The Red Maple at Lake George (1926) by Georgia O’Keeffe
Instead of aiming for “less sad” or “less grumpy” or “less angry,” sometimes it feels better to aim for exuberance. I know that sounds like fake candy-covered optimism at first, but suspend your disbelief for a second. Because if you’ve ever struggled to feel motivated, get out of bed, and locate your passion, you’ve probably also sometimes fallen into the habit of setting your sights too low. You start to see each day as a series of people, places, and things to avoid.
That’s how I was for years. I woke up and the first thing I thought about was all the shit I didn’t want to do that day. I’d lie in bed saying to myself, “I don’t want to write my column today. I’m tired of my job and my writing is going to suck because of that. I don’t want to walk the dog. I don’t want to go get groceries. I want to stay in bed and eat pancakes and I want someone to love me.” (Uh oh, now you’re thinking I was pretty goddamn ambitious after all because what dream is bigger than eating pancakes in bed?)
The point is, my prayer wasn’t exuberant. It was draggy. My prayer was I DON’T WANT ANY OF THIS. My mantra was FUCK ALL OF THIS. My dearest wish was LET ME SLEEP FOREVER.
Sleeping forever is death. And when your daily prayer is “Just give me a break, give me some peace, land me somewhere I don’t have to work as hard, where everyone loves me and I have everything I want and I’m perfect, finally,” what you’re really worshipping is THE END.
People who feel connected to themselves, their lives, and their loved ones in satisfying ways don’t want to speed through life. They don’t want to be done with all forms of work and discovery. They might consider their own mortality regularly, but they’re not fast forwarding toward some resting place, because they don’t feel exhausted by their own discouraging thoughts. People who value connection and seek connection, day after day, are usually trying to slow down each moment and enjoy it more.
So there’s a lot wrapped up in that kind of I DON’T WANT ANYTHING, I’M TOO TIRED state. It’s not just depression. It’s a mind that does too much work all day, circling endlessly, telling you you’re a sulky failure, a lazy piece of shit, a needy lump. Your story tells you that you should want things, but you have no drive. You just want a break.
When someone writes to me and says “I’m exhausted, I need a break” I usually add “from my mind” at the end, because nine times out of ten, these letters are accompanied by signs that the person in question has been TRYING TO SOLVE THEIR PROBLEMS USING ONLY THEIR BRAINS EVERY SECOND OF EVERY DAY FOR YEARS NOW. That doesn’t mean their problems aren’t real. It just means that the way they’re trying to solve their problems is draining them more and more each day.
That’s the opposite of aiming for exuberance. That’s aiming to FIX YOURSELF BECAUSE YOU’RE BAD and FIX YOUR LIFE BECAUSE IT’S FUCKED. The brain is doing what the body refuses to do. The body slogs on through the day, waking up a tiny bit late and then taking a panicked shower, starting work a tiny bit late, eating a bag of potato chips for lunch because there’s no other food in the house, having two or three stiff drinks at night because there has to be SOME kind of reward, watching TV until late at night because goddamn it, something should feel fun around here.
But all the while, your body feels like shit and your mind is saying, “What’s wrong with you! Why can’t you stop fucking this up?”
That’s exhaustion: Indulged, sluggish, underslept, underexercised body and enraged, abusive mind. You’re slogging along while your big dreams haunt you but never become clear and useful. You never try on one small piece of your big dreams for size, just to see how that feels. You keep your ambitions sharpened like a knife, and stab yourself with them repeatedly, using them to remind you that you’re a failure.
The temptation is to say, “Well, this person just needs to exercise, eat better, read good books at night, and sleep more hours, and then they’ll feel less exhausted.” And that is not 100% wrong! But it brings me back to those letters from people who say they’re exhausted: They usually also say, “I am doing all the right things. I have friends. I exercise. I believe in my work. I am dabbling in online dating. I take care of myself now. But I AM STILL JUST SO TIRED OF TRYING.”
When someone is exhausted, and describes the work of Trying to Live Right as if they’re still not quite sure why they should do it, that means they might not be daring to dream or feel at all — to feel deeper connections to the people around them, to take more satisfaction from their work, to relish the strange folds of their day. There’s no exuberance in the picture. They aren’t digging for their feelings, they aren’t reaching for new interesting experiences and people, they aren’t cultivating heartfelt connections (or they’re afraid to be completely honest with their friends and partners so they feel blocked on that front). They believe that these things include prerequisites: I need money to do those things. I need to become someone important to have that. I need to stop feeling shitty first. They’re following the self-care script but their feelings are still all jammed up, they have neglect and grief to process, and – most importantly! – their minds are still saying, YOU’RE A FUCK UP, WHO CARES ABOUT THIS, THIS ISN’T ENOUGH, THIS IS BULLSHIT, NONE OF THIS MATTERS, WHEN WILL WE GET SOME REST?
If you don’t break your habit of experiencing each day as a series of things to avoid or get through, the future will look just like the past: Your brain will still be torturing you the whole time. And if you’re an oversensitive, overwhelmed, overworked, overthinking overachiever in particular, you’re definitely going to need a more vivid and compelling way of understanding yourself, your day, and your future.
Your goals might need to be big and shiny enough to excite and energize you. That doesn’t mean BECOME PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE. It can mean “grow flowers” or “learn to paint.” Goals look gigantic and exciting when they matter to you. They feel big because you want them so much. And sometimes they feel big simply because you refuse to give them to yourself. Maybe you’re too afraid of feeling vulnerable, of caring, of wanting something a lot. You’re too protected by your mantra of I DON’T WANT THESE HASSLES and IF I PURSUED THAT DREAM, THEN I’D HAVE TO INTERACT WITH THOSE PEOPLE and EVEN IF I DARED TO TRY THAT, I’D ONLY HAVE MORE PROBLEMS TO DEAL WITH.
Now obviously, reaching a state of Not Sad, Functioning is paradise when you’ve been sad and not functioning at all. The last thing I want to do is make you feel bad just for getting by. Please do not take the wrong message from this.
I merely want you to try on the concept of EXUBERANCE for size.
EXUBERANCE is vulnerability and wild hopes and boisterousness and longing. Exuberance isn’t following one strict road map forward, chiding yourself every second of the day for not doing it right. Exuberance is waking up in the morning and saying, “I’ll try new things. I’ll be good to myself. I’ll listen to my needs. I’ll reach out and make real connections with the people I trust.” Exuberance is honesty and willingness. You don’t have to be better to be exuberant. You don’t have to be successful or even solvent to be exuberant.
You just have to be playful. You have to be open. You have to be ready to cry unexpectedly over small things. You have to be willing to learn. You have to be willing to listen. You have to welcome new music, seek out art, take suggestions, explore new places, welcome hassles, even when at first it sounds taxing. Exuberance is about experimenting. Exuberance accepts that you need a lot to be happy.
EXUBERANCE makes room for the world. Exuberance sets the table like there are kings and queens coming to dinner. Exuberance is humility that’s energized: AS LONG AS I DON’T MATTER, I MIGHT AS WELL HAVE FUN. Exuberance is unselfconscious and whimsical and sometimes it’s even conflicted. Exuberance lets everyone be who they are without taking it personally. Exuberance is vivacious and even goofy but it also protects itself from the assassins of fun: status-seeking, contempt, anxious fear of others, and quick fixes.
Status is the enemy of exuberance: People who set their sights too low, who hate even the word “exuberant,” are often secretly afraid of the world and afraid of other people. They tend to fixate on status – the adoration of faceless crowds, the admiration of picky elitists – because they don’t know how to feel where they are and proclaim it enough. Exuberance proclaims everything enough: “This window is dirty but look at the sky outside! This day is gloomy but I’m going to listen to Beethoven. Three of my dinner party guests bailed at the last minute but that means the rest of us can play Scrabble or go out to dinner or talk about more personal stuff.”
Contempt is the enemy of exuberance: People who wake up every morning and tell themselves they don’t want what they have (usually without noticing it) often let their disappointments curdle into contempt. And it’s natural to be disappointed! We live in a wildly disappointing world! People often do suck, truly! But when you turn your grief into a pointy weapon aimed at others, that gives you a permanent defensive stance, which is exhausting. Exuberance lays down your weapons. Exuberance surrenders to what is. Exuberance admits that there’s no way to understand everything, always. No one is always right. Exuberance accepts that it might be wrong about a lot of things, but it wants to enjoy this day regardless.
Fear of others is the enemy of exuberance: People who feel rejected and disapproved of tend to protect themselves from anyone who might judge them. But they feel judged by everyone, so eventually, they’re protecting themselves from everyone. Fearful people feel like everything they do is inappropriate or wrong. They try to control their social interactions by people-pleasing, trying to take the shape of what other people want. They end up dreading social events because it’s such hard work to have to perform well instead of just showing up and being their flawed selves. So they cut themselves off from others. They’re hyper critical of themselves and others. They’re just afraid, but they don’t realize that. Exuberance knows that connection is everything. Exuberance sometimes rushes in too quickly and says too much, sure. But exuberance knows that in order to have real friends, real partners, real relationships, you don’t have to be better than you are. You just have to be honest and willing.
Quick fixes are the enemy of exuberance: People who are obediently trying to get through the day by working hard, exercising, calling friends – all without really feeling their motivation or believing in or enjoying these activities, all the while harassing themselves for being grumpy assholes – tend to look for quick fixes to bring them a little relief. They go on Twitter and make a joke and get some likes and that feels okay for a few hours. They make themselves a strong drink. They reach out to someone they don’t know that well and they get a reply. You might think that’s exuberance: Fun times on Twitter! Booze! Connection! But exuberance isn’t the anxious search for something to GET YOU THROUGH or MAKE THIS ANXIOUS MOMENT FEEL BETTER. Exuberance is a peaceful satisfaction that comes from deep inside you. It’s a place without anxious, circling thoughts, where it’s okay to be a lump of humanity with soft feelings. Twitter and strong drinks and wobbly new friendships can live there, but they can’t be targets you aim for when you’re anxious. And that’s a tough line to walk at first.
The more you notice your energy around certain activities – the feelings that rise up there, the thoughts circling in your head – the more you’ll know whether you’re enjoying those things or just trying to fix something that you see as wrong with yourself. Exuberance is the recurring sense that no matter how broken you are, people will love you. That’s a hard target, particularly in this world of ignoring and ghosting. But the more you aim for exuberance -- which includes loving and ENJOYING your brokenness, your rich oddities, your wild, weird confusion, your past selves and your current selves and your future selves, in all of their humiliating, infuriating disobedience – you’ll get there.
When you think “I might get there,” you’re already halfway there.
And when you think, “TODAY I WILL AIM FOR EXUBERANCE, DAMN IT!”?
You’re already exuberant. That’s all it takes.
Congratulations! Now go out and seek small, imperfect moments of joy today. Don’t let your head tell you that joy is a luxury you can’t afford, or that you’re not good enough to be loved exactly as you are. Follow your whims and trust yourself. Open your heart. Open your eyes. Let the world in.
Thank you for reading! Ask Polly will publish features like this on Mondays for subscribers only, so:
How did you know I ate a bag of potato chips for lunch?
You're a wonderful writer; and I am in a state of delighted awe every time I read your work! Huge fan girl of the utmost proportions over here!