I have sort of a backwards problem, in that the better things are going in my life, the worse I feel. I know a good bit, or think I do, about why this happens. My mother committed suicide; my brother who tried to; and my father taught me that my sole purpose and value in life was to make them feel better and stop them from killing themselves. When I tried to care about myself and my needs as much as theirs, I was told this made me a terrible person, and no one would ever love me.
So I grew up to be extremely empathetic and supportive and really good at making my life about everyone other than myself. At some point, I realized that living that way was actually not doing me any favors, was pretty self-destructive, and a way I would never want people I care about to live. I tried to change, to put myself first; I went to therapy, and a lot of Al-Anon meetings, and vented a lot of grief and rage at my family, who were damaged beings doing the best they could but were incapable of being truthful about what happened or acknowledging how badly it hurt me.
I have been successful: I have a job I love, am married to a man I love, and am living a life I love in a place I love with a cat I love. And yet, the better things are, the worse I feel: terrified I will lose everything, because I don’t deserve to be happy, because secretly, fundamentally, I am still a terrible person who must be punished for not following the rules, or because that’s what happens when you relax and feel safe—the shit comes down and people die.
The net result is that now, despite a lucky, blessed and happy life, I am overcome with crippling anxiety, guilt, and self-doubt. I’m extremely ashamed about this, because it seems ridiculous; I’m scared, because I don’t understand. I have been in so much therapy. I was better. But magically now I’m the age my mother was when she and my brother started really falling apart, and even though life is better than it’s ever been, I’m worse than I’ve been for a long time, maybe ever. I’m losing friends; my work is suffering; I’m pushing my husband away, who sees that I’m falling apart. I want to believe that this is because I’m getting closer to the core of the doubt and guilt and feelings of wrongness and worthlessness that is at the heart of all of this. But when I reach that core, I still don’t seem to know what to do about it. I know I’m not worthless. I even thought I genuinely felt and believed that. But it still seems to be there, and it’s starting to poison my job and my marriage and my friendships… to try to make everything as black as it believes it should be.
I know I need to go back into therapy, but I don’t believe it will truly help me, since it had helped me before, and yet here I am again. I don’t need to believe I’m flawless; I’m fine with being flawed. I’m not fine with hating myself, giving myself palpitations from constant fear and anxiety, and worrying I’m going to sabotage everything that matters to me so that I won’t have to deal with the guilt of having what I’m not supposed to / allowed to have, or the agony of being obsessed that I’m going to lose it all at any moment. I have lived with the specter of being a depressed, suicidal failure hanging over me my whole life, and I’d like it to go away. It turns out it’s so fucking hard to kill ghosts. Any ideas?
Don’t Deserve Goodness
Dear Don’t Deserve Goodness,
Christ Almighty, do I feel you on this one. The crazy thing about everything being great is that it makes it really easy to PROVE that the problem is you. “Look, everybody. I have everything I ever wanted, and I’m still freaking out. You were right about me, world! Watch how I push people away! Even though I have love now, eventually the truth will out and I’ll show that I’m a terrible person who no one could ever love for very long!”
The challenging thing for you is that you’re talking about this awful legacy, but because you have it pretty good on the surface, you feel like you don’t have a right to be struggling (which exactly matches your experience as a kid, when you didn’t have a right to feel ANYTHING). Fear and anxiety are these really crazy forces that are incredibly difficult to own up to, because our society tends to paint them as pointless worrying and neuroticism and stress, implied to be the fault of the person who’s doing the worrying. Instead of being treated with compassion and understanding, anxious people are more often than not labeled as neurotics or control freaks—particularly when their lives look pretty good from the outside. “Look at what you have. Things SHOULD BE coming up roses for you, so why do you act like you’re fucking dying?”
Basically, it’s tough to put this kind of trouble into words without sounding like a fucking first-world-problems wildebeest that should be shot down where it stands and then butchered and hung up in the smokehouse to make wildebeest jerky that could sustain a far more deserving family of four through a long, cold winter.
People grow up and they get anxious, whether they admit it or not. It happens to the most laid back among us, and it’s an incredibly common affliction. We’ll get to your very daunting specifics in a second, trust me, I just want to start, though, by pointing out that anxiety is very common. And do you know how most people handle the escalating anxiety that comes with moving toward middle age? They drink more, watch more TV, turn off, power down. Others, who have plenty of money and are also determined to STAY OPEN AND STAY AWARE, tend to overachieve in the self-improvement department. They go to $250 therapy sessions three times a week, and then there’s acupuncture and nutritionists and yoga retreats. And even the do-it-yourself websites exhort you to funnel all of that energy into monitoring every single dimension of your life. Make charts to keep track of your exercise, alcohol intake, triggers, bonding time in your significant relationships! To hear some of these type-A gurus tell it, happiness is a fucking sound board that requires a audio engineer to operate. Happiness is a complicated budget that only a certified CPA can understand. Happiness is a symphony orchestra and you have to read complicated time signatures and master 15 different instruments to even touch it.
Obviously I don’t think that naturally anxious/depressed/deeply scarred people should either power everything down (via booze or living at the office or watching five hours of TV every night) or power everything up (via self-help books and charts and constant fucking monitoring). To know a lot of smart, complicated adults is to know a lot of escapists and a lot of social media/booze/TV addicts and a lot of moms who obsess about every dimension of their kids’ development and a lot of hothouse flowers with insanely complicated, expensive needs.
I don’t mean to lump you into any of these categories. I think you’ve got a very specific, very haunting family history that makes you feel particularly damned. If I had a similar story to pair with my volatile chemistry, I would struggle with that MIGHTILY. Instead, I have no clear excuse for my weirdness. I can look at other people with personalities like mine and say, “Well, people like me seem to take a lot of psychotropic drugs, and all I do is eat kale. Why should I feel guilty that I’m so moody?” But I still feel angry at myself when I get moody.
I think that’s close to the heart of this for you, too. You say you’re ok with being flawed, it’s just that you’re not ok with freaking out and pushing people away. The only reason you’re pushing people away is because you’re pretty sure that these FEELINGS YOU’RE FEELING signal that you’re deeply fucked and unlovable and damned for all time. As long as every negative, fearful, anxious, upsetting feeling means that you’re cut from the same cloth as your mother, of course you’re going to battle your feelings, battle yourself, and present those feelings and yourself to others as either FINE GREAT TOTALLY FINE or as inherently fucked and bad and deserving of scorn and alienation and rejection. Some deep, dark piece of you believes that you are not allowed to experience unforeseen bumps in the emotional road and acknowledge them and let them show. You are STILL not allowed to be a full person in the room. You are STILL supposed to be a supporting player. You THINK you’re getting closer to the core, but you’re not letting yourself really go there, because you’re too ashamed of yourself. You’re not giving yourself room to feel things without shame, and your soul is fucking pissed at you for this, and it’s raising hell. It’s saying “YOU NEED SPACE, YOU WILL HAVE SPACE EVEN IF I HAVE TO SET THIS WHOLE LIFE OF YOURS ON FIRE.”
You need therapy. The fact that you say “I had therapy and I thought it worked so why should I go back?” points to the stubbornness and oversimplified nature of your thinking about this whole thing. You’re very impatient with yourself, and THAT is what leads you to push people away. You are unkind to yourself, as if you can snap yourself out of this. And yet, your fears and anxieties grow. You’re regressing. You’re taking on the voice of your father. You’re saying, “FUCK YOU WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS AGAIN? HOW DARE YOU TAKE UP SPACE HERE WHEN EVERYONE ELSE’S NEEDS ARE SUPPOSED TO COME FIRST!” That doesn’t mean you’re going to destroy everything. Mostly, you need to admit that you’re going through something right now. If you don’t acknowledge it and say it out loud and make room for it, you’re going to keep feeling all clenched and confused and angry.
So get a therapist, and say to that therapist: “I’m going through something right now and I need your help.” You may need to take something for anxiety for a while. I’ll bet a lot of people who DO take something for anxiety are probably reading this and thinking “DUDE TAKE SOMETHING FOR ANXIETY ALREADY!” Maybe they’re right, and maybe they’re wrong. You need to see a therapist either way. Don’t put it off.
You also need to sit down with your husband and say to him, “I’m going through something right now. I don’t know what it is, exactly. But it’s big, and I need your help. I really, really need your help.” You have to tell your husband how you feel. He needs to listen and hear you out without telling you to stop feeling the way you feel. Sometimes you really do have to say bleak, bleak shit. Personally, I think it helps to have your partner understand exactly how dark it can get. This is not you “falling apart.” This does not make you weak or bad. This is you connecting with another human being when things are tough. The more you both engage and look at the darkness, and accept that it’s there, the easier it is to see that it doesn’t rule everything or blot out the sun, not really. My husband and I both have our dark times, and the more we talk about them and put them in perspective in each other’s presence, the better we feel. That’s the way it should be.
Again, getting everything you’ve ever wanted is sometimes the fertile soil that allows your worst anxieties to bloom like never before. (Go watch Safe with Julianne Moore if you want to see what happens to damaged people when they have plenty of time and space to go insane.) For someone with a rough past, being in survival mode is sometimes easier than enjoying the luxury of support and care and time and space. If you’re not ENJOYING these things, if you’re just waiting for the shit to come down instead? That must be your fault. You must be sick inside.
And yet? So many people with so much less damage than you feel this way. So: Please forgive yourself straight out of the gate for the fact that you are human. You’re going through something right now. Going back into therapy will support you in your ability to claim this vulnerable space for yourself.
And when you’re pretty sure you’re terrible at some core level, you really need to pat yourself on the back often. For example: My mom was just visiting for a while and I was around my family A LOT this past week. I did not act like a giant asshole during that time. The one day I felt really angry, I went on a four-mile run and came back feeling ok again. But the first part of my run was just like this cartoon with me saying “MOTHERFUCKER! MOTHERFUCKER! MOTHERFUCKER!” with every step. And in between steps, I was thinking, “Why am I so angry over such small shit? Why do I have to be such a fucking first-world-problems wildebeest? The years roll by, and look, I’m still just a big baby!”
But why should I beat myself up for my feelings, when I handled myself perfectly well all week? We feel what we feel. What the fuck are you gonna do? It’s so easy to believe that there’s a moral to this story. “THIS PROVES THAT YOU’RE TERRIBLE! YOU SUCK! YOU’RE UNLOVABLE!” But that’s bullshit.
Maybe you’re in the habit of telling one story—“I went through the fire and emerged, triumphant!”—that doesn’t feel quite right anymore. Maybe you want to adjust your story, in order to make more room for reality, for mood swings, for challenging days, for challenging years. Maybe the new story is “I am so happy with what I have, but I’m still struggling with how to be happy.” Maybe the new story is, “I love my life, but I don’t know how to feel all of this sadness I have inside.” Sadness and happiness do not exist on different planets. They go hand in hand. Learning to feel sadness without shame is a pretty crucial prerequisite for happiness. The story doesn’t have to be, “I should be happy but I’m miserable.” You don’t deserve to be wildebeest jerky. You just need a few adjustments, to your habits, your life, your support systems, and your story. But in order to make those adjustments, you have to take the fact that you’re going through something RIGHT NOW—something BIG!—very very seriously.
Being alive is amazing. It’s also a huge challenge. Having a quick mind that latches onto everything and anything and runs with it, when paired with unpredictable fucking chemistry, is not a smooth ride, ever. The more you can accept that a rocky ride does NOT mean that you’re a mutant, the better. It doesn’t mean you need to map out a detailed plan and make 15 Excel charts to address every dimension of HOW YOU FAIL YOURSELF EVERY FUCKING DAY OF YOUR SORRY LIFE. It also doesn’t mean that simply saying “I’M FLAWED, OK?” is enough. This is about your feelings.
Your feelings do not make you some kind of deadly poison in human form that will send everyone running away from you. In fact, I’d like to know a little bit more about these friends that are backing away. Do they understand that you’re working through something? Are you vulnerable with them? Are they allergic to heaviness? Be sure to separate the supportive friends who were a little curt with you from the scaredy cats. Don’t lump them all together. And separate your weepy moments from your cussing-people-out moments. Not the same thing, at all. Do you have friends who can tolerate weeping? Can your husband tolerate it? Because if he can’t, maybe you need to drag him into therapy, too. I’d also like to know HOW you push your husband and other people away. When you start to feel like lashing out, you need to try to switch gears and really push yourself to reach the crying phase, to get to the vulnerable part of the picture. You should explain to your husband that this is a challenge for you, and that TEARS ARE ACTUALLY A SUCCESS. If you’re sitting there saying “Fuck off, you don’t get it” and thinking, “No one fucking gets it!” but you’re refusing to look at the fact that a layer of “OH FUCK I AM SO ROTTEN I HATE ME” is underneath it all? Then you have to dig deeper and let yourself feel some sadness, and you have to let people in. Don’t assume they can’t handle it. Let them in.
It’s frightening to stay open and stay vulnerable instead of escaping. That’s why so many people choose escape. Feelings are really fucking hard, particularly when you’ve always been told that they make you unlovable.
Keep feeling. Accept that it will get ugly. Stand up for your right to feel. Feel and feel and feel and you will get more and more beautiful. Those who don’t see that clearly can’t see clearly at all. You are going through something. That’s all. You’re dark now. This is how you’re going to let in the light. Believe it, and so will everyone else. Love yourself for it, and so will everyone else. BE PROUD of this fear and sadness, because it will lead you to sustainable happiness and love. Be patient with yourself, and you’ll come out on the other side of this stronger than ever. Your vulnerability is courageous.
Are you sugar coated on the outside and a pulsing ball of darkness on the inside? Write to Polly and discuss!
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.
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