I’m afraid of what lies on the other side of isolation for me. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad this will be over because it’s been so terrible for everyone, but I’m afraid that even when things open up, there will still be nowhere for me to go.
This pandemic year felt like it was actually good for me, as obscene as that might be to say. I was in a safe place when the world ground to a halt, and I had probably been needing a break for a long, long time. The office closed and I was able to cut back my hours at work. I start my day with a walk with the dog in the morning and then breakfast for her and the cats. They all nap while I work. I play music by myself on the weekends and make elaborate meals for dinner. I watch movies on the couch with the pets piled all around me until I fall asleep. There is little to no human interaction. My life outside of this has been whittled down to maybe a friend or two I can grab coffee with once a month, if that.
Honestly, I’ve never had a ton of friends. Now approaching my mid-30s, I’m finding as people get married, and have kids, and move, it’s hard to keep up with the few I do have. I reached out a lot last year, but I rarely heard back. Along the way, I got back in touch with an ex who still lives in my city. (I know, I know.) He broke up with me in a text. Again. I’ve been sad, but hardly surprised. I like to think that I reached out to him because in spite of everything, I do love this jackass and love feels like something worth taking every risk for. When I’m feeling less charitable toward myself, I think maybe I still pine for him because I’m just lonely. My dad has a ton of issues, and I finally had to stop taking his increasingly erratic calls about five years ago. Mom wasn’t always around, but when she was, things could get ugly. The rest of my family also had some problems. It’s a long, sad story. I got out. I moved away. They don’t talk to me. I can’t fix it. But man, is it tough to work around those scars sometimes.
I was always so envious of people who did things like taco nights and “Friendsgiving,” but the handful of times I was actually invited to those kinds of events in the past, they were pure agony. It was all fluff and no substance. I tend to dwell on dark, heavy subjects. I want to know what you think makes for a good death, and what you feel like the losses in your life add up to, and which social norms are slowly killing you as we speak.
Even as I’m telling you I want more love and support in my life, my instinct is to stay in retreat, and lick old wounds, and protect myself. I want to ask you what advice you would give me if I were your daughter, but I also want you to know that I don’t need anyone and I’m doing quite well on my own, Thank You Very Much. I want a solid relationship, but I don’t want to disappear into one or become the kind of person who can’t handle things alone. I’ve taken a lot of risks in my life, but so many of those risks were in service of trying to find somewhere that felt warm and safe. I want someone to let me cry to them after a breakup and tell me I’m beautiful and he doesn’t know what he’s missing, but I also just want to be left alone to eat cheese and wallow in my bed. I hate our individualistic society that means we all have to fend for ourselves all the time, but I’m simultaneously so mistrustful of people who’ve never actually been hung out to dry on their own.
I just don’t feel ready to face the world on the other side of this. So what should I do with myself after this ends? Who should I turn to? Where should I go?
Safe and Sound
Dear Safe and Sound,
I completely understand. Even though I can’t wait for life to go back to normal, I’ve also settled into new, comfortable habits and it’s hard to imagine having a busy, outward-facing life again. One part of me wants to go to a week-long dance-orgy as soon as possible, but another part of me wants to hide away from the world for a little longer.
Like you, I’m conflicted. I’m the one who throws the taco night, but I’m also the one who gets impatient with conversations that skim the surface instead of grappling with big ideas, big emotions, and big-picture darkness. I feel like a wanker for wanting so much out of my interactions with people, but my basic impatience with the way people interact doesn’t really ease up.
So what’s the answer?
For me, that means accepting my conflicted, wankery soul and daring to reach for a life that I enjoy. I don’t have to define myself as a shut-in or a socially ravenous freak. I can be both things. I don’t have to feel disappointed with skin-deep conversations. I can seek out people who want to talk about ideas and emotions the way I do.
I can be picky, basically. And that’s my first bit of advice for you: Be picky. You don’t have to give up the warmth and safety you’ve created for yourself. You can keep it and build from it.
I know “picky” will sound like a strange word to use. After all, you don’t have that many friends. The friends you’ve reached out to aren’t responding. You feel a little fragile and self-protective right now. You don’t know if you even want to interact with people that often.
But I think you do want deeper connections in your life. You just want them with people who make sense to you. Take your ex: You love that jackass. That might’ve been the most passionate part of your letter. Think about what makes you love him so much. It’s not like he’s the greatest person alive, right? You’re just very comfortable with him. He knows you, you know him, you understand each other, you accept each other. There’s some model of a healthy relationship in there that you can use as a map that will lead you to other healthy relationships.
I get that it’s a daily struggle, though. You’re at war with yourself a lot. When you’re exposed to other people, you start to feel wobbly and unsure and you have a sort of allergic reaction to the dumb ways we’re all taught to interact. You get wound up in how human relationships could be so much more interesting, deeper, better. You reevaluate your behavior and your feelings a lot.
I have the same tendencies. At some point, though, you have to stop relitigating your position in the world and stop looking for reasons to blame yourself for the way your life is, and you have to start living. Living, in your case, means asking the world to give you what you need to feel good. It means actively looking for the kinds of people who stand some chance of understanding you and enjoying your dark sense of the world and your interest in ideas. It means being picky.
Being picky is predicated on deciding that you deserve to get what you want. I think I was never that picky about people in the past because I felt like I shouldn’t be choosy. So I blindly welcomed all friendships instead of carefully discerning who made sense to me and who didn’t, whose company I enjoyed a lot and whose company felt taxing. I didn’t recognize it consciously, but I had this nagging sense that I didn’t really deserve to pick the exact friends I wanted. Doing so meant I was mean. I wanted to be nice. I was so allergic to rejection that I didn’t want to reject anyone and make them feel as terrible as I felt when I got rejected.
But plenty of people are fine with rejection, honestly. I’m not doing anyone favors by maintaining friendships I don’t want — and neither are you.
Your situation is different on the surface: You don’t have a lot of friends. My guess is that you’re half-heartedly reaching out to people you’re just not that enthusiastic about. They can sense that. The connection isn’t that strong. They don’t trust that you like them, because you don’t. It’s time for you to start befriending people you really like. You want to know jackasses like your ex and also weirdos who talk about what constitutes a good death and freaks who enjoy lamenting the inherent oppressiveness of current social norms. You need to stick your neck out more and find these people. You need to know that, in spite of not having the most victorious social track record, the pickier you are about friends, the more passionate you’ll be about those connections, and the more honest you’ll end up being with the friends in question.
At first, this will be hard. You’ll resist turning outward and showing yourself. You’ll feel vulnerable, and you’ll tell yourself you don’t really want to make new connections. You’d rather eat cheese and wallow instead. I get it. One thing I’ve noticed since the pandemic began is that I do a lot of self-protective, defensive burrowing into myself when I feel vulnerable. I also scrutinize relationships and people a little too much. I have old friends who aren’t really subjected to close examination, but newer friendships tend to get examined, and sometimes they’re found wanting. On top of all of that, I have a fucked up habit of relitigating my relationship with my husband — as in, I look at it very closely and sort of DECIDE ALL OVER AGAIN whether he’s good and I’m good and we’re good together.
In other words, being shut off from the universe has given me a lot of insights into what a strange neurotic nightmare person I can be. And if I’m honest about it, almost every single one of my quirks and flaws as a human springs from an underlying insecurity, a fear of other people, a fear of being judged badly, and — this part is important — a deep, abiding need for close, meaningful human connection.
In other words, even when I’m pulling away and writing people off and resolving to spend more time with pets and cheeses and less time with annoyingly shallow humans, I’m also longing for some sort of communion of souls. Even though these two moods feel contradictory, they’re intertwined. Even when I’m noticing some irritating tic in my husband, I’m also craving some way to break through my bad attitude and talk to him about what we want from our lives. Even when I want to be left alone, I also want someone to let me cry while they remind me that everything will be okay.
Most of what we feel is muddled and confusing. And the longer I write this column, the more convinced I become that people only understand the thinnest crust of their own behaviors and motives. We just don’t know what the hell is going on with us or anyone else most of the time. I used to pride myself on being so incredibly self-aware! But the truth is, there’s only so much you can know about yourself. Even when you’re a student of your own bizarre thoughts and feelings — something many of us have become, under the pressures of pandemic isolation — there are still so many thousands of leagues under every sea, filled with creepy slimy things and monsters and weirdness that you can’t even fathom.
We’re all contradictory beings. There’s no way to understand ourselves perfectly and no way to stay in perfect control of ourselves or our relationships or the future. At some point, you have to surrender to that instead of fighting it. You have to let the giant ocean of weird motives and urges and needs and longings inside you slowly show itself. Instead of judging who you are or trying to fix the way you are, the way you often do in the company of other people, you need to stay calm and observe these things like someone who’s sitting on the beach, staring at the waves.
You don’t have to choose a path forward, is what I’m trying to tell you. You don’t have to either LOOK FOR CONNECTION or HIDE FROM THE WORLD. You can do both. You can be with your pets and feel safe and you can also make new friends and lean on them.
The pickier you are, the more you assert what you want, the stronger your boundaries become, the less you take rejection personally, the better and freer and more hopeful you’ll feel.
Being picky is a way of saying, “I like who I am. I know what I want. I’m going to figure out a way to get it.” For me, that means I’m not wasting my time doing shit that doesn’t interest me that much with people who don’t interest me that much, just to be nice. I’m going to be pickier about how I spend my time. I don’t want to do whatever seems easiest. I want to talk about crazy shit with intense weirdos. That’s my thing. I’m sort of over thinking that my disappointment in people is some flaw of mine. It’s time to stand up for my weird taste for a change.
You need to do that, too. If we hosted a taco night together, it would not be dull. The conversation would be lively. Our freaky guests would not go home feeling disappointed.
So stop settling for whatever. Wake up to the fact that yes, you love being alone, but you also love connecting with other people who are like you. Now you just need to find those people.
It’s honestly not that hard, once you understand what you want and you’re willing to go for it, even though it makes you feel hopelessly vulnerable. Vulnerability is a huge blessing in your life. Welcome it in. I know all about working around scars and feeling isolated and boxed in by the stupidity of our very shallow culture. But noticing rotten things doesn’t have to make you put up walls and shut yourself off from possibility. You can be wise about the world and still open your heart. You can get picky about what you like even when you don’t have nearly enough yet. The world is more complex and nuanced than it seems, and so are you. Let it all in for a change. Enjoy the things that scare you. Greet your confusion with wonder. Stand at the edge of what you know, and welcome the waves of what you don’t.
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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