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‘I Feel Ashamed of Almost Everything’

Photo: Freder/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I love your writing so, so much. It’s been an endless source of comfort and inspiration to me over the last year, since my long-term relationship ended and I went from knowing who I was going to marry and hopefully have kids with to being a single woman who’s now 30. I really try to put what you advise into practice, but I am struggling.

I feel ashamed of almost everything, constantly. The way my skin still breaks out like a teenager’s, the way I feel no passion for the job I’ve been in for the last three years, the way I’m not much of a planner like my other perky female friends who all seem to turn up for brunch immaculately dressed and made up, while I show up with dog hair on my jeans (I share a dog with my ex, which actually gives me a lot of joy, because loving a dog and taking care of him feels like one of the best things I’ve ever done). The way someone I was dating recently — who seemed really into me — suddenly ghosted me. The way I’m not close to my family — I’ve never known my dad, my stepdad is kind of distant, my mum has always traveled a lot as part of her job, and there are huge age gaps between me and my two younger siblings. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother when I was a kid and we were exceptionally close. Gran died two years ago and I miss her every day. I have good friends I can talk to, and I do, and I see an understanding therapist, but I also hate making demands of people.

The one thing I can do is write. Writing is the only place I feel comfortable being vulnerable, and that’s probably only because it’s a controlled vulnerability. I have a blog, and better writers than me have told me they think I’m talented. I’m struggling to focus on making more of that, though. I feel like a plant that needs damp soil and not too much direct sunlight, but instead I’ve been planted in the desert. It’s too bright and dry and sandy here, and there’s too much glare and not enough shade.

I know you read this kind of thing all the time, and I feel self-indulgent and pathetic even acknowledging the extent of how bad I feel about everything right now. I do believe that I won’t feel like this forever. But currently I just can’t see how to get from here to there.


Dear Desiccated,

I know I tend to write “Oh, I was just like you at your age!” way too often, but with every new line of your letter I thought I could’ve written this. I spent many years hating myself because I felt like I just couldn’t get my act together. I had a job I didn’t really love as much as I was supposed to love it, I had a few friends I always felt ever so slightly conflicted about, I had shitty skin, I had great hair that always looked stupid, I had a nice face that looked terrible in photos, I didn’t know how to dress, and I was perpetually showing up late, apologizing for my bad outfit, talking too much and then apologizing for that, showing off and then cowering, covered in dog hair, unacceptable, covered in shame — just like YOU!

Today I write this from a dog-hair-covered sectional in the nice house I share with a good husband and three kids and two dogs who love me a lot. But that’s not the important part. The important part is that I ate strawberry pie for breakfast and now I’m sitting here waiting for my butternut-squash galette to heat up in the oven. Yes, that’s right: More pie. I woke up at 7 a.m. and ate pie and now I will eat more pie and it’s only 11:55 a.m. Devoid of shame. Zero shame here. None of it.

I am good to myself, to the point where it often inconveniences others. I recommend this lifestyle. I don’t give a fuck about getting in the way and slowing people down anymore. Out in the world, I am so considerate, mind you! But just socially, in general, among whomever, being myself, I like to push it. I like to tax the patience of others. I like to truly assert myself, my needs, my musing thoughts, my fucking physical presence. Lately I’ve been through a few gigantic challenges, and I’m more of a pain in the ass than ever, and it just feels right.

I’m reasonably sure that not everyone would applaud this state of affairs. But I can’t say that I care much either way. If not for the pandemic, I feel like I would be founding some kind of a cult right about now, one that involves, I don’t know, dancing and playing cards and talking about sci-fi over games of strip poker. Would that be creepy? I can’t tell what’s creepy anymore, and I’m finding it harder and harder to care.

This is what becoming shameless does for you. It turns you into Roland Schitt from Schitt’s Creek, basically. Is that guy a little gross? I mean, sure, he’s played by Chris Elliott, a man whose entire career is built around making people feel slightly depressed and soggy and ill about what a loser he/his character is. But have you noticed that Chris Elliott and all of his characters always seem super fucking happy in spite of everything?

Well, I’m happy, too. I had major surgery and have been in pain for a solid month, yet I’ve been cheerful the vast majority of that time. I have been cracking jokes and dancing in the motherfucking kitchen, every stupid day. I don’t want to go into the details about my health, but if I still swam through shame every single day the way I used to up until about two years ago, I know I’d be unhappy right now. This would constitute a major life crisis.

Please note that this is not a story about anyone else but me. Everyone is different. Everyone gets to do what they do the way they do it, and everyone gets to feel proud of their way of doing it, too, if they fucking feel like it. No one has to compare their way to anyone else’s way. No one has to feel bad that someone else did it a way that they might or might not be implying is BETTER.

That’s part of how living largely free of shame feels: IT FEELS LIKE EVERYONE CAN BE BETTER AND DO IT BETTER AND THAT’S NOT SCARY ANYMORE. IT’S NICE. In a void of shame, you see people thriving and looking hot and being smarter and cooler and younger and cuter than you, and you just feel happy, the happy you might feel when gazing at a giant strawberry pie first thing in the morning and saying GOOD FOR YOU, PIE, and then saying CAN I EAT YOU, BUDDY?

Being shameless is often a tiny bit dirty. That part, you have to watch.

The rest of it, though: Glorious.

Now your gran, she loved you with a reckless abandon. You felt that love in your cells and it felt great, because she didn’t hold anything back, did she? She alone seemed to know that you were a gorgeous little genius who needed to share your genius with the entire world. She had love to spare, a massive excess of crazy wild, juicy love that you could feel, it was like a presence in the room, it straightened your spine, it made you feel just right, solid, real, good just as you were, plentiful, abundant, luscious, funny, delightful.

That’s the kind of love you can finally spread around once you stop feeling ashamed of yourself. I know because I have been throwing down some heavy-duty Gran love lately, weighing my kids down with it until they’re annoyed but they’re also sure they could rule the universe if they tried, and also buttering up my husband with it (“Goddamn that ’70s quarantine hair you’re growing makes you look like some kind of dirty hot French stranger, come here you skanky homme français!’), and also dirtily spreading it all over my friends, who are sometimes grossed out a tiny bit because I am like this scary emotional sea monster with tentacles in everybody’s pies. Mmmm, pies. 

Love matters. Shame blocks love. Shame impedes the path of your love, which wants you to write more words, around the clock, because you’re really, really good at it. Shame keeps you from believing in the love that other people spread all over you. Shame makes you think your skin matters (it doesn’t, people can still see your pretty face) and shame keeps you from treating your skin (maybe you have acne rosacea like I do and you just need some good products or a prescription medication to keep the redness down!). Shame prevents you from doing the things you really want to do. (Maybe you want to look more pulled together over brunch? You can have that, if you want it! Think it over, at least!)

Shame prevents you from treating yourself like a person who deserves things.

Now, to be clear, being SHAMELESS is a step beyond addressing and living with shame. Sure, you can address and be present to your shame and acknowledge it and try to gently prune it back, and that usually goes very well. But I want to let you know that aiming for SHAMELESSNESS is also an option, and it’s a good one that includes eating tons of pie. Because when you’re SHAMELESS, you take up space whenever you feel like it (mostly when you’re alone, not in a rude way!) and you also say what you mean, always, and you also kiss your dog on the face and call her “Nooogoo” randomly and you feel how much you love her, the big dumb idiot, and you just savor your own weird, fucked-up animal self.

You love your animal self, and you love other animal selves around you. You don’t attach a fucking MORAL to everything. You live and follow your fucking whims and you work because you love what you do, and if you don’t love it, you fucking quit and do something else, because you understand that your time is precious and should thus be wasted in delicious ways whenever possible.

I guess I should let you know that, in spite of appearances, I’m not high from pain meds anymore, just taking Tylenol now. I’m high from my own shamelessness. I’m high from my pride in how I made it through all of this fucking NIGHTMARISH BULLSHIT and I was remarkably happy the whole time. I finally had a chance to road-test some of my toughness and courage and resilience, and I just feel very very satisfied with how strong I am at the moment. I am super fucking strong, and I deserve to brag about that. So this is me bragging.

This whole column is me bragging shamelessly: about my happiness, about my pain, about my pie. Hi. I’m shameless, nice to meet you.

Is that ego, or is it just life force? I mean, I guess some people will find it unsavory. But I just think I’m full of lust for life. Is it dangerous? Yes, in this world, it is. But that’s only because this world sometimes feels like it hates love itself, and it most definitely hates shameless women. This shameless woman isn’t even mad about that. That’s how shameless she is.

And now, because I’m in sort of a next-level hippie phase, I am sending you the full force of my love and my shamelessness. I want you to feel my love and my shamelessness knock you over like a big-ass wave and then grind you into the sand. Your gran is going to assist me in this. We’re working together on this project. You’re being smashed into the sand by our combined love and our combined strength and wit and devil-may-care carnival of delights. Gran is tired of seeing you sad and dreary. Gran wants to love you back into the sunlight. I KNOW YOU CAN FEEL THAT.

I know you can feel it.

Keep feeling it. Believe in it. Give yourself everything you need to write. Don’t punish yourself when you have nothing to say. Sit with it. Write about your shame until it bores you. Write about how fucking outstanding you are until you feel like maybe you’re not the most disgusting person alive. Look in the mirror at your shitty skin and imagine someone kissing you with passion not IN SPITE OF but BECAUSE OF your teenager complexion and your inability to plan ahead. Imagine meeting someone who understands what love really is, who understands what matters, who loves you like your gran did, who loves you like your dog does, whose love you can feel in your cells.

This isn’t a romantic fantasy. Mostly I’m just talking about friendships. I’m talking about people who get it, people who want to feel things, people who want to create stuff, people with ideas, people with enormous hearts, people who can spend hours in the garden, talking about whatever, people with open minds who want to learn more, people who bake really goddamn good pies, people who can see you clearly, people who do not give a flying fuck about your skin or your job or your distant parents or your failures or even your SHAME, people who understand shame but work every single day to overcome it, beating it back, sitting with it, grappling with it, dissolving it, discovering it again.

There’s a scene in Weeds where Kevin Nealon’s character, who is getting pretty high at the time, explains that it’s okay if the pot he’s smoking is rat-infested because “fire beats plague.” That’s how I feel about love right now. Love beats plague. And love beats shame. Love beats everything.

You have to feel it, though. You have to cry and feel bad and miss your gran. You have to cry over the people who couldn’t see you, who wanted you to be “better.” You have to cry over the years you wasted trying to improve yourself drastically or become someone else, just to please other people. That’s shame, that tells you that you’ll have to work hard just to be loved. And let me tell you right now: FUCK THAT SHIT FOREVER AND EVER.

Get rid of the shame. Clear it out. You already are who you need to be. You’re everything you ever wanted to be and more, right here and now.

You are pure sunshine. Don’t try to measure how much sunshine you have on any given day by studying other people’s faces or reactions. Celebrate what you already own. Put some words on a page. Open your heart and let the love spring from it like a fire hose. Spread it around until you can’t even understand who you are anymore, and keep spreading it around after that. Be like your gran. Get really fucking weird about showing everyone how much you’re feeling and loving this crazy world. Write more words. Get obsessed. Sell them. Quit your dumb job. Show off how brilliant you are, show off how cute and zitty you are, show off how strange and obnoxious you are. Be who you already are.

I know it’s strange to say it, but this world loves you like you’re the world’s favorite lover. This world is broken and fucked and it loves the living fuck out of you.

I do, too. So does Gran. Start here. You can grow in the desert too, you know. You’re strong like that.


Ask Polly is moving to an every other Wednesday schedule, but there’s a new, free 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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Ask Polly: ‘I Feel Ashamed of Almost Everything’