Ask Polly: How Do I Express My Feelings Like a Human?

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Photo: Ian mcallister

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Dear Polly,

I’ve never been good at expressing negative feelings. I take after my parents in my perfectionist tendencies, and often try to be distant and stoical, thinking that this will somehow make me stronger, or at least appear so.

My inability to express anger or sadness has never been much of a source of anguish for me until now. I have gotten into the habit of thinking, rather than feeling or doing. When I feel anything, my first instinct is to think about it and analyze it instead of expressing it. I prioritize what I think I “should” feel over what I actually do feel.

This way of thinking has become so cemented in my brain, and now I feel angry all the time and don’t know what to do. I’ve perfected a cycle that goes a bit like this:

 get angry at something/someone

 hate that something/someone

 get angry at self for being upset over something stupid and petty

 hate self for being stupid and petty

 repeat

I feel like I’m seething almost all of the time, and am always on edge. I’m withdrawing from the people I’m closest to. But no matter how miserable I feel, I am always good at smiling and making small talk. The whole “fake it till you make it” thing seems to have backfired. Being fake and acting happy are the only things I know how to do. I don’t know how to be honest when someone asks me how I am, I’m too petrified of exposing any weakness, and of not being good enough. The only person I would admit any of this to is my partner, but even then, I just offer the tip of the iceberg. I talk myself out of sharing more. They have been very supportive and patient, but sometimes I still want to scream: Why the fuck are you still nice to me?! I am awful to you! But they are always kind, and very understanding. Sometimes I almost wish they would snap, so I would have an excuse to raise my voice and yell at someone.

I’ve long struggled with anxiety, and reached a peak in confidence when I turned 20, and felt like for the first time in my life I understood what people meant by “self-respect.” But now I’ve led myself into this loop and can’t get out. I once prided myself on being a rational person, but that has turned me into a hyperanalytical, unfeeling, plastic freak. I feel the worst I have ever felt.

I am afraid of being vulnerable, of being flawed, and of being human. But I can’t deal with this constant fear and constant hate anymore. So, Polly, how do I learn to feel, and to express my emotions like a normal human being?

Faker

Dear Faker,

You’re not only pathologizing sadness and anger by referring to these emotions as “negative,” but also pathologizing traits and behaviors in yourself that are incredibly common. Most people are brutish and fearful and awkward in the face of raw emotion. People are clumsy bears with big, stupid bear paws who run from their own shadows! They try to look fierce and tough, but they’re really soft, scared little bunny rabbits deep down inside. It’s hilarious and it’s sad and it’s frustrating and sometimes it’s just a fucking bore.

When I read letters from slightly younger readers like you, who stigmatize themselves for having regular human emotions they don’t deal with perfectly and efficiently, I want to say to them: The only difference between you and so-called “healthy” human beings is that the so-called healthy people don’t chide themselves for feeling sad or angry. They still might not express their sadness or anger all that well, or they might put off confronting the source of their sadness or anger, or both. They still might feel disappointed in themselves for being petty and furious and weak and moody and weird about so many goddamn things. But “healthy”-ish people don’t hate themselves for these things. They have either been around long enough to know that EVERYONE is petty and furious and weak now and then, or they were raised by people who modeled self-acceptance and the gentle, careful expression of raw emotions (though parents like this are pretty rare, let’s face it).

Contrary to popular belief — and this is a psychobabble-fueled belief that really pervades our thinking, and rains down misery on all of us — “healthy” people are not people who are less angry or neurotic or weepy than other people. Healthy people are simply people who know that most people are at least a little angry and neurotic and weepy. Healthy people don’t eat themselves alive around the clock, because healthy people can (sometimes, not always!) show their vulnerabilities, because healthy people are aware (sometimes, not always!) that it’s not a big deal to be vulnerable. It’s not a big deal to cry and show your true feelings and express self-doubt.

And healthy people recognize that when someone makes them feel shitty for expressing their feelings or being vulnerable to admitting that they care, when someone acts like it’s weak to show weakness, that person is the weakest motherfucker of them all.

But that doesn’t mean that being fake and acting happy is a horrible sin! Cut yourself some slack! Being fake and acting happy are the only things that MOST people know how to do! Being perceived as “professional,” winning friends and influencing people: These things depend on extreme fakeness. And even though that’s fucked up and stupid at some core level, even though I empathize with people who say things like, “Holy god, most people are so fake!” and applaud people who declare, “When I’m in a bad mood, you’re going to know about it!” — the fact of the matter is that most of us were raised to smile through our goddamn tears. Turning off the fake is NOT just like flipping a switch. You can show up, be present, listen to other people, live in the moment, feel your feelings, and still, when someone asks, “How are you?” in passing, answer with a “GREAT!” instead of a “PRETTY MEH TO BE HONEST!” Because unless you’re sitting in a comfy chair sipping a whiskey with one of your closest, most trusted friends, that’s the “right” answer. Most humans are not looking for a detailed weather report, they’re looking for a standard reply. This is how people talk to each other most of the time.

And if you’re still in “Great! Fine! Excellent!” mode when you ARE sitting in a comfy chair with your friend? Cut yourself some fucking slack for that, too. Most modern humans struggle with intimacy. Most people have trouble relaxing and telling the truth about how they really feel.

Of course I want you to try to feel your feelings, and become more authentic and more vulnerable. But let’s not start off down that road with the assumption that you are DEEPLY FUCKED the way you are now. The idea that you need to be authentic across the board, and accurately reflect your true emotional state in all settings, is horse shit. I had a friend say to me recently, “You’re sort of fake sometimes. You act like you’re doing fine sometimes, but I can tell you’re really grumpy.” To which I say: Yes. I’m not always capable of being 100 percent authentic. I spent well over a decade trying to play the cool girl, as if nothing ever got under my skin. That’s part of who I am now, like it or not.

So sometimes I’m capable of accessing my emotions and expressing them honestly, and sometimes I’m not. Chances are, if I seem a little grumpy, that means I’m in a reasonably good space and I’m annoyed by something temporary, so I’m not afraid to show it. But if I’m acting like I’m trying very hard to make the right sounds and to form my face into the proper pleasant expressions? That usually means that I’m WAY the fuck under water, and I’m using every last ounce of my strength to avoid knocking someone’s teeth out with my bare fists.

Why do I have days when I can barely stand to face the world, when my fake smile looks more like a pained grimace? I don’t fucking know. I am on a crazy hormonal roller coaster sometimes. But could I write 3,000 words in one sitting if I weren’t a little intense and a little volatile? Maybe not. Could I run my dogs four miles and pull weeds out of my garden and make homemade pierogi (I did this today!) and make a fort out of couch cushions with my kids (I did this, too!) and write two cartoons and do 20 push-ups if I weren’t a little bit angry and laser-focused and weird and intense? I don’t fucking think so. Sometimes I’m feeling way too much, and sometimes I’m a robot lady, getting shit done. Some days I’m effusive, other days I’m withdrawn, and other days I’m fake as hell because I’m IN HELL. So if you want to tell me to fix this, to be less fake, to be authentic all the fucking time, around the clock? SORRY, BUT I CAN’T DO THAT FOR YOU.

You know what’s nice, though? Saying that out loud instead of apologizing for myself for the millionth time. Saying, “Well, I’m doing the best I can. I’m a moody person. If I seemed authentic all the fucking time, you know what that would mean? THAT I WAS ACTING.” Sometimes the least fake thing in the world is actually the most fake thing in the world.

All human beings are complicated, every last one, and we cannot possibly be perfect. We cannot be sanded and smoothed and molded into the right one-size-fits-all shape for every other human’s appreciative consumption. We cannot sound right all the time and look right all the time. We get angry, we get sad, we look shitty, and we sound fake sometimes. That’s not just okay, it’s HOW IT SHOULD BE.

Faker, I’m going to bet that you’re a very capable, strong, productive person who powers down her emotions to get shit done. That’s okay. And even once you feel your feelings — and I do want you to do that! — you will still feel or appear stoical and distant at times.

Self-help culture (which is such a huge part of mainstream culture now, which makes for a pretty entertaining War of the Worlds) sometimes gives us the impression that we can evolve completely, that we can say good-bye to all traces of OLD ME and become NEW, IMPROVED, AUTHENTIC, PRESENT, PERFECT ME instead. But you know what? Fuck that. Part of you will always be tough and withdrawn. In many situations, you will think before you feel. You will have trouble knowing what you really feel. You will do what you think you “should” do. These things get pretty ingrained and they aren’t that easy to shut off.

All of this reminds me of those Yelp reviews of surgeons that say, “He saved my life, sure, but his bedside manner was fucking terrible!” Yeah, so here’s the thing: The guy you want slicing you open may not be the ideal guy to hold your hand afterwards. Because the people who CAN hold your hand afterwards might just faint or throw up or weep into their hands in the middle of cutting you open. Let’s stop expecting perfection of everyone else AND ourselves.

Do you see how, in your attempts to “fix” what’s “messed up” about you and become “more human,” you’re applying the same perfectionism that got you here in the first place? Your thinking is still polarized. Before, if you felt things, you were bad, imperfect, weak, wrong. Now, if you DON’T feel things, you are less than human.

No. You are 100 percent grade-A human exactly the way you are right now. Buffeting between thoughts and feelings, becoming confused, feeling angry, running away like a clumsy bear, weeping into your hands, brushing yourself off and saying, “I’ll never weep into my hands again!” and blaming other people for their emotions, getting defensive, saying GREAT FINE EXCELLENT! to anyone who asks how you are, being a masterful fake, getting shit done, breaking down and crying all over again? THIS IS WHAT HUMANS DO.

I know I’m really pushing the self-acceptance thing here, but for you, it’s the starting point; trust me on that. You are in a moment of blisteringly bright self-awareness and self-discovery, and this light will be snuffed out if you keep expecting perfection from yourself. Everyone alive is cobbled together and imperfect, just like you! You have to accept that you’re trying, but most of the time you only know how to be fake and act happy. It’s okay! Sometimes you will try to feel things, and then other times you’ll revert to a robot-lady state, and that’s okay! In fact, as you get older, you’ll have to accept your failings and shortcomings over and over again. Every time you feel a feeling that you don’t like, a feeling like anger or sadness that carries with it a message like “You are such an asshole!” or “You are so fucking weak!” you’ll have to forgive yourself all over again.

But we can no more control what we feel than we can mold our own dreams at night.

Last night, I had a sex dream about Top Chef host Tom Colicchio. I have had very few waking thoughts about this man. He did get tears in his eyes on last week’s episode of Top Chef, though, which was weird because he’s usually pretty distant and stoical. I said to my husband, “Whoa, Colicchio’s going through some kind of midlife crisis.” But maybe I’m the one having a midlife crisis! My point is, I CANNOT CONTROL THIS. There is some kind of demon spirit inside me that thinks Colicchio is hot. And sure enough, I’m looking at his photo online right now, and he doesn’t look like that arrogant dude who bitches “This lamb is overcooked!” or “This dish could use some more acidity!” I’m looking at his smug face right now and I’m thinking, YOU SEXY BEAST, YOU.

You are not a faker, Faker. You are just a human being. That’s all. My fake is just as fake as your fake. This is the beginning of something amazing. Give your letter to a friend. Show someone exactly what you’re struggling with right now. Feel the tears and the shame well up and take over everything. That’s the shame that comes from being human. That’s the sadness that comes from showing your whole, weak, limited self, and knowing that you are loved, in spite of it all — or even because of it all.

And when someone judges you for these emotions, because they don’t understand the gift of letting go, of feeling things, of being human, try not to get angry at them. Try to feel sympathy for the clumsy bears, and then leave them behind. There is plenty of love out there for you, and you won’t have to tame any bears to get it.

You cannot control this. You cannot do this the “right” way. Things will get messy. You will feel embarrassed, mortified, torn to pieces, and also, inspired and hopeful. Be like Tom Colicchio. Cry into your fucking hands like a stoical, arrogant chef in the middle of a midlife crisis. You are a sexy beast, and this is what life is all about.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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