Ask Polly: How to Be Nice


Hi Polly,

One of the goals I have set for myself this year is to be a kinder person: more supportive and forgiving of my friends, more friendly and open to people I’ve just met, more approachable and compassionate with strangers. The problem is that this is a huge struggle because I am not naturally compassionate with people I don’t already like.

I have two reasons for wanting to be kinder: to ~make the world a better place~ in an abstract karmic kind of way, and also (this one is selfish) to fight against my depression, defensiveness, and general negative attitude toward life by opening myself up to more experiences. The first one is all well and good, but it’s not such an immediate motivating force, and the second one has its own built-in issues. When you’re already sensitive to the thought that people won’t like you, any small “no” and any negative aspect to a person makes you shrink away and turn your back preemptively.

Both my parents have very negative personalities and apparently deal with it in one of two ways: by sinking into a nasty, angry depression-pit or by maintaining iron control of everyone and denying that anything is wrong while things melt down around them. They had an acrimonious divorce about 10 years ago, when I was in middle school, and things are still raw. Being seven years older than my younger sister, I became her advocate and protector, and also tried to smooth things over between my parents wherever I could. I have definitely learned a lot of criticism from them, both of myself and of everyone else.

I’ve been working really hard to be less judgmental and the constant negative mental narration is much better, but I still catch myself evaluating new people that I meet for their quality as a friend, and if I don’t feel that they meet up to all these expectations I have of intelligence, being interesting, being accepting, etc., I don’t spend any time or effort getting to know them better. I find a lot of people tiresome, boring, annoying, etc., and then make no effort to disguise my annoyance with them. It’s really asshole-y. Even with my friends, I’m not as gentle as I would like to be. I snap at them if I’m in a bad mood, I’m not as forgiving of their imperfections as they are of mine, and I’m told that I’m an intense conversationalist, I strongly defend my opinions, and that I have a lot of them.

Plus, I’m hungry for a relationship with emotional intimacy, but when I begin to get close to someone that I feel safe with and attracted to, they don’t feel the same way. Either that or they are attracted to me “too much” or whatever, or want things to be too serious, and then I leap away myself. It’s fucked up!!! (This is complicated by my bisexuality, because sometimes I will get intensely emotionally close with a girl, feel sparks flying, try to make a move, and she will tell me she loves me but only as a friend.)

The best and most beloved friends that I have are so generous with their emotional energy, their compassion, their interest in someone else’s life, and it looks as natural to them as breathing. I try to open up to everything life has, and be kind and compassionate, and let things happen to me, and I’m burned out and even snappier and more defensive than ever after two measly weeks. Self-compassion is an important part of this (right?) and I’ve really been improving with negative self-talk, body image, blah blah, but I can’t seem to shake the outward-directed nastiness.

I guess the dilemma here is: How do you continue opening yourself to the world when you’ve been burned (or thought you’ve been burned, or burned someone yourself) so many times? How do you take your shriveled up angry sad heart and rehydrate it?

Thanks P.

Nasty Girl

Dear Nasty Girl,

As a former/occasional Nasty Girl, I take great satisfaction in thinking that Ask Polly might serve as a beacon unto the nasty, a place of refuge for those sharp of tongue and intense of conversation, who are gently and not-so-gently corrected by others, over and over again, like naughty little dogs on choke chains who will never, ever learn. Some of the greatest and most talented writers and artists were nasty motherfuckers who could never, ever learn — but this world we live in has maybe the lowest tolerance for nastiness ever. We, perhaps unfairly or perhaps logically, associate nastiness with prejudice and hate crimes and running over poor children in your Hummer and kicking poor kittens with your $4000 Hobnailed Prada Platform Ankle Boots. Nastiness is treated as a byproduct of religious fervor or racism or ignorance or misogyny or extreme privilege.

But what about nastiness that’s a byproduct of the soul’s gentle bleatings, from deep within, over the supreme stupidity and obvious terribleness of what passes for pleasant conversation today? What about nastiness that rises in one’s throat when one observes the popular dipshits of the world, raking in millions with their mediocre flailings, while thoughtful eccentrics wallow and languish in obscurity? What about the nastiness that bubbles up when one realizes that some of one’s closest compadres are content to blather endlessly about the same old tired shit, repeating tropes they’ve heard on TV and in strident but gutless Op-Ed columns and in bland, repetitive nonfiction bestsellers in which one single stupid idea (Work Less! Be More French! Psychopaths Are Fascinating!) is belabored in sloppy sentences that tangle together in terrible stultifying piles?

Please understand I’m not arguing against bad taste so much as laziness. I’m certainly not taking a stand against, say, watching the Stanley Cup finals and high-fiving over fried cheese and watery beers, which sounds awesome. I’m not even talking about thoughtlessness, because a lack of neuroticism can be refreshing, as long as it’s not accompanied by shitty judgment and the dull, humorless, rigid nothingness that today passes for an acceptable personality, as long as it’s sugared over in today’s appropriate flavors of Yes Man affability.

So let’s just acknowledge that today’s world may abhor grumpy assholes, but many grumpy assholes are thoughtful and open-hearted, and many open-hearted-seeming types are inwardly rigid and ignorant and blind in ways that fuck the semi-aware, fuck the planet and everything on it, and fuck the small and the oppressed who are struggling mightily to get a foothold in a cruel world.

Another tough thing is that, when you’re young, you can really screw up your entire worldview if you lazily persist in hanging around people who don’t make the least bit of sense to you. For example, I was once drawn to those who drank the most and smoked the most pot without getting sloppy or weirdly sentimental. I liked sharp teeth and snide remarks and also the occasional high five. Not total dicks, mind you — I do have deathly accurate dick-dar. But I have always had a weakness for a good rollicking gaggle of funny, emotionally withholding escapists and addicts and also just basic dudes who like deconstructing mindless blockbusters. Those who are allergic to talk of feelings. Condescenders. And also gushing enthusiasts. How do they find each other? They do, and when they do, they high-five over having found each other.

Even as I write this, I long for that swaggery douchebag scene a little, because there was a lot of bluster and self-confidence in the mix. But here’s the thing: As a nasty intense woman without the proper disguises in place, it’s very difficult to let your glorious freak flag fly among conformist high-fivers. They don’t know they’re conformists, of course, since they’re all smart and weird in their own high-fiving way. They make observations, they have senses of humor. But when you throw out your own loose, nutty shit, they kick it away and snort and you are agreed to be Not Quite Right. Some conformists will only embrace ideas that come out of crappy repetitive nonfiction bestsellers and sportscasters’ mouths.

Conformists need a strong leader to tell them who to like and who not to like, whether that leader is on the TV or in fully sanctioned and embraced books. If you’re not a leader and you’re young and not that strong, they are going to tell you everything original and flawed and brilliant about you is fucking queer and stupid. SO FUCK THEM. Sometimes you feel unkind around people like that because you know that they’ll never make space for you. Noticing this is not nasty, it’s adaptive.

At age 21, surrounding yourself with people who reflect your own self-hatred back at you is a fucking catastrophe. By the same token, if you’re running around with tons of self-hatred on board, most social relations are going to get pretty catastrophic.

Case in point: Let’s talk about truly open-hearted women who support exactly who you are. I had friends like that in high school, somewhat miraculously. Because I was angry and was so used to being rejected by my own undeniably loving but confused Little Brute Family, I didn’t realize it. I assumed my high school lady friends were faking it, that they didn’t really love me the way they pretended to. I felt this way because I didn’t understand how to love them for who they were yet. And when one friend tried to hook up with MY hook up (not even a boyfriend), I was ENRAGED. That proved she didn’t really love me — it proved that NONE OF THEM loved me. I thought I was the only one with Real Feelings and everyone else was cavalier — they simply knew how to ACT like they cared. I thought they were masters of illusion.

So that’s when I chased after the swaggery douchebags described above, in college and maybe beyond.

It took so much time and distance to make sense of all this. I had to write a memoir about my confusion, just to make sense of it. My book is all about beating back your own nastiness and fear and confusion after growing up in a Little Brute Family.

There are obviously a million abstractions and conflicts to explore here, but let’s get concrete. You want to be a kinder person. Quieting those self-hating sounds in your head, as you’ve been trying to do, is definitely the first step. When a voice in your head says, “You are such a fucking asshole. You are so impatient and fault-finding, just like your mother,” you have to notice. Just noticing is sometimes enough, because over time you’ll say, “Jesus, every single tiny thing I do is a major mistake, according to this voice.” And the voice will get quieter and less relentless, slowly but surely.

Remember that everyone with a conscience and a tough past eats themselves alive if they don’t work hard not to. You are who you are and you are trying hard to improve yourself. You’re working at acceptance. And maybe you need to accept that life is not endless communing with smart, hilarious, like-minded geniuses. Everyone is flawed. Everyone can sound boring at some point. People often — OFTEN! — sound much more trivial and shallow than they actually are. That’s how we’re taught to sound, in our culture. Trivial and shallow win the day.

So accept your flawed, moody self and accept the flawed, moody, annoying world around you. Shallowness is sometimes a retreat from darkness. High-fiving is a way of celebrating small shit, as a means of not feeling contemptuous or sullen about bigger shit. When you’re young, you don’t know that almost everyone around you struggles with their own judgments and nastiness and moods. People are usually more complicated than they appear.

The better you get at allowing yourself space to be flawed, the better you’ll be at not lashing out at other people’s flaws. And the better you’ll be at turning your back on people who basically don’t like you. People who do love you are almost always worth keeping, even if they themselves are very different from you. If they support your weirdness, and allow you space, then you should work to support them, too. When you really lean into differences, explore them, take an interest in them instead of feeling threatened by them, then it’s possible to celebrate them. It’s possible to be that kind person you want to be without making a Herculean effort to do so. Taking a real interest, asking questions, shutting off your bad shriveled brain and exploring in a new land, is much more substantive and rewarding than simply TRYING TO BE NICER.

Writing down what you’ve learned and observed about your friends and other people can help. Sometimes you won’t like what you observe. But other times you’ll let your friends and acquaintances blossom and show their weird selves and you’ll be able to appreciate them. Writing down what you’re grateful for every night also helps to cultivate gratitude, and open-heartedness. Any writing you do that allows your feelings to flood in, even if it’s all anger and sadness some days, is going to help you.

But you also have to know your own limits and respect them. If you start compulsively giving and giving and giving, that won’t do shit for you. It will only make you dislike everyone, and dislike yourself for not being someone who can give endlessly. Give what you can, but don’t overachieve. Let yourself be a fucking person. This is one of the big lessons of motherhood: when you give much more than you can naturally tolerate giving, it just makes you grumpy. Your kids don’t need that. An hour of total focus and enthusiasm, offered after you exercise and get a little work done, feels much healthier and happier for everyone involved than several long hours of half-assed trying to “bond” while feeling pissy because you’ve been pulling ugly outfits onto Barbies for too long.

So that’s what I’d say: Embrace who you are. Give yourself space. Shut down the “fuck you” voice in your head. Respect your own limits. Do what you can but don’t do what you can’t. Don’t punish yourself for being you. And don’t spend time with people who aren’t equipped to embrace you or appreciate you, who will tell you you’re rotten simply because they hate difference.

Nasty Girls can be open-hearted, if they embrace their own flaws, if they embrace their softness, if they embrace the inherent contradictions therein, if they embrace the inherent contradictions in everyone else and in everything else. People who righteously point out contradictions all the time are usually people who are too rigid and dumb to recognize that each and every one of us is in conflict constantly. The most serene Buddhist in the universe recognizes that contradiction lives at the center of everything. People who claim moral high ground or even total consistency are not to be trusted for a second.

Right now you’re trying hard to be nicer and more open-hearted, but you’re bludgeoning yourself for it. “BE KINDER, ASSHOLE! BE NICER, YOU SORRY OVERLY CRITICAL PIECE OF SHIT!” The soul rebels from that. It will make you even meaner if you don’t respect its wishes. When I say to myself, “WRITE FASTER! BE MORE BRILLIANT, YOU SLUGGISH FUCK!” the fairy godmother in my soul says, “Bibbedy bobbity boo! You will now be devoid of original creative thoughts for days on end!”

You are becoming kinder, and sometimes you feel really angry and mean. That’s OK. Give yourself credit for small efforts, and give yourself credit for WANTING to be kinder, which proves that you aren’t the total dick you think you are. Give yourself credit for having a sharp mind that likes to slice and dice. Give yourself credit for having friends who do care, who love flinty, frustrating you, in spite of everything.

Give yourself credit for being a Nasty Girl. Dave Chappelle and Lorde and Joan Didion and Kanye West and Tori Amos and Jonathan Ames and Elaine Dundy and Adrienne Rich are all nasty girls. John Updike and Cynthia Heimel and Sofia Coppola and David Chase and Stevie Nicks and David Sedaris and Jennifer Egan and Kim Gordon and Iris Owens are nasty girls, too. It’s ok to be bored and annoyed and sick inside. Put it somewhere. Write something freakishly mean and scathing and gloriously self-aware and self-abnegating and grandiose and sad. Create something soaring and melancholy and frustrating. You are full of so many charged, combustible thoughts and feelings. You are full and rich and alive and you deserve to feel what you feel and be who you are. Celebrate the nasty. Lean in, Nasty Girl. Lean the fuck in and be nasty. Not callous. Not withdrawn. Not punishing. Not escaping. Not self-destructing. Engaged and furious and generous and heartbroken and glorious and nasty, nasty, nasty.


Do you want to wash away all of your nastiness and replace it with a healthy golden glow without chemicals that have been tested on animals? 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 Alias