Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Ask Polly: Why Do Guys Dump Me Like a Hot Potato?

Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. "Snausages for your mopey inner mongrel!"

Dear Polly,

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.


Dear Polly,

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.
(Un)Justly Conflicted

Dear Conflicted,

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.

21 Comments / Post A Comment

Clare (#516)

I feel a kinship with Fear and Loathing. Even though I'm older, I could've written the same letter, and I've been the recipient of advice very similar to hers. It's nice to get a little refresher course in being nice to yourself.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

Hot Potato, tell all those fairweather friends, "Don't let the doorknob hitcha where the dog should've bitcha, get out of my life!"

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

With all these "men are afraid of me because I'm a smart woman" and "women don't want me because I'm a nice guy" complaints, if I started an advice column I'd call it Ask a Stupid Asshole. Or maybe my wife and I would start one and call it Ask a Dummy And a Jerk.

melis (#1,854)

This was so wonderful – so wonderful – and the only thing keeping this column from actual and permanent perfection is that it's actually Cloud City, not Bespin City. Bespin is the planet, Cloud City is where Lando administrates.

melis (#1,854)

@melis that is such a pointless quibble yes but it's Star Wars and that matters do you think maybe you're focusing on that because some of the rest of the advice about being vulnerable and not festooning yourself in ironies made you squirm a little yes probably

Benquo (#24,516)

@melis Yeah, the "Bespin City" thing bugged me too.

Bittersweet (#765)

"The world doesn't need another swaggery chickenshit." Truer words…

SweaterWeather (#239,730)

Conflicted's grandmother should look into setting up an educational trust. That way she can set the money aside at her convenience and set up rules about when and why Conflicted can withdraw money (i.e. only for tuition and related expenses). The money won't be taxed very heavily and it can just sit around in the trust until the granddaughter is ready to go back to school, even if that isn't for a couple more years.

deepomega (#1,720)

@SweaterWeather Yes, this. Absolutely goofy to act like paying for education has to happen now for tax reasons. (And I'm pretty sure a 529 is the way to go even if she pays now?)

katerrific (#234,239)

@deepomega Yeah, the whole time I was reading this I was like, "Can't she just do a 529?"

deepomega (#1,720)

Don't go to grad school because it's free. Don't go to grad school because you're not sure what you want to do. Don't go to grad school because you think it will make you money.

A fair world would have these words etched into the gates in front of every institute of higher education. (Both inside and outside, so when graduating seniors leave they see it.)

Here is when you go to grad school: When you are convinced that you HAVE to work in some higher-degree-relying field or you won't be happy. That's it. That's the only time anyone should recommend it. Hope that clears things up!

deepomega (#1,720)

@deepomega Not to mention the fact that even if you aren't paying for it, you definitely will lose a lot of time (and blood, and sweat, and more blood) to grad school. The money isn't the only cost.

liznieve (#7,691)

Plus also, if you get a semi-specialized degree, you will be blocking yourself out of some/potentially a lot of jobs. Having a JD and applying to work at, say, a clothing store, might work against you. Having an M.Arch and applying to work at a law firm as a paralegal might work against you. And its not like you can just strike those years from your resume and claim to have been "living in a tree, trying to really, like, understand myself" ….that doesn't work. grad school should be at least some kind of semi-purposeful move… which I think anyone could find if they thought about it hard enough. There are a panoply of options.

mishaps (#5,779)

@deepomega This. THIS. Also agree with Mr. Heather that the students who do it for any reason other than "I absolutely must!" are the ones who are most likely to quit.

WaityKatie (#79,377)

@liznieve Yeah, don't get a JD, even if it's free, unless you enjoy spending the next 30 years scrabbling in a death-battle against thousands of other people who want the same jobs you're applying for. And then getting the side eye, as you note, if you try to do something else instead.

alorsenfants (#139)

"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."

I call bullsh*t! What kind of disconnect — young and hot And Sneering?! What are you then… Madonna in 1981? PLEEASE

Lot of the rest made complete sense — valuable for the youngins. I would say — Don't go to higher level school if you can avoid doing so… now that it costs more than 10(!!!) times what I paid to do so, with No Apparent larger reward than it used to bring you (when said reward was also not any kind of guarantee).

I would only recommend, as I have to my own 20 or so year-old children: be yourself, figure out what you want, keep bullsh*t detector on "Stun", and work as often and as hard as it makes any sense to you.

Fair enough? No? OK… have no further advice –

stelfieeld (#239,737)

is that a children show?

Tuna Surprise (#573)

To Conflicted:

Taxes shouldn't be reason to do something you don't particularly want to do; taxes should be a deciding factor between two or more alternatives that you're happy with.

If you don't want to go to grad school, spending the money on grad school would be a complete waste (not to mention your personal time wasted and lost opportunity costs). Whereas paying taxes on an inheritance would only waste a percentage of that money (say 35% – I think the actual rates depend on how the estate passes(?)).

So if grandma spend $50k on a useless degree, you lost $50k. If grandma dies and you pay estate tax, you lose $17.5k. Easy math.

I agree you should take some time to really decide what lights your fire. Maybe she could give you the money as seed capital for your own business? Or you could use it to start a charity? I paid $110k for law school, and I would rather have $110k in small business loans than law school loans any day.

doraleigh (#239,253)

I can identify with you, Fear and Loathing (and selfishly, wish I had a rich grandma, so I could identify with you, too, Conflicted). I loved Polly's advice, but I would also add to stop comparing/competing in terms of lengths of relationships. You're in your early 20s and haven't had one that's lasted longer than 8 months? Eh. I didn't have a long-term relationship until my 30s and everything worked out OK for me on that front. Also, all those "starter" relationships (plus a lot of therapy) helped me . . . err, modulate . . some of that intensity. Not telling you to not be yourself, but some of that intensity may evolve as you get a bit older.

Alsy (#11,052)

Aaaaaaaahhh, such beautiful advice! As soon as I read the word "flinchy" I had an inkling it was Heather Havrilesky and got excited. Best advice-giver around.

CF (#241,541)

I very much identify with Fear and Loathing, though I'm a guy and a decade older. I had a childhood that involved repeated parental divorces, lots of conflict (often unspoken, but actions speak louder than words), and so on. Unsurprisingly my twenties involved a sequence of bad choices. After blundering around I managed to get myself on track for a decent career, not sire offspring, or end up with a drug habit, but a good bit of the rest of my life was not what many would consider desirable. Fortunately I was eventually able to get through a course of therapy to work out a lot of my issues, and give myself more choices.

F&L, you sound like a really great and interesting person, and very much the kind of woman who—perhaps after you work on things to get more healthy self-awareness and ability to modulate your intensity—would make a fantastic match for the right guy. At least based on your self-description you'd be right up my alley, for instance, because without intensity and intelligence I'm simply going to be bored and similarly the other side of the equation wouldn't be able to balance my own.

It may be a cliche, but a dose of therapy will probably help, assuming you have a good therapist and are really willing to work. It's not functional to sit around and nurse a grudge about your parents but you learn how to be an adult from them, and if they weren't teaching good lessons (often because they didn't know themselves), it's not surprising if you don't know how and may well need help unlearning poor lessons and learning new, more functional ones. (Experiencing anger for things that happened to you as a child is different than nursing a grudge. The former is healthy and will almost certainly be a part of anyone's process. The latter is not.) If I may make a recommendation, take a look at Schema Therapy, which is designed to help folks that have lots of "repeat performances" such as you're describing (sometimes quite severe). You may be falling for guys that meet pathological expectations you're not aware of, for instance, such as abandonment. Take a look at

Also, speaking as someone involved in higher education, Conflicted… please stand up for yourself. It doesn't really sound like you want to go to school right now. They're trying to control you with the purse strings and the school is more about them than about you. Even if you go, they'll probably still be tugging on the strings and if you hit year five still not sure about a dissertation topic and are being counseled out of the program, it'll be that much worse, the money, and most importantly, the time you spent will be gone. That's not to say it wouldn't be a valuable lesson for you, but still, I think the most valuable one is to stand up for yourself now, and get to a place where you can decide for yourself.

Other people's advice of a trust or a 529 is spot-on.

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