Ask Polly: How Do I Act Normal?

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Wax Taylor Swift at Madame Tussauds in London. Photo: Fred Duval/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

It seems that everyone finds me unattractive, except me. That sounds arrogant, but it's necessary for my self-esteem. I am 25 years old, have never been in a relationship, never dated, never so much as held hands with anyone. I'm living with my parents while I go to college. I like to rationalize that it's not as bad as it sounds, but I don't have any friends around to give me an honest opinion. I have plenty of class acquaintances with whom I engage in polite banter, but I haven't had a real friend since high school, and that was seven years ago. 

Ever since middle school, I've noticed that when people are up close to me and look at me, their eyes turn red and they look away. I pretend not to notice, but on the inside it does screw me up. And it is not just the vain classmates who do this. A college professor of mine did the same thing.

I have become apprehensive. I don't like seeing people looking away from me like I am some sort of freak. This has informed nearly every interaction I have with other people. I absolutely dread group projects/collaboration in class. I sit in the back of the class, I never speak to anyone until it is absolutely necessary. I never go out to any social events whatsoever. I even refrained from joining clubs and societies that could help me find a job when I graduate. I have ten pairs of jeans in the same exact style and color, but it looks like I never change my pants. I always wear the same black jacket for my top garment. In my defense, I would like to point out that I am very clean and launder my clothes. I look mean, but I am anything but. I sympathize greatly with other people who are considered weirdos in the class.

So what is actually wrong with my face? I don't mind telling or getting very technical. I just have bad skin. During high school, I had severe acne, but now it has degraded to moderate and even mild acne. My skin reacts badly when I walk outside, I am not sure why. Oil glands in my skin overproduce, my pores open up, and it does look very unsightly. It is not medically treatable, so I will probably have it for the rest of my life. I also wear these cheap glasses that irritate my skin and make the situation worse. My skin doctor gave me a special skin cleanser. After I wash my skin, for ten glorious minutes, my pores shrink and my skin returns to normal. I look in the mirror, and I genuinely think the physical features on my face are attractive. But after these ten minutes, my skin starts going back to the unsightly state.

I don't have any friends to talk to about this. I have a good relationship with my father and mother, but it is not a close relationship. Our family started out as poor immigrants; they were concerned with keeping us physically safe and well-fed. They never asked about my mental state. My father and I barely talk.

Even though I have never been in a relationship, I know it is a massive mistake to try to find your own happiness in someone else. The thing is, I already know what makes me happy in life — another academic field that is considered even more rigorous than the one I am about to graduate from. With this field, I eagerly wake up, reading self-purchased textbooks and studying online, and I feel like it gives me purpose. I count the days until I can graduate from my current college, and enroll in another master's program with the degree I want to study for.

But that means I really have nothing to offer in terms of a relationship for the next few years. I won't have any sort of respectable job. I will just look like that weirdo who stayed in college too long. It is very possible that I won't even go on a date until I am 30. On the days when I am stagnating, my mind quickly returns to thinking about my lack of friends/relationships. Should I be looking for a relationship at this point?

Thanks,

Very Weird & Very Lonely

 

Dear VW&VL,

Sometimes it feels like there are two kinds of people in the world: People who were raised by happy-go-lucky white-bread American conformist consumers, and people who were raised by aliens/wolves/freaks/survival-focused immigrants/clueless motherfuckers, etc. Yes, that second category casts a very wide net. All I'm saying is that some kids are socialized and trained to exhibit regular, everyday American conformist behavior, and other kids are left to stumble blindly through a maze of complex psychosocial, socioeconomic, and consumer challenges. Throwing these kids into high school and college with The Normals is like throwing a bunch of overfed gerbils into the Red-tailed Hawk's cage at the zoo. Even though anyone can predict what comes next — high-pitched screeches, bloody claws, fat gerbil flesh gobbled into sharp beaks — the same thing happens in terrifying Regular People microcosms all over the country, every year.

Listen to me, Weird & Lonely: There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. You sound like a reasonably optimistic, hardworking person to me. If you were raised by Taylor Swift's parents, you'd have flawless skin and you'd be smoothly chatting up the ladies without an ounce of flop sweat dripping from your regular-size pores. I'm not talking about genetics here, I'm talking about socialization, consumerism, and above all ENTITLEMENT. Why does Taylor Swift flit carelessly from one girl party to another in matching brightly hued separates, swinging her glossy hair to and fro, smacking her coral lips, dishing up her deep thoughts like the Dalai Lama of tween befuddlement? Because she was slathered in UltraNormal White-Bread Entitlement from the very first day of her life. She would no sooner tolerate an enlarged pore than she would don the same black jeans two days in a row. And even if she tried to do these things, her parents would gently guide her back toward a perky melon crop top and matching capri pants and then drive her across town to the very best dermatologist money can buy. If the dermatologist didn't solve the problem, they'd hit the internet for a solution. They'd ask their Entitled UltraNormal friends. They'd post in forums for tips. They'd cut out gluten and bathe in coconut water. They'd consider hypnosis. Entitled UltraNormals always know that there are solutions to every problem out there, it's just a matter of finding them.

I know, I know. It's kind of gross, and it sounds expensive. Aliens/wolves/freaks/dead gerbils don't believe in devoting an enormous amount of energy to these kinds of things. We believe in doing whatever, because … well, whatever! We see one "skin doctor" and do whatever he says and if it doesn't work, oh well, I guess this is how it'll be forever. We wear the same skin-irritating glasses even though we know they're irritating our skin. We put on the same outfit every day, because it's easier and simpler and who really cares? We're pragmatists. People treat us like freaks, so we stop talking to people. Just like our parents, who never tried too hard to find the right solution or win people over, who hid from the world in their own freaky ways and taught us by example to do the same things.

I am with you there. If my parents taught me one thing, it was to avoid the bandwagon at all costs. According to them, the things other people care about are usually stupid, shallow, and pricey. Do whatever you're already doing! Fuck those people! When I got fed up with my terrible tinted Barbra Streisand glasses in seventh grade and asked for contact lenses, both of my parents rolled their eyes. "Why do you want to be some kind of a glamour girl?" my dad asked me in a straight voice, his own tinted glasses apparently transforming my giant, pimply forehead and off-brand polo shirt into Cindy Crawford in Esprit separates. Throughout my youth, I was actively discouraged from giving a shit. My mother wore an oversize Army Surplus jacket every single day. When she put it on, I would sing "My mom's a refugee, baby!" to the tune of "our love's in jeopardy."

Yes, I understand about the bad skin. Hoo, doggie, do I ever! Trust me that your so-called "skin doctor" doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about. So many so-called skin doctors don't! When I was in my early 20s, I had a series of dermatologists who not only prescribed harsh medicines that exacerbated and inflamed my skin, but they also put me on oral antibiotics, which messed with my health in a myriad of ways. Like you, I felt haunted. I was always waiting for some guy's eyes to drift down to the scary, throbbing bump on my lip, now painted in White-Bread Flesh tones.

Over the years I've learned that anything that makes your skin red and flaky is bad. Many (but not all!) dermatologists are still stuck in the '90s, prescribing one of three prescription creams that overtreat the problem and overdry your skin, when something milder that you can get over the counter often works much better. If I were you, I would read some forums and see which products people rave about. Clay masks, oil-control mattifiers, pore-reducing toners, sonic brushes that kill bacteria — these might help, but you have to go with gentle products that get rave reviews, not the typical drugstore fare that clueless alien teenagers use.

See, this is what Entitled UltraNormals do. They research trivial consumer choices. They spend a lot of time doing that, and then pinning whatever they find on their stultifyingly trivial Pinterest pages. Sometimes they suck so much, but be like them anyway! Solve this problem! Don't aim for halfway okay skin, aim for great skin! Why the hell not? Eat potatoes and dry beans for a month and use the savings to buy a few products. Oh, and exercise regularly and drink a lot of water while you're at it. That alone will help a lot.

The same entitled, don't-settle attitude should be applied to improving your social skills. I'm guessing that people are maybe not as freaked out by your skin as they are by your lack of awareness of the basic flow of conversation between UltraNormals. You probably stare intently, then spew out an overly long explanation (just a guess, based on your very long letter, edited dramatically for size above). Finally, you wrap up with an impossible-to-answer question that hints at your lack of access to casual friendships. (It's not your fault! That's how smart, interesting people sound when they don't talk to other people often enough!) So then your question lingers in the air and, as the person you're speaking to grapples with some possible way to respond, they think, "This person is intense and I am finding this conversation very taxing; I need to signal that we're going to stop talking to each other soon." That thought will make the person's face look similar to the way it might look if they were thinking, "I don't like how his skin looks."

You're a sensitive guy with sensitive skin, that's all. In the short term, you have to try to dial down your sensitivity to this reaction, somehow, some way. Shake it off and sally forth! It's not personal! Quiet your mind, and remember: This person doesn't know you, can't see you. It's okay. You're just bad at this shit right now. That can change.

Here's what you need to know about UltraNormal socializing: You have to keep it brief and light and breezy at all costs. Get to the point quickly, like there's a phone ringing somewhere and you need to answer it right away. Use as few words as possible. And make a joke as you walk away. Or just start saying something like "Thanks, man! Take it easy!" before the conversation even feels over. I know it's lame, but for some reason this fast-forward flow relaxes people. They need to think you're not that invested. Eventually, if you act breezy, they will want to talk longer, because they're not constantly threatened by the notion that you'll corner them and talk forever and ever.

That's just one example of the many ways you can make it easier on yourself, socially, by studying the people around you, going online for ideas, reading a few books about socializing, and conforming a little. I'm not saying this is how you'll have to be forever! I want you to come out of this flying your freak flag as high as you like! I want you to be a weirdo if that's who you are and that's who you want to be. But for now, you need a few friends, and you're not going to get them if you don't beam yourself down to their planet and mimic their Normal ways.

Keep in mind, NORMAL is the universal language spoken by socially smooth UltraNormals and Sort-of-Normals and Abnormals alike. Sure, when you're older and you're, say, a sculptor or a writer or John Malkovich, you can be the biggest freak under the sun and people will still want to be your buddy and date you and give you big piles of money. But when you're very young and awkward, you have to learn the language of NORMAL in order to access even the Abnormals and Weirdos around you, because they're usually too insecure and/or beaten down by constant rejection to want to align with anyone who seems a little out of step. They want you to relax them with your extra-regular breezy conversational style, to prove that you know how. I can't explain it, it makes no sense, but it's true! All it will take is small adjustments.

I know there's a lot of concrete advice here, and much of it is patently trivial and absurdly shallow. I guess that makes sense, though, because people like you and me and the rest of the wolves and the aliens tend to ignore the trivial and the shallow. We refuse to let the shallow and the trivial rule us like it rules everyone else. But sometimes that hurts us. It keeps us from starting conversations or leaving the house or aiming for the kind of success that we secretly desire — but are afraid to admit, because that would sound shallow!

You should always dress and act however you choose. But you shouldn't have to walk around feeling like the way you look and seem to other people falls far short of how you see yourself. You have choices. You don't have to wear the melon-colored crop top. You don't have to — and shouldn't — expect to find great friendships and romantic love overnight. But you can take baby steps. You can apply your hardworking nature to these challenges. You can start to strike up conversations, experiment with how you talk to people a little, make a few casual friends, join some clubs. I wouldn't put it off until you're in your 30s; you'll stigmatize yourself too much if you wait until then, and that will make it a lot harder.

You can set out on a path of personal improvement, for the sake of your own comfort and happiness. There isn't NECESSARILY endless love and affection at the end of this rainbow. But it will make you feel more comfortable connecting with people, which will move you closer to finding friendships and finding love. Right now your self-consciousness is blocking you. Once we move it out of your way, everything will look a lot easier.

There is nothing wrong with you. You're a smart, hardworking, likable guy. Don't be afraid to set your sights a little higher. Everything is going to get better, and you're going to have an amazing life.

Polly 


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

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