'I Don't Want to End Up a Crazy Cat Parent!'
It's time to start honoring your most humiliating desires.
Icarus Bay (1970) by Helen Lundeberg
Firstly: I’ve loved your work for years. I just finished reading Foreverland last night after having it shelved, half-finished, for months. Why anyone would decide to give criticism to you, or this book, is beyond me. I think your writerly style is unparalleled, and you have made me want to be a more courageous writer since I started reading your columns.
Secondly: Hi. I’m another 28-year-old having an identity crisis for a myriad of reasons. Cliffsnotes version: I’m single after a stretch of long-term relationships from the last five years, but I still talk to my first ex daily, even though he’s 360 miles away. My mom died suddenly three and a half years ago and the combination of that plus living through the first two years of COVID in New York City have done a number on my psyche! I’m wrestling with gender in ways I haven’t before, especially as my body and face change with age. After six months of living in Virginia to be closer to family, I was let go from my remote job, and am now back to making minimum wage serving coffee - i.e., exactly what I was doing 6 years ago. I got let go on the day I was set to bring two kittens home, too, so I now have three mouths to feed.
All of this to say, now seems like a good time to restructure my life plan, maybe set some new goals. I know that when you’re at the bottom, the only place to go is up. But I don’t know how to do it in a way that I actually BELIEVE in. I want to be a writer, but I think that if I had all the time in the world to write, I’d still find a way to squander it (not write). I hate money and have never wanted to pursue a Lucrative Career, but I’m starting to wonder if I should (sell my soul) become a real estate agent. I know these value judgments are useless, too - I spend so much time worried about what others think of me and how I live my life that I end up just not fucking living it.
I know there are things I’m good at, but I’ve never been able to make a habit of them for long enough to do them for a living - ie, freelance writing or photography. What’s more, I know I’m not special in this crisis, and I feel like if I don’t change somehow, I’ll be 35 or 40 and still working minimum wage. My mom died a penniless substitute teacher, so this fear has an irrational slant to it, but it’s a fear of mine nonetheless.
I want to change my life and be a better person (eat better, exercise, pursue creativity). Everyone says, start small. When I do these things on an individual basis, I do feel better. But whenever I try to make them a habit, I either get bored or I find some excuse to continue living my life the same way (not writing, not eating great, not exercising). I’ve tried incentivizing myself, I’ve tried punishing myself (more than my guilt complex punishes me daily). I journal every day and almost every day I write something to the effect of “I want to be happy and believe in myself.” I feel like my capacity to love myself is broken, and maybe this is the problem. This is an impossible question, Polly, but: How do I change my life for the better, *and* believe in it enough to keep doing it?
Trying Not to Become a Crazy Cat Parent
Crazy Cat Parents are sometimes the happiest people you’ll ever meet, because they have two things that many, many other people don’t have: 1) a deep connection with other living beings and 2) an ability to tolerate our culture’s unfair labels and follow their own unconventional path anyway.
When people are trying to figure out what will bring them the most joy in life, I sometimes tell them to examine closely the very things they fear the most – the outcomes they see as the most embarrassing, the most shameful, the most pathetic. Because somewhere in that murky, terrifying mix, they might just discover the outlines of a life that makes sense to them, that feels right, that could start to bring them satisfaction and sustenance.
Let me be clear, though: That satisfaction isn’t hiding behind a finish line that you have to work very hard to reach. When you engage with your core values and big, important dreams, you engage with that satisfaction and sustenance. When you value what you ALREADY ARE, you satisfy and sustain yourself.
Start by paying close attention to your fears. Invite your fears into the room and have a slow, patient conversation with them. Try on new possibilities, inside that gentle space.
If you had asked me at age 28 what I didn’t want to become, I probably would’ve mentioned something soft or emotional that looked tacky and shameful to me at the time. I could pursue something emotional WITH AN EDGE — journalism, criticism, even songwriting as long as it involved loud drums and couldn’t be called folk or emo or emo folk, lol — but I couldn’t do anything EARNEST. The last thing I wanted to do was become some freak who wore her emotions on her sleeve, overshared, was uncool, spent too much time outdoors raving about nature, talked to her dogs in dumb voices, etc. I also didn’t want to be known as a mother, or known as a woman who wrote about woman things. I didn’t want to look vain or selfish. I wanted to be COOL, effortlessly cool, and I wanted to WIN without trying too hard or competing or embarrassing myself with how much I cared about winning.
In other words, I wanted what our culture told me I should want. I sometimes went against the grain, don’t get me wrong, but I was afraid of doing too much of it. And for years, I might have succeeded at seeming cool occasionally, and maybe I was even #winning now and then. I wrote cartoons, became a tv critic, made puppet videos, wrote harsh book reviews. But the stuff I loved the most (poetry, prose, earnest essays, songs, and also cartoons, puppets, goofy shit) wasn’t literary enough to matter inside my head, where I’d replaced my own values with the values of our culture. And the stuff I got praise for (criticism, essays) sometimes felt like me being an A+ student, proving how smart I was without actually feeling free and weird and brilliant and inspired.
I was reasonably stable and half-satisfied at times, but only because I started out with very low expectations. Like you, I figured that I might just wind up penniless, working odd jobs and never really getting anywhere. So finding success as a writer here and there felt miraculous. It meant that I could keep guiding my ship based on the culture’s values and I would feel okay. Fine. Work is work, it’s annoying and pesky. Just get it done and keep moving.
I’m telling you all of this because, at this soft and important juncture where you feel like a big failure, I need for you to understand one thing:
It is exceedingly hard to succeed when you don’t know what you value.
You understand SOME of what you value right now. But there are huge pieces of your identity and your soul that make you feel passionate and on fire, but you want to deny yourself these things, because they’re scary or they mean you’re bad or selfish or not good enough or embarrassing.
When I was younger, I didn’t know that I valued jokes and goofiness more than a big gold star of LITERARY VALUE, as assessed by people whose values I didn’t necessarily share. I didn’t realize that the things and the people I loved the most, out in the world, were always odd and free and earnest in ways I secretly wanted to be. I told myself that being weird on the outside was a mistake. I associated strong opinions with aggression and making other people feel small. I didn’t understand what real confidence looked like in a woman, even though my mother was often a good example of it.
I was afraid of becoming who I was, in other words. And I was also afraid of loving myself as I am. I thought I would lose everything if I gave myself what I wanted. I thought caring about the things I loved profoundly would basically erase me, because I could never live up to the passion I felt, and the world would just continue to disappoint me the way it did as a kid. Better to divest, to make myself smaller, to care less.
Right now, you’re making yourself smaller, even as you berate yourself to BE BIGGER and DO SOMETHING and WORK HARDER. You’re having trouble staying motivated because you care a lot — way too much. The stakes are too high to tolerate. Look closely at the things you fear the most, because you probably want a lot of things that live inside that knot of fears. Look closely at the things that embarrass you the most, because you probably crave using those parts of you much more.
Getting those two kittens when you did was a gift that kept you afloat. The deep connection you have with them and the responsibility you have for them is a gift that gets you out of bed some days. Stop mislabeling your gifts as curses. When you call your biggest gifts curses, that’s a sign that you don’t know how to love yourself yet. You need to start deepening your connection to the material facts of your life and notice the ways that you already support your core values, along with the ways you have always trampled on or denied or resisted those values.
You’re a person who isn’t going to settle for just any career or just any life. You aren’t easily satisfied. That’s important to recognize about yourself. You crave deep connections and big, exuberant challenges. You would rather do something very small or very very big than do something average sized.
Try to support this part of your nature. For example, don’t just exercise every day. Train for a marathon or take up CrossFit or something impossibly hard. That’s who you are. I’m not saying you’re a marathon runner, either. I’m saying you’re a person who needs a big, exuberant goal in order to do anything at all. To engage with something difficult, you need to engage with the biggest, brightest, most absurd, most deliriously deluxe version of that thing.
Good habits aren’t inspiring enough for you. Figure out what does inspire you. Get to know yourself better, and support who you already are.
But trust me, lots of people can and will understand you. And you will have a passionate, fulfilling life. You’re just 28 years old, a very difficult age for someone like you, whose expectations are sky high even though you haven’t done anything that you value much yet. 28 years old is also a beautiful age, the perfect age. All ages are the perfect age, honestly, as long as you can BE HERE.
Be here and feel what you feel. Accept this very important lull and stop calling it a curse. Call it a miracle. Use this time to pay attention to who you already are, without judgment, without neurotic, circular thinking. Be present for this miracle. If you can’t love yourself, take aim at accepting yourself. Be patient. And remember that the shortcut to embodying your values sometimes runs straight through a wild territory of becoming what you fear the most.
So be a Crazy Cat Parent right now. Love yourself anyway. Be fucking crazy, a word I lately encounter as meaning DELUXE and TENACIOUS. A core piece of you is refusing to live in the world in part because you want a more exuberant life than the ones you’re witnessing. Don’t let that shape you into a stone or an anvil or an anchor. Use your deluxe tenacity to encourage who you already are and feed the seeds of your most audacious desires.
Easy enough to just type those words, right? But we ALL NEED THIS, EVERY DAY. We ALL struggle to feed the seeds of our most audacious desires. We all have to rediscover ourselves and love ourselves for who we are, every goddamn day. Every morning, you wake up in your bed and think, “I am pretty tired. I am kind of meh. My body feels heavy. I don’t want to do much.” And then you have to give yourself what you need, which is sometimes different from what you want in that moment.
You give yourself what you need because you love yourself, you accept yourself, and you understand your own potential. Like a good parent, you see yourself as beautiful and brilliant and full of promise. If you can’t see yourself that way, you pretend you can until you can. You look in the mirror at your dumb Walter Matthau face (okay this is me now) and you say
I LOVE YOU FOR WHO YOU ARE, WALTER MATTHAU. I’M GOING TO GIVE YOU A CHANCE TO FEEL BEAUTIFUL AND BRILLIANT TODAY.
I seem to be writing about ego now, but that’s only because your ego will pop up, over and over, trying to get you to stop embarrassing yourself. But as a writer, as an artist, as an exuberant being, you’ll have to soothe your ego and relocate the bigger picture, the sweeping philosophy that guides you forward, the more EXUBERANT interpretation of what you are and where you want to explore and discover.
YOU NEED A MORE EXUBERANT INTERPRETATION OF WHO YOU ARE!
Create one. Write it down. Paint around it. Tape it to the wall. You need to remember what you value, so you can align yourself with those values. I’m not talking about anything religious or “right” or prescribed. I’m talking about whatever you adore. I’m talking about the things that make you light up. And I’m talking about the things that embarrass you.
You are incredibly ambitious. When you understand that, when you notice it, when you feel it, you are engaging with your values and engaging with your dream. That’s joy you can feel in this moment. And life is just a series of moments where you reach for that joy or you reject it. Make it your habit to reach for the joy of supporting your enormity, your vivid colors, your delicious, resistant rage, your gigantic fears. Make your soggy morning into a vulnerable work of art. You’re in such a fragile place. Take some fragile photographs from that fragile spot. Write your way around the folds of your fragility, your soft hopes, your enormous, exuberant dreams.
Do that now. Keep your eyes off any and all finish lines. Live today exuberantly.
This is your moment to start respecting your own ambitious, instead of trying to hide them. This is the hour to learn how to honor your exuberance. I don’t care what you spend your time doing. All that matters is that you love yourself enough to make some room for what makes you shine, what turns you on, what opens your heart as wide as it will go. All that matters is that you say to yourself, I don’t always love you, but I will give you what you need to thrive. I will aim higher, to honor you. I will love more. I will show myself completely.
That’s joy. Stop denying yourself joy. Give yourself what you crave.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly. I’m making this one free because it’s about being broke and ambitious! If you need a free one-year subscription because you’re struggling financially, write to me: email@example.com. If you want to help fund those freebies and/or you’d like to get Ask Polly in your In box twice a week:
Wow, wow, wow. "This is your moment to start respecting your own ambitious, instead of trying to hide them." Beautiful, Polly & impeccable timing.
I was in a very similar situation to LW 2 years ago, unemployed and at a loss. All my passionate, ambitious energy was exhausted through beating myself up and obsessing over my failures. Today (no joke) I officially launched my own small business, something I never could have seen myself doing even 2 years ago, because it's kind of weird, because I'm sure there's someone more qualified, because creating it requires owning and honoring a big part of who I am without reservations. Because I was crippled by guilt and shame.
I'm not kidding when I say unemployment (and having to work a minimum wage retail job while paying off student loans, not utilizing the degree I have etc) was the humbling and reality check I needed to start on the path toward doing the things I actually want to be doing with my life. It was horrible too, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But I think what it initially taught me was: hey, I did the "respectable", I did the smart things, and not only did they not make me happy.. but they didn't guarantee any sort of physical or financial security. And actually I feel further away from myself because I did them. So I might as well do what I want...?
I understand the benefit and necessity of playing the long game. So if being a real estate agent can provide you the grounding and consistency to pursue your creating/writing dreams on the side, I think that's a solid decision. But if it's just a distraction.. if it's just going to spin you around in a circle instead of helping you get closer to the beautiful life you deserve, then maybe there's something else that could support the bigger vision for your life.
Sending you SO much love!!
I deeply love this question and this answer.
When I was twenty-eight I was at the tail end of writing a book. I knew I loved writing, and I had done some academic research in my early twenties that I thought would make a good book topic. I spent five years writing and rewriting the book; I submitted it to 80 agents and got two offers, I was high on my early success.
But the book wasn't...good. It wasn't good to *me.* It was an opportunistic book, something I pushed myself to write in order to become a Published Author. That act of writing it was miserable, jammed into corners around my other career and always approached with dread.
When my agent finally sent out the manuscript was roundly rejected by every publisher. After mourning the failure for over a year, a therapist recommended that I print the manuscript, gift wrap it, and put it on a shelf. That little package with a bow on top has followed me through three moves and still lives in my closet.
It took me another five years to start writing things I actually believe in, which turns out, like Heather, to be deeply personal essays. It feels totally different, in my body. Sure, I'm not always psyched to sit down and write, but overall my projects now have a warm, glowing aura versus existing as dark holes of struggle.
So basically, I agree wholeheartedly: pushing yourself even harder at something that isn't a fit with *you* will inevitably lead to a dead end.
I also love the characterization of 28 years old: "a very difficult age for someone like you, whose expectations are sky high even though you haven’t done anything that you value much yet." So true 😂