Why am I so fascinated by other people but I can’t help taking all the interesting things I observe about them and using those things to make myself feel bad? Or, at the very least, to tell a story about how their aesthetic choices or that interesting way they carry themselves or their hobbies indicate that I am not that thing? Why are other people somehow transfigured into data about me?
I really dislike this about myself, and, extremely tellingly, about my mother, too. And I wonder if it’s poisoning something that could be nice. I really enjoy relishing my few close friends. But strangers, acquaintances, colleagues, semi-friends — it’s like that impulse gets twisted into something pathetic and narcissistic. Maybe I’m afraid of other people and it’s a way of putting them and myself into elaborate boxes.
Relatedly, you always counsel your readers to carefully examine their own impulses and wishes. But how do I know what is real and what is analytic riffing? By which I mean, it’s easy to analyze and speculate but how do you actually pin down the real thing?
Self-Obsessed via Others
Dear Self-Obsessed via Others,
My guess is that you want more of something that you won’t give yourself. You might’ve had desires and passions that embarrassed you a long time ago, so you tried to bury them. Or maybe you’ve told yourself you don’t have the time or the energy or the right to indulge those pursuits. Perhaps you’re haunted by the notion that you should have a drive to collect cool wallpaper or rewatch Chinatown or arrange flowers or cook great Italian food, but the reason you don’t have the drive is that, at some basic level, you aren’t the ruler of your own drives. At your core, you don’t believe you deserve to feel good and follow your whims, because your priorities were always (subtly or not so subtly) dictated by external cues.
It’s possible that, as a kid, what your mother wanted for you took primacy over what you wanted. Maybe your mom never asked you what you wanted; it was just assumed that your priorities matched. Or maybe when you were asked questions like, “What do you enjoy?” and “What do you think you want to do with your life?,” there was a looming feeling that you could give wrong answers. When you did offer up the wrong thing, you were greeted with silence. When you were on the right track, enthusiasm grew. And maybe what your mother wanted was also dictated by other people’s opinions and choices — people who mattered, people with taste and style, people who had more than she had.
Status anxiety can muddle a person’s values and disrupt their connection to their work, their life, and their choices. When you’re raised by someone afflicted by an outsize concern for status and appearances, you tend to inherit those values subconsciously without freely choosing them. The fact that you ask me how to determine the difference between what’s real and what’s just analytic riffing tells me that you’ve never been in close touch with your feelings and weren’t offered any kind of a model or road map to personal enjoyment and pleasure. Most of the choices you made were intellectual and logical. Your feelings had nothing to do with it.
Growing up and discovering that the world is filled with all kinds of people with eclectic passions and interests has slowly warped into an echo of this intellectualized preoccupation with status and better choices being made elsewhere and bigger lives being lived just outside your reach. You’ve acquired this unnerving sense that you never really developed your own interests (if you even managed to identify what they were in the first place, outside of the airtight bubble of what your family wanted for you). That fixation on what you never had the time or the space or the right to do is what makes you feel insecure, and it also fuels your curiosity about other people now. In that way, your interest in others is almost like a destructive urge, because even though you dive in craving some fresh air and new perspectives outside of your bubble, the priorities and interests you discover there always feel unsettling. You experience other people’s passions almost like they’re insults. You encounter their happiness as a kind of deeply personal rejection.
And how do you know this explanation is worthwhile and real and not just analytic riffing? First of all, because you’re a little obsessed, which is an intellectual side effect of your strong feelings. But that’s not all. You’re unnerved by how other people are living. It sinks in and you can’t let it go. Something that starts out on the surface of your thoughts slowly sinks into the groundwater of your emotions and poisons your mood.
I used to have a similar curiosity about people that inevitably landed in some dead end of anxiety and insecurity. For a while, I thought these feelings were just a widely shared, natural outcropping of social-media use. But then I started to realize that what I found online was an amplification of what I experienced in real life. Because whenever I followed people who captured my curiosity online — artists, writers, musicians, weirdos, and gurus, along with a random smattering of beautiful people who apparently never stopped traveling or wearing incredible clothes to amazing events — I would get gloomy and slowly start to dislike a lot of them. I hated people who traveled. I hated people who posted photos of great food. I hated seeing cool hobbies and great books and hot bodies in bikinis. I hated that all of these people seemed to have so much extra time to pursue such engrossing and intense and rigorous and wide-ranging interests and passions. HOW DID THEY FIND THE TIME?
I would never have described myself as status-obsessed, and my parents were absolutely religious in their refusal to bow to the sad bourgeois whims of our very ordinary middle-class friends and neighbors. My parents were pretty good at encouraging us to follow our unique passions and build confidence in our particular talents and affinities. But my parents were avoidants with a superiority complex whose values were infused into the air around us. When you define yourself as better than (and removed from) other people, you’re still making choices based on external cues. Moreover, in my house growing up, intellectual decisions were always given primacy over feelings and productivity was always emphasized over exploration and experimentation and enjoyment. As a result, my attunement to my own needs and pleasures was severed, and my attunement to the dictates of the culture became hyperimportant.
In other words? Nothing felt real. Everything was just analytic riffing. Under those conditions, you can’t feel your way forward or give yourself the time you need to explore what you enjoy. And you can’t pursue interests simply because some part of you wants to, for no good reason whatsoever. You always have to justify the value of the time you spend on anything.
In order to unravel that programming, I started to pay attention to the people and things that unnerved me, made me feel insecure and unworthy, felt like a personal rejection, insulted me, angered me, and inspired me to bray endlessly to my friends about how pathetic and stupid and idiotic they were. What I discovered, once I took a more humble, less blaming approach to all of these insecurity-inducing, insulting habits and behaviors and hobbies of other people, was that I wanted some stuff that I wouldn’t let myself have.
I wanted to be an artist and a writer and a musician — or even one of those beautiful people who seemed to travel all the time. I wanted to be a flamboyant show-off. I wanted to take up more space and make more noise. I wanted to be a vain, overconfident, relentlessly flashy pain in the ass. I wanted more style and flair and more friends and a bigger life.
That’s not the lesson people want you to learn from social media. You’re supposed to know that it’s all a big shallow farce, and the right things to want are much quieter and more humble and more deeply grounded and morally correct. But that’s culture’s way of conflating how social media’s addictive traits erode our sense of self with the actual things we might see and desire on social media. We can resolve not to scroll Twitter or Instagram until we feel exhausted and hate ourselves. But that doesn’t mean that, when we come across the one woman who makes Joseph Cornell–style boxes or the one guy who collects cool old movie posters or even that one obnoxiously rich lady with the absurdly perfect wardrobe, and we feel a pang of melancholy and longing, those sensations are worthless and illusory and we should avoid them at all costs. Those feelings are actually instructive. They tell us what we’re craving or missing.
Social media is a window on other people, and the strong feelings you have about other people offer you a road map to what you desire, at some deep, embarrassing, murky level.
You want more. You might just want the time to decide what you really crave. You might want the space to desire something that, intellectually, you think is stupid or shallow. You might want something that you always loved as a child but hid under the bed because it meant you were basic or oversensitive or too girly.
Listen to these feelings of fascination and dissatisfaction and insecurity, because they’ll lead you to what you love deeply, if you let them. If you open yourself up, they might lead you to grant yourself more space and time for whatever you enjoy, even when it seems a little frivolous or unproductive or silly. If you’re really feeling haunted by this stuff, it probably means you want a bunch of things at once: more time for hobbies, more hobbies, more permission to be a different kind of person, and more connection to the wider world outside.
So pay close attention to what makes you angry or sad and insecure. Pay attention to what makes you complain and point fingers and jeer. Maybe you crave some of that stuff, even though you always treat it as beneath you. Maybe you’ve analyzed yourself out of giving yourself what you really want the most. Pay closer attention, because you’re about to feel what’s real.
And once you think about other people’s interests and hobbies and you don’t feel unnerved or irritated or insecure, and instead you want to befriend some of those people, that’s a good sign that you’re growing. When you give yourself the real things you need to feel good, you don’t feel haunted or obsessed with what other people are doing or what they have. You have the luxury of feeling connected to other people. You can let them have their fun, because you’ve become someone who stands up for her own fun, too, no matter what.
Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here.
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