Ever since I became a mom four years ago (but also probably since I was young), I’ve sort of embraced the attitude that life is hard and it’s all a struggle, and I allow myself to do the minimum in many areas, not strive for the best, quit easily, phone it in, etc. I don’t do this with everything, all the time — I don’t think I’m a total lazy slob, and I probably wouldn’t be perceived as that by most people. But I definitely lack real ambition, and I am not a perfectionist (or maybe I am in some ways and since I know I can’t do something well or perfectly, I just don’t try). This all sometimes feels related to my misunderstanding of the way the world works. I feel like my 20s were a constant disillusionment of what life and people are really like. I wasn’t exactly sheltered as a kid, but I seem to have really homed in on ’80s and ’90s TV and movies as an example of what life is. Anyway, turns out that nothing was the way it seemed, and that’s fine, but I’m still just lost and aimless in this world. Sometimes I TRULY don’t understand what we are doing here, what the point of all of this is.
I don’t have a career, and before I was a stay-at-home mom, I was doing some mid-level work that could have been interesting but was mostly just discouraging because the organization was so dysfunctional. Everything feels dysfunctional — workplaces, families, politics, the world. I think if I died tomorrow, I’d be pretty devastated with what I’ve contributed to the world, and to my own life and family, even though I have previously been involved with important volunteering, board work, etc. I have a college education, and I think I’m pretty smart and could do well at many different endeavors, but every path I’ve attempted in the past has ended, either because I didn’t ultimately want to follow it, or because I got discouraged by the inefficiency and dysfunction of it. I could see where it was going, and it wasn’t where I wanted to go, so I stopped. That’s sort of me with everything — I can see ten steps ahead, and I already see where it fails (or where I fail), and so I don’t even try.
Polly, will you tell me the real secret to happiness and life, and how to achieve it with such a pessimistic attitude (even though I think of myself as optimistic in many ways! I want to believe!)?
You’re a fallen romantic, an idealist, a perfectionist, but you keep yourself safe from investing in the world because you don’t want to be disappointed all the time. You’re ambitious and your standards are incredibly high – with careers, with people, with yourself. Telling yourself that you’re not very motivated and that most jobs, people, places, and things are dysfunctional and disappointing is a way of preemptively escaping your own extremely high standards, your ideals, your rigorous principles, your hopes, and your dreams.
That process of letting go of your deepest, most embarrassing desires probably started a long time ago, but you felt more justified in withdrawing once you had a kid. Suddenly, you were free from the guilt of having to decide on a clear career path, and free from the burden of having to tolerate dysfunctional systems and people. That probably felt good at first. But four years into your divestment, you feel numb, disappointed, and confused about who you are and what you really want from your life.
I’ll bet you were an extremely emotional, optimistic daydreamer when you were younger, one who thought life would be an exciting adventure. Somehow, that didn’t pan out, and you got tired of feeling like a wide-eyed, open-hearted sucker, because you’re very sensitive and you hate being wrong about anything. You resolved to be preemptively disappointed, pragmatic, and even unambitious, just so you wouldn’t be surprised by the world anymore, just so you didn’t look dumb, just so you didn’t have to feel so upset over the ways that life has disappointed you.
You write, “Everything feels dysfunctional — workplaces, families, politics, the world.” Here I have to agree with you. Everything is a fucking mess. People don’t know how to communicate with each other, they don’t know themselves, they don’t ask for what they want. Workplaces and families reflect this dysfunction. And because people tend not to know themselves or what they really want or need, most of our culture is a scam that tricks people into paying for things that they believe will make their lives happier. It’s hard to locate your ambition or pursue your dreams when you can see clearly how corrupt and confused the world is. How could a world like this possibly support your dreams? How could you maintain your ideals while engaging with an inherently unjust society?
Even though your reservations are legitimate and your worldview makes sense to me, when your skepticism with the world and the people in it are that severe, your thoughts and actions are usually driven by depression, shame, and an inability to believe in and connect with the people around you. Instead of taking a leap of faith and hoping that you can change things or at least make your own life what you want it to be, you’re clinging to the emotional safety of preemptive disappointment.
Turning your pessimism into a kind of faith designed to protect you from guilt and shame has had some unfortunate side effects: You’re always focused on flaws. Small mistakes and errors make you frustrated or mad. People seem shortsighted and clumsy. and you don’t get over their screwups or their neglect that easily. You’re also hard on yourself whenever you fail, or when you hope for something that doesn’t pan out. Underneath all of these layers of storytelling, you blame yourself for everything that goes wrong.
What you’re neglecting to acknowledge is the objective fact that life is really fucking hard and there are a million and one reasons why people fail to live up to our expectations, many of which aren’t that easy to understand from a distance. Human beings are wired in ways that make them lose the thread of what’s important. Our loneliness and frustrations block us from each other. Things go wrong and we all have trouble bouncing back. Instead of trying harder or opening our hearts wider when we fail at something, most of us can’t handle failure and rejection. So we hide. We assume a preemptively defensive, self-protective, avoidant stance. We close our hearts and our minds to each other.
That’s where you are. You can’t take the risk of wanting more than you have because that sounds excruciating, possibly because that’s how it felt when you were very young. You can’t stand to consider how far short of your goals you’ve landed. I was like that, too, when I was younger. I always said I wasn’t ambitious, but the fact is, I had big, irrational dreams that I didn’t like to acknowledge because just thinking about them made me anxious and angry at myself. I wanted to be a rock star or a novelist or both. I wanted to have tons of great friends. I wanted things that I didn’t know how to get. So I started to tell a story that I was just a slob with low expectations, when nothing could’ve been further from the truth.
If you want to feel happy and optimistic, you can’t tell yourself lies about who you are and what you want. You have to face the truth of how much you want, and do your best to grapple with your shame and disappointment and anxiety around where you’ve been and where you want to go. You might not know what you want to do with your life, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t ambitious. You might be disorganized, but that doesn’t mean you don’t care about your environment. You might not want to do a thing outside of hang out with your kid right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine anything that’s worth doing. You just don’t want to take the risk of wanting things.
But nothing is more courageous than sticking your neck out and telling people what you want, even when you might sound like a naïve loser to some. Nothing is braver than clinging to dreams that might never come true and desires that might never be fulfilled. People who dare to believe in crazily ambitious goals without feeling ashamed of them are in touch with one of the purest joys in life: knowing what you crave, knowing what you love, and taking the risk of owning those drives.
The thing no one tells you is that hunger itself is divine. Wanting things is good for you. It’s only the shame around wanting that creates trouble. Shame feeds self-hatred. Shame makes you act out. Shame transforms your desires into self-destructive urges. Shame makes you believe that you have to GET SOMETHING in order to be okay and good and right with the world. Shame turns passion into desperation in your mind. Shame makes us greedy and anxious, because it tricks us into believing that if we have enough money, or get enough love and approval from others, then we’ll be magically fulfilled and relaxed and sated. Shame turns an emotional problem into an ego problem: When you feel angry at yourself, shame says you need to feel bigger, more important, more adored.
But it’s hunger itself that we should try to enjoy. Having ambition feels good once you clear the shame away. Being attracted to someone feels amazing once you recognize that the feeling lives inside your body and belongs to you and isn’t just an embarrassing liability that makes you weak and pathetic. That’s the central lie that fuels our culture and keeps our economy running: the idea that our animal drives make us sick, and that only by GETTING things and BECOMING someone and APPEARING powerful and strong can we feel healthy and whole and happy.
The irony here is that hunger and longing and attraction and ambition and even a competitive spirit are all animal drives that feel good, once you strip shame out of the picture.
In order to feel optimistic and savor your life, you have to believe in your desires and your dreams and your drive. You can’t power everything down and tell yourself that you’re not a bright light. You have to live up to your full potential, which means you have to show your true self to other people. You have to dig for your desires. You have to own what you want, out in the open. You have to dare to reveal the width and breadth and depth of your dreams. You have to welcome all of your drives and ambitions into the room. You have to show the world how much you want, and you have to be okay with wanting a lot. Remember: It’s not about what you eventually get. It’s just about WANTING. Wanting is delicious and sublime. When you’re ashamed of wanting, it’s hard not to feel confused about what you want. When you accept and encourage desire in yourself, your wants and needs start to sprout up like new leaves — all you have to do is sit and watch.
The more I can admit who I am (a complex, moody person with endless layers of conflicted desires that present themselves in different ways every day) and the more I can admit what I want (LOVE, ADVENTURE, CONNECTION, CREATIVE FULFILLMENT, PLEASURE, FUN,), the better I feel. The less I hide, the more I feel like I deserve to be seen clearly. The more I put my desires into words, the easier it is to stand up for them. And somehow, by putting all of my sky-high dreams and preferences out there without shame, I don’t become more disappointed and crestfallen with the world. I become more optimistic, and more willing to take people as they are instead of holding them up to my punishing standards.
Accepting your desires also makes it easier to accept that life is really hard and the world can be a wildly disappointing place. But happiness lies in daring to invest in life anyway. That means daring to stand up for yourself as you are right now, flaws and all. That means daring to show yourself to other people, with all of your imperfections and fears and anxieties and also your weird little interests and quirks and preferences. And it means daring to admit the ENORMITY of how much you want, every day. You wake up in the morning and you want a lot. Instead of using that to kick up your shame, you use it to enjoy your day, to connect with your child and the other people around you, to feel your feelings and imagine new paths forward.
It’s never too late to start. Don’t blame yourself for wasted time. I didn’t live this way until recently. It’s okay! Most people never even land here.
So think about all of the things you say you don’t care about, that are the most embarrassing or foolish to want: These might be the things you love with so much anguished desire that it embarrasses you horribly to admit it. If you want to be happy, you’ll find a way to own those desires. You’ll make space for the ambitious perfectionist you were when you were younger, before life disappointed you and made you hide. You’ll make room for the wild, colorful soul hiding behind your skeptical eyes, waiting for her moment to come out and start living.
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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