Let me say the obligatory things first: This is going to be a mess, and there is no one problem, and I am an enduring fan of yours. Why? When I read your columns, so often I find a voice that reminds me of the best voice in me. I studied academic philosophy for a time, and there is a word, thumos, for the courage-loving, angry part of your mind, which rises up literally and figuratively in self-preservation. Are you about to feel shame that you’re not who you thought you were? Preserve the self you thought you were and change. Is someone telling you that you’re not worth it? Blast Kanye and walk out on that motherfucker and preserve yourself. I am sad, but I am also angry, and anger has saved me. Thumos saved me. And when I hear you say to never settle for lukewarm, I think: thumos.
Ultimately the reason I wanted to write you was because I spend every day of this pandemic looking at my double-chinned face on Google Hangouts, and I think about how my entire life, I have wanted not to be morbidly obese. I feel like I’m damned if I do — because how stupid, right, to want something that I know is rigged, that I know is stupid, that I know is arbitrary, that I have never approved of? And damned if I don’t, because I have never looked the way I wanted, and it’s hard for me to say if the reason I haven’t is because I am actually a coward afraid to look like I tried? Now that I am 31, I wonder if I will ever be … not even beautiful, but something that I want to be. It feels cheap to say, ‘Ah, just want yourself! Just love yourself!’ Just stop wanting what you’ve always wanted! JUST GIVE UP.
Fuck that. I don’t want to buy into patriarchal bullshit, but I don’t want to disown what I want, either. What I want to look like is as much a part of me as what I in fact do look like. That’s the rub.
Sometimes I ask myself how I got here. I’m 31 years old, obese, as I said, and a virgin. No one has ever liked me romantically, and I have to wonder, is it because I save the worst parts of me for those who know me? My fragility, my anger, my demands? I know I don’t have a perfect heart. I find myself trying to figure out how and why to change to keep people around. I’ve been having more difficult conversations about ways I was hurt and trying to own up to the times I hurt others, and I can’t tell if this is growth or if it’s coming from the same part of me that is angry: I hate ambiguity. I think that’s why I’ve walked away from some things. Philosophy, yes, but also my parents.
They divorced, messily, which was depressing even though I’d always known they didn’t love each other. My mom fell apart over a husband who had only ever been angry when he was around, and then she became extremely controlling. I moved in with my dad, and wasn’t really bothered by his weekly explosions (they were brief, unlike my mom’s controlling tendencies), until it became unbearable to see how clearly he weighed the importance of his new wife and her family over me and my brother — so I stopped going home freshman year. I’ve rebuilt the relationships — I let my mom in more, and I gave up on ever being the most important thing in my dad’s life — but I’ve never gone back. Those boundaries feel important.
And now, I’m alone.
Polly, sometimes I feel like a house nobody wants to live in. I have this ugly body, this ugly face. I am mean, demanding, loud, self-important, and have only a handful of friends that seem to stand the test of time. I feel like I am smart enough to start things but not to finish, and above all, I am told that what I am good at is the feelings stuff, the administrative stuff, but not the technical stuff. I walked from philosophy into a demeaning customer-service job into a programming job. It took guts to get into philosophy, and guts to get out, but not necessarily talent. It took grit to have the customer-service job, but it still feels like I was too much of a princess (exactly what my dad told me I was) to endure the kind of job most people do. And it took determination to get the programming job, to get through the boot camp and all that, but I find that I can’t make myself study or do work on the weekends anymore, the way a real intellectual would. Everything feels like something I should have already known. My fire is going out. The anger that could whip me into doing things is ebbing, and I am so scared that I am just going to be stuck in this empty house of a life, friendless, loveless, joyless. A stupid sad girl who, honestly, deserves what she got. How do I change my life? How do I make my life feel like a choice?
I don’t know what the problem is. I think it might be me. Changing or staying the same both feel like I’m giving up on me, and I’m all I’ve got.
You need to tell new stories about yourself. Your stories sound inherited: I’m only strong when I’m angry, not when I’m just sad. I’m only strong when I resolve not to want things (an ambitious career, beauty, love, friends, a father who cares). Real intellectuals work on weekends. I’m a lazy, demanding princess, not a hard worker or a real thinker. I’m ugly and unlovable. I am the problem. I should’ve figured this out by now. My fire is gone. If I stay the same, I’m an underachieving quitter. If I change, I’m failing to love myself adequately, plus I might fail, plus I’m not allowed to want things. I’m an empty house and I will always be an empty house.
You call yourself a sad girl, but what I see is someone who’s avoiding her sadness. In an attempt to toughen up and be less of a princess and stand up for yourself, you’ve landed in this place where you can’t access your feelings anymore. Obviously, it’s good to stand up for yourself, and it’s normal to feel angry. But sometimes when you turn to the same strategy over and over, something shifts and it stops working. That’s one of the frustrating things about self-knowledge and emotional growth: something can work really well for months and then out of the blue, it just doesn’t. You need a new perspective. You need to feel your way forward instead of using your oldest tricks.
You’re stuck and you’re sidestepping your pain, so everything feels gray and muted and ugly to you now. Sadness and vulnerability look weak to you (and to the person who put so many bad stories in your head). You want to be brave and angry instead of fragile. You want to make choices, but you don’t want to feel your way toward those choices. You want to rise above your feelings and reason your way forward. But when you treat your choices like intellectual puzzles to be solved, all of the bad voices in your head get involved, and you get confused and move in tight little circles and go nowhere, then you get furious at yourself for your lack of progress.
In order to tell new stories about yourself, you’re going to have to use your imagination. Your letter (which is not a mess — far from it!) reflects tons of imagination, chomping at the bit to be of use. Maybe you believe that imagination is also a princess thing, an emotional strength that doesn’t matter in the so-called real world. After all, according to the story you’ve been telling, everything you love is weak and pathetic, and everything you don’t love is worthy and solid and real and true.
You’re not sure what you’re good at, you’re only sure that you have zero talent for a wide range of things. But you’re wrong. Talent is imagination and hard work. Mozart’s father told him that his talent was a gift from God, and he had a solemn duty to share it with the world. Imagine, having that license to sit and play and write all day long! Take that kind of story, throw in a ton of hard work, and you create talent out of thin air.
Was Mozart merely an average kid? Maybe not. But there are thousands of musically talented children out there who merely resolved to follow their musical passions in spite of a thoroughly indifferent world around them. They loved music so they kept working hard. Eventually people had to call them talented, but that’s not what mattered the most to them. What mattered was working very hard at something they loved. They felt their way there. They wanted things without shame or fear. They ignored the bad voices around them and the bad voices in their heads, and they followed their desires. There were no puzzles to solve. They honored their hunger.
We don’t need to know how their stories ended, do we? Does a concert hall filled with applause change everything, the way we’ve been taught it does? That hasn’t been my experience. All that matters is how you live in the moment: Do you tell your own stories? Do you honor what you love? Do you feel you have a right to your own desires?
My parents told me pretty good stories about my talents, but they told me bad stories about how wanting things was embarrassing. They cared about looking cool a lot, so they pretended not to want things. What they really wanted, passionately, was always a secret, hidden from view. So even though I felt confident in my abilities, I couldn’t work hard at anything until I figured out how to stop feeling embarrassed and weak for wanting things. I had to take the risk of making myself vulnerable to the things I wanted. I had to tolerate the shame of wanting big things that I might not get. I had to believe, in my heart, that I had a right to try to be good at a few things. I had to feel, in my cells, that I had a right to take up space, to feel beautiful, to be loved or admired, to feel worthy, to savor this moment, and this one, and this one.
You talk about feeling angry and then feeling no fire at all. I think you’re struggling to feel your feelings. You’re afraid of feeling vulnerable. You want your friends to know the real you — which is good! — but you don’t know how to say to them, “I feel sad and lonely and lost,” so you’re demanding and mean instead. And look, I doubt you’re that demanding and mean. I always called myself those names, too, before I realized that I was just a normal human with needs that I was afraid to express. You want to love and be loved, but you’re afraid that someone will tell you that you’re not good enough to be loved. You already believe that this is the truth: You are the ugly, lazy princess who deserves nothing.
You have to kill that story and tell a new story that’s much better. Your letter represents a fragile start: You want to look different and feel different and be different. It’s not about beauty, exactly, like you said. But I believe that you want to FEEL beautiful. You want to feel lovely, and good, and kind, and deserving of love.
The first step is making yourself vulnerable to this feeling. So say it with me: I want to feel beautiful. I want love. I know I’m not perfect but I want to feel like I deserve love.
You chose a goal with a lot of shame around it. That’s your bravery — not coincidentally, the one good trait that you’re willing to attribute to yourself. I think looking different is important to you not because it’s IMPORTANT TO THE WORLD (patriarchal bullshit, etc.), but because it just happens to matter to you in particular. I’ll bet if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that looks are something you’ve always valued a lot in spite of your attempts not to care. You care about aesthetics. You care about how things seem from the outside looking in. You care about coolness. You care about other people’s judgments.
That sounds weak, but it’s not. Caring about coolness and looks and judgments is actually just another way of caring about stories. It’s not that far removed from philosophy. It’s an epicurean perspective. It’s about savoring this life passionately, looking for beauty and pleasure. It’s about daring to seek perfection, in a way. It’s the idealistic notion that the divine can be manifested on Earth, in art, music, beauty, religion, ideas, food, physicality, faith, love. In order to reach for the divine, you have to feel where you are, locate yourself inside your body, and believe in its divinity.
You start off your letter talking about thumos, and how important it is to stand up for who you are. Right now, wanting new things is your way of standing up for who you REALLY are — not who your dad said you were, not who your friends say you are, not even who you say you are, but who you really, truly are, underneath all of the noise and confusion of your bad stories about yourself. I think that if you start excavating, you’ll discover that you feel very passionately that your life should be a very specific way. Maybe being a “real” intellectual is actually something you want passionately. Even though you can’t seem to make yourself do work on weekends by scolding yourself into it, maybe your ideal is to become someone who works very hard at something you’re passionate about. Maybe you just haven’t felt your way there yet, because you’re not connected enough to the work you’re doing right now. Maybe being beautiful matters to you. Maybe you want to be madly in love. Maybe you want to have lots of friends who adore you and see you as one of the kindest, most generous people they know.
I think you’ve been turning your back on a very clear vision of what you want for years, because someone told you that it was weak or silly to want those things, and that even if you wanted them, you could never get them. I think it’s time for you to want exactly what you want for a change, without shame, with passion, with conviction.
I’m not telling you that you should lose weight, okay? I’m not telling you that you should recruit new friends or fall in love. All I’m saying to you is that you have high standards in everything, and you care a million times more than you’re willing to admit even to yourself. And it’s time now to live inside that desire. It’s time to own your hunger. It’s time to admit HOW MUCH you want.
It’s time to feel how much you want. It’s time to mourn the fact that you’ve told yourself not to want things all these years, sure. But it’s also just time to feel this and enjoy it. Because wanting things with clarity is bliss. Having a clear desire for something is satisfaction itself.
You know what makes a woman invisible? The conviction that she has no right to be anything at all. You know what makes a woman beautiful? The feeling that she deserves to be visible and feel beautiful. When you feel that you deserve to feel beautiful, suddenly the air shifts, the light shifts, the mood shifts: Maybe you’re already beautiful. Maybe you’re breathtaking. Is it possible?
When you feel your desire, and make space for it, and let it breathe, you are beautiful and anything is possible. So these old stories need to go. Destroy them. Set them on fire. It’s time to live inside your imagination for the first time. It’s time to follow your feelings, gently, toward a whole new way of living.
Remember, though: You’re not trying to become better — more obedient, less lazy, less terrible. You’re just trying to feel better right now. There’s a difference. You’re not working toward a goal. You’re just working, period, because it feels good. You don’t have to arrive in a new place. You just have to set off down an empty road with an open heart. Think of the student who loves music, practicing her instrument, knowing what she loves the most. You don’t have to be Mozart to feel your way in the dark toward divinity.
You said it to me clearly: I want more. It’s time to take the enormous risk of wanting more. The fire is there. Follow it. But don’t worry about the finish line. Focus on how good it feels, each day, to be pointing toward your truest desires.
Ask Polly is moving to an every other Wednesday schedule, but there’s a new Ask Polly newsletter to fill in the gaps; please sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every other Wednesday.
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