Ask Polly: How Do I Stop Hating Myself?

By
Photo: Andy Rouse/Corbis

Get ask polly delivered every week.

Dear Polly,

How do I forgive myself for making a mess of my life? When I was 20 years old, I was an alcoholic, a smoker, morbidly obese, directionless, socially awkward, sexually confused, and often smelled kind of bad. All through my teen years and 20s my only stabs at romance were when, in a pretty common pattern for shy awkward guys, I’d sometimes, with great effort, manage to confess my feelings for some friend or other (both guys and girls) and then be politely rejected. Eventually, I internalized the notion that no one could ever want me, and I stopped trying.

Now I’m almost 30, and I’m sober, successful, a normal weight, relatively charming, etc. It was a whole thing: a five-year program of self-improvement. Additionally, I decided to identify as bisexual. I still don’t know what that means or how accurate it is (I’ve mostly been with men because it’s easier, but I’m mostly attracted to and want to be with women), but it is what I say to people. Two years ago, I went on my first-ever date, which led to a yearlong relationship with a man I decided I didn’t want to spend my life with. And now I’m back and trying to date again.

The problem is I still feel as unlovable as I did when I was 20. You have a question on your site from a woman who’d fallen in love with a friend who used to be fat. That’s what I hoped my life would be like after I lost weight. But it hasn’t been. I’ve come to accept that maybe I’m just an unattractive guy. Even now that I’ve lost 110 pounds, I still get fewer replies to my OKCupid than most of my friends. Tinder baffles me. I click "yes" to every single woman, and I literally never match with any of them. I can’t explain it. My pictures are fine and I'm over six feet tall, so it’s either my looks or my race. I’m from a race that I think most American women might consider less than desirable. (Honesty also compels me to add that maybe this is a distorted perception caused by depressive thinking.) It's everyone's right to be attracted to who they're attracted to, but I still feel as though my feelings for the women I meet either in real life or online are never reciprocated. So many people falling into and out of relationships, but I can't get past the first date. 

All I want is to like someone who likes me back, but I feel like if anyone looks at me, they’ll see so many red flags: my sexual orientation; my lack of earnings potential (I make a living wage in a high-status creative field where most people starve); my looks; my race; my lack of sexual and romantic experience; my sobriety status. It’s just so much baggage.

I’m crying as I write this. I have so much regret. I feel like I destroyed my life when I was younger, and now it's too late. I find myself constantly oscillating between hating myself and hating the women who reject me, neither of which seems healthy. I’m not seeing a therapist but I'm on anti-depressants and I don’t think I’m in danger of killing myself, but I think about it all the time. But I've always thought about it, and I think about it less now than I used to. Maybe it's just a bad habit.

Before, I always thought, “Oh, if I change this thing about myself, then people will be more likely to love me,” but for the first time in my life, I don’t know what else I can do. People talk about self-acceptance and self-compassion, but I have no idea how to practice it. I feel so hopeless and so damaged. Do you have any advice for how I can start to accept myself?

Sincerely,

An Unchanged Person

 

Dear Unchanged,

At this particular moment in history, the online dating world is completely unhinged. I know it once worked for a lot of people, but lately I just don't know. There's a fickleness in play right now that doesn't feel sustainable. Everything seems upside down and backward. I have a hot, smart guy friend who can't get past the second date. Another friend tells me she feels like it's this nightmare cornucopia, an embarrassment of potential partners but everyone seems Not Quite Good Enough and thinks that you're Not Quite Good Enough, too. I often get letters that echo this sentiment.

I don't doubt that race plays a part for you. The founder of OKCupid, Christian Rudder, wrote a book called Dataclysm, based on his blog, that summarizes America's racist dating habits, among other things. It's also likely that identifying yourself as bisexual will scare off more than a few women. You could certainly reassess how you present yourself online, either because the way you identify is shifting or because you want to improve your rate of return. But honestly, this doesn't feel like a good moment for you to commodify yourself.

Because for someone who's depressed and struggling with self-acceptance, online dating is like a giant carnival funhouse where the floors are moving and the walls are tilting sideways and bells are ringing and horns are honking and when you look in the funhouse mirror, instead of seeing a shorter, wider version of yourself or a taller, wavier version of yourself, what you see is a MONSTER version, an exaggerated negative caricature created by your own depressed brain. You stare into that mirror, hoping the image will improve, and instead you see your worst fears about yourself, vividly realized.

You've got to back away from the funhouse and go see a therapist. Having suicidal thoughts constantly is not a small thing, even if you're used to it by now. You may never act on those thoughts, but at the very least you have this clear indication that you're still depressed. You owe it to yourself to talk to your prescribing doctor about whether your drugs are working, and you also need to find a great therapist and see that person at least once a week. I know you've done this before, but you still need it.

Becoming successful and healthy only "fixes" your outer appearance. Even if your act is bulletproof — you look good, you're charming, you appear to believe in yourself — if you don't accept and love yourself, you won't be able to keep the love you find. You'll be a clingy wreck.

You shouldn't be aiming for perfect, though. You should be aiming to love exactly who you are. You're a dented, damaged person with a big heart. You're flawed and fragile. If you try to inhabit some bulletproof success story, that's not going to feel right to you or anybody else. You have to embrace your moodiness and your sensitivity and all of your idiosyncrasies.

You'll always have echoes of self-doubt bouncing through your brain, no matter what you do. Most smart brains work that way. Some days, my brain wants to gather evidence against me. It's looking for rejection out there. Ironically, it does this by pretending to look for a little fun, a little love, a little excitement. I'm checking my email, I'm twisting around on social media, looking at photos, reading funny tweets, fucking off, and before I know it, I've got this weird uneasy feeling inside, some old echo of a feeling I had when I was 25 years old: an angry paranoid misfit feeling. "Everyone is against me. No one will ever understand me."

Remember that even reasonably happy people can turn the world into a monster funhouse mirror. You will have to learn how to identify those times when your search for a little love, a little intrigue, a little comfort may curdle into a way to beat yourself up for not being perfect. You will also have to look at yourself with clear eyes and say, "I'm an angry person sometimes." It doesn't define you. The more you realize that EVERYONE is like that, the more you can let it go and move on.

One part of self-acceptance is being vulnerable and crying and accepting that you're weak. But there's also a less dramatic, more mundane part, where you simply notice how often bad voices tell you you're unlovable and awful and you're messing up. What's interesting is that it's hard to even notice these voices until other things in your life are going well. The voices and the circumstances suddenly don't match. In my late 30s, I finally noticed that even when everything was great, I still beat myself up all the time. Even when I ran three miles and wrote a decent essay and called my mother, my bad voices said I was lazy and worthless and my writing stank. I was always making the wrong choices.

I had to talk myself out of these absurd assessments, every single day, almost every hour, for a long, long time. And instead of following their lead, getting mad at myself constantly for being a mortal person who can't bend space and time, I had to chart my own way through my day. "If I get this task done, then I get to feel proud of myself."

We tend to think about self-acceptance as this giant breakthrough, like you'll turn some corner and or have an amazing epiphany and you'll finally be capable of self-love. But most self-acceptance comes from cultivation over the course of many years. We have to slowly and somewhat tediously remind ourselves that we're doing great, even with all of our flaws, until that feeling becomes less effortful.

Happiness is 60 percent good habits, 30 percent deep understanding of yourself, and 10 percent blind faith. You have to wake up in the morning and instead of thinking, "I don't want to get out of bed. I hate my life," you think, "I'm going to get out of bed and make some tea and think some good thoughts, goddamn it." You have to get on the train and instead of thinking, "Don't touch me, you angry thoughtless sexist racist blind fucks," you think, "Look how hard we all try, to be good enough, to be loved, to feel at home." You sit down at your desk and instead of thinking, "Oh fuck, I can't do this today," you think, "I am going to try and reach for the sublime, and the spirits of the dead are going to rally to my side and help me realize my full potential. Today, I am going to shine."

The more gentle and kind you are to yourself, the more gentle and kind the world is to you. The more passionately you believe in yourself, the more passionately other people will believe in you. People say this shit all the time and it's easy to think, "Whatever, dude. HOW DO I GET THERE?" You get there by crawling. You crawl and even though you're very low and very slow, you say to yourself, "I am moving forward. I am making progress. Every day." You say, "Look how hard I try, to be good enough, to be loved, to feel at home." And even if you can't love yourself for anything else, you love yourself for that.

Polly

 

Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

All letters to askpolly@nymag.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

(Click here to subscribe to the Ask Polly RSS feed.)

Get ask polly delivered every week.