ask polly

‘I’ve Lost My Joy and I Want It Back!’

Photo: Jeff Foott/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I love your column and your book, How to Be a Person in the World. I’m not the best at putting what’s in my heart into words, but I’ve been feeling something bubbling up inside me and I hope you can give me some advice.

I turned 30 this year, and over the course of my late 20s I’ve noticed this inexorable creep of, shall we say, undesired changes to my outlook on life. The past two years, especially, have been tough on me: finding out a boyfriend of six months was an alcoholic, my dad getting cancer and cutting contact with me and my sister, my sister who has borderline personality disorder being signed off work for depression, and my two closest friends sinking into a deep depression of their own. Losing two-thirds of my savings in badly timed cryptocurrency investments didn’t help either. But it’s not just my own trivial life happenings; I’m also growing more cynical because of the stories I’m becoming aware of in the world at large. Climate change, billionaires who don’t pay their taxes, the growing number of people in my city who sleep rough every night, the lying bozos in charge of our governments, police brutality, and on and on.

For the majority of my 20s I was notably happy-go-lucky, almost to a fault. I may have been spotty, working in a low-paid, dead-end job, and living in a pest-ridden house share in a bad part of town, but I couldn’t help but see the beauty and joy in things. I took risks. I only read the culture and technology sections of the paper. I dated around and partied a lot to make up for an über-strict upbringing and an awkward few college years. I was incredibly naïve and not going anywhere in life, but I felt happy. It doesn’t feel appropriate anymore at this point, but in many ways I miss that version of me and I’m envious.

These days I eat much better, drink hardly ever, and run my own business. It’s an office yoga agency which I started about two years ago, and I love it and find it rewarding. I suppose it’s harder to be carefree when you’re heading a start-up, but I really enjoy working for myself, even when it meant that this year I managed to take zero weeks off work apart from the one week I was sick. I feel like I don’t get to have fun anymore. I try to distract myself with things that bring me fleeting joy — seeing my friends whom I don’t see enough of, trying to nail a new recipe or working on my handstand.

I guess my question is, how can I get back some of that joie de vivre I used to have, in spite of the darker life and global events threatening to bring me back to my senses?

Thirty and Grumpy

Dear Thirty and Grumpy,

Joie de vivre is a strange thing. What I’ve noticed in my own life is that I feel shittier and shiittier when I blame myself for everything I feel (sadness, longing, impatience, rage) and I feel better and better the more I forgive myself for being just another downtrodden, flinchy human animal with your typical bad wiring system, obsessive brain, and exotic desires. Just in the past year, I’ve gone from feeling faintly ashamed of who I am to feeling pretty goddamn comfortable with myself, and I have to say it makes a gigantic difference.

The first important thing to remember is that your particular desires are not inherently immoral. You describe your 20s as happy-go-lucky and I don’t think it was just the house pests and the partying that made it that way. Back then, there was room for you to be a person. You felt that it was entirely appropriate to dick around and follow your bliss wherever it led. Now, you tell yourself a story about how it’s inappropriate to slack off or meander or read only the culture and technology sections of the newspaper. So the only morally defensible way to live involves diving straight into depressing world news 24/7 while working yourself into the ground?

To that I say NO FUCKING THANK YOU. I spent a solid year of my life monitoring every word of Trump coverage and I swear, I took my happiness and whittled away at it every day until I was exhausted, surrounded by a heap of wood shavings and nothing else to show for it. I was too anxious and full of despair to make anything out of that effort. I didn’t rally or fight very well because I was too angry to connect with anyone, honestly. I was anxious and upset and pissed off every hour of every day, yet I felt that it was my moral obligation to keep ingesting the same news and keep freaking out and it was also my duty to blame myself for freaking out constantly. Somehow I felt that it was wrong to avoid reading the news, but it was also wrong to read the news and then be hammered into the ground by it. The only “right” way to live was by torturing yourself around the clock and feeling like complete shit all the time.

My opinion now is that we’re living in hopelessly moralistic, masochistic times. I’m not talking about the moralizing that people do on social media around race or income inequality or feminism or the climate crisis. Those are massive, pressing problems that need to be addressed and battled, every single day. I’m talking about the ways that most people treat what happens inside their heads and hearts as if it offers a moral verdict on their entire existence. I would imagine that, as a yoga business owner, there is a particularly insidious form of this purity that hangs over you. God forbid you accidentally breathe in bad instead of good! I know that, for me, just writing about personal problems is a really efficient way to invite all kinds of self-hatred into my life over the demeaning emotions and personal problems I still struggle with.

The only real way I know to wriggle free of these sorts of expectations is by working through them slowly, all by myself and also in the company of others. Anything that excites and delights and saddens and confuses you can turn into a kind of weight on your back if you let it. Anything that thrills you one day can incite shame the next day, if you let it. And right now, it feels like we’re all living the life of the guilty Catholic: There’s no room to just feel what you feel without self-imposed judgment. When you live that way for too long, eventually you turn on yourself. Everything you do is wrong, so why bother trying to do right? Or you power down all of your feelings and become numb and depressed. Or you lash out at other people for enjoying indulgences that you will never let yourself enjoy. Or you’re haunted by sinking feelings all day long, and you don’t know where they’re even coming from, and your day turns into a series of compulsive attempts to locate some fix or reward or pat on the head that might relieve these feelings. Now doesn’t that sound exactly like you and everyone else you know?

That’s not how it has to be, motherfuckers. You don’t have to walk around feeling like shit all the time just because you’re a human animal. You can take a breath and see where these dark feelings lead you without blaming yourself for them. You can cultivate compassion for yourself. Because there is a distinct difference between feeling and action. You can feel a way without harming anyone with it. You can be respectful and good to other people no matter what. You can give money to great causes and also refuse to let the news cycle destroy your will to live and fray your nerve endings every single morning. You can gesture loosely in the direction of what you perceive to be enlightenment without becoming some incredible, weightless being who floats above mortal humankind like a great glowing god.

And also? You can go out and socialize and have fun and meet new people and be adventurous without hurling yourself into an abyss of drunkenness and danger. You can be incredibly ambitious without selling out your core values. Right now it sounds like you want a bigger life. You want to get out of your cave. That’s how I’ve been feeling, too. For me, this realization rode in on a wave of shame around my own dissatisfaction. Because my intention was to be a good supportive, helpful human being, first and last. My goal was to live with less. I wanted to become more and more humble, like a monk. But guess what? That’s not really who I am.

And ever since I decided not to live that way, the colors of this world just keep growing brighter and brighter. I feel connected to my body in a way I haven’t for decades. I feel inspired and electric. It’s spilling out all over the fucking place, and I want to share it in this column, and also in my newsletter, and on Twitter and elsewhere. I want to spread this feeling everywhere I can. I have a lot to give, more than I can believe. So I’m going to show myself and connect with people and encourage every corner of my luminous fucking mind to burn brightly and explode all over the place. I’m going to do it all without shame, and I want you to do it without shame, too.

My personal feeling is that we have a clear moral obligation to save our fucking planet. We are all fucked if we don’t try with all our might to do that. We also have an obligation, in this not so great country of ours, to take outspoken and audacious actions to repair the damage we’ve done with our psychotically racist policies and language and habits, which are not only morally reprehensible but also got Trump elected and are likely to get him reelected, no matter what anyone thinks at this moment. If we tolerate this sickness, it will destroy us. We also have to protect women and girls from this regressive, predatory administration and its offshoots. We also have to stand up for a million and one other targeted groups, thanks to the weaponized hatred proliferating everywhere.

What does any of this have to do with reading the paper until your brains are leaking out of your ears? Almost nothing. You can stay informed without burying your joy every morning. And what about despair? Are you an asshole if you don’t choose despair every single day when you wake up, simply because other people are suffering somewhere? I think not. Even Jesus thought that you had to do your best to find your own joy. Sometimes joy happens to live inside a bottle of fancy foot oil rubbed on your tired feet by a woman of ill repute. So fucking what?

Sensitive people who care more than they can stand about this world have a hard path in front of them right now, not just because the entire globe is at risk, but because there are so many ways to fuck your outlook into the ground every single day. There are so many ways to punish yourself for failing the Earth and everyone around you, and there are so many unforgiving voices that will join in punishing you at a moment’s notice. The only path forward for a sensitive, innervated soul is through compassion — for the self and for others.

You obviously know this from your yoga practice already. You say these words. But forgiveness is a minute-to-minute requirement for someone like you, who has incredibly high standards and lofty ideals. So many of us have raised our standards and clarified our principles lately, and that’s an incredible thing. But it is very, very hard to breathe and feel your feelings once you’ve set your expectations of yourself so high. Because you are still an animal with needs. You are still a person with desires. You are allowed to want things for yourself. You are allowed to relax sometimes instead of fighting.

When you embrace the light, a shadow appears. That’s just how it works. You have to forgive yourself every day, every hour, every minute, for being a mortal human who does not stride above the human condition like a demigod. The only way that your “bad” desires or moments of weakness or recurring obsessions are going to eat you alive or blow up your life is if you don’t know yourself that well and you don’t trust yourself and you don’t love yourself and you secretly want to punish yourself just for being a human animal with perfectly normal ideas and urges and yes, even shifting philosophies about what your life should be. Forgive yourself. That’s how you navigate a path forward from this unhappy, stuck place. That’s how you show up for people in your life. That’s how you find joy and keep it no matter what the particulars of your life might be.

Forgive yourself. Every goddamn day. I went through a really trippy corridor of inspiration mixed with serious melancholy recently and my fucked-up, pointy mind sometimes wanted to use it to make me depressed and drive my life into the ground, but I wouldn’t let it. I let myself be where I was and forgave myself for it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t uphold my own principles, although I was forced to question some of my oldest, dustiest beliefs. Mostly, I’m just trying to be honest and I’m trying to move forward in a new way, unfettered by some of the rigid and self-righteous notions that I used to require in order to feel safe and secure. I’m trying to be less right about everything, if that makes any sense. I’m trying to live inside of a big question mark. Instead of trying to fix or change anything or jump to some premature conclusion, I’m living where I am. I’m working very hard to enjoy my weird obsessive brain while also forgiving myself for having a weird obsessive brain in the first place.

We all have our shit. When you figure out how to just sit with what you have, when you try to process and explain what you have to yourself without feeling the need to justify it to everyone else in the world, when you discover how to generate energy and light and heat from your desires instead of just using them to bludgeon yourself or someone else in the face, you become part of the larger solution to the essential problems of humankind. The more patient you are with yourself, the more patient you’ll be with other people. That energy spreads out in every direction like the sun. The more you believe that, the more you’ll see it in action in your life.

Giving yourself room to breathe and be big and alive and wild is a way of giving other people room to do the same thing. You don’t always know why your impulses take a particular shape. It’s okay to live inside that mystery and honor how powerful it is.

You’ve lost your belief system a little bit. That’s a built-in hazard of working in any kind of “healing”-adjacent field. It’s hard to sustain a belief system while you’re also feeling guilty about failing to sustain it effectively enough. It’s easy to take every single foible or even thought inside of your head and make grand pronouncements around it. But if your belief system is capsized by the random firings of a human animal brain, it wasn’t a very robust belief system to begin with. It’s time for your belief system to reinvent itself a little, in order to accommodate the realities of living through a very difficult (and also very inspiring!) time.

My personal belief system has shifted a lot lately. I want more intensity in my life. I want to aim higher in everything I do and to try crazy new paths much more often. My life is too safe and small. I need more fun and more wildness and more connection. I’m strong enough now to explore the world much, much more than I did before, without losing myself along the way.

I can’t begin to describe what this shift in perspective has already done to my life. I wake up early every single day and I can’t wait to start writing. My mind is more inventive and free than ever and my body is more energetic and I am just pulsing with so much passion for life that it’s almost overwhelming. I know that almost sounds exaggerated and obnoxious, but it’s true. And strangely enough, it all began with forgiveness. I welcomed my dissatisfaction and bewilderment and longing into the room and asked them what they had to teach me.

So engage with this crisis instead of trying to cut it off. Let these feelings in instead of blaming yourself for them. Be more patient with your own sadness. And look for joy everywhere you can, every day, from the first hour you’re awake until the moment you fall asleep. Stop torturing yourself and make joy the first priority of every single day. I know I’m a broken record on that front, but it’s honestly the one clear and solid contribution I feel I have to make to this world: reminding people that just enjoying yourself is important. It matters.

A small amount of enjoyment is like compassion: It spreads in all directions and gives other people opportunities to feel joy. Deciding that I had a right to please myself was the most important thing I’ve done over the past year. It was so simple, but it changed my life. So that’s what I’d say to you: Figure out how to please yourself. Give yourself what you fucking need as much as you can within the confines and structures of your current life. And if your life is too confined and structured, find a way to gently bend its load-bearing walls without reducing it to a pile of rubble. It’s not immoral. It will make you a better person.


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’ve Lost My Joy and I Want It Back!’