 years old, obsess over being skinny enough, pretty enough, successful enough? Recently I had a meaningless situation where a stranger got mad at me, and you’d think they physically assaulted me with how distressed I got. Why haven’t the Things That Would Solve Everything turned me into the positive, grateful, and grounded person I long to be? And what the hell will happen to me when the inevitable bad things in life do come my way?
I really try to work on this. I’ve been regularly going to therapy for years and have grown tremendously through this process. I read your column and I absorb the words and try to follow your advice — I sit with the negativity, I send kindness to myself for feeling my feelings, I try to get to the core and understand and process and let go. But even with all of this work, this little monster asshole inside of me turns me into a weak woman who cannot handle things. And I don’t just mean that I’m a negative Nancy who complains a lot — I mean that I feel pain, sadness, and stress over the smallest, most inconsequential things. I feel overwhelmed and overstimulated. I feel like my brain is on overdrive. I feel like shutting it down, pressing pause, crawling into bed and hiding from it. I wonder what the point of all of this is.
The reason I’m coming to you, Polly, is that I hate this sad and negative little monster inside of me. I get sick of myself. I hate hearing myself complain to people, and I’m so exhausted from obsessing over things I can’t control. I want to repurpose this energy into something useful like reading more, learning new skills, going outside, being a better friend, daughter, partner, or just being a human in the world. My mom always tells me that I stress too much over nothing, that this stress is bad, and that I should enjoy life. It’s an oversimplification, sure, but so clearly describes exactly what I want. Why can’t I be that way, Polly? What will be the Thing That Solves Everything?
Too Blessed to Be Stressed
Sometimes stressing a lot over nothing is a sign that your imagination needs something new and promising and absurd and strange to chew on. It’s like your high-strung, analytical nature has stocked your house full of cannons and gunpowder, but you have no battles to fight.
So instead, you turn all of that heavy artillery on yourself. You’re the problem. You’re what’s wrong in every picture. You’re a witch lying on the sandy beach. You’re an ungrateful brat tormenting her aging parents. You’re a demon whose bad intentions only strangers can recognize. You’re a sad and negative little monster, pretending you’re normal, trying to fit in with the innocents in your midst.
No wonder you want to sleep a lot and hit pause and leave the world behind. You don’t know how to relax or be present or connect with the people around you. Your mind isn’t a calm place because you blame yourself for the electricity shooting through your veins. You figure if you can just turn off the electricity, everything will improve. So you call half of your feelings negative. You name your truest, most ravenous self a monster. You stigmatize your restlessness, your hunger, your inquisitiveness, your dissatisfaction — even though these are all sensations that you need to lead you down a new path toward joy.
The best way I know to stop stigmatizing these primal drives is not by scolding yourself for doing so, but by making more space for them — making more space for hunger and restlessness, and watching closely to see where these feelings (which are not remotely negative) lead you.
Try inviting your sad and negative little monster into the room. Sew her a dress and talk to her while you sew. Why is she so fucking mad? What does she hate about being at home with her aging parents? What does she loathe about beach vacations? What would be better?
Make your monster a strong black tea and ask her questions until she starts talking to you. Enjoy her growly voice. Relish her bitchy attitude. Let her talk for as long as she wants. Don’t interrupt. Don’t tell yourself that she’s embarrassing and hideous and bad while she’s telling you what pisses her off. Let her be exactly who she is.
After a long time — a very long time — your monster will lean way back in her chair and stretch out her legs and close her eyes and she’ll tell you what she loves. She’ll tell you what she longs for. She’ll tell you what makes her feel electric, what makes her feel melancholy, what makes her body sing. She’ll tell you that there are days when she just wants to walk out the front door and walk into someone else’s life and try it on for size. She wants to become a scholar or a trapeze artist or a bass player or a chemist. She longs for things that embarrass her. She wants to look at the world through new eyes.
She loves her life but she wants to be alone sometimes. She wants people to stop talking in fucking clichés. She wants people to talk about what matters more often. She wants people to throw dance parties and actually fucking dance at them, for hours, without trying to speak to each other. She wants people to start making out, out of the blue, mid-sentence. She wants the woman who wrote the book she just read to show up at her doorstep and say, “Let’s drive out to the desert together.” She wants to move to Italy. She wants to have an Italian boyfriend who smells like old leather. She wants him to kiss the back of her neck and breathe in her heat and say, “I’ve never met anyone quite like you, I don’t understand this, I feel like my heart is leaping out of my body when I look at you.”
When your monster talks this way, you’ll study her irises and you’ll notice that they’re a little bit greenish at the edges, and you’ll think, “I’ve never met anyone quite like you.” Your pulse will race. Your hands will feel like restless birds that can’t get comfortable. Your feet will feel hot.
Life is bigger than you realize. Something about the way you’ve structured your days doesn’t honor the limitless potential and the countless possibilities that are stretched out before you. Something about your anxiety has caused you to build things that feel safe and restrictive. Something about your fears has led you to hide inside predictable shapes, to duck into dark corners, to retreat from open-ended questions.
You might be suffering from anxiety. You might need to exercise more to slough it off. Maybe you need to try a few different things at once. Maybe what you need is a vigorous workout schedule paired with more sleep. Are you at war with your own curiosity? Are you ashamed of your own ambition? Do you mistake your imagination for melancholia?
Anger and sadness will bring you joy, once you stop trying to strangle them or poison them or stuff them into a box under the bed. Anger is your life force making itself heard. (Once you forgive and also welcome the sensation itself, you won’t be tempted to lash out quite as often.) Grief is your body telling you that it hasn’t been given what it truly needs. Sadness is sometimes just a side effect of shame and regret, which are feelings that bubble up whenever your core belief that YOU ARE NOT ENOUGH, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG, YOU FUCK UP EVERYTHING, ALL THE TIME, YOU ARE AN EMBARRASSMENT asserts itself. It can take years of directly confronting that core belief before it will subside.
But as long as that core belief lurks under all of your experiences, you will feel misunderstood and unimportant and invisible. You will feel this way because you treat yourself this way. Make some more room for yourself. Assert your right to want exactly what you want for no fucking reason at all. Clear a path for your most restless desires.
Nurturing restless desires is not the same thing as taking reckless action, confronting or overwhelming other people with your demands, or burning down your entire life. Restless desires and their gentle, tentative expression and exploration are within your rights as a human being. Teach yourself how to patiently examine these desires without fear, and once you’re comfortable with that, teach the people around you to accept that your desires and dreams are as complicated and contradictory as the tangled web of constellations blazing through a million distant galaxies.
You don’t need approval to have desires. You don’t have to get anyone else to sign off on them. Your mother is well-meaning, but saying “Be less dissatisfied” and “Be more grateful” does nothing but shame a person for feeling whatever messy knot of emotions they’re grappling with. I’m sure this wasn’t the first time she’s said these things to you. This is the fabric of our culture: Reduce your brilliance down to a sugary sauce or shut the fuck up about it. Take this cold bowl of gruel I have to offer and love it or else, you ingrate.
And what if you happen to want more? Who should be the fucking judge of what you crave or long for or deserve? Your mother? Our shitty, broken culture, which teaches us to want more and more and more by feeding us a thin porridge of dissatisfaction, and then punishes us for the very appetite for more that it incited?
You won’t know what you truly want until you listen patiently to your “little monster asshole” instead of treating her like a disobedient brat. You won’t know how you feel until you stop calling 50 percent of what you feel negative and bad and shitty, as if longing for more or better is some moral lapse that you need to overcome. No one arrives at some happy destination and then stops feeling angry forever. No one reaches some joyful plateau and never feels sadness. Sadness and rage and longing are baked into joy. They’re the goddamn salt, fat, acid, and heat of emotional life.
Yet you want to deny your right to all of those glorious flavors! No wonder you can’t taste anything at all.
Your monster is your friend and ally. Your monster is your mercurial, ravishingly beautiful lover. When your monster speaks, her voice is a sublime, melodious river. When your monster moves, it’s like watching light dance across water. Your monster wants to bring the sensual pleasures of just being alive — breathing, walking barefoot through wet grass, feeling a smooth stone in your palm — to your attention. She wants you to feel grateful, too, but she wants you to feel everything else first. She wants you to feel everything.
Tear down your walls and make some room for everything. Because once you feel everything, you will feel grateful for everything. Let it all in. Don’t be afraid. There are allies everywhere, waiting to rally to your cause. Look for them.
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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