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'I Hate Myself and I'm Miserable Every Day!'
When you view your needs and desires as a moral failure, you turn your body against itself. Forgive yourself and grant yourself the right to want more.
Cloud Shadows (1966) by Helen Lundeberg
I am a 25-year-old woman who is convinced, in the spirit of her eternal pity-party, that she has never felt happiness nor will she ever be able to.
By all accounts, I should be satisfied and grateful. I was raised in a family of means, received world-class education, and now I work at a prestigious institution. My husband is loving, caring, and will do anything for me. I have a few friends, albeit most of them scattered around the world. I had wanted to move to another country twice in my life, and both times I got my wish. I want for nothing.
And yet, my whole life I am haunted by dissatisfaction and self-hatred. I have given up on battling my eating disorder, and now I have resigned to just live with it. I am convinced that I am not worthy of anything and I live with a perpetual suspicion that I am actually a terrible, vile person, who is not only unbearable to be around, but is also hideous and gross all-around. I think about the abuse I had endured as a child on a daily basis and cannot shake the horror of it that seems to permeate every little behavioral quirk and thought pattern of mine.
Frankly, the call is not just coming from inside the house. I hate my job, despite the fact that I fought for it and desperately prayed to receive the offer when I first interviewed. My career choice was a huge mistake. I am unhappy with my recent move to another continent, despite the fact that my husband and I worked for it tirelessly for over two years. I simply feel lonely here and everything feels ugly and alien, and I miss home. I hate myself for my periodic episodes of depression and rage that are affecting my marriage and hurting my husband. I resent that the economic reality of 2023 means that even though we both work a lot and earn well above average, we still cannot afford our own house and have to rent an apartment in a gigantic, miserable building. I hate that my new city seems grey, ugly, and totally lacks the ancient sophistication of Europe that I am used to. I also hate myself for this elitist, upturned-nose tone, and by god I have tried to get rid of it. I hate my incorrigibility too.
My perspective has been disgustingly skewed my whole life. I can never make myself feel grateful and satisfied for all that I have. People would kill to have my life. But I always want different, always want to run away from myself and everything around me. My expectations and dreamy visions never come true.
Please help me get a realistic perspective and stop all this hatred and tar filling my heart!
Dear Always Miserable,
Your dreamy visions have kept you alive. Your imagination led a sensitive child out of hell. Even what you call your disgustingly skewed perspective and your ingratitude are ragged manifestations of your passion, your will to survive, your stubborn belief that you deserve to embrace big dreams.
Every pity party you’ve ever thrown came from your deepest desire to be seen and heard and loved. Your pity parties are YOU asking YOU for love and forgiveness instead of more blame and more ways to change, to stifle your feelings, to be less weak, to be more like everyone else.
But you are not like everyone else, are you? You are rapacious. You are dissatisfied.
What if you loved that about yourself instead? What if you at least forgave it, accepted it, even enjoyed it sometimes? What if you made peace with what makes you wild and unique and ferocious? What if you stopped telling yourself what you SHOULD want and how you SHOULD act, and started to let yourself be exactly who you are instead?
Because your ingratitude is not the problem, trust me. Your shame is the problem. Your shame isn’t yet another bad choice you’re making, either — though your shame will try to convince you of that! Your shame tricks you into encountering everything from your basic needs to your biggest dreams as corrupt and wrong. Your shame makes you believe that if you were ONLY MORE GRATEFUL and LESS GREEDY and LESS TERRIBLE, life would be better. Your shame echoes the lies of our broken culture that money equals joy.
When you’re ruled by shame, your advantages in life only make you feel MORE ASHAMED.
And what are you ashamed of, exactly? You say the call is coming from inside the house, but you’re wrong. Your self-hatred is the ongoing manifestation of your abuse, and it doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to your abuser. Your abuser taught you to believe that you were unworthy of love, beneath contempt, rotten and worthless.
Your hatred and resentment and ingratitude toward many dimensions of your life are ongoing manifestations of your self-hatred. When you hate yourself, it’s impossible not to blame yourself for everything you do and see and touch. Your ugly city is all your fault, because you foolishly chose to move there. Your intolerable career is your fault, because you foolishly chose to pursue it. Every time you walk into your big apartment building, you blame yourself for it, even though you know the economic realities of 2023 made it inescapable.
You feel angry and powerless because shame is in the driver’s seat of your life. Your eating disorder is an ongoing manifestation of that shame. The dirty windshield through which you view reality is an ongoing manifestation of that shame. And your belief that you’ve made terrible mistakes that are making you miserable because you’re uniquely fucked up and deluded is also a manifestation of that shame.
Every young person who’s ever moved anywhere new wonders if they’ve made a big mistake. The difference between them and you is that everything with you is personal. You take a regular-sized leap and you immediately proclaim it a huge mistake, because your shame is in the driver’s seat. And once you’re living inside a big mistake, that’s your fault, and everything that happens is your fault, too.
There is one path out of this hell, and it’s not trying to THINK YOUR WAY toward gratitude, or trying to PROBLEM-SOLVE your way out of self-hatred. The one path out of this shame is forgiveness.
You forgive yourself for being who you are, and for wanting what you want, and for not always knowing what you want, too. You forgive yourself for hating your ugly building (I would hate it, too!) and for being a person who longs for the sophistication of Europe (I am longing for it right now, and I didn’t even grow up there!). You forgive yourself for wanting more and more and more.
And why do you want more, MORE, MORE? Because our culture teaches us to become addicted to more, sure. But mostly because you’ve never given yourself the right to want anything at all.
Look closely at how you talk to yourself every day, all day long: You aren’t supposed to feel hunger. You aren’t supposed to have preferences. Your distaste for your ugly city means you’re a spoiled asshole. Your sadness means you’re an ingrate. Your dislike of your job means you’re a lazy fool who chose the wrong career and can’t suck it up and deal.
When you have no right to anything, you want more, more, more all the time. What else is there to do? But your self-hatred and shame tell you that all of that hunger and desire is pathological and rotten and unforgivable. So now, not only are you impatient and uncomfortable and unhappy at 10 am at your desk in your office, but you also HATE YOURSELF for feeling so restless and unhappy. Your neurotic mind and its bad messages — which are an ongoing manifestation of our broken culture and an ongoing manifestation of your abuser’s attempt to erase you and your needs — make each and every moment at your job unbearable.
Your shame at being miserable IS the source of your misery. But that’s not your fault and it’s never been your fault. Blaming yourself for this doesn’t fix it. Being more grateful doesn’t fix this. What does fix it?
FORGIVING YOURSELF FOR EVERYTHING.
You forgive yourself for who you are. You forgive yourself for every choice you’ve made. You forgive yourself for feeling ungrateful, which is natural and normal for someone who’s been abused. You forgive yourself for not having been magically rendered happy by money and marriage and a move to another country, knowing that these things don’t deliver instant joy the way they’re supposed to, no matter what our broken culture tells us.
You are not PARTICULARLY ungrateful because you have money. You are not UNUSUALLY wretched and unlovable due to your advantages in life. You are just a person like anyone else, plagued by all of the same things that any person would be plagued by.
I hate ugly cities and big, ugly apartment buildings, too. I spent 24 years in Los Angeles, and for the first decade, I spent a great deal of my time lamenting the cement and the brown smog and the lack of trees. But I slowly learned to move my eyes to the mountains, to the sparkling light, to the sunsets. I didn’t do that through sheer force of will. I didn’t do it by yelling at myself BE MORE GRATEFUL! LOOK AT EVERYTHING YOU HAVE, YOU SELFISH BRAT!
I slowly grew to love LA, the vast cityscape and big sky and hot winds, because I slowly started to clean the dirty windshield of shame through which I saw the world. I started to forgive myself for being who I am, a picky, insatiable person a lot like you who always had a bad habit of turning my personal taste and preferences and even my deepest, most passionate desires into more reasons why I sucked and was an ungrateful slob who had everything she’d ever wanted but still, somehow, stubbornly wanted MORE.
In other words, my shame and self-hatred caused me to encounter my passions and desires and even my basic needs as proof of my own moral corruption.
Isn’t this what an eating disorder manifests as well? When you have an eating disorder, hunger itself means that you’re weak. Having any kind of a body, of any size, is always bad, because the dirty windshield of your shame tells you that you’re not the right size, you don’t have the right body, and it’s all your fault.
What I’m trying to tell you is that everything you think and feel right now springs out of shame and is exacerbated by shame. And as long as you’re ruled by shame, heaven itself will feel like hell.
That’s not your fault. Your shame has nothing to do with choices or gratitude. You aren’t just a person who decided to keep having an eating disorder or to keep feeling shitty about your life. You aren’t a person who’s simply so stubborn that she won’t stop hating herself or feeling dissatisfied. You believe that you’re to blame for your bad attitude because that’s the logic of our broken culture, which tells us that our desires and our hunger and even our personal taste are all problems that need to be fixed, corrected with MORE. We need to land somewhere else. Our longing is an affliction.
This is how shame operates: You get what you thought you wanted, and those things become even more reason to feel ashamed. Shame tells you that your sadness and anger and ongoing despair are even more proof that you’re a bad person. And our shame-driven culture tells you that you should feel ashamed of your sadness, not only because despair isn’t acknowledged or accepted by our culture, but also because our culture is driven by the myth that money should magically bring us joy.
You feel very stuck right now because even when you notice that self-hatred is ruling your life, you hate yourself for your self-hatred. The more you look at your shame, the more angry at yourself you become over how ashamed you are.
Your self-awareness (like your softest feelings and your truest desires and your hunger and your deepest passions) is encountered as a force of evil, because it only compounds your belief that you’re an ingrate, a corrupt person who makes bad choices and doesn’t deserve happiness or love.
Your abuser, in other words, has taught your cells to fight themselves. Your body is against you. Your heart is against you. Your mind is against you. Your surroundings are against you. Or that’s the illusion that started a long time ago that has landed you here.
You shake off these illusions by forgiving yourself.
Forgive yourself for being you. Forgive yourself for being a sweet, soft person who was treated roughly and unfairly. Forgive yourself for encountering your sweetness and softness as the enemy, thanks to your history of abuse. Forgive yourself for wanting things. Forgive yourself for hating ugly buildings. Forgive yourself for feeling dissatisfied.
Forgive yourself every day, every hour, every second. Be relentlessly forgiving of everything, all the time!
You must get a smart therapist. You must go to therapy with one goal in mind: I will stop blaming myself for everything. I will grant myself the right to want things. I will make room for my truest desires and feelings, which are mostly blocked from view.
That’s why you’re angry – why wouldn’t you be? Your anger and ingratitude are, in fact, a beautiful reflection of your will to survive. You want more. You know life can be better than this. Even when you accuse yourself of being an awful, unlovable ingrate, you know at some core level that you deserve more, that life can feel completely different than this, that your heart is sensitive and full of love, that your body is full of passion, that you have buried desires that don’t dare to whisper to you because you’ve always been taught that they mean you’re weak and bad.
Your rage and despair are signs that you know life can be beautiful. You still know. Your hatred of ugly buildings is a remnant of the notion that you should have a choice, that you should be able to build a life that looks and feels beautiful to you.
Your lack of gratitude is a hunger for life itself. It’s nothing to beat back or shame out of existence. When you feel ungrateful and you want more, that’s you encouraging yourself to FEEL ANYTHING AT ALL. That’s you exerting your autonomy instead of obeying the dictates of a damaged world.
That doesn’t mean you won’t find your way toward gratitude. You will. You will navigate through this stuck place, trust me. But right now, you need to recognize that most of the things you blame yourself for are actually reasons to love yourself more. You’re tenacious. You work so hard, don’t you? You overcome despair every day, and get out of bed anyway.
Forgive yourself for every mistake, and notice how strong and brave you are, for pursuing a whole new life and trusting a loving man. Look at how far you’ve come. Look at how flexible you’ve been.
It’s time to celebrate all of your victories and give yourself some credit for them. It’s time to destroy this inaccurate story about how money and a new career and a new life should magically make you happy, and if you aren’t, you’re a bad person.
It’s time to let yourself BE WHO YOU ARE and WANT WHAT YOU WANT. Only when you grant yourself the right to feel hunger and eat, to feel soft and cry, to hate your job and look for another one, to explore your personal needs and preferences out loud without shame (instead of trying to choose the Right Things, the things that mean you’re GOOD and not BAD), will you start to feel a little bit better.
Get a therapist. You’re a good person. You deserve help. You deserve to forgive yourself. You deserve to feel joy.
And you will feel joy. You will get to know your true needs without shame.
I know you don’t believe me now, but one morning you’ll wake up feeling good, and you’ll say to yourself, MY GOD, I ACTUALLY FEEL AMAZING, FOR NO REASON AT ALL! You will drive from your ugly building (I would hate it, too!) to your dumb job (I would hate your job!) and you will feel good anyway, because you won’t be blaming yourself for being who you are and feeling the way you feel.
You will feel justified in wanting more. And that will suddenly be enough.
And after work, you’ll sit in your apartment, talking to your husband about small adjustments you can make right now, to crawl toward a life that feels right. No gigantic changes just yet, just small things, little discoveries, ways to meet new people, ways to feel more affectionate and connected, ways to explore the city and enjoy the time you spend there, no matter how long that ends up being.
And the more you talk about how you honestly feel, and describe how impossibly enormous you realize your desires are, and you admit that it’s incredibly hard to allow yourself to dream big or to savor small things, that all of the things are hard for you, and you cry suddenly, and your husband holds your hand and says, “I get it.”?
That moment is enough.
That’s what forgiving yourself will do for you. It will make the present moment enough. It will make WANTING MORE acceptable, and even enjoyable, because it won’t be about obsessively mapping out an escape from the current moment. Wanting more will become a way of savoring what you have. Admitting your dislikes will be a way of embracing what you love. Being your wretched, picky, impatient, annoyed self, who hates everything, will be a way of loving yourself.
You are lovable and you deserve to feel good. Just knowing that will change the texture of this moment, of this day. Forgive your way to that knowledge. Forgive and forgive and forgive some more. You were a loving child, full of light, brilliant and stubborn and sensitive. Give her a chance to feel good. Forgive everything, every day.
More mistakes will be made. Forgive them. Keep trying. This world loves you already, for exactly who you are. Dare to believe that. Dare to feel that in your cells. Dare to let love in, and watch the whole world turn bright and vibrant and magical before your eyes.
And when you go back to your shame, back to your anger, back to your anxiety and grief over the past, forgive yourself for that, too. Try to be patient. It’s a long road out of shame. It takes years, honestly. But that’s okay, because every baby step away from your shame is going to be a new source of comfort and happiness to you. The slow road from shame to joy is beautiful, when your eyes are wide open and you’re not trying to speed through the hard parts.
The hard parts are also the good parts, once you forgive yourself and love yourself in spite of everything. The pity parties are also celebrations of your core desires, your stubborn dreams, longing to show themselves. The bad days are also a chance to acknowledge how fragile and vulnerable you are, how sensitive you were as a child and still are today.
Your path away from shame is measured in moments. It’s not about some perfect future where you are a different, better person. It’s about being your imperfect, lovable self right here, right now.
So ground yourself in this moment. Breathe in. Feel your soft heart, asking for forgiveness and love. Repeat after me: This part is hard. This part is sad. But what’s hard and sad is also beautiful. I am just a person, doing her best. My job is to enjoy this moment. That is all.
Thanks for reading and supporting Ask Polly! If your loving, rapacious soul wants more and more and more, celebrate that today. Be patient with your longing. Be good to your ragged, imperfect self. And don’t forget to check out Polly’s evil twin, Molly.