'I Always Sabotage Everything!'
Embrace your strange, sensitive wiring and show yourself the respect and love you deserve.
Day and Night (1959) by Helen Lundeberg
I would like some help. Not to tell me to fix things or to change things about my work/ life/ friends/ dating life. I'd like to learn how to appreciate that the grass isn't always greener. That today is okay. That I am doing okay.
I am 28 years old and I live and work in London. I have an amazing support system of great friends, lovely colleagues, and close relationships with my sisters who also live in England. I am seeing someone right now and it is not a relationship however he has made me feel a lot happier than any boy has. We went to Berlin on holiday together (it was his decision) and it was probably the most peaceful I've ever felt with another human being. He went away for a month to the U.S. for work, and has been back since. We have discussions on how we feel, only when we are very drunk.
So... how do I feel about things with him? I think he is good for me. For some reason I haven't felt the need to attack him (like I usually did in past relationships), although all the attacks are to myself !!! so fun !!! I think for now, the best thing to do is to hold on through this uncertain period. As my therapist used to say, “You have to learn to sit with the unknown.” That’s probably the biggest takeaway I had from therapy, but I have no idea how to implement in my love life. I mean I'm pretty good at the unknown overall, but when it comes to my relationships it’s not great.
Maybe I feel like there is no easy way for me to sit with uncertainty when it comes to being invested in someone else, especially if I have romantic feelings for them. This is because time and time again, in romantic pursuits, I hyper-fixate and self-sabotage, in the hopes that by being aware of the bad things or convincing myself of BAD LET'S DUMP, I will be less hurt. :)
It's great that I am self-aware and it all circulates in my head, but it is hard for me to make sense of it. For example, when this person has bailed due to very fair and understandable reasons, I go straight to “He’s not interested anymore.” Or in another case, after we've had a very deep, meaningful chat about how we feel and how I want to date exclusively, I start noticing he is distant and I think, “He’s being unlike himself and the end is near.”
Again, see how exhausting this can be? What am I waiting for? Am I waiting for the other shoe to drop? This is a method of self-protection, as my life has spiraled out of control multiple times. Of course, those events all brought me to today, so I should be very grateful for the bad times. It's hard for me to see things that way, and it’s hard for me to just be happy sometimes.
Long story short, I am a product of a divorced family. I was not born and raised in England. Back home, my parents broke up when I was 11. There was infidelity on my father's side, which my mum never fails to remind us about, and I was very close to my father. And then my stepfather came into the picture, and he was a bit of a d*ck. He was a good father, according to my mother, because he picked us up from school every day! JOY! Someone to pick me up from school, as any parent is legally made to! Thank you, mother!
Then came all the fights, the tears, the teen years of running between two households, breaking one household's rules for the other, hysteria, rebellion, etc. etc. You get the drift. I don't wish my childhood on anyone, but as my mother says, I should be grateful because both of my parents were alive. She seemed to think I was being ungrateful and was in the wrong for being a depressed teen growing up?
Yes, my mother was thriving in her career and made a lot of money, but she always made me feel guilty for even wanting anything nice. Of course she could buy a lot of nice things for herself, but I was selfish to even ask. I would have given up all the money we had for peace, any time.
These things shaped me into who I am today. I don't care about how I spend money, and maybe spend way too carelessly. I look for peace and happiness through my experiences. I decided to do an exchange in America at 18, and moved to England for university at 20. I desperately tried for a job in London after getting my master's degree, and managed. I have been through trials and tribulations living in England, but it is so far away from my childhood that I am grateful.
What I am worried about is that I will always have this chip on my shoulder, about everything: my mother, my father, my relationships, the divorce. I went to therapy and committed weekly for about a year. That massively improved my life (and deteriorated my finances) but I wouldn't have it any other way.
I am 28, Polly, and I am scared I will drive myself into a wall. By running away from everything.
What should I do? Do I move back home? Have a ritual to sage and burn my past? Do I stay away from men forever because I always sabotage everything anyways, and what's the point?
I just need some clarity on how best to move on in life to a greener pasture. It seems like I won't allow myself to.
Running to a Greener Pasture
I love that you’re asking how to move to a greener pasture, when the whole idea of that metaphor is to ENJOY WHERE YOU ARE. So no, definitely don’t move back home. Don’t burn your past. Don’t stay away from men forever. Don’t say words like “I always sabotage everything.” Sit in this pasture and notice how brown the grass is here. Stay here and feel where you are. Being where you are is peace.
The enemy of peace is a neurotic mind that wants to fix everything at once. As you sit here, notice the way your mind circles, wanting better answers, more solutions, something to fix the way you feel. Your mind wants you to repair something mysterious that’s wrong with you, the part that “always sabotages everything.” Your mind learned this bad story a long time ago, and now it infuses your existence with shame constantly: You’re being selfish again. Why can’t you just be grateful for what you have?
Your mind is a bad translator of what your body is feeling. The insecurity and uncertainty of your childhood echo through your body like tremors from an earthquake happening far away. Your mother can’t feel these tremors herself. You point to the glasses falling off high shelves and shattering on the floor, and she tells you that you’re the cause of these accidents. If you just calmed down and ignored this so-called shaking, she says, everything would be fine.
This is your mother’s way of handling reality: mind over matter, brain over body, fix the problem, toughen up, work harder, ignore the ground rumbling under your feet, look away from the picture frames dangling haphazardly off the wall. Your mother wants you to charge ahead the way she does. More crucially, she doesn’t want to grapple with the reality that your bad experiences as a child inextricably formed you into who you are today. The idea that she could’ve contributed to your unhappiness causes her so much shame that she can’t even have a brief conversation about the possibility. It’s too crushing to contemplate.
So she’s sticking with her story: You had everything you needed. You should be grateful for everything you had. Your stepfather picked you up from school. Your parents are still alive. You could have it so much worse. Everything is for the best. You need to stop whining about what you’ve been through and practice gratitude.
But your body refuses this story, doesn’t it? In fact, when she tells you these things, your body says “No, I can’t live that way!” And when you crave love and reassurance, you feel it inside your body first. Your body doesn’t just say “It would be nice to feel safer and more at peace” or “I would like for my love to tell me that he loves me.” Your body sees the water shaking inside your water glass. Your body sees heavy objects teetering on high shelves. Your need for love and reassurance — for solid, calm people who can talk about reality without clamming up or running away — is more than just a passing desire. It’s the difference between feeling relaxed and happy and watching the walls start to cave in around you.
I want you to quiet your mind’s dusty old stories and bad translations so you can honor your body more — and yes, that includes honoring what your body feels when you’re panicking and starting to attack, too. Being kind to your body and respecting its limits: these are the only ways to prevent you from attacking.
This is where that work starts: I want you to respect how you’re wired. Your wiring is part of your reality, and it’s not just a liability. It’s a form of sensitivity that has made your life richer and more vibrant up to this moment. Your wiring has enhanced your ability to form deep connections, to show up for other people when they’re in crisis, to speak honestly about your feelings, to honor the differences between yourself and others. A lot of your ambition and your drive come from this wiring. There is plenty to celebrate about turning out exactly the way you have.
Once you start to recognize all the ways that the earthquakes of your childhood turned you into someone who’s determined, kind, courageous, and uniquely able to grapple with reality in ways that many other people can’t, you’ll begin to savor your wiring and your strong emotions instead of treating them like enemy forces that oppress and threaten you. The more you welcome the particular sensations of being YOU and take pride in them, the more you’ll stand up for who you are and what you love.
And let’s not stop there. When you know how strong and sensitive and uniquely attuned to the world you are, and you finally replace your constant shame with pride in everything you’ve become, you spread that love and confidence to the people around you like a gift. You might even transform your relationship with your mother, simply by showing up for reality: the reality that she’s absolutely terrified that you’ll bring up the past, the reality that shame controls a lot of her behavior, the reality that she loves you dearly but is afraid of your words.
I’m not saying that you should treat your mother with compassion and never mention the past, or when you do, you should express your gratitude for what you had. I’m saying that you are not well served by hashing out your childhood with your mother, because she is determined to protect herself from shame in ways that induce shame in you.
It’s time to stop going back there. You’re in a completely new, scrappy brown and green pasture now, sitting very still. This is where you do the very private work of understanding the good and the bad of your past, your reality, your earthquakes, and your nature as a person, WITHOUT ASKING UNRELIABLE, REALITY-HATING, SHAME-HOBBLED HUMANS TO HELP YOU WITH IT.
Because that’s what many, many sensitive people feel compelled to do: We want to find the one person who’s never felt an earthquake before, and we want to force that person to verify that the stuff on the high shelves is about to fall and crush us. And when they say “YOU’RE HALLUCINATING AGAIN! BE LOGICAL!” BAM, we’re back in that panicked state we know so well. Our intense wiring is electrified and sparks are shooting everywhere and we’re yelling “NO, YOU’RE WRONG! HELP ME! MAKE IT STOP!”
Recreating the conditions of our childhood, so we can go back and do it differently: this is what we do. But we fail and fail again, because we don’t PROTECT ourselves, because we insist on DEBATING others, because we stay trapped in OLD stories, because we keep trying to change or fix things that happened long ago, because we want to PROVE, once and for all, that we’re good, we’re lovable, we’re not selfish, our needs matter.
Shame turns love into attacks. Shame turns peaceful connection into endless debates about who’s right. The more you notice and address and accept and forgive your shame, the more grounded and generous and good to yourself you become.
Your wiring will have you looking for your mother everywhere you go. Anyone who combines a child-like sensitivity with a determination to ignore all tremors and keep marching triumphantly forward will do. Anyone who admits to intense emotions in one moment and denies their existence in the next works perfectly. Anyone who wants more and more from you, then grows silent when you ask for more directly, is a good candidate for reenacting the earthquakes of the past.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be with someone who’s tough or avoidant or child-like but afraid of emotions. You’re going to learn as you go! Be patient with yourself and others and see what feels good. All relationships are an experiment, whether you’re 28 or 98. The most important thing you need right now is to understand and respect and celebrate how you’re wired, to study your reactions to the world without shame, to notice and become increasingly aware of the slightest shimmer or vibration on the surface of the water in your water glass, so that you can provide the peaceful, reassuring voice that you require.
Now, lots of people will say, “You’re implying that we’re all on our own! Easy for you to say, with a husband and kids and friends and family!”
No. I’m saying that as long as you’re ruled by your bad stories and unsettled by your wiring and haunted by shame to the extent that it sends you into a state of panic and sadness and rage regularly, you could be surrounded by dream spouses, perfect companions, devoted forever friends, adoring fans, mountains of gold, and endless green vistas in every direction, and you would still feel jittery and awful.
The central message of Ask Polly, week after week, is the same: You have to find solid ground inside your body if you want to feel happy. Quieting your mind and feeling where you are is the first step. Retiring your dusty old stories about how selfish and pathetic you are is a prerequisite to that. You notice your enormous shame and you set it aside, again and again. And slowly, you attune yourself to how your body works — what makes it nervous, what makes it sad, what makes it embarrassed, what makes it tell your brain FIX THIS, DO SOMETHING, CHANGE THIS NOW!
In other words — somewhat paradoxically! — you achieve solid ground in part by honoring the echoes of earthquakes far away, respecting the heavy objects teetering on high shelves, paying homage to the sparks flying as your wiring buzzes and misfires. You gain solid ground by NOTICING how your heart and body are built, how they function, and FORGIVING them for being the way they are. You feel whole and right and real when you are kind and respectful and loving to the body you have, to the wiring you have, to the powerful mind you have. You become someone who can love and forgive and speak directly and honestly to others, even when the walls are shaking around you, when you show up for who you are, without fail, and love who you are, tremors and all.
Let me give you an example from my own life. Tiny things can make me feel jittery sometimes. I read something that reminds me of some way I was treated as a loser for feeling strong emotions. Someone ignores my text and I am a baby in an earthquake again. It doesn’t happen that often anymore, but it used to happen a lot a few years ago, and I didn’t see how everything was linked, it all added up, and it had very little to do with other people and EVERYTHING to do with my wiring. And I simply needed to stop abandoning myself, stop shaming myself for being sensitive, stop rejecting my essential nature. I finally noticed: Social media doesn’t just feel bad, it incites the past, induces shame, encourages me to believe I can fix something that’s outside of my control. Avoidant people who don’t like honesty don’t just annoy me, they make me sweat and second-guess myself in ways that are corrosive, weirdly addictive, and not grounded in reality. Open, honest people sometimes freak me out and make me feel vulnerable or even angry because I care more than I want to, but they are often the exact people who bring me peace, once I let go of my compulsion to be in control. And every now and then, a person seems open but something about them feels menacing. I’m allowed to respect my instincts even when I can’t put it into words.
This is the heart of achieving solid ground: privately honoring how you feel without constantly trying to make it RIGHT or JUSTIFIABLE to anyone else.
Let’s return to the words above, once again, and repeat them to ourselves like a prayer: You achieve solid ground by honoring the echoes of earthquakes far away, respecting the heavy objects teetering on high shelves, paying homage to the sparks flying as your wiring buzzes and misfires. You gain solid ground by NOTICING how your heart and body are built, how they function, and FORGIVING them for being the way they are. You feel whole and right and real when you are kind and respectful and loving to the body you have, to the wiring you have, to the powerful mind you have. You become someone who can love and forgive and speak directly and honestly to others, even when the walls are shaking around you, when you show up for who you are, without fail, and love who you are, tremors and all.
See how good your body feels when you read those words? The good feeling you get from reading things that GROUND YOU IN THE REALITY OF YOUR BODY is a big piece of what it takes to find solid ground. Your body wants that good feeling. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not addictive. It’s not about your brain fixing some mysterious problem you have that makes you ruin everything. It’s about quieting your problem-fixated brain enough to feel the immense beauty of this world inside your cells. It’s about your body’s incredible ability to recognize what is true and right and good. The more you attune yourself to your body’s wisdom, the calmer and more peaceful you’ll feel.
I say this as someone who rarely meditates and does not smell like Patchouli oil. I say this as someone who is simply more attuned to beauty and joy than ever before BECAUSE I respect my sensitive, jittery wiring and celebrate my freaky decades-old earthquakes and look with curiosity each time the water in my glass starts to shimmer and shake. I am allowed to be who I am without shame, so now I finally have space to take in the whole world.
This person you’re seeing might be very sensitive and maybe a little avoidant, too. It may be that he’s more afraid of the words “HELP ME!” than he is of almost anything else. Believe me, I’m not implying that you call him and yell for help. One of the things that sucks about being wired intensely is that people hear HELP ME when you so much as sigh the wrong way. You can control every word out of your mouth and still be perceived as needy. You can say the sweetest words to someone and mean every single word and still be perceived as judgmental. This is why it’s so important to speak honestly and understand what’s in your body, what’s in your mind, what’s in your heart. You’re asked to explain yourself often, but explaining yourself isn’t what you need. What you need is to simply state the honest truth about where YOU are, without making it right or wrong, or justifying it, or blaming others.
You say you have a chip on your shoulder. That’s shame. Once you stop blaming yourself, once you forgive yourself for being the way you are, you’ll find it much easier to live among flawed humans who don’t see you clearly, and to be a flawed human who doesn’t always see others clearly.
Notice your shame — it’s everywhere, yow! — and try to be curious about it instead of blaming yourself for it. Marvel over how much shame you have with you, everywhere you go. Notice how it manifests itself in everything you do. Resolve not to speak from your shame. Speak from your heart instead. Sidestep debate and simply EMBODY your pure intentions, with compassion for the fact that most people aren’t even aware of what’s acting on them.
It's all about going back to the good feeling inside your body, the one that says YOU’RE FINE, YOU’RE NOT SELFISH, YOU’RE DOING YOUR BEST.
Don’t expect to get amazing results when you try to bring this good feeling into every relationship you have. You can be in the most honest and open state, one that brings you more joy than you thought was possible, and a lot of people will still treat you like you’re infected with a dangerous virus. Many people are extremely resistant to knowing what’s acting on them, and that makes them afraid of honesty. Anything direct you say will be encountered as pushy or manipulative. A lot of people simply don’t want to slow down and slice things up. A lot of people are uninterested in frank talk. A lot of people believe that they find peace by charging forward constantly. Let the many, many, many people who are nothing like you be the way they are without allowing your mind to fixate on WHY THEY ARE LIKE THAT.
Your job is to be good to your intensely wired, earthquake-sensing body. Your job is to notice the glorious gifts of sensitivity, and the fascinating wreckage left by years of shame.
Can you celebrate what you are?
Can you notice when saying too much feels wrong? Can you notice when speaking directly and calmly about reality feels good?
The greenest, most peaceful pasture is right here, surrounding you. Can you feel it? Your mind will say to you, “I want more, I need reassurance, I need to know what happens next!” But when you remind your body of reality — that you are good exactly as you are, that you’re maximally brilliant and generous and whole whenever you attune yourself to your unique tremors and sensitivities, when you dare to love them, when you dare to notice that disappointments and pain and longing and passion you feel are all vibrant and right and real and pure, that these things put you in sync with the wild, delicious universe around you — you feel GOOD.
You’re here to feel good, and to spread that good feeling around. You’re here to love and be loved. You will not sabotage everything. Everyone alive struggles to feel happy sometimes. We all find it hard to be peaceful and calm. That’s how all humans are built.
You will water this green pasture around you every day. There will be sadness and pain and loss. There will be joy and delight and pure, true love. Your job is to remember that you are whole. Enjoy who you are. Teach everyone around you to do the same. This is your gift. Treasure it. Stop waiting for a different life. Live right here instead.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! Send your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.