Ask Polly: I Have Absolutely No Idea What I Need to Be Happy


Hi Polly.

I don’t even know where to start, because for some reason I’m HORRIBLE at articulating my emotions. I feel like as soon as I have an “epiphany,” it only opens up the door to another warehouse of issues to sift through. I’m so exhausted and worn out from an entire lifetime of extreme neuroticism and self-consciousness, and I need some clarity.

You seem to always have some advice that I can apply to my own life, so I have been wanting to write to you for a while. But I can’t decide what to ask advice for since I really could use help in all areas of my life, and I do mean ALL. Let’s see if I can get close to an actual question.

I’m recently married to the love of my life. From the day we met, I knew he was different than everyone else. He is an artist like myself, extremely unique, kind, up for an adventure, and patient. I’ve learned a lot about enjoying life and having fun from him. Lately though, I feel like he is no longer trying to impress me the way he used to. Not too long ago, he was bearing an equal part of all the “to dos,” and doing small and thoughtful things for me. Now, he doesn’t help me at all around the house (but does really well in helping to DESTROY the space like a drunk bear raiding a campsite before falling asleep early), and is often lost in his thoughts. We don’t talk as much as we used to, and physically he’s letting himself go as well. I think he is a little depressed and bored. I suspect he is down because 1) he hates his day job, which leaves him very little mind time to get inspired to make his art, and 2) he is going through an early thirties existential crisis, as am I. I am being as understanding as I can because I currently do not have a job so I have more time to do the stuff that needs to be done at home — but I hate the reality that I’m slowly becoming a traditional housewife.

Anyway, I was thinking that if I ask for some advice about my own issues, maybe in turn I can inspire him somehow. I don’t want to resent him because I want to be sure that I’m not contributing to the problem by nagging or being a hypocrite. I suspect that I may be rubbing off on him a little bit, or even projecting.

I had to recently be brutally honest with myself and admit that I have a gigantic fear within me. I’m always doubting who I am and what I should be doing. I used to be — when I was a small child — very outgoing and charming. But I was brought up to be obedient and self-abnegating, and that’s what I became, as well as shy and awkward. At the same time I was scolded for those things. My problems or emotions were often dismissed and ridiculed, everyone else’s desires always came before mine, and all the family’s problems were blamed on me anytime I attempted to speak up for myself. I’m talking about full-on, “Your dad is leaving me because of YOU and your shitty attitude.” I was gaslighted like a motherfucker, so I know why I am like I am, but how do I stop?? I could provide more detail, but I can sum it all up by saying that for as long as I can remember, I’ve been too serious, depressive, and really took it hard when I made any mistake or when someone didn’t like or “get” me, which makes it hard to let go and develop my talents naturally, with a sense of fun. Also, I was always very angry and resentful deep inside for not fitting in anywhere, but always also felt the need to find my true self amid the noise. I did not enjoy being a child. At all. I didn’t know what “child-like enthusiasm and wonder” was until I met my now husband.

I sort of hate myself for it because the number one character trait that I admire in anyone is the ability to be themselves, unapologetically, but it’s very hard for me to change.

I feel like I’m constantly fighting myself and I don’t know how to listen to my own heart. For example, I knew I didn’t fit into the status seeking, “this company is my life,” corporate-climbing world, but I tried anyway, and felt like an idiotic loser for not being interested enough to be able to play the game (especially since so many other uninteresting and not even particularly brilliant people were able to figure it out).

I have many interests and can’t decide how to focus my energies, though I do believe I am intelligent and more than capable. I constantly sabotage myself and say, smoke a joint to calm the anxiety of knowing I will paint something and nine times out of ten, hate it. Then I get nothing done, and hate myself for being weak.

I also have a big problem with comparing myself to others, and jealousy. This was absolutely the hardest thing to admit to myself because it’s just pathetic. I’m figuratively in a glass room, watching and being jealous of everyone living their lives, watching them grow and develop while I waste time, and feeling that I’ll be trapped as a longing voyeur forever, too paralyzed by fear (or something) to figure out how to just walk out of the wide open doorway. I’m keeping myself prisoner, because it doesn’t feel natural to believe in myself and go forth with enthusiasm and trust that I will figure it out. It makes me so mad at myself for holding myself back, but since I AM myself, I don’t know how to smash the part of me keeping me trapped. I simply can’t get a grasp on embracing my uniqueness and also recognizing which changes I truly should make to make my life more productive, happy, and successful.

When I met my husband, I was the happiest and free-est I have ever felt. I had never been more excited about life. But I know that’s also the serotonin and whatnot of the honeymoon period. I do believe though, that we can get back to that, but even if we don’t, at least I can learn to be more whole and strong. That has to be better than the self-doubting scaredy puss I am today. He understands me and gives me a lot of love, but I don’t think this is something he can help me with.

What can I do? I already go to therapy, but like many relationships in our lives, I feel this one has run its course, and I need someone to tell me what to DO, not to just listen to me whine all the time. Can you give me some insight? I feel like I will be this way forever! I want to know where to focus, what to pay attention to, what to block, and how to stop caring so fucking much about how I’m presenting myself. I want FREEDOM, goddamn it!


Ugh Times Infinity

Dear Ugh,

When kids first learn to swim, they always think they’re going to drown because they want to keep their faces and mouths out of the water. Their eyes are right there, an inch above the surface of the water, so the whole exercise feels like a battle to stay alive. It’s very inefficient, trying to keep your head up while you swim. There’s no dog-paddling in the fucking Olympics, because dog paddling is slow and torturous and no one who can swim well would ever use such a shitty stroke.

Once a kid learns to put his or her face down into the water, though, the whole swimming thing goes from a terrible, frightening battle to a relaxing process of discovery. Suddenly your body feels buoyant and graceful. Whereas the surface of the water feels violent and unnerving, under the water things are calm and quiet and gorgeous. You can look around, dive deeper, return to the surface. Suddenly, you have choices. Suddenly, you are free.

Right now you’re dog paddling — you’re fighting off your feelings, mostly with your circular thoughts — and you’re wondering why you’re so exhausted and angry. Meanwhile, other people you know are disappearing under the water, and emerging looking more relaxed and happier, but you just stay pissed off and tired. You try to solve the problem, mostly by thinking about it until you feel terrible. You blame yourself. You wonder if your husband’s suffering is also your fault. (You were to blame for everything when you were young, after all. Why not now?)

You write: “I’m always doubting who I am and what I should be doing. I used to be — when I was a small child — very outgoing and charming. But I was brought up to be obedient and self-abnegating, and that’s what I became, as well as shy and awkward. At the same time I was scolded for those things.”

You were taught to control everything that you felt, in other words. And then you were taught to second-guess those controlling behaviors, so even the act of self-discipline felt discouraging and disheartening to you. You weren’t permitted to have your own joyful experiences, and then you were chastised for not being joyful enough. (This is the parenting style of people who fucking hate themselves, by the way.)

Lines from your letter sound just like Pink Floyd lyrics for a reason. It’s sadly very common, this feeling that we were beaten back like weeds and we lost something important along the way. Roger Waters describes dog-paddling like this:

“When I was a child I had a fever
My hands swelled just like two balloons,
Now I have that feeling once again
I can’t explain, you would not understand
This is not how I am.”

The dog paddling of neuroticism feels like isolation, like longing, like struggling against something impossible. “I’m not like this! I’m really not!” Something is wrong, something was wrong, something will always be wrong. You were outgoing and charming. You were redirected towards obedience, and even that was not OK. You had something to say, you were hushed. You became grumpy, and your shitty attitude was to blame for your dad leaving. Now you’ve got that feeling once again, that you might be to blame for your husband leaving you, eventually.

“I can’t explain. You would not understand. This is not how I am.”

This is the heartbreak of “Comfortably Numb,” when this moment of longing — which could be full and rich and gorgeous — instead gets bottle up, thrown away, disowned. I WAS HAPPY BEFORE, AND THEN I GOT SICK. That reflection itself is an opportunity, a door that opens — you’ve learned something real and true about yourself. But then, the door closes: I CAN’T EXPLAIN. YOU WOULDN’T FUCKING GET IT.

And what comes next? What ends the early thirties crisis, you ask? Settling, numbness, resolving not to try to explain, assuming that no one will understand. So tired of dog paddling, so tired of struggling against the surface of the water, all splashy exhausting violence with so little reward.

Many people stop trying to understand their feelings at around your age. It’s wearing them out too much. Like you, every time they have “an epiphany,’ it only opens up the door to another warehouse of issues to sift through.” So they choose to feel LESS instead.

“There is no pain, you are receding,
A distant ship smoke on the horizon.”

This is where you are. You can 1) keep dog-paddling and become a certified neurotic, always exhausted, always angry. Or you can 2) turn it all off, power down, and give up on trying, because it’s too hard. Or, you can 3) dive down under the water and feel your way through this and see everything you have, everything you’re made of, everything you’re NOT made of, everything you love, everything you want to embrace and enjoy about being alive right now.

Dog-paddling is not serving you very well. You’re trying to prove that this is not who you are. There’s no flow, no grace, no gliding. You’re monitoring your husband too closely, wondering when he’ll notice that you’re the cause of everything bad. Stop looking at him. He’s working and he’s trying to make art and he needs a little space to manage that balance. Manage your expectations and make yourself heard, but be very concise and back off. Allow him his own time and space to grow. Looming over him with your unhappiness and your scolding will never, ever help, not even a little bit. You are hyper-aware of him, and right now, as far as I can tell, he’s not a problem in your life unless you make him one.

You’re not going to arrive at that moment of truth underwater if you keep looking at him. Likewise, you can’t sit and watch other apparently graceful swimmers and wonder why you’re not them. I know you know this. But watching them glide will make you sink like a stone. Outward success means nothing unless you’re at peace with yourself. Don’t assume they’re all doing great just because they look like they are.

The trouble here lies in both your bad habits and in your poorly formed identity. Your identity until now has depended on how other people see you. Starting today, you have to feel your way towards an identity that makes sense to you and you alone. Your moments of freedom, of possibility, of feeling in touch with yourself, have been blotted out by your anxiety and neediness and struggle to blame yourself and NOT blame yourself and blame yourself all over again.

You need to learn how to feel what you feel without anxious color commentary. If your therapy sessions are nothing but anxious color commentary with no feeling, that means your therapist isn’t pushing you to go deeper into your feelings. That may mean you need a new therapist. Or it may mean that you need to talk to your therapist about your perception that the process is stalling out.

Outside of therapy, I think you need to find some way to welcome and accept your feelings instead of always retreating into circular thinking and solutions and self-doubt and self-blame. You can do this by yourself. Forget all interpretation. Put some headphones on, turn on some music, and give yourself a moment, as a gift. Not a moment to straighten up. Not a moment to fix something. Not a moment to wonder if your husband really cares. Not a moment to wonder what other people have that you don’t have. A moment to put your face in the water and swim under the surface, alone.

Let yourself feel something without thinking. Picture an outgoing, charming child who was told to stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Until there was nothing left.

Crying is putting your face in the water.

Put your face in the water. This is not about your husband. This is not about what other people think of you. This is not about how you stack up. This is not about whining. This is not about smoking a joint in order to calm your anxiety in order to paint. This is not about becoming more productive. This is not about becoming someone stronger and better and more lovable. This is not about looking for an epiphany.

Dip under the surface. Water filters the light in the strangest ways. Pay attention. Sounds change under water. Yelling and splashing above the surface comes through in a warped arc to your ears. Your clumsy body feels like a smooth fish underwater.

Swim through the raw pain of mourning what you could’ve been, a different kind of a person, a charming, outgrowing child who grew into a charming, outgoing woman. But you were stopped in your tracks. Let that injustice surround you, thick as water.

Stay there, surrounded by feeling. Don’t clean up. Don’t fix anything. Don’t rush to funnel the smallest bit of inspiration into SOMETHING SOME PAINTING SOME PROOF YOU’RE MAKING PROGRESS YOU’RE GETTING BETTER.

Make no progress. Analyze nothing. Stay with your feelings.

And even now you’re thinking, “BUT WHAT DO I — I MEAN — WHAT SHOULD I — I DON’T GET — “ Don’t think. There is no careful plan to follow. This is where your freedom will begin: Learning to feel what you feel without judgment.

It will take tremendous practice and effort to do this. You might consider getting a CD of Eckhart Tolle (I know, Christ Almighty, Pink Floyd and Eckhart Tolle, DID YOU WANDER INTO THE WRONG SULFUROUS POOL AT ESALEN?) I don’t love most meditation CDs but I do love Tolle’s philosophical German weirdo routine, which is all about allowing yourself space to feel without WAITING, without EXPECTATIONS, without WANTING MORE.

You have to learn to give value to your experience. You haven’t valued your own experience since you were very small. You can’t think your way to this. You have to feel your way there.

What will come out of you dedicating yourself to just this — feeling over thinking, experiencing the moment instead of worrying and planning and fixing all the time? I don’t know. Maybe you’ll discover that you want to work part-time and paint part-time, to make your painting time feel more like a luxury you give yourself instead of feeling like this huge gulf of failure that you dog-paddle through every day. Maybe you’ll discover how YOU feel about your husband (not how he “really” feels about you or thinks about you), and you’ll want to walk right up and kiss his face and be still with him for a minute.

You CAN explain. He WILL understand. That’s what love is. Daring to explain. Daring to be understood. “To Do” lists and conflicts and bad habits tend to fix themselves when you open up to each other without fear.

Likewise, fear tends to recede when you look straight at your fears and feel those fears without interpretation. Sometimes just noticing fear — without trying to control it, without trying to analyze it — can make that fear just another rich dimension of your rich, rich, life.

So look: This terrible tidal wave of insecurity you’re feeling is actually a pathway to a new kind of happiness for you. You’ve been beating back your insecurity. Other people are repelled by that. It’s a defensive, self-protective, angry state. It’s a state of conflict. It’s an unaware state — violent, unhinged, sinking fast. If you stop and admit your insecurities to yourself and allow them to exist, you will draw people to you. That doesn’t mean that attracting people is THE GOAL. That doesn’t mean that you’re walking around saying, “Oh look at face, I’m breaking out. Listen to my stutter. See how awkward I am?” You allow your feelings to be, even if you hear a soundtrack that tells you, “You are bad, you are to blame, you are weak.” You listen to this soundtrack and feel how it weighs down your heart. You feel it, and these judgments, this noise, starts to seem more and more arbitrary.

In the past, you would paddle faster. Now, you will simply listen. You will become more and more accustomed to seizing your own moments of peace, of richness, of fear, of inspiration, of sadness, of longing. Owning your longing and sadness feels good. It feeds your soul, owning the whole kaleidoscope within you.

Maybe eventually you’ll write down your thoughts and feelings. Maybe you’ll talk about it. Maybe you’ll go on an afternoon walk alone, every single day. Maybe you will stand up and stretch your arms above your head, and then smile to yourself and put on water for tea. Maybe you’ll think about birds, how they dart around between trees and fly into windows. They’re so small and fragile and busy.

There will be pain, and calm. Everything will be slow and sad and beautiful. You will marvel over how brave you are.

This is where you begin. Lean into what you feel, without shame, without worry. Being yourself without apology depends on accepting and embracing your feelings. Freedom and following your heart depend on promising yourself that you will be good to yourself, that you will care for and love yourself no matter what, that you will stop picking up where your parents left off and treating yourself like a bad child who’s fucking up EVERYTHING. You’ll have to do this every day, in order to make it a habit. You’ll have to stop dog-paddling every single day and say, “No, I’m doing things a new way now. I’m giving myself some time to feel my way, to enjoy the moment.” That means that every single time you notice that you’re rushing, and you’re angry at yourself, you slow down and ask yourself how to do the same thing with less thought and more feeling and more deep breaths. Happiness is not getting somewhere faster. Happiness is enjoying the process. If you don’t enjoy the process, you might as well not be headed anywhere, because you won’t enjoy getting there, either.

You say you want to decide where to devote your energies. Don’t decide anything, just see where your energies lead you. You say you want to get some lost feeling back with your husband. Find your own feeling and then share a little of that with him. You say you want to be free. YOU ARE ALREADY FREE.

You’re probably going to find my answer frustratingly vague. But if you invite your feelings in and allow yourself to be hurt and needy and elated and confused without judgment, a giant rush of gratitude and sensuality and happiness will surge in you and then, slowly, the pragmatic struggles of your life will feel far less thorny and impossible. Slowly. But you have to devote yourself to this practice, which is all about believing in your independent experience and your place in this world. It’s all about replacing “Stop. Stop. Stop.” with “Welcome!”

Turn off your mind and open your eyes. Stop repeating that same old story, and look around you. You are already free. This moment, in your messy apartment, in the heat, among your half-finished paintings, in the unnerving dusk, with the accumulated disappointments of years and years and years, puddling around you? This moment is yours, and it’s pure and miraculous and sad and sweet. Swim, slowly, calmly, through this sad, sweet moment, through this sad, sweet infinity. You are already free.


Do you doggy paddle but want to learn how to do a butterfly stroke and eat fourteen thousand pancakes a day like Michael Phelps? 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 Jon Page