Ask Polly: How Do I Start Believing in My Worth?

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Photo: Razvan Ciuca

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Dear Polly,

I’ve followed your writing for years, and I am interested in knowing how you went from a (self-described) lame, narcissistic asshole to the emotional guardian of radishes and sharp knives everywhere. Maybe I didn’t read Disaster Preparedness closely enough, but I’d like some details: What was the moment when you realized you were worth more than you were allowing yourself to believe? Was it a moment? Or was it a gradual swelling? What actions did you take that helped you grow into this sense of worth?

I’m asking because I can feel in my heart a stirring of this worth, and I see it eking out in bits of my life, but I also see I have so much further to go. (I am 25. I have so much further to go.) I’m not sure what to do with this feeling except to keep feeling it, to keep writing, to keep being my fullest self. But it’s all so vague and squishy.

So this is why I’m asking you: Can you share some details of the months and years after you decided to live at peak radish? (And no, I’m not trying to copy your peak-radish actions. Just trying to normalize my own.)

Sincerely,

On My Way, I Think

Dear On My Way, I Think,

I know what you mean by vague and squishy, and I can definitely relate to that feeling. But it sounds like you might be looking for a kind of road map that will move you from squishy to peak radish — “peak radish” here serving as shorthand for living out loud, giving zero fucks, taking no prisoners, showing yourself to the world without fear, believing in yourself, being in the zone at last, and a million other triumphant things we associate with confidence and freedom and personal flair.

You want to know how it started, what steps I took, and also how it felt, and how long it took, to start to move away from the squish, and to move toward peak radish. These are good questions, but today, if I tried to answer them, I’d just be pulling a story out of thin air and making meaning around it. (Not like I don’t do that some of the time!) And when I imagine saying to you, “Let me tell you a tale now, child, about How the Great Polly Reached Peak Radish!” I feel tired and bored with myself. But I’m drawn to your question (somewhat paradoxically!) because I’m feeling squishier than usual today, and because I definitely do not want to be one more human being on the planet who serves up a lot of self-mythologizing and own-horn-tooting as a way to feel more important, as a way to have a voice, as a way to slowly and surely become a consistent and sustainable and lucrative brand.

Because if I start telling grandiose tales about my rise to greatness using my amazing, easily distilled, extra-simple advice – if I start acting like a brand, in other words – not only can’t I allow space for the very messy parts of me that make it possible to do what I do, but also, I’ll be feeding into THE EXACT MYTH THAT SQUATS ON US ALL, AT ALL TIMES. And that’s the myth that some people own some kind of fucking magic and therefore everything they do is magical, and some people don’t.

So here’s the main thing I want to say to you: There is no peak. You are where I am. We both have magic, but we both have to dig for it. Or we have to give up and admit that we are hopeless, until we feel capable of sifting through that hopeless void for some small answer. Or we have to crawl for a long time, until we’re exhausted. It takes a lot of fucking work to find the magic, but all of us, any of us, can find it.

It takes work. But that doesn’t mean that it takes a steady path of self-improvement, a process by which you become better and smoother and more confident and more consistent. That’s what most successful people imply when they share their creation myth with you. They imply that you will slowly make yourself “good enough” and then you’ll be out there, getting in people’s faces with your “good enough” self, and people will buy into your shit, and then YOU’VE GOT IT, YOU’RE IMPORTANT, YOU’RE EVERYTHING! WELCOME TO PARADISE, BULLETPROOF BRAND!

I’m not saying that you personally believe this, mind you. I’m saying that we are all susceptible to this narrative, which to me is pure fucking poison. It’s not that we don’t have to work super fucking hard on ourselves, trying to do better, trying to serve the people around us, trying to give back, trying to face our own abysses and find the magic somewhere along the way.

But I don’t like the idea that I hold the answers because I’m successful and I’m older and I feel pretty happy overall, and you aren’t even close right now because you’re young and you’re just starting out and you sometimes struggle to be happy. Because what we’re really talking about is worth, and faith, and maybe being in the zone with our writing and believing in who we are. And those things are DAILY STRUGGLES for every writer and artist and human being alive. The magic that springs from those struggles is not qualitatively different from person to person. Beyoncé doesn’t tap into a higher quality of magic than you do. (Even though you’d be forgiven for getting that impression!)

The only magic I know comes from noticing where I am, whether I’m inspired and happy or dejected and ashamed of myself. If I find the magic more easily than I have before, that’s only because I am less afraid than ever of where I am and what I’m made of. It’s not that I’m better than ever, or that I’m no longer dejected or ashamed of myself. It’s that I’m less AFRAID of facing JUST HOW dejected and ashamed of myself I am. I can ONLY find the magic when I am less afraid of what’s there. Sometimes I do (admittedly) say to myself, “I AM GREAT, TIME FOR GREATNESS!” But other times when I say, “GREATNESS STARTS NOW, GO!” what’s there is self-doubt. So I have to start where I am. When all I have to work with is self-doubt, then that’s where I start. I embrace the self-doubt.

I am still vague and squishy, in other words, and my sense of worth is still pretty goddamn fluid. I don’t own the key to the kingdom. I am not really a guardian of anyone. I hear from people who are crawling, and I write about how it feels to crawl, and then, something shifts. Some light shines in.

The faith and the magic that you’re looking for come out of the squish. Magic doesn’t exist separately from the squish. You don’t push the squish out of the way to get to it. You live in the squish and you find your faith there.

Case in point: Earlier this morning, I was sure I couldn’t write a single word. So I went on Facebook instead. I knew in my bones this was a terrible moment for Facebook. I was already hearing a skeptical mob of ex-friends and ex-lovers and ex-acquaintances in my head, laughing at my obvious delusions of grandeur. On most days, Facebook is a pleasant distraction, nothing more. But when you’re already imagining mob of skeptics – SKEPTICS WHO HAVE INTIMATE KNOWLEDGE OF YOUR PERSONAL FAILINGS – Facebook is a solvent capable of burning your skin off. Here is a friend I love, inviting me to an event for writers. I think about writerly events, everyone talking about writing and writers, and even though I should be comforted by this exact thing, it SOUNDS FUCKING TERRIBLE. Here is a friend I love traveling in Sydney with her family. She is leaving the house more often than I do, spending money I don’t have to offer her children culturally rich experiences that my children are missing. She is doing it better than I could ever manage to do it, always.

My droopiest feelings always take a kind of deflated, self-flagellating shape. I  don’t view that as a liability anymore. It doesn’t feel that great a lot of the time, but it does lead me to interesting places in my life, my friendships, and my writing. When I was younger, when I felt discouraged and envious and allergic to everything, I was sure that this was an essential manufacturing flaw, specific to me alone. This flaw meant that I would never have real friends. It meant that I would never be loved. And even though there are echoes of that feeling, even now (“Holy shit, why DO I have good friends? Why AM I loved?”), the difference is not the presence of friends and people who love me. These things help. But mostly, I know that my manufacturing flaws are shared by lots of other people. Maybe we were all made in the same batch at the factory. We are misshapen things, we don’t function correctly, and we have been churned out for years and years. We are deeply fucked in many ways, but we are not uniquely fucked. We are everywhere. Or maybe we’re smoothly functioning perfection and it’s the world that makes us think we don’t work. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Either way, we are not alone.

The hardest thing about being 25 is that every bad moment feels like a verdict on who you are, on what your life will and won’t be. You are feeling discouraged right now therefore you will never amount to shit and no one will ever love you. You see the friends who write to their other friends, on their Instagrams and FB pages, “Oh Beth, you are so beautiful, can’t wait for brunch this weekend!” and you think that no one could ever love you that much. People don’t feel that way about you. You don’t inspire outbursts of affection. Men don’t flock to your side. Career paths don’t open up like a yellow brick road before your feet. Your face, your whole head, is terrible, awful, an insult. Every cell of your body is a pox on the land.

You don’t own the magic. Someone else does. You are not the kind of person who deserves magic.

WRONG. We all own the magic. And those of us in the same misshapen, flawed batch are maybe the best of all at finding it. We don’t mind working hard to find it. We’re used to working hard. We have to work hard just to breathe correctly, just to see clearly, just to let the world in.

By the way, did you know that we’re 90 percent microbes? We are sacks of otherness.

And this particular sack of otherness (whom you call a guardian to the radishes of the world but who is really mostly just a complex microbiome, teeming with life, housing hostile environments and welcoming environments, where endless microbial battles and epic microbial wars take place, a constant clash of good against evil against almost good against sometimes evil) wants to say that you are not off track when you feel vague and squishy. You will have that feeling again and again.

But you will also start to draw boundaries around your squish. You will start to say, “Many other people are going to define my squish as faulty and not good enough, many other people are going to insult me and roll their eyes at me and they’re not going to do it because they’re ‘just jealous,’ they’re going to believe in their hearts, that I am bad news, worthless, annoying. I am also going to believe these things sometimes. But I am making a decision right now to trust myself and to love myself and to protect myself from people who are either suspicious of me or 100 percent MEH about me. I am not going to blame them for this! But I am not going to improve myself for those people, either, just to become some imaginary peak version of myself eventually, someday, never. Instead, I am going to find other flawed and broken and loud and rattling things, I’m going to find other angry, self-doubting bags of microbial squish, and together, we are going to feel strong and odd and emotional and also triumphant together. This is what I choose to believe. I choose to believe that I deserve my own team, and my universe of microbes is getting onboard, too. This microbiome is not bending over and demeaning itself and doubting itself just because some other microbiome doesn’t like what it sees. This microbiome is squirming and writhing to the beat of its own motherfucking drummer.”

You are committing to the life of the artist, in other words. Lots of us, whether we’re artists or writers or just sensitive human beings who don’t want to settle for half-assed existences, could stand to commit to this life. Because the artist embraces her manufacturing flaws. This makes the artist seriously chafing to many other people. THAT IS OKAY. The artist’s microbiome is a strange kind of 24-hour party, an alternately elated and mournful celebration of bewilderment and hope and gratitude and boundless longing. The artist sometimes says to herself, “I cannot create a single thing, therefore I am nothing.” But that’s just how it feels to want to create stuff that matters.

The artist is in touch with her humanity. She has to be! She needs to feel vague and squishy because these things make it possible to care. And then she builds something gorgeous and unique and scary from the squish, and still people say, “What?” and “No!” and “Oh, please.” But she keeps trying.

The love of good friends and family will come, too, and it’s almost everything. But seeing others clearly means allowing your own others – your hatred and your envy and your feelings of alienation and your self-doubt, all of these feelings a little bit like the microbial clashes inside of you– to simply EXIST without condemning yourself for them. That means deciding that it’s okay to be a human being.

That’s all I really did. That’s all I still do, day after day. I decide, over and over again, that it’s going to be okay for me to be a fucking human. And when I make room for the so-called darkness, when I make room for rejection, when I make room for the fact that I can’t always move in straight, decisive lines, that’s when magic starts to happen.

The more I stand up for my right to be squishy, the more I recognize that I am 90 percent other. To merely be human, to be aware of your own humanity, is to be linked to everyone else, living and dead. You are one of many. Now you can allow space for the humans around you, and now you make space for the dead, too.

That’s what understanding your worth is all about. You aren’t worthy because you’re better than everyone alive. You aren’t worthy because you own more magic, or you cracked the code, or you improved yourself to infinity and beyond. You are ALREADY worthy, right now. We are all worthy. We are all made of magic.

When you know that, you are suddenly open to everything that came before. You can see the timeless omnipresence of manufacturing flaws in the pages of every book. You are connected to the past and the future. You are one of many, just another microbe sack on a doomed planet, but you have a solemn and important calling. You have things to do, things to share, before your time here expires. You have to get busy.

There is no peak to reach. You are here already. Forget namaste, and just say this: The microbes in me greet the microbes in you. Let’s make an enormous mess of this. Let’s be loved and hated and ignored together. Let’s give everything we have to give, time and time again, no matter what. We will never be better than we are right now.

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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