Ask Polly: I’m Trying to Be Kinder, But It’s So Hard!

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Dear Polly,

In this New Year, I am trying to be kinder. 2016 was long and difficult, and this year looks no less emotionally arduous and physically exhausting, and I do not want to contribute further to that. Part of my resolution is to be kinder to myself, which involves some level of honesty with my (Bad) feelings and trying to be more transparent with the people I love about those feelings. However, I find myself ashamed of how easily I am hurt and, in more recent days, how often I am hurting. It means that I tend to end up suffering in silence and building resentment toward the people who say they care for me but are nowhere to be found when my depression pulls me under like a stone.

I know that, rationally, it is because they don’t know I am in pain, they are not aware that I have been hurt, whether it was directly because of something they said or did (intentionally or not), or if it is the feeling of abandonment when a spell comes on and I feel adrift and alone, recoiling inward. But that rationality does not provide a salve to the workings of my depressed brain.

And so, I want to be kinder to them too. I want to forgive them: for their obliviousness, for their unknowing complicity in my self-destruction, for the simple and forgivable fact that they are human beings with their own lives and hurts and preoccupations.

I have heard that honesty is one path to forgiveness, but no matter how many times I write and stumble over and try to talk with them through the journey of my feelings, which have metastasized into a bitterness and resentment that feeds on all I can twist into slights against me, I only end up reinhabiting that original moment of pain all over again. The wound fresh and raw. Consequently, I withdraw farther.

I’m finally realizing just how many people I have pushed away and then eventually lost over the years in this psychological pattern. I want to stop. Before I irreparably lose someone that I cannot bear to lose.

Polly, how do I become kinder and learn to really forgive? How do I exorcise the ghosts of my pain and finally lay them to rest?

Yours sincerely,

Sinking Stone

Dear Sinking Stone,

You will never get over the pain as long as you blame yourself for it. You will never feel your feelings without judgment as long as you continue to view your feelings as “Bad” with a capital B. You will always feel hurt as long as you stigmatize yourself as a pathetic sort of person who gets hurt easily and who is hurting too much of the time. Getting hurt easily isn’t pathetic. Hurting a lot isn’t a weakness.

You say that in your quest to forgive people, you keep revisiting the same pain over and over and it only makes it worse. I think this happens because you beat yourself up for feeling pain every time you feel it. Even as you try to honestly express how you feel to others, it comes out sounding angry and conflicted because some part of you feels like you don’t have a right to tell the truth to anyone. You don’t have a right to take up space and feel hurt. Now, let me be clear: It’s natural to feel conflicted. Most of us do. And it’s easy to believe that other people have made you feel this pain: Maybe your parents didn’t make space for your feelings and then you sought out friends who were similar to your parents in their avoidance of heaviness and emotion. Taking in those patterns and choices is necessary and important. But it’s really just the first step. It’s one thing to tell yourself, “Oh, you’re looking for people who’ll avoid you and reject you the way your mom did. You’re repeating the past.” But there’s an even more important step that comes next: You have to stop focusing on other people and get right with yourself instead.

Up until a few years ago, I always got stuck on that first step. And for sure, it was helpful to notice how little I liked actually being seen and heard by people who had the guts to show up and admit that they cared. I preferred the flinchy motherfuckers who told self-conscious jokes and changed the subject and drank too much. I liked loudmouths and cynics and snide little smartasses and even insecure, talkative women who were always falling down a well left and right, or ordering the next round of shots, or avoiding the truth, or finding fault with someone in entertaining ways. But I could only make these people happy when I was playing a role. I couldn’t just show up empty-handed and admit that I felt lost or hurt or lonely. Their shame matched mine. We knew we weren’t good enough. We were running scared. We could do that together. As long as everyone kept talking around the truth, we were good.

Some of these people liked me for who I was, and some of them didn’t. I figured that out later. Did I figure it out by forgiving them preemptively for being exactly who they were? Did I figure it out by being kinder? Did I figure it out by focusing on them and giving them my love and trying not to notice how fucking oblivious they were or trying to get over their obliviousness and trying not to drag my Bad Bad Feelings into every interaction?

No. I figured it out by liking myself for exactly who I am. I figured it out by getting right with myself. I figured it out by forgiving myself for being the kind of person who cares too goddamn much about the stupidest little things, who gets hurt easily, who is sometimes hurting more than she likes to admit. I figured it out by facing myself and saying: You have big flaws and you’re difficult and you can’t hide that. You can’t play it down. You can’t try to be Good. You are incapable of becoming smoother and more compliant and less outspoken. You can play by the rules, sure, but you’ll always fuck a few things up. You’ll always embarrass yourself by caring about weird shit. You’ll always piss someone off. Your ass will always be showing. People are gonna know you, even when you don’t want them to. When you try to hide who you are, it only makes things worse.

For the longest time, I thought I could change who I was through sheer force of will. Even when I talked a good game about loving yourself and forgiving yourself, up until pretty recently I still believed that I could will myself to be better than I actually was. I still sort of half-wanted to “evolve” into a more floaty, ethereal, loving, generous, wise soul.

But when I try to do that, I feel inadequate. You know why? Because my soul REALLY DOES NOT WANT TO BE ETHEREAL AND WISE. My soul wants to set garbage cans on fire. My soul wants to adopt 20 dogs and then make them pull me through the center of town on a giant sled equipped with a wet bar. My soul wants me to dye my hair blue and dress in giant velvet coats like Liberace. My soul says that God is a woman and she is pissed right now, buddy. SHE IS PISSED.

When I turn my back on who I really am, I can always tell. Because suddenly I start focusing on what’s wrong with other people, or on how they were unfair to me. How they keep fucking up. How crazy they are. When I can’t accept that I’m just an oversensitive person with high expectations and that I always will be, no matter what, I get all locked up and weird about how other people act. And then I try to force myself to rise above it: IT’S OKAY I’LL FORGIVE THEM, I say, LIKE JESUS.

But you know what? Pretending that you can be some holy pious being isn’t Jesus-like. Humility is Jesus-like. You must accept that you are a twisted, broken thing, first and last. You must grow to the point where you know that twisted, broken things are the most beautiful things around.

So forget the people you pushed away and the people you haven’t pushed away yet but probably will. Forget the people who’ve shut you out and the people who you believe are doomed to shut you out eventually. No one else is complicit in your self-destruction. Only you can destroy yourself. Other people have nothing to do with it.

As long as you believe, in your heart, that you don’t deserve to feel things or ask for help from other people, you will be treated disrespectfully. The second you treat yourself with love and accept yourself for exactly who you are right now, with all of your flaws and needs, with all of your quirks and injuries and giant mistakes, your interactions with other people will become very simple. You will ask for what you want. Sometimes you’ll get it, and sometimes you won’t, and that will be okay. If you can’t ask for what you want directly because you feel, in your heart, that you don’t deserve anything, you’ll never really feel at peace with anything that happens around you. You will continue to be complicit in your own self-destruction.

Stop focusing on other people and get right with yourself. You can see yourself clearly now. You know how you push people away. You’re tempted to try to “fix” that by not pushing people away, ever again. You’re tempted to try to be better. But you’re going to overcorrect instead, trust me. You have to make some room for the fact that you hurt easily and are sometimes hurting more than is always convenient for those around you. Guess what? That’s okay. Plenty of people can handle that. Plenty of people won’t mind, as long as you don’t hate yourself for it. Plenty of people will accept you for exactly who you are. People who don’t even seem that accepting will accept you! BUT YOU MUST ACCEPT YOURSELF FIRST.

Maybe you’re someone who cares a lot, and gets hurt a lot when other people don’t. What if that’s just a part of who you are? Is it really painful to revisit old wounds, once you truly accept that you’re someone who is easily wounded?

I say honor old wounds. I say let the pain in, savor it, celebrate it. The pain is there to show you something new about how to breathe in this life with every cell of your being. The pain probably isn’t going away because you aren’t listening closely to it yet.

Last year, I lost an old, very close friendship. At first I tried to be tough about it, but the pain kept coming back. I tried not to be angry about it, but I kept feeling furious. I tried to accept it, but I just couldn’t. I kept focusing on my friend: What was she thinking? How could she do this to me? Finally I just focused on the pain itself, the anger, the sadness. That’s something I honestly struggle with. I still see these feelings as BAD in spite of myself.

But this one day, I decided to just embrace my feelings instead. I wrote a poem about how sad it was to lose a good friend. I wrote a poem about all that I’d lost. I cried — not for the first time, but it was a good cry this time. I treated my loss and my rage and my mourning as something precious, a kind of art, something irreplaceable. I tried to take pride in my feelings: This means I care. This means I am sensitive. This means I am who I am: easily enraged, easily injured, soft inside, furious, broken, scared. On that day, I felt proud to have such a tender soul.

And the pain lifted. I haven’t felt angry at my lost friend since then. I don’t feel angry at her for rejecting me, because I know that I can be too intense for some people, but the things that make me intense also make me a persuasive writer, a loyal friend, a good mother. My intensity makes me strong and precious and formidable.

I am a sinking stone.

Some people don’t like sinking stones. What can I do? I will always be a sinking stone.

Have you ever watched a stone sink? It actually drifts a little, like it might just start floating instead. It lists to one side, and then pfffffft, it lands more gently than you think it will, and a cloud of sand rises up around it. Once the cloud clears, the stone looks fine. “This is where I’ll stay,” it seems to say. “It’s nice down here, actually. It’s nice to be free from the pressure to float when you weren’t fucking MADE TO FLOAT.”

Stop trying to float. Love yourself for the exact parts of your nature that you worry the most about, and you will have more love than you know what to do with. The reason you keep insisting that you’re hurting is because you want yourself to know that you deserve to feel things, that you deserve to notice when you’re hurting, and that you deserve to care more than you can stand sometimes. You deserve to embrace and savor whatever emotions kick up around you when you hit the ground.

And when the cloud clears, say to yourself: This is who I am. I can’t change it, so I might as well enjoy it. No one else needs to approve. I don’t have to apologize for my basic nature. I don’t even have to explain. I can just speak the truth: I sink easily. I do not float. It’s nice to watch you float from here. I admire that. But that’s not me.

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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Ask Polly: I’m Trying to Be Kinder, But It’s So Hard!