Landscape: Grey and Pink (1979) by Helen Lundeberg
I recently did something really uncharacteristic — I slept with a married person. I am not reckless generally and I'm not interested in casual sex or pursuing people in relationships, so it was a shock. There was a fuck ton of alcohol involved. (I was secretly in love with her, so it wasn't like it was totally from nowhere, but I'm also reasonable and logical and moralistic to a fault, when sober. It's a one-night accident.) It was fun and thrilling in the moment, then fraught and sad for weeks after. We seem to be getting past it now and I can add her to the unrequited love pile and move on to the next.
The thing about the night I would like to chase, however, is the recklessness. The not doing everything right according to some invisible moral compass. I want spontaneity. Risk. Chances. I absolutely don't want to be in high-dudgeon drama constantly, but I do want to know that an unpredictable night doesn't have to be a once-in-years anomaly, and I want to know I can make that happen without any substances. I don't mean just with dating, but socially, at work, in my art, in my alone time.
I don't know if I've given you enough to go on, so maybe this is more of a general question: What kind of internal (or external) work do I need to be doing to convince myself to mix it up more? How do I relinquish control and surrender, so that new and/or surprising things can happen in a way that's good for me?
Bored With Life
I really love your question. When I was younger, every time I drank I had this feeling like the world was full of possibilities and promise. I had the sense that I was about to make lifelong friends or fall in love or tell someone what they really meant to me. If I drank enough and I was talking to a circle of friends, I would often begin to suspect that we were all about to dance or make out or pledge to live together forever.
I sometimes steered conversations in the direction of these sorts of actions or pledges or promises. I wanted to seize the opportunity to create that kind of spontaneous, surrendered communion that just didn’t seem possible in my normal life.
At the time, I thought of my drinking self in very concrete terms: I drink and feel really good and it’s hard to stop drinking. I drink and I have a physical sense of how beautiful the world is, and how much I love the people in it. I drink and everything becomes FUN again.
Many years later, I can see that there was a lot more going on: I was very lonely and afraid of vulnerability and I had so much to say, but I told so few people about the enormity of my feelings and the weight of my passions. I only expressed how I felt about other people when I was drunk. I only dared to state my values out loud when I was drunk. When I was drunk, I also sometimes dared to dance and sing and challenge people’s opinions and make out with strangers. These might not be the wisest or most appropriate actions, but they did hint that there was an effusive, flamboyant, affectionate baby living under my skin.
Some people get drunk and throw empty beer bottles at the wall or spiral into a self-hating funk. I got drunk and became the giant, aggressive bunny rabbit host of a disco party that evolved into a group therapy session and then evolved into an outright orgy.
I was a happy drunk. (And a less happy, less expressive, more anxious and depressed hungover person.) A lot of the time when I was sober, I walked around asking Why do we live this way? I couldn’t understand adult life. It was so serious, so humorless, so drab, so full of bland activities and niceties and pointless chatter.
The values and desires lurking under my recklessness are clearer to me now: I wanted to have more conversations that expressed the truth of how I felt. I wanted to feel more connected to the people around me. I wanted to FEEL MY LOVE for others in a way I couldn’t in my normal life. I wanted to celebrate the fact that I was alive. I had a fundamental, unrelenting urge to express my gratitude for life by dancing and singing and kissing strangers (most of whom I experienced as delightful and precious when I was drinking). In other words, my joy at being drunk wasn’t *just* a matter of letting go of control or surrendering to the moment or trusting myself, though those elements were in play to some extent. When I drank and acted out, I was almost always trying to share the loving, exuberant baby living under my skin.
Intermittently showing my real feelings in such a compulsive way only added to my shame. What I really wanted was to be that fun, affectionate child out in the open more often. I’ve slowly been moving in that direction for years, and the more accepting of myself I’ve become, the less reckless and compulsive my expressive child needs to be.
But sometimes when I’m having a bad day and my defenses are in place, I have to remind myself that my core self is exuberant and spilling over with emotions and sensations and ideas. The moral here is that it’s easy to forget how FULL you are when you’re afraid of showing yourself, or you’ve fallen into the bad habit of telling yourself that no one wants what you have to give.
Yesterday I was shopping for stuffed Easter bunnies online and I found this toy company that poses its animals with tiny babies. The photos were incredible, and I found myself staring at them for a long time. Each baby had such a unique, joyful, loving face.
And then last night, I was talking to a close friend about how a friend of his feels like she’s not enough for the guy she’s dating. He was asking me what I would tell her to make her feel better, but I kept getting stranded on this imaginary island full of adorable baby faces. All I managed to say was, “It’s such a crime against humanity, not recognizing how special you are!”
His friend is a generous, sweet soul. Many more people will love her with all of their hearts, once they get to know her. She will always be loved because she’s inherently lovable. To walk around not being able to see that about herself is just so wrong.
We’re all inherently lovable. When babies are small, you can see the enthusiasm and love on their faces. They’re open to everyone and everything, full of hope and affection for whatever amazing new discoveries they’re about to make. I have a photo of my older daughter at 18 months, smiling at her teddy bears and talking to them like they were her best friends. That’s who I was as a drunk twentysomething, too. I wasn’t always that respectful or appropriate, but all I really wanted was to show my love and affection for the teddy bears around me. It felt like such a relief to be drunk sometimes, because it gave me a chance to return to my core self and encounter other people like they were as gentle and loving as teddy bears. When I was drunk, I believed that my teddy bear friends understood and were cheering me on and would enjoy whatever weird jokes or songs I had to offer.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the illusions you hold dear as a drunk person or as a madly-and-recklessly-in-love person or even as an adulterous person reflect some things that are real and true and good about you. And our culture — in particular, the culture of therapy — sometimes can’t handle the internal contradictions and uneasy conflicts there. Instead, even a reasonably good therapist (or a good friend, or the voice of reason inside your head) will tell you that your drunk self is ALL BAD and needs to be scolded back into a dark hole.
That’s why I love your letter. You’re not leading with your shame. You’ve taken responsibility for your mistakes, but you also recognize that there was some vital energy driving you to dive in and connect and be more vulnerable, and you don’t want to lose that magic. You want to find a way to surrender to that child’s initiatives more often.
But just as the answer isn’t moralistic scolding, it’s not recklessness, either. The answer is slowly becoming who you actually are, every day, on the outside. That includes not just tolerating the world’s disapproval, but changing the world in order to make more room for who you are.
Most people just break down and act out. It makes sense to act out, when you spend too many days or weeks or years in a row refusing to understand yourself as a unique, joyful, loving soul who just wants to smile at some teddy bears and feel good about it. It makes sense to believe you’re not good enough, when you spend your days scolding the effusive baby inside you. That’s why feeling like you’re not good enough is such an abomination, and why feeling bored with life is such an abomination. Both stem from the same feeling: Life is not enough for me because I am not enough.
When you live inside the illusion that you’re failing yourself, or that someone else’s adoration and attention determines your value, or that some external factor outside of your control dictates your happiness, you’re misaligned with nature. When you believe you’re not enough for someone else or you’re not enough for this life, you’re willfully ignoring the unique, joyful baby inside you that just wants to play and be loved. When people have affairs, sometimes what they’re really saying is I deserve to play. I deserve love. I deserve to make a mess.
Grabbing these things compulsively is a way of avoiding the much harder work of examining your deeper needs and desires. Sadly, that’s what so many people do, because most of us live in a hyper-controlled state of aiming at the future and fulfilling our duties as adults, as if we’re just some smoothly functioning pieces of a bigger machine. When we live that way, we fall out of sync with our real purpose on the face of this planet.
You have a very specific magic to share with this world. And yet here you are, trudging along bored and numb, not daring to express how big and colorful you are, or how deeply in love you are, or how full of exuberance and joy you are. Here you are, tricking yourself into thinking you’re not enough, yet again. Here you are, believing that you don’t have boundless joy and endless love to share with the world, simply because someone else (who also might’ve lost sight of their own gifts) can’t see you that clearly. Here you are, trusting someone else’s hasty, incomplete impressions of you more than you trust the truth that lives inside your cells, that you have magic to offer others, that you have joy to spread, that some core part of you wants to dance and sing and share this joy as much as you possibly can.
Living in a rigid, moralistic, punitive state indefinitely usually includes collecting proof that you aren’t special, you aren’t unique, and no one really cares. You’re frowning at your teddy bear, certain that it doesn’t really love you, not really. That’s when you say cavalier things like, “I can add her to the unrequited love pile and move on to the next.”
Don’t do that. That’s a drunk cheater talking. That’s a compulsive drinker, making a joke out of something that mattered so much that it still hurts. Relish what you loved about her. Mourn what you lost. Rejoice in how much sensation lived there. You can resolve never to return to that behavior without disowning your passion. You can have a sense of humor about how foolish you were without turning your back on your own ardent heart.
I’ve done a lot of dumb things over the years. I will allow myself to regret some of my choices. But I won’t let myself abandon my exuberant baby, or make myself feel stupid for being who I am. When you own your intensity and stand up for your wilderness, you don’t have to surrender or let go of control or act out or make a big dramatic demonstration of how you feel. You learn to dance in little, mundane ways every day. You learn to sing in everyday conversations. You see teddy bears everywhere.
If you want to feel more spontaneous and free — socially, at work, in your art, and in your alone time — you need to learn to love the unique, joyful baby that lives under your skin. Deep, meaningful connections are possible, but only when you give yourself the right to display your huge heart, even when other people don’t approve or don’t agree or aren’t convinced. You can’t lead with dismissive jokes about who you are. I know you’re a romantic so that makes it hard not to feel embarrassed by yourself a lot. It’s normal to try to cover your tracks. But it’s much more invigorating to show up and state your values out loud. It feels better to say:
Life doesn’t have to be like this!
Relationships don’t have to be like this. We don’t have to imitate each other until we’re dead. We don’t have to hide from each other for years, then blame each other for the things we never said, for the love we never shared, for the times we backed away instead of dancing, for the nights we complained instead of singing — THE WAY WE WERE BORN TO DO.
We don’t have to live like this. We can wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and see a hopeful, happy baby there, waiting for the day to show her something new. We can see the hopeful babies behind other people’s faces, and we can give them our love. We can tell them: You’re special. You matter. I see you.
Surprising new things are happening in your life already, BWL. Your intention to live differently has welcomed these events. Open your eyes. You don’t have to follow anyone else’s map. You don’t have to be cautious and ashamed of yourself anymore. You don’t have to be tough and unflappable. You just have to remember who you really are.
You were born sweet and gentle and unique. You loved silly, stupid little things with all of your heart, remember? You saved smooth rocks like they were diamonds. You watched the warm ocean wash the sand away from your bare toes, hour after hour, not wanting to move from that spot. You saw the leaves turn upside down as the storm rolled in. You craved the rain and savored the thunder and relished the lightning.
You were born to love the smooth rocks saved in your pockets. You were born to cherish these gray clouds. You were born to treasure every soiled and misshapen piece of this precious planet, to hoard every spring breeze, to hungrily soak in every ray of sunlight, to slip into a trance at the songbird’s call, and to fall in love over and over again.
You were born affectionate and grateful and full of love. Show yourself.
When you show yourself, you make more space in the world for other people to show themselves. When you smile at a grumbly stranger on the subway, you make more space for teddy bears to come out and play.
Don’t forget who you are. You are enough. Show yourself. Come out and play.
Thank you for reading Ask Polly.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I made the conscious decision to throw my whole self, everything, into work. Work has always been a core part of me, for better or (mostly) for worse, but this decision was explicitly a defence mechanism against the terrifying, uncertain backdrop of 2020.
And work did become my everything. And I can recall few times in my life where I felt so exuberant. It was intoxicating!
The excuse of “performing for capitalism” let me bring my whole self, in the same way being drunk can also allow that excuse. Even at the time, though, I knew it wasn’t about anyone else or even for anyone else, and that it wasn’t even a performance… it was me letting my exuberant baby finally come out to play, and claim love, and make a mess.
Over time, this devolved into a very intense but ultimately destructive friendship with a coworker. I found myself eroding my own boundaries of what was appropriate, questioning my relationships, etc. etc. I’m relieved that “nothing” ever “happened”, but I feel an intense pang of shame any time I see a headline about some shit like “emotional infidelity”.
Since that whole situation unravelled, I’ve completely shut down. Anytime my inner exuberant baby makes itself known, I back away fast. My whole thing lately has been "why fucking bother". Another defence mechanism, for sure.
I’m so thankful to BWL for sharing their story and for this Ask Polly response: allow yourself to feel everything without holding on to shame; fill your pockets with smooth rocks that always look like gems when wet but transmute into soiled, misshapen stones when dry, and appreciate them just the same; remember that "it doesn’t have to be this way" and that the exuberant baby is still in there.
Personally, I feel like this response gave me permission to try again, and I sincerely hope BLW is able to try again (and again and again) to allow themselves the spontaneity and exuberance that’s already at their core. <3
Oprah needs to get on this shit.