Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

Ask Polly: How Can I Stop Being a Shut In Once and for All?

shutinDear Polly,

I don't really know what my real problem is. I can name an array of problems that I have, but I don't know if they are symptomatic, causal, imaginary or just plain over-analyzing. I don't have childhood traumas from which I can say everything started. I only know that these issues manifested themselves when I started university. I've kept diaries on and off for long periods of time and am seeing a therapist regularly for the last 1.5 years. Self-help books gather dust because I don't know if they actually address a problem I have. Or I lose motivation. Ultimately, I feel like I am in stasis. 

On the surface, I've spent the last eight years in two different universities and I've yet to graduate. If that were the only issue, I wouldn't engage in a self-perpetuating cycle of self-pity, self-hate/destruction and apathy. I'm bad at relationships generally, and I don't just mean romantically. It wasn't as much of a problem when I lived a rather sheltered existence as an expat with my family. We had a wide circle of family friends, and my academic ability at the time gave me a confidence to secure good friendships, some of which have been able to last to this day. And all this despite due negligence on my part. It doesn't help that I'm introverted, self-conscious and have insecurities.

I managed to maintain a bit of this at my first university—joined societies and what with being agreeable and trying to please people. I had friends, very good ones too. But, I have a habit of associating my self esteem with academic ability. When I started withdrawing academically, I became even more of a social recluse than I already was. It became difficult to confront people and my family. On the outside, I mustered up a happy exterior to the world. Otherwise, I fled from reality into an online world of internet friendships, TV shows and movies. This removal doubtless compounded my academic failures and frayed my already strained relationships with my peers. 

I know that it is best to be honest about my situation, but I never felt like I was in the position where I could afford to lose the friendships, superficial or not, that I had. I just didn't have that luxury. It was in the anonymity of the web that I found I could better express myself, more as a listener than a speaker. Helping people made me feel better about myself. It relieved the guilt and shame that would gnaw inside me. And however moot some might think these online relationships are, among the few that flourished, I actually found love with a girl after years of contact. We actually met, but despite her being one of the most wonderful people I have met and being very much in love with me, I ruined it with my neglect. I hurt her a lot. 

I thought I'd be honest, in order to make the relationship built on honesty. I told her about how I'd failed year after year at my old university, and now in a different country and uni, was trying a new lease of life on the same degree. But, she then became part of the reality from which I kept running. I never mean to upset her, but I would continually renege on commitments. I went through the same cycles as before. The only difference was that awareness of my relative advancing age gave an added urgency and desperation that things work out. I wanted to make a clean break, and in a foreign country where I'm trying to carve a niche of friends anew, I mentioned my past to as few people as possible. And even then, tried to sanitize it to make myself palatable.

Nothing has really changed. I've only become more withdrawn and reclusive. I don't have any genuinely close friends here, unlike the uni before. And often enough, I sabotage many of my relationships through my self-destructive tendencies. There's never an outburst; I just become a shut in. It's not atypical for me to stay days on end within the confines of my dormitory trying to drown myself from reality. Poor dieting, lack of exercise and being trapped in a virtual world are the typical themes of the day. I know they perpetuate my misery, but it's got to such a stage that I'm slowly growing indifferent to it. 

It's not that I don't try to get out of this rut. Every semester, I usually begin anew. I force myself to engage with other people, keep up with academics, and go for social/ sport activities, some of which do stick even through the depression. But somewhere, I invariably fall short again. And it's not that I can't do the subject material. I know I can because there are times when I really have. But, with every failure and cyclical repetition, it becomes harder and harder to believe in myself, maintain motivation or to live life. I also don't get much inspiration when I imagine what might await me in the future after so much time in academic/social limbo. 
The worst part is, I don't even know if I have a real excuse for being what and where I am. Sometimes I wish there was a medical condition to which I could attribute everything. My parents always do their best, and have (esp. my father) never made an issue of the expense I am incurring. They've even tried to grow more understanding as time goes by. Besides, even if I have issues that stem from childhood, surely I should have been able to move past them in eight years.

I'm sorry if this sounds like a stiff life anthology. I wrote everything because I don't know where it comes from or what to do. 

Polly, do you have any suggestions or pointers?

Lost & Plaintive

Dear L & P,

You do have a medical condition. You're depressed, pure and simple. There's no real cause for it beyond your physical make-up and the fact that your parents are footing the bill for whatever you want to do without the slightest complaint—which, while totally generous and loving of them, isn't actually a hundred percent good for you. When you're depressed and you can hide in entertainments and games and online relationships and you have no real reason to strive for anything? Well, that adds up to a pretty dire self-perpetuating picture.

I know that you're reading all kinds of judgment into what I just wrote. You assume that what I mean is, "You're bad and lazy and your parents are wasting their money on you." That is NOT what I mean. What I actually mean is: Most people with your biochemical profile are going to struggle with a situation that's a) amorphous, b) fully-funded and c) offers plenty of escapist options.

When I was 28 years old, I had a dream job writing cartoons that took about two days a week to complete. I worked from home. I made much more money than I could possibly spend as a single person with non-extravagant tastes. I had recently moved to LA and I had a boyfriend but almost no friends in town. Now, for a while, like you, I savored my situation. I painted my entire apartment, trained for a marathon, read great books, wrote lots of songs, started and didn't finish a few screenplays, etc. I went into therapy. I dumped my boyfriend.

But then I was VERY isolated. I stopped wanting to work out. I had tons of time and money, and I was very isolated and my life had no structure. IT WAS VERY DIFFICULT. Every single day, I had to pull myself out of bed and force myself to make good choices. I often failed. I developed some magical thinking, and I had trouble understanding which relationships in my life deserved my focus. I tended to overvalue weird random friendships and looked at long-term, intimate friendships with suspicion, because they demanded more from me.

Today I was watering the plants in my back yard and thinking back to how terrible I felt back then. Every single day was a struggle to make the right choices. Half of the stuff I did socially was mildly disheartening, if not downright depressing. I didn't have close friends around me, so I was hanging out with people who didn't make sense to me. One night, an acquaintance insisted that we go to one of those "cool" clubs with a velvet rope, where the doorman assesses whether or not you're hot enough to go inside. I remember turning to this acquaintance and saying something along the lines of, "Are we seriously going to the front of this line to let this fucking slice of ass cheese tell us whether or not we're hot enough to hang out with a room full of spray-tanned fucks?" She just looked at me like I had a shitty attitude. Everyone thought I had a shitty attitude back then.

I did have a shitty attitude. I wanted to move away. I wanted new friends. I wanted my old friends back. I felt like I had to act and mouth the right lines just to keep people from running in the other direction. I couldn't tell anyone the truth about who I was, not even the dude at the corner store or the woman at the coffee place.

I drank too much and I was narcissistic and self-involved and I was probably horribly boring to be around.

But it's pretty hard not to be self-involved when you're incredibly lonely and you don't have anyone to lean on. It's also really hard to make good choices when you feel that way. When you're depressed and aimless, you really do have to pay close attention to what works and what doesn't work, because the more you hurt yourself and isolate yourself, the harder it becomes to connect with other people.

So you need to accept this basic fact about yourself right now: You're young and you're depressed and you have to commit to taking better care of yourself from now on. There needs to be some baseline of self-care that you commit to.

That's not a temporary thing, either. You'll have to make really good choices almost every goddamn day from now until the end of your life in order to feel happy. Trust me on that, because it's true for me, too. If you or I slack off, there's trouble. If we hide in Twitter or Candy Crush or random sex or even the wrong sort of codependent relationship, there's trouble. If we sleep badly, or skip our caffeine supplement, or eat four macaroons for breakfast, there's trouble. We have to remain ever-vigilant about escapist urges. We can watch Game of Thrones, but we can't play Assassin's Creed for 10 hours straight. We can have three beers, but not seven beers. We can engage in social media, but we have to set clear limits. We must disable Wi-Fi, early and often. We must sleep eight hours a night. We must eat green leafy shit. We can eat other stuff, but the green leafy stuff has to be the autopilot default.

If you don't feel like you're uncovering new ground or understanding a lot about yourself when you see your therapist, you should address that in therapy and consider finding a new therapist. You also need to get on the phone to your parents and tell them you're depressed. I think your parents need to understand where you are in your life right now. I think you have to come out of the closet and be the complicated person you are, out there in the world, where other people can see you. People like us are EVERYWHERE. It's not actually that big of a deal to admit that you're PHYSICALLY depressive. I get that it feels like it is, but trust me. At least half of the smart people you know are either mildly depressed or anxious right now, or they have been in the past. And for most people in the world—MOST PEOPLE—it takes a lot of work and good habits and structure to be happy. When you take work and good habits and structure away? Boom, you're unhappy.

Some people like us take psychotropic drugs. Many, many people will tell you that's the way to go. I have LOTS of smart friends who take something. Personally, I favor vigorous exercise five days a week. Anything less than that and I start to falter. Any kind of structure is your friend. Getting out of your cave is good.

Mostly, though, I think you have to accept that you have a certain kind of avoidant/depressive profile that requires care. Your struggle—like mine—stems from your being unforgiving and unkind to yourself. You're either SUCCEEDING (kicking ass academically, making friends and keeping them entertained and happy, doing all the stuff you're supposed to do) or you're FAILING (hiding out, haunting comments sections, watching three seasons of Battlestar Galactica in a row). You are way too hard on yourself, so you reward yourself excessively to make up for it. When someone says "Take care of yourself," you associate that with drinking a bottle of wine alone, in bed, while watching Mad Men, even though it should mean dragging yourself out of your room to get a little sunlight, to be around people WITHOUT TRYING TO PLEASE THEM ALL OF THE TIME.

People with reasonably ok social skills who avoid socializing often do so because they've fallen into a habit of people pleasing in an inauthentic way. They assume that friends and lovers want a certain version of them, that they can't be awkward and strange and still be loved. You need to experiment with showing people your true self. You feel like you need to put on a show with real people, but you like listening much more. You can bring that into the real world. You can offer real people your listening skills, and still present your thorny opinions and messiness.

But here's what you can't do—and this goes for so many people: You can't just dig a deeper and deeper hidey hole of DVDs and games and email and bad food and no sleep and darkness and nothingness. Most people suffer when they try this; you are going to suffer EXCESSIVELY under these conditions. Remember how I had a great apartment and loads of time and money, and I got all wan and lifeless and lonely? With total freedom, I not only suffered, but I felt horribly guilty for suffering. My world view got really warped; things seemed tragic all around me. Even so, every bit of suffering I felt was more proof (in my mind) that I was a bad mess of a person who didn't deserve to live a chipper, productive life like everyone else OUT THERE.

So things won't be good unless you're not exerting yourself, feeling some sun on your face, working hard at something that matters to you. THIS WILL ALWAYS BE TRUE FOR YOU. The financial support from your parents really should stop once you're out of school. I totally get that you don't know what you want to do, and don't see the point in doing anything. I GET IT, LORD OH LORD YES. But you must force yourself to look over a few different options and you must tolerate finding things out about career paths, things you don't want to know. You will feel sick when you find out more about careers you don’t care about. You will think, "Who wants to do anything, ever?" That's your bad physical state and your biochemistry and your lack of experience talking. That's your accumulated gray worldview. Right now you're screwing up because YOU DON'T ACTUALLY WANT TO FINISH SCHOOL. Graduating means having to do something. Having to do something feels terrible.

You have to face the future. Your therapist, or a new one, can help there. So can friends that you have REAL relationships with. That means you have to be consistent, you can't disappear. You have to be honest about WHY you disappear, about your fears and your hiding. The people who like you less for these weaknesses aren’t your people. Plenty of people will understand, and love you for YOU once they understand you better.

This is a tough spot for you. I've been there a few times, so trust me: Your life is going to get better and better. Escaping is not going to help. Rewarding yourself in moderation will. But you absolutely must 1) exercise, 2) write down your feelings for you and no one else, 3) eat good things, 4) sleep regular hours, 5) get up early and do your academic work AT THE LIBRARY, 6) expect more from your therapist 7) tell your parents the truth, 8) focus on graduating AND on potential careers, and 9) remind yourself, over and over and over, that things will get better.


You are not any different than almost every single smart person I know. We all went through this kind of despairing stage. We all fall back into it sometimes, even now, and we have to crawl out again. But look, nothing compares to that feeling of aimlessness that comes from being very young and uncertain about what you want from your life. It almost made me feel sick when I thought about it today. So trust me about this one thing: You may never feel THIS bad again.

But it's also true that being happy and productive and having authentic relationships and CARING about your career goals and the future takes hard work for smart, depressive people. It takes hard work. Years from now, your life will be beautiful, and you will still have some bad days where you wonder if you're the kind of person who wants to escape or hurt people or destroy everything you've gained.

But you're not. You can show yourself—your real, vulnerable, shaky, scared, sad, worried self—to real people. You're a good listener, and a hard worker. You're not fucking up that badly. You just need to tell people the truth. "Just tell the truth." JUST. TELL. THE. TRUTH. It's time to start daring to disappoint people – your parents, your friends, your ex-girlfriend. Call them and explain what's happening to you. You will crawl out of this hole. Be gentle with yourself, but ask yourself to stop hiding.

The second you decide to show your true self to the world, the whole world shifts. You make the world better, when you're open and vulnerable and you tell the truth. You make space for other people to tell the truth. When you dare to expose your sadness, your weakness, your longing, you set other people free. You give them hope. You make them love this world, in a way that seemed impossible just a few seconds before.

And maybe that's not JUST a path out of this dark place you're in. Maybe it's also your calling. Maybe it's part of what you're here to do.

You can start right now. All you have to do is tell the truth. You don't have to carry this load. Put it down, and keep walking. You are light, and free, and this crazy world loves you just the way you are.


Do you feel like the depressed, abusive antihero of a critically acclaimed television show but want to upgrade your life to summer blockbusters? 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.

Photo by Linda Tanner

17 Comments / Post A Comment

eizverson22 (#277,962)

Give yourself confidence, it is the source of your power.

ginnyluu (#270,486)

This is so good. So, so good. LW, once you start talking about these feelings you will start to realize that just about everyone has worked through a dark time like this, and when you can finally open up and share it's really beautiful. You can do it!

And I know that Heather mentioned meds, but I feel the need to share my personal experience, which is that after avoiding medication for years, I finally, tearfully, started taking an SSRI and it has helped immensely. I wish I had been more open-minded years ago. If, like I was, you are already challenging yourself in therapy, running like someone is chasing you 5x per week, eating well, etc, you might want to consider the drugs.

@ginnyluu Seconded. There's a pointless stigma, and for many regular exercise isn't enough–I was a college athlete when I finally made the change.

1153763124@twitter (#280,137)

You can also read on cultural marginality and living on the fringe, feeling terminally different. Barbara Schaetti is the author of those.

See if this starts helping you feel a lot less "I'm a freak"

vw1144 (#274,827)

I love Polly. Each week I come here, I read something that feels like I could have written it myself, I take bits and pieces and absorb some sound advice. Mostly, I just feel less alone and less like I am the only person who's just bobbing around in some huge ocean.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

I agree with everything Polly said. And, as an academic procrastinator who also equates academic success with self-esteem: you've put a lot of pressure on yourself, and this pressure has, ironically, made you very avoidant about your work. So, some small, practical advice: make yourself a very short, realistic, and manageable to-do lists everyday to help you with the academic procrastination. Right now your big goal appears to be "Get University Degree" but that is a very big and amorphous thing, and is clearly causing you some anxiety. So, you need to break this down into smaller, clear semester goals "Pass X required course." And then even smaller, shorter to-do lists for every day (1) Go the the library by 11am (Polly was spot on, you need to work outside your house to prevent distractions, and to keep yourself going out into the world). (2) Spend 11am-3pm at Library reading required course material (3) Take notes on required course material. You'll feel much better about your work, and yourself, if you can just take small bites one day at a time.

scribbles (#280,146)

This hit the nail so intricately on the head for me that it was actually difficult to read.

Snarke (#280,150)

I super duper needed to read exactly this today. Thank you!

Koko Goldstein (#234,489)

Holy fucking shit. I found the column I am printing out to put in my wallet.

LW: I am totally there right now, in different ways. I was fired from my job and kept it a secret for weeks. It was miserable and terrible and I was in deep deep depression and anxiety. I finally told everyone, which was my greatest fear, and now I am on the moon. Everyone is loving and supportive (even parents) and I don't have this horrible thing hanging over me. After I got over being afraid to deal with it, I can now actually DEAL with it, making plans and figuring it out.

I was depressed in a bad way for the past year and it was because I hated my job and felt like there was nothing I could do about it. We can be pretty simple creatures. I was unhappy and didn't deal with it or felt helpless about it, and it just stuck around until it became a raging psychosis. You are stuck in a cycle of guilt and reclusiveness because you're not doing well at school. I think if you can't graduate in 1-2 semesters you should think about leaving, or taking a leave of absence, and just getting a job and figuring out life without school. It may feel absolutely impossible right now to do that, but it's not impossible, just hard.

LW: Thanks for sharing your story. It's a great start at getting honest. I know the self-pity and isolation you described. Change does indeed come through action, but I disagree with Polly's prescription.

Polly: I appreciate the loving kick in the ass to us depressive-avoidant-isolating-types, but I don't think "try harder" (to oversimply your advice) works. It's not sustainable, and doesn't get at the root causes. In my personal experience, self-pity, isolation, and even "depression" (although I think we need to be careful about how we use this term) are only effectively delt with through ACCEPTANCE. You may read that as "approval," but that's an erroneous conflation. Acceptance of the "depression" itself is required because ANYTHING else is simply a judgement that contributes to the depression. By saying, "TRY HARDER" you're also saying, "THE WAY YOU ARE RIGHT NOW IS NOT ENOUGH."

And there is hope. LW is enough, already. It does get better through action, and we only becomign willing to get into action (like LW's impressively worded letter to you) when it gets painful enough. Then we become willing to get honest about accepting that this depressive-avoidant-painfull way of being has kept us alive until now, but no longer serves. That avoidance helped me survive for many years, but like the loyal Japanese soldiers who fought WW2 for decades after the armistace, I am trying to win a war that has already been won. I thank those soldiers for fighting, and I accept them back into society. There's work to be done, as you suggest, and I need all the help I can get.

In my case, and perhaps in LW's, I needed to find like-minded people who suffered as I do, and then I had to start helping them.

LW: you mentioned liking to help people online. May I suggest that you've helped me through your honest sharing of yourself. That's amazing. I find that opening up and inviting others to share their struggles with me provides boundless energy, and ultimate happiness. Rather than increased discipline, trying harder, and attempting to abandon the only way of being I've ever known, I must surround myself with people who accept me as I am, as I practice accepting them.

The question, then, becomes: Who are the people in your life who you trust to accept you as you are, today? Who do you feel safe confiding in? Who do you know that is suffering and could use an ear and a heart?

I do agree with Polly: It does get better. That is hope. It is real. But it isn't about "getting better," because you're not broken. Everyone is already whole. Transformation grown through acceptance.

Thank you, LW, for sharing.
Thank you, Polly, for caring enough to engage in such a meaningful way.

Fern Reno (#277,053)

Tears reading this. Thank you LW. Heather, please do this as long as you possibly can!

This also helps…James Altcher's daily practice. It's what Polly is telling you to do said in another way. If I don't follow it, I start flailing about like a stranded fish.

Althaea (#270,643)

I recently, during a pretty rough patch, actually wrote down a list of what I absolutely have to do every day to feel ok. And it was the most basic, basic list – eat regularly, sleep, leave the house once a day, pick up the house once a day (this probably isn't a must for everyone, but it's a big help for me), take meds on time, go to work. That's it. It's absurd how basic it was. But for that couple of days that list was what I needed. I taped it to my wall. I read it every day. It was a lifeline. I've had lots of practice with the ambitious, star-of-the-proverbial-semester, resolutions. I'm not sure they've ever helped. But establishing a basic list of must do's for the worst times was really helpful. After those first few terrible days, exercise, meditation, greens, talking to other people about my feelings got added to the list. It's not about beating yourself up, or making yet another set of huge promises to yourself you can't keep. It's about figuring out what, for you, is essential for self care, and promising yourself you'll do that. And if that's out of reach, you know you need more help, so you have to ask.

Myrtle (#9,838)

@Althaea Yup Yup. My list, when I was sickest, was even shorter: 1) Shower Every Day 2) Outside Every Day. You start where you're at.

Typhimurium (#255,527)

I've gone through difficult, stagnated depressive stages. I think the main habit that helped me has been having a strict schedule, with an activity most weeknights. The lowest part of my day is dragging myself to the scheduled activity, but once I'm there it's all okay somehow. And I just go. I don't have to have friends there and I don't have to be particularly liked, so I just enjoy the activity everyone does together. For me, the two activities I keep up with are choir and martial arts, and that's enough for right now since I have some friends in my life. But when things are worse, I look for more activities; a book group, crafting classes, cooking classes, a second martial art, etc. If you're in a college and your parents are able to support you financially, doing classes in a hobby you find interesting might be really helpful in getting yourself out of a rut. Just keep telling yourself when you're worried about not getting your work done because of attending the activity that one or two hours does not matter in the scheme of things.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@Typhimurium Good advice! I have had to move a lot for work, for periods of time that range from 1-6 months. Its hard to make friends, so I join gyms and do group classes most nights a week. Even if I don't chat with the other people, we smile at each other and sweat together, and I feel good afterwards for getting exercise and getting out of the house. Trying new classes is a bonus for feeling like I did something new and different. I know lots of people in my field of work who do the same– joining gyms or taking new classes to provide some structure and positive activities with low social pressure.

not a professional (#244,325)

It's possible that the letter writer is depressed but it's also possible she has a different or additional problem going on. ADD/ADHD often go undiagnosed in females and they can look different in young women than in males. Based on her writing style, the fact that she seems to be lacking a sense of herself and is low on executive function, I think it's worth looking into the possibility that she has ADHD or ADD or possibly some other brain issue going on.

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