Photo: Getty Images
I feel like I’m suspended in between the life I want and the life that I’ve been leading for far too long.
I grew up in an abusive household with an alcoholic parent where I was constantly gaslit and told that I wasn’t good enough. I was also one of very few Black children in my neighborhood, which reinforced this idea that I needed to be perfect. Maybe if I was “better,” I wouldn’t be abused anymore, and if I kept my head down and just worked hard, maybe I could finally be accepted by everyone else.
As I’m sure you can probably guess, this way of thinking only shredded my self-worth further. Any mistake I made reinforced the idea that I didn’t deserve to be happy and that there was something inherently wrong with me.
I did have some happy moments. I moved to a new city for college and really felt myself flourish. I was away from my family and I felt more independent than ever. No one knew me, so I had the freedom to become whomever I wanted. I made new friends. I finally went to therapy for the first time to talk about my childhood trauma and stopped talking to my abusive parent.
Once I graduated, I wound up moving closer to my hometown with plans to do things differently, but instead I fell into a pattern of partying and a cycle of toxic relationships. At first it felt exciting: working hard and playing harder. I was in my early 20s and everything felt possible. I figured I would settle down once I finally met a nice guy.
But as the years passed, most of my weekends were consumed with binge drinking, unfulfilling hookups, and constant drama. I’d spend the rest of the week cursing myself and vowing to finally stop, only to repeat it again come Friday night.
Then a few years ago I was the victim of a sexual assault, from which I became pregnant. I went through with having an abortion. I know that was the right decision for me at the time, but I blamed myself for it even happening in the first place. I fell apart and the drinking got worse. I was blacking out nearly every weekend.
I’m currently in therapy and a program to address my alcohol issues. I’m making more of an effort to engage in healthy hobbies when I feel I might relapse, but I struggle daily with guilt over letting things get this out of hand in the first place. I knew that I was heading down a self-destructive path and I kept doing it anyway. I grew up a hurt person and I wound up becoming someone who hurts myself and others.
I’m building some new friendships that aren’t centered around unhealthy habits and I’m finally dating a wonderful and kind man, but on some level I still feel like I don’t deserve to enjoy it because I’ve made so many mistakes and wasted so much time.
How do I release my shame? How do I learn to accept all of the parts of myself so I can finally move on and do better in the future?
Trying to Change
The heart of your problem is here: “I still feel like I don’t deserve to enjoy it.”
Your message to yourself that your mistakes are unforgivable is in perfect alignment with the message you repeatedly received as a child that you’d never be good enough and you needed to work harder in order to be “better.” That message is reinforced by our culture’s fixation on tireless self-improvement as a path to the wealth and ego rewards we all so richly deserve. “Working hard and playing harder” is a piece of that puzzle, a shortcut to feeling like someone shiny and important, someone who never stops, always works incredibly hard, always impresses and attracts everyone around her.
The missing piece is feeling — feeling good, feeling like you deserve it, feeling your connection to the people you work with and drink with and have sex with. When you can’t feel anything and you’re convinced that you don’t deserve to feel things — that you don’t deserve anything, in fact — that reinforces escapist tendencies. Only booze (and drunk people who act impressed and attracted while you’re all drunk) can make you feel anything at all.
And when you manage to feel things when you’re sober? It’s excruciating. Because that’s when all of the shame rushes in. A voice in your head tells you that all of the things you do — good and bad — are part of the same toxic puzzle. That toxic puzzle repeats your origin story: that you are nothing and don’t deserve things. You don’t feel joy because you’re too broken and you’re not working hard enough at it. Once you get something that should make you happy, it doesn’t work, another reflection of how messed up you are. And when you do feel some pleasure or excitement or happiness, it ushers in a rush of guilt and shame because you’re sure that all rewards are undeserved and can only be linked to some toxic part of you.
I see this flavor of self-abnegation and self-loathing everywhere these days. So many people today have trouble distinguishing between what they do and don’t deserve. They blame themselves for the apocalypse every single morning, but they don’t look closely at their avoidance or drinking or egocentric fixations because those things provide the only relief from the apocalypse (which, remember, is also their fault!). This is why every desire is smothered under a blanket of guilt and despair. This is why every accomplishment incites dread, numbness, bewilderment, and insecurity instead of joy. Even real love and solid friendships can incite self-consciousness, shame, and self-hatred, because love asks, “Who the hell are you, to deserve this?” and says “You’ll probably screw this up, too.” And says “Maybe he needs you too much, which will make him less attractive to you because you’re an asshole at heart, and then you’ll go out drinking and hook up with someone else and screw up your life all over again.”
Wow, what a ride! A cool rush of clarity! But while we’re here, let me be very clear with you: It took me years to understand how much self-hatred and guilt was driving everything I did and preventing me from feeling connected to the people in my life. I was a happy, needy show-off kid and then a confused teenager and then a sad, messy drunk 20-something and then a wobbly, uncertain 30-something and then a successful but insecure 40-something. TALK ABOUT YOUR SLOW LEARNERS.
But look, even when I was a happy, needy show-off kid, I was good and worthy (if a little obnoxious). Even when I was a confused teenager, I had a good heart (underneath my fear and masterful defense mechanisms). Even when I was a sad, messy drunk, I had close friendships sometimes and I fell in love and I wrote some interesting essays and cartoons. Even when I was a wobbly, uncertain 30-something, I met a really great man and we made two very lovable small people who are now much larger. I’ve messed everything up repeatedly and I’ll continue to make mistakes, big and small. But I’m okay. I’m just a regular person who’s told herself she was secretly a piece of shit and kept telling herself that, quietly, over and over, for decades. A lot of my biggest mistakes grew out of that shame.
This year I’ve been struggling to recalibrate and recognize that I can love my friends and connect with my kids and create new, weird things and show off and ALSO be a humble, broken person out in the open. I can make grandiose sounds and I can also signal shift and admit when I feel outmatched. It’s a balance. I don’t have to disown everything I did the day before just because my moods and perspectives shift rapidly. For you, more balance is needed when you lump everything in your past together into a toxic heap, paint yourself as a monster, and tell the story that this toxic monster doesn’t deserve love. That’s a story that probably also makes you tell bad, monstrous stories about other people. All lack of compassion for the self generates mercilessness toward others.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s immoral to be grouchy occasionally, or that ego rewards are pure evil, or that your desires will necessarily lead you to destroy other people’s lives. That’s the piece of common wisdom on recovery and addiction that I struggle with. You can feel your connection to this world and humble yourself beyond measure and still have some shallow fun or indulge your vanity occasionally. You can value connection and also enjoy whatever frivolous distraction cheers you up, as long as it’s not numbing you or giving you some ego fix that ultimately feels depleting or alienating.
We weren’t designed to live like self-hating monks, that’s all. You’d think we were, the way people structure their lives, expecting success alone to make them happy, or expecting having kids to fulfill them, or expecting money to expunge all of their shame and self-hatred. We refuse to forgive ourselves or each other for being fallible human animals. We put each other in tiny boxes and struggle inside the boxes we made for ourselves and wonder why we feel so alone.
You’ve ingested the fumes of your own shame and insecurity for a long time. But please, when you’re tempted to blame yourself for “wasting so much time,” think of me and my good friend who were talking on the phone yesterday about how hard it still is for both of us to feel our feelings. We both had extremely unpredictable childhoods. Our emotional needs weren’t just unwelcome, they were demeaned. That’s a common experience, sadly. And if you shock a rat enough times for reaching for food, it’ll stop eating.
It’s sad, isn’t it? I feel sad writing that. My friend and I, who’ve been at each other’s throats for years simply because our damage matched so perfectly, cried together on the phone over it yesterday. It felt great. It felt like the purest promise that we wouldn’t go back to blaming each other for what was going on inside each of us, ever again.
And when she got off the phone with a plan to work harder, exercise more, stay off social media, and keep a clear head, I told her, “But don’t forget to slow down and feel everything and welcome in every humbling experience.”
People like us forget to pay attention and feel. We’re afraid of getting shocked again. We’re afraid of the high stakes of human connection. We’d prefer to write people off or get over them or keep them at arm’s length. The grounding we need comes from feeling. Feelings humble you. Feelings make you aware that you are not a successful supernatural demigod or an unforgivable worm. Feelings remind you of who you could hurt if you’re not attuned to your power. Feelings make it possible to recognize that you are powerful — something no one who had overbearing or abusive parents wants to be, because power means you’re bad. But you can enjoy your power as long as you also take a little responsibility for it. For example: You matter to your boyfriend. It’s hard to feel that, right? He says it, but it’s hard to feel it. Because if you matter to him, that means you have to make sure not to hurt him, and you have to make sure nothing bad ever happens to him. Notice that some of these things are within your control, others are completely out of your control, but your mind tells you that they’re ALL your responsibility.
In order to let go of control and get off the hamster wheel of self-improvement and careerism, you have to feel more and see more, without shame. You have to want more and enjoy more, while taking responsibility for your effect on others. You have to grow and open your mind and heart, while also allowing this day to be exactly what it wants to be, and allowing the people around you to take up space and make noises and be their flawed, fascinating selves.
It will be hard for you. It won’t just get easy and stay easy. Please don’t take that as a threat. It will seem easy and then it will get harder. Trust me, I know. But if you can FEEL — humbly, vulnerably feel your way forward, as much as possible — while also forgiving yourself and letting go of the idea that you need to BE BETTER? You won’t spend another decade blaming yourself for everything bad in the world. You’ll learn how to embrace each unsteady day and do your best with whatever obstacles and bewilderments it brings.
Forgive yourself in advance for the time it will take to feel really good. It will take time! It’s not wasted time. Nothing is wasted. Your bad days are as important as your good days. They’re bringing you important feedback on what you need to survive and connect. Your mistakes are as important as your victories. Everything you’ve done in your life so far is a piece of who you are, a good-hearted girl who worked really hard to be loved and wasn’t loved nearly enough.
Don’t forget that girl. Give her love every day. She deserves your compassion. She likes what you’re doing right now and where you are, and she wants you to stay right here and enjoy it. She wants you to feel everything.
Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here.
All letters to [email protected] become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.