Ask Polly: Am I a Boring, Empty, Soulless Fake?

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Photo: Dave Fleetham/Getty Images

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Hi Polly.

I'm afraid I don't have a soul. Which is hyperbolic talk for: I'm afraid there's nothing interesting or authentic about me. 

I can't tell if I'm right about things. If I think Something A is stupid, but someone points out how not-stupid Something A is, I almost always change my mind. It's really frightening how quickly I'll change my mind. I can be talked into almost anything. To the point where I worry people around me think I'm full of shit. (This is, by the way, concerning matters of taste, art, editorial vision, most other subjective areas of life — with regard to politics and civil rights, I'm unshakable, that much I know.)

But I'm so impressionable that I don't trust myself. I don't trust that any of my ideas are good. I don't know if anything I'm doing is actually smart or if it's just mimicking smartness as I've seen it affirmed as smart elsewhere. So then it's like I'm doing this third-tier smart thing. False smart. Or: not smart.

It has so much to do with authority for me. If I'm working with or talking to someone who I know is brilliant and great at his/her job, I'm like a weird, needy freak-person. I look up to him/her for everything. Desperate for approval. Desperate, basically, to just BE that person. Think as sharply, have ideas as good, be as kind or open as he or she is. I have an idolatry problem, is what I mean. A big one. And I feel paralyzed by it.

I tell myself: Just be yourself. But then I remember that my "true" self is everything I hate: sub-intellectual, petty, mediocre, nervous, unsure. I want to be well-rounded, adventurous, and savvy. But in reality I'm scared, insecure, and clumsy. I'm so fucking desperate to be confident. 

Every day I feel embarrassed about who I am. Every day I doubt my own perception of reality. How do I learn to just like myself? How do I know what's a good idea and what's not? How do I teach myself not to panic whenever a look of disapproval registers on the face of the person I'm talking to? 

How do I know what parts of myself to believe, and what parts to shoo away? How can I be my authentic self when I don't trust or even like that self? 

I'm 32 years old. I should know myself by now. But I feel like every day I know myself a little less: I know who I want to be, but I don't know who I am. And I'm existing in this shitty purgatory of knowing how not-good I am, how untalented I am, and I wish I could either get past it or accept it.

No pressure to answer this novel of a problem. You're the best. Thank you for everything.

Maybe I Have No Soul
 

Dear MIHNS,

You do have a soul. You can be uninteresting and inauthentic and still have a soul.

Personally, I think your concerns about interestingness and authenticity are pretty interesting. But let's just imagine, for the sake of argument, that you have ZERO original ideas, that you are a fake and nothing more, a mirror image of everyone around you. Let's imagine that you are empty. All of your ideas are imitations. You've got nothing.

Imagine yourself, nodding along with others. "This seems convincing, I agree!" you say. Imagine yourself tossing and turning at night, second-guessing this opinion. "Did I really agree or did I just nod along?" Imagine yourself crying, lonely, certain that you will never be loved for anything, because you are a human cipher.

Now try to conjure some empathy for yourself. Love that empty person, who has nothing, who worries that her lack of opinions means that she has no soul. Why does she believe that she's so close to becoming invisible? Why would she think that she needs to entertain, she needs to produce proof, she needs to SEEM unique and vivacious, just to have a soul? Give that sad girl permission to be a blank page, and love her anyway.

LOVE. HER. ANYWAY. That's your exercise, every day for the rest of your life. Because even though you will feel like you're smart and original and have opinions eventually — trust me, you will! — you are someone who will always have to dial back to zero and say to yourself, "I am good enough already." That's your particular cross to bear, as a very sensitive person who questions herself tirelessly. You need that reminder, regularly: "I can be suggestible and uncertain and mediocre and I will still be good enough. I can be a blank slate and I will still deserve love."

Now look at all of the human ciphers around you. Don't they deserve love, too? Look at Katy Perry, for example. (Okay, sorry, I couldn't resist.) Part of your self-hatred (AND MINE, OBVIOUSLY) is linked to a compulsion to be better than these people, to prove that you're not one of them. BE one of them, and love yourself and love them, too. Even as the world feels unfair contempt for all of the mirrors in our hall-of-mirrors culture, replace that contempt with compassion. It is understandable to become a mirror. Let yourself off the hook. Join the human race and you will be lifted up. Let go of everything, all of that exhausting work you do to stand out. Be an empty vessel and fill yourself with love instead.

Now let's talk about privileging other people with qualities that you imagine you don't possess. You say at the end of your letter, "You're the best." But I am not remotely the best. Growing up, my siblings had much more focus and attention to detail than I had. My older brother confidently conquered everything he set his sights on — bass guitar, calculus, art, music theory. My older sister's nickname was literally "The Best." She was the valedictorian of her high-school class, rowed crew for an elite college, then graduated and ran 3.5-hour marathons while training to become a cancer surgeon.

In contrast, I am highly unprofessional and disorganized, and it takes me a while to formulate my thoughts. When presented with a good, honest question (like yours!), my mind fires in a million different directions at once and I can't decide which path to take: how we define intelligence (and how patently stupid most of our ideas about intelligence are); how certain kinds of people are encouraged to bloviate while others are encouraged to keep quiet; how we encounter our most original ideas as aberrations; or how we shove our brilliance under the bed as a means of making more room for other people's mediocrity. The bottom line is: There are lots of smart people out there calling themselves idiots, and a lot of idiots proclaiming themselves geniuses.

If you were to scour the biographies of successful, confident people, it's not usually the geniuses or the specialists with encyclopedic knowledge of a subject who make the biggest splash; it's the ones who trust their obsessions, work with them, and then integrate them into sweeping visions of how to improve the world (or you know, how to sell more soda). A lot of times, these people have put themselves through the ringer already, so they're fully aware of what they lack. They've come to grips with the fact that they're not brilliant or even all that original. But they do have passions that they dare to believe in. Steve Jobs just loooved fonts. This is the stuff of legend now, because he shamelessly took all of his bizarre quirks and ran with them. That takes a little brains and some tenacity, sure, but mostly it takes arrogance and BLIND FAITH.

This speech makes me feel like the Great and Powerful Oz, handing out trinkets as consolation prizes, but hear me out: It's time for a leap of faith. You are smart. The way you interrogate your own intelligence indicates that you're at least as smart as the people you idolize. Women aren't taught to champion their oddities or to believe in their quirks or to speak extemporaneously. In fact, we're taught just the opposite; we're taught to shut up and listen instead. Recognize that your moments of "Oh shit, what do I think? I can't decide!" mostly spring from insecurity and bad habits of thought, which were probably formed by whatever hostile habitats you've navigated thus far.

Be honest with yourself. Your letter indicates that you're already halfway there. Even so, you have to be careful with the contexts in which you strive for honesty. You can say, "Wow, I'm learning a lot from this conversation." But you shouldn't say, over and over again, "Oh Jesus, you know so much and I know so little!" I have a feeling that you tend to follow your own fearful thoughts in neurotic loops, voicing your worries about your intelligence often. It can be soothing to talk to a trusted friend this way, but it doesn't serve you in other contexts. Don’t walk around teaching other people that they shouldn't take you seriously. Don't remind yourself constantly, with your own wavering questions, that you're unsure. Just be honest enough to break through the noise and access your strengths and pockets of insight.

I know that sounds obvious, but women tend to drive their emotional ships onto the rocks over and over again in ways that don't serve them. Personally, I've fallen into a habit of getting really granular and weird at the end of long conversations. If I admire the person I'm talking to, I perversely start to look for an emotional thread capable of unraveling my whole damn sweater. I am compelled to bare my true self, to take off my space suit, even if it means freezing to death and then drifting away with the trash.

Learn to hit the STOP button. You don't have to explain everything you're thinking. You can grow silent. You can bite your tongue.

You also shouldn't ask colleagues for help and guidance constantly, as if you can't decide for yourself what works and what doesn't. You CAN decide for yourself. You have to force yourself to decide, that's all. Dare to be the decider.

Most of all, remember that messy and self-doubting does not equal stupid. Quite the opposite! My guess is that you're a very sensitive person who has allowed herself to grow more and more invisible by privileging the ideas and opinions of others over her own. Some part of you doesn't want to be seen. You feel self-conscious when the focus is on you, or you feel undeserving. How can you shine when you feel guilty and unworthy of the slightest glimmer of spotlight? This is also just a habit. It has nothing at all to do with the intelligence hiding deep inside of you. You know that on some level, don’t you?

So you need to reshuffle your ideas of the world. Let's start here: We are all sub-intellectual, petty, mediocre, nervous, unsure. This is not a terrible revelation that's personal to you and you alone. It's a description of human nature. We are jittery animals who doubt ourselves. The brazen, confident animals among us got eaten by lions centuries ago. The neurotics survived.

But forget nature for a second. Let's end with a story about nurture, about how landing in the wrong habitat can snuff out your ability to strut and be brazen: When I was a college student, every week I tutored a young, black high-school student on SAT math. She was struggling with fractions. In our first session together, we talked about pizza for about ten minutes, and almost immediately she understood how fractions worked for the first time. She could apply this knowledge immediately, in fact, using equations. So I told her she was a fast learner and she was very smart. When she heard this, she started to cry.

From that point forward our sessions together were therapy sessions, in which she painted a horrifying picture of a life in which every single day she was told she was stupid. Her teacher regularly called her stupid IN FRONT OF HER ENTIRE CLASS. Her teacher passed out tests in order of highest to lowest scores, and this girl had to walk up and get her test last Every. Single. Time. Meanwhile, though, she told me these stories in rambling, gorgeous detail. She was intelligent and funny and charming. "Your teacher is the stupid one," I told her. "And look, you're probably smarter than her. Maybe all of her students are smarter than her and she knows it. Maybe that's why she has to be such a bitch about everything." This was not the most generous interpretation, but it made us both feel better.

I wish I could say that the smug white college student changed that little black girl's life forever (yes, I know, THIS STORY IS FUCKED UP, I agree, and it gets worse). Instead, I went to a meeting where all the SAT tutors sat in a room and talked about how dumb their students were. "They don't even know third-grade math!" the smug motherfuckers gushed at each other. And I was such a chickenshit that I didn't even speak up and say, "At least they have systemic racism and shitty schools to blame. What's your excuse for being so ignorant?" Instead, I ran off and did bong hits and bitched about systemic racism and lily-white rich kids with no clue to my clueless, lily-white stoner friends. I never volunteered as a tutor again.

God, there are a lot of sad lessons in this column. Think about the oceans of bullshit that girl had to swim through, just to feel like a human being with a brain in her head. Do you see how circumstantial it can be, to recognize your worth and your originality and the inherent twisted beauty of your own mind?

And what if that smart girl I tutored wasn't smart at all? It doesn't change a goddamn thing. She showed up and opened her heart and told me how life had beaten her down into the dirt. And she thanked me so many times, for calling her smart and for listening to her. As if that was so hard or so heroic of me! She was the hero. She gave me a gift, and I slunk away and got high and forgot about it. She opened her heart in a way I couldn't. What a rotten fucking world, that she had to go back to her terrible teacher anyway. What a rotten world, that I could frivolously quit the group and let the world go fuck itself, without a second thought.

I was so much less than her. I never thanked anyone and meant it back then. I rarely showed genuine gratitude toward anyone who helped me, unless I thought that gesture would help me more. And I was far less than you, too. You walk around giving people credit for being brilliant? I never gave anyone credit for anything. I was so blind.

You're not blind. Like the girl in my story, you have a generous heart that's worthy of love. Ask yourself: What is important? Is cleverness so impressive, when compared to an open heart? You don't have to prove anything to anyone to deserve love. You have a soul. Your soul and your mind are wide open, inviting the world in. That is both interesting and authentic. Love yourself for that. Feel grateful, too. Not all of us are brave enough to let other people have what they have, to let other people be brilliant.

You are kind and smart already. You are enough already. Stop telling this story about how empty you are, surrounded by these bright lights. You are the bright light. Opinions are little bits of pollen, floating on the wind. Pick one of many, or don't. You are not empty. You are full and luminous. Can you feel it? You are enough.

Polly

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