Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Snausages for your mopey inner mongrel!”
I am writing to you with what I believe to be the number 1 question on every twenty-something’s mind: Will I ever find love? Let me detail this.
I am in my early twenties and my longest relationship lasted 8 months, and the guy was two-timing me for the last month or two of it (I was 19; he was 31). I’ve only been in one relationship that I genuinely believed would last, and even culminate in marriage, and that one only lasted four months. Otherwise, I’ve had very short stories, usually with partners I wasn’t awfully excited about. This is probably very banal, but I feel like most people my age have been in at least one serious long-term relationship.
I’ve always been the nerdy tomboy, tough and smart and bookish. I am a weird mix of shy/socially awkward and outspoken and very political, and have seen more than most people my age have (civil war in west Africa, revolution in North Africa). I have also had a strange upbringing—I was raised bilingual, between divorced parents, and shuttled between exotic locales and education systems. I know my outspokenness and no-bullshit approach, as well as my being a smart grad student in a selective program, might put men off. I also have a snarky, slightly judgmental sense of humor, which often makes me “one of the guys.” I’m not beautiful, but pretty cute, and am great in bed! This all sure sounds very narcissistic, but isn’t that what existential crises are for?
Mostly, I feel like I tend to scare people off. Maybe I get too emotional, maybe I’m too intense… I’ve had a couple of friends drop me like a hot potato when I was going through depressive phases (I’ve had OCD for over a decade now), and I think I get sort of over-attached to people in my life. All I know is, several people who professed to love me (whether romantically or not) have gone off me very suddenly and distanced themselves from me, while reassuring me I haven’t done anything wrong—which also means there’s nothing I can do about it! I’m scared this all reflects on the sort of person I am, and means I tend to make people around me miserable. I’m scared it means no one will ever love me for an extended period. I do have a few longtime friends, but some of my most intense relationships fell apart so fast I don’t know how any of this can last.
How can I assess if the problem is me? How can I fix it? I want to be the sort of person people are glad to have in their lives, not one they flee from. Please advise.
Fear and Self-Loathing in NYC
As you go through life, I want you to remember one thing: Most people are total chickenshits. They’re afraid of intensity, they’re afraid of hard questions, they’re afraid of emotions, they’re afraid of the truth. You look most people in the eye and say something genuine, they cringe and cough and change the subject. You make a complex but frank observation about the world around you, they act like you just vomited into your hands. You mention a problem without sugaring it over with optimistic cliches, they titter and back away slowly.
Unfortunately, when you’re young, it’s easy to stumble into microcosms where telling the truth is like taking off your pants in a crowded room. Many of the exotic youthful mini-ecosystems out there are dependent on elaborate games of make-believe. In these sorts of bubble worlds, your heavy proclamations will be treated as toxic. You will be viewed as a contaminant. Even those subcultures that appear to embrace intensity, hard questions and emotions are populated mostly by twitchy, intellectualizing scaredy-cats.
Because you’re a sensitive, intense person at heart, you’ve had to make some adjustments to tolerate these microclimates. Vulnerability has yielded to snarky, judgmental jokes. Open-hearted conversations have been abandoned for bluster. Honesty has been replaced with performance pieces. You are tough. You are one of the guys. You are great in bed.
In other words, you’ve packaged yourself as well as you possibly can to appeal to men who are essentially different from you. You’re marketing yourself to the wrong demographic.
But first, permit me a quick digression: Proclaiming yourself great in bed is like announcing that you can eat the hell out of a pizza, or that you can cuddle a puppy like nobody’s business. “I really, really love sex,” some women will announce in mixed company. (Fascinating! You know what I love? Breathing oxygen. I just can’t get enough of the stuff!) Newsflash: Everyone likes fucking. Priding yourself on your uncanny ability to get men off is not going to reap many rewards in this life. Here’s one handy rule of thumb: If Ke$ha can do it, it probably doesn’t make you all that unique.
But, in a world of chickenshits, it’s tempting to pull out all of your biggest weapons and fire them at the sky. It’s tempting to shock people and throw your head back and cackle, even if some people roll their eyes and back away. Fuck those people! You’re a feisty woman who does what she likes, so there!
The problem is, you’re scaring away nice people (along with the scaredy-cats), and you’re attracting guys who like show-offy blowjob queens who never talk about their feelings. Men like that will always scram the second you act like a real human being with ideas and emotions. You can feel haunted by this idea that you’re too intense, too smart, too experienced, too nuts. But you’re not too anything. You are unique and complicated and sharp and that makes you more than just cute.
As you can see, it’s going to be very challenging for me not to write about this until my fingers fall off. Please save us both some time and buy my stupid book. It’s all about building elaborate defense mechanisms, and then taking them apart, piece by piece, in order to become a happier person. Read “A Tree Falls In The Forest” first, which details my very rational decision, as a teenager, to become a swaggery know-it-all who would never be hurt by other people’s criticisms and rejections (and, uh, healthy observations).
Don’t follow that path. The world doesn’t need another swaggery chickenshit. Before you start trying to figure out how to fix yourself so that men will love you, you need to take an honest look at how you behave to everyone—friends, family, love interests, everyone. Look closely at the difference between your “performing” self and the real you, the one you’re afraid no one will ever love. You need to drop your act and accept yourself for who you actually are. Let your vulnerability guide you, not your toughness. You’ve already let your toughness guide you, and all it’s found for you are cowards. Cowards love toughness. They’re hoping you’re tougher than they are. Fuck them. Seriously. When you lead with vulnerability, you find strength. I don’t mean passive resignation, I just mean honesty, fallibility, openness. Accepting your flaws with grace—that’s real confidence. Bluster is for scaredy-cats.
I know you think that you need true love right now. But that’s the last thing you need. Be patient. You’ll have all the love you need eventually, believe me. What you need right now is female friends. I know they can be difficult, and suspicious of someone like you, who’s judgmental and likes lots of attention. Practice listening and being present. Admit your flaws and mistakes. Trying to be tougher, better, cuter, smarter, more exceptional—these things won’t help you one bit. You stand out enough without trying so hard.
Keep in mind, most people in this life don’t want that much. They want small talk over dry cereal. They want hello, how are you, goodbye, nice to see you. They want a movie, or a nap, or a hamburger. Eight years ago, I was tired and unshowered and I was fishing through my filthy purse for some scrap of paper with my new crush’s phone number on it. Just as I started fretting over the fact that my new crush was sure to discover, eventually, that I was the kind of greasy, disorganized sack of shit who has to fish through a filthy purse just to find his stupid phone number, I pulled out a crumpled-up old fortune that said “You will be deeply loved.”
I wish I could give you that fortune right now. That crush is now my (disorganized, sack of shit) husband. We’re both sort of weird and damaged in our own ways, but we get along great, and he has never, ever said I was too much—too intense, too emotional, too pensive—even though everyone else on the planet seems to think so. Some people are chickenshits, but other people are very brave. Hold onto the brave ones and be good to them and don’t give up on them. That means you have to be brave, too. Forget the flinchy losers and scaredy-cats. You will not be too much for some courageous soul. You will be deeply loved.
I have a problem that is more or less the epitome of a Tiny Violins Problem. So much so that I feel guilty for being conflicted about it, and I have trouble discussing it with others.
My family is pretty well off financially, so I have lived a comfortable life. I have done well academically and currently have a comfortable if uninspiring job in a field for which I have tepid enthusiasm. My grandmother is very caring and generous to everyone in the family. Ever since I graduated from college, she has offered to pay for any graduate degree(s) I wished to obtain. I am very grateful for her offer, but I have not yet committed to going to grad school yet because I do not know exactly what I want to pursue.
The uncomfortable part is that she reminds me of this almost every time I see her, as do my parents. My grandmother has stressed that I should take advantage of her offer “while she is still around” because along with wanting to further my education, she sees paying for tuition as an efficient part of estate planning, as the money would not be taxed as heavily as it would be if it was gifted or inherited after she passed. Even though it is an uncomfortable and dark topic to me, I agree with her, and want to take her up on the offer eventually. Of course, I have no exact way of knowing how long she will be around given her age. I feel awful saying that, as if it is some sort of macabre deadline on the horizon.
Now I feel like I have to either decide on a career path and graduate degree RIGHT NOW (I’m in my mid 20s and have no idea what to pursue), or just get a graduate degree just to get one (MBA/JD?), or not get a graduate degree and disappoint my family by essentially refusing free education. I have asked others for advice, and the responses have fallen into three categories:
1. “Just get any degree, IT’S FREE!”
2. “Grad schools is worthless, keep working.”
3. “That is not a real problem.”
I guess I am just wondering if I should feel so conflicted, guilty, and depressed about this whole situation. If you have any advice or insight it would be greatly appreciated.
I can understand why you feel conflicted and guilty and weird. Everyone is pressuring you to make a decision that you don’t feel ready to make, and they won’t shut up about it. It would be easiest for me to say, “Just relax, you’re young. Tell your parents and your grandmother ‘Thank you very much, now leave me the fuck alone.'”
But look, the three people I know who are the happiest with their careers are the three people with the most years of education. My sister (a surgeon), my friend Steve (another doctor) and my husband (a professor). I love being a writer and I can’t imagine doing anything else, but after 15 years of writing professionally, I still feel like I’m just starting out in my field every morning. My husband, on the other hand, has tenure, a pension, administrators who do shit for him, and speaking gigs across the seven seas. He’s basically treated like royalty (when he’s not at home, that is). My sister is somewhere above royalty. She belongs in Bespin City with Lando Calrissian, among the clouds. Compared to them, I’m like some dirty peasant woman, mucking about in the mud in a Monty Python sketch.
Remember how I told the girl with the trust fund that she should save her money and enjoy it when she’s middle-aged? Graduate degrees are like that. Status seems like a ridiculous thing when you’re young—and it is, of course. But being treated like a child when you’re 42 years old isn’t all that fun either. That’s what happens to people who have no discernible career status—they’re demeaned, like small children. Fine if you’re young and hot and still look good sneering in your biker boots, not quite as good when you’re pissed off and exhausted and your knees ache.
When you’re young, you always hear potential grad students and med students lamenting how long they’ll be making next to nothing, or working their asses off in med school. But then when you’re just a tiny bit older (32?), it’s the people with the flat-lining careers who are saying, “Fuck, I could’ve had an MD or a PhD or an MFA by now, like my fucking royal friends over there, eating their roasted pheasants and holding forth to fawning servile youth and such.”
That said, my husband (sound the trumpets!) says that people who apply to and enter PhD programs without knowing why they’re doing it are not only severely annoying to him personally (sound the trumpets!), but they tend to reach a point in their studies (while writing their dissertations, perchance?) where they have to know why the fuck they’re working so hard. If they don’t have an answer to that, they end up quitting.
If I were you, I would tell your grandmother that you really want to take her up on her offer, but you’d like to talk through your options with a therapist first. Maybe she’ll offer to spring for it, maybe she’ll just roll her eyes at you. You should do it either way. Give yourself two months to research all of the possibilities, read as much as you can online, talk to people who have similar degrees, look into careers that interest you that don’t require degrees, and hash out all of that information with your therapist. Yes, I know you’re not in the mood for this. You owe it to yourself to do it anyway. If at the end of that process you’re not remotely interested in pursuing a degree, then tell your parents and your grandmother that you have to put the decision off for one full year, and you don’t want to talk about it in the meantime. You have to try to explain, gently, that while you’re incredibly grateful for the offer, it is stressful to visit with them when they put the screws to you about your future the entire time. They’ll be less likely to harass you once they see that you’re thinking about it and working hard to come to a decision.
Sure, you’ll feel freaked out and depressed during your decision-making period. The more information you gather about any career path, the less it will appeal to you. That’s what making a decision looks like, especially when you’re young and you don’t actually want to study or work or have a career in the first place. I hated trying to decide what to do with my life when I was in my twenties. HATED it. The mere thought of it depressed me to no end.
But this one giant decision doesn’t really get easier as the years float by. If you can’t do any of the stuff I suggest here, at least work hard to get a job that gives you some insight into a field that might, eventually, interest you. Because life is really fucking short, and you shouldn’t waste your time doing something that doesn’t feel exciting and worthwhile. That goes for all the rest of you whippersnappers out there, too. Aim high and pick something that might really make you happy. You’ll be glad you did.
What are you running from? Write to Polly and find out!
Previously: Ask Polly: Should I Make The First Move?
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Mark Crossfield.