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'I Want to Be Hannah Montana!'
Dancing with your most fantastical desires feels foolish. Do it anyway.
Petunias (1924) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I've been reading your column for quite a while now, and it's been one of the rare places where I can find true solace, understanding, and motivation as I try navigating life as a 27-year-old (secretly) chaotic dreamer. I do feel like a lot of the advice and self-help nowadays fails to account for the complexity of us humans and our feelings... or at least for mine! For as long as I can remember, I have felt like something was wrong with me and that I’d have to confront the problem someday (but not today!) if I want to finally be happy.
My story is pretty much the stereotypical "gifted kid becomes depressed and awkward adult" kinda story, and I feel I have quite a good intellectual understanding of what created the problems I have. On both sides, I come from a family of (very) depressed and anxious people. For the better (or worse?), I turned out to be excellent at school stuff, and was praised for getting good grades, for being calm and well behaved, for being the "perfect" child. At the same time though, I was criticized by family, teachers, and (former) friends for either not doing well enough, doing too much, being shy, being too quiet, or being boring or uninteresting. Since I was so good at school, my mom thought it'd be good to sign me up for activities and she picked things she would have loved to do herself as a kid: I started doing music and dance lessons from the age of 3 up to around 16. The music lessons were awful, I hated them but was forbidden to quit, though I managed to have them reduced little by little. I was definitely not happy at the time, but things got worse when I was around 13. My mom started experiencing severe depression and bipolar disorder, which lasted for around 8 years, with highs and lows and many hospital stays. My dad was overwhelmed by all of this as he is quite sensitive and prone to melancholy himself, so there were no talks about what was going on and no support for my little brother and me.
It ended with my parents getting a divorce when I was around 19, my mom going back to the hospital, and then her getting progressively better. Now she's been very well for a few years, and all of this is long behind me. I have gone on to study at a prestigious school for political science, travelled a bunch for my studies, graduated from my master's and started working at an EU cultural project. Though it’s not a bad curriculum, I can't say I was really happy about my study/career choice, nor that I am particularly proud… I kinda knew all this time that this was not the best path for me, but I kept at it. I also saw a few therapists to talk about my mother's depression, and more recently about myself, but I know I still have a lot to go through because I struggle immensely with expressing myself, both in real life and in therapy. I find I'm always diminishing my true feelings and wants, always questioning what I should do, never daring to make any decision, and there isn’t a single person I feel I can be 100% relaxed and myself with. I’m not sure I’m even being 100% myself with myself!
When I was a kid, I dreamt of becoming an actor or a star like Hannah Montana, but never mentioned it to anyone until recently, when I told it to my therapist. Seeing how difficult it was for me to express myself, he responded with something along the lines of “Yes, of course! That’s not shameful at all, you were a kid dreaming. It’s not like you're telling me you still want to be Hannah Montana now!" And though I can see he was trying to comfort me, the only thing I could think at that moment was “Well... actually... I kinda still want to be Hannah Montana!” I mean, there is a big, GIANT part of me that’s dreaming about being famous, being one of those celebrities you see on red carpets, being recognized for one of the many creative interests I have. I mean I'm always dreaming about being a famous writer or actor or musician or poet or artist or jewelry maker! And the thing is I don't see how to get there. I don't know what I should focus on. Nothing in my real life compares to this big fantasy. My life couldn't be further away from it, actually!
A few months ago, I quit my job feeling like I was finally going to turn my life around and do things I actually enjoy for real. My plan was to maybe get back to studying or finding a new job somewhere else. Fast-forward to now, and I'm still the same depressed and anxious daydreamer who can't make up her mind about what she wants to do in life, except now I have a big gap on my resume and have grown kinda scared of getting back into an actual job. I'm still unemployed, still unsure if I should do this one-year course in UX design in Paris, or go study illustration in Barcelona, or try applying again next year to this virtual psychology degree I wanted to do at one point but failed to get into, or just get a job and try to work on creative projects on the side, hoping I'll get a big break a few years down the line and maybe get to do them full time.
Even with my creative projects I can't seem to commit. I was working on a book idea at the beginning of 2022, but I'm also always thinking about becoming a freelance illustrator, except a few weeks ago I got back into music and now I’m trying my hand at that (I can already see it: me performing on stage, shooting music videos, doing interviews, meeting the love of my life who'll also be an incredible artist...)! I'm so mad at myself for not being able to commit and give my all to one thing. I've been so paralyzed, and I don't see myself changing anytime soon. The thing is I'm quite certain I will accomplish none of these big dreams and will probably just go on living a boring life and achieve nothing of value. I'll probably just go back to living where I was born, far away from the big cities, and fade away and always feel like I missed my chance, always feel ashamed that I didn't do enough, that I didn't meet my expectations. And that's okay, I guess... but... gosh, I kinda wanted to be Hannah Montana for real!
So here it is Polly, I feel like this is a lot, but it’s the same problem you've already talked about in other letters. I guess I'm just like everyone else then. What do you think? Does all this seem reasonable to you? Sometimes I feel like people shouldn’t have praised me for being this good, talented kid because it made me believe that for some reason, I should be a special, talented, and successful adult, too! And the reality is that I’m not at all. So I’m mad. Should I just stop the fantasies and get back to planet Earth already?
Let me know.
Secretly Hannah Montana
Dear Secretly Hannah Montana,
The first thing I want you to do is walk into your next therapy appointment, sit down, and say, “I need to clarify something. I really do want to be Hannah Montana, right now. I’m not saying I’m delusional or I believe I can be her. I’m just saying that’s what I really, truly want.”
People think therapists are just mechanics of happiness, but the good ones are the most interested in wrestling with your deepest aspirations, desires, and sorrows. If you only show your shy, polite self to your therapist, you’ll only get the kinds of listening and guidance that you receive from the rest of the world. You’ll only reveal the person everyone else knows. You’ll only be reinforcing the parts of your personality that are aimed at being good – the good child, the good student, the good worker – and suppressing, along the way, the part of you that wants more, different, bigger, weirder, better.
Your work in therapy needs to become a reflection of what you keep trying to work on in life. You want to do the very difficult and vague and mysterious work of grappling with the massive gap between your most colorful dreams and the mundane world outside your door. You want to find a way to nurture the fantasy-fixated survivor inside you, who pulled you through a lonely and terrifying adolescence, without surrendering your entire life to fantasy. You want to build and dance and play in the realm of possibility and magic without placing the full weight of life expectations on any one project or initiative.
And I think, more than anything else, what you and other people like you want to understand is HOW THE DREAMERS DO IT. How do people who love art and music and poetry — people who have big, unruly fantasies about how bright and sparkling life could be — manage to enjoy and build from those vibrant parts of themselves without going broke, becoming anxious and depressed, and/or making themselves miserable?
Endless paths branch off from that question. But there is one thing that the happiest artists and authors and poets and musicians and gardeners and architects and professors I’ve met have in common: They aren’t focused on red carpets. It’s not that they’re ABOVE that fantasy, it’s just that the guiding philosophy of their lives isn’t wrapped up in money or fame. They might crave attention and connection and love (who doesn’t?), but they work hard to resist the illusion that only success will bring them happiness and romantic love and satisfying friendships with good people.
Of course lots of successful artists are fixated on status, but the ones who don’t challenge or at least manage that fixation generally aren’t that happy. Because defining success as fame and money and status means trying to turn yourself into THE ULTIMATE GOOD CHILD, the most loved, most approved of, most obedient, most widely admired human around. Your stock has to keep going up forever. To keep your stock price high, you have to become more and more important by the hour.
Oddly enough, though, the wealthiest, most successful people I met in LA often struggled to enjoy the amazing lives they had built for themselves. The tenacity and charm and hyper-awareness of the world that landed them in their privileged positions often rendered them paranoid and brittle in the face of a world that always wants younger, hotter, more exciting novelties stuffed into its ravenous maw.
Let’s ask Hannah Montana how she feels about being Hannah Montana: “I didn’t realize how much pressure I was under and how that shaped me until, like, this year,” Miley Cyrus told Harper’s Bazaar in 2017. "People were so shocked by some of the things that I did [as a pop star]. It should be more shocking that when I was 11 or 12, I was put in full hair and makeup, a wig, and told what to wear by a group of mostly older men."
Becoming rich and famous doesn’t bring you joy and endless peace. No matter how successful or happy you are, you don’t cross a finish line in life and then you’re good. Every single day is a new quest for connection, meaning, and joy.
Joy requires hard work for everyone – the hard work of getting up and facing your life as it is, and being patient and gentle with yourself no matter how dreary reality looks some days. Joy requires going back to projects you abandoned and recognizing why you abandoned them, or, picking them up and daring to believe in them again. Joy requires starting new things without shame. Joy requires dabbling and proclaiming yourself a proud dabbler. Joy requires believing in who you are, as you are.
But forget the work of creativity or the work of connection. Most of all, joy requires you to shape yourself into a welcoming, open receptacle for joy. You don’t know where the joy will come from, you only know that you will take an inviting shape and notice what’s floating in your direction.
Joy can be fleeting. But it’s also joyful just to welcome joy. It’s also joyful to resolve, at the very moment when you feel the most soggy and exhausted and resentful, to coax yourself into an open, welcoming state of mind.
Here’s a mundane example: I have a zit on my nose this morning in spite of the fact that I’m 3,000 years old. If I informed my teenage self that this was my fate, she’d set her hair on fire and run into the street screaming.
But I ignored the zit. I turned on my treadmill desk, and started to sift around on my messy desktop, trying to figure out what to work on today. I opened a few files and felt uninspired. I have five new projects that I’m wavering on at the moment. I can’t decide which one is the most important.
So I’m feeling pretty goddamn discouraged and that’s when I see your letter on my desktop. It’s just called Dear Polly because that’s what you named it when you sent it as an attachment. I put it on my desktop and never read it because I am a disorganized piece of shit.
Then I open your letter and read it, but I still don’t feel inspired. What wisdom can I possibly impart, when I myself have so many competing projects that are tugging on my sleeve, saying WILL YOU EVER BE A NOVELIST IF YOU NEVER WRITE A NOVEL? And WHAT ABOUT MOLLY, BITCH? Yes, this is the disrespectful way my projects speak to me, even now, even with all of my preaching about joy. No wonder they wind up abandoned!
But a tiny part of my brain is still whispering HANNAH MONTANA. Because I really love that some stubborn part of you wants to be Hannah Montana, no matter what else is happening around you. I love that a crazy, impossible, embarrassing dream is alive inside you, and I love that you told ME about it. Hearing about your secret wish for yourself made ME feel special. And that’s a kind of special that never shows up on any red carpet.
One of my daughters said something about how fun it looks to walk the red carpet the other day and I said “That’s just a small stretch of sidewalk populated by some of the most irritating humans you’ll ever meet in your life, outside of a party-like event packed with frantic, distracted humans who are mostly preoccupied by a fire they have to put out, or an important person they have to wriggle their way in front of, or a conversation they don’t want to have. And everyone you meet at an event like that is engaged in this constant low-grade monitoring of WHO MATTERS AND WHO DOESN’T AND WHERE THEY FALL ON THAT SLIDING SCALE.”
That’s not special. Special exists in this moment. Special arrives when you’re reading an old letter from someone much younger living very far away from you, and you recognize something daring and lovable and precious there. Special starts bubbling up inside you when you dare to believe that you, an ancient witch with a pimple forming on the tip of her nose, might actually have something to offer a smart twentysomething an ocean or two away.
Special lives inside of fragile connections with other people who understand what it means to have colorful fantasies of how life should be. Special is learning to tell people who you are and what you love. Special is daring to love your stubborn, hopeful self as you are right now. It’s a practice. It feels dumb at first. But for someone who had trouble showing herself to others, it’s absolutely crucial. And look, you’ve already taken the first step: You wrote to me. You stuck your neck out. You showed yourself. That’s special.
When you sat down to write me a letter, that was you taking a welcoming shape that invites joy into your life. And when I ignored my bullying projects and slowed down and asked myself “What’s here?”, that was me taking a welcoming shape. And now I feel special and I also feel joyful. Because I love reflecting on the magic that lives inside feelings of longing. I love love love encouraging someone else to DARE TO FEEL A DEEP CONNECTION to their own delusional Hannah Montana self, that stubborn dreamer who believes in beauty and grace and romance and even melancholy. These sublime dimensions of human existence aren’t just fantasies that keep us addicted to becoming someone other than our true selves. That’s Hollywood’s story, an inaccurate and clumsy morality tale told by people who’ve allowed the poisonous atmosphere of MATTERING and ENDLESSLY APPROACHING INFINITY FAME to infect their brains.
What you want is the specialness of one small thing that inspires you and touches your heart. You need to relish the specialness of trying and often failing but continuing to try anyway. You need the specialness of deeper connections that are forged by telling your therapist and one or two precious friends the whole truth about exactly what a dreamer you are at heart, without feeling ashamed of it.
This is the important stuff of life. This is the shape you take to invite joy. But you MUST love that part of you that wants to be Hannah Montana fiercely enough that you take her out of your room and into the world and you introduce her to people. You also need to feed her and encourage her. She is not always GOOD. She does not always obey. Some days your abandoned projects will tell you that their existence means you’re a loser. That’s when you need Hannah Montana to remind you that abandoned projects are beautiful manifestations of a heart that cares a lot and sometimes gets scared and runs away. Each unfinished project marks a moment of real inspiration. These artifacts are precious proof that you want to create magic in your life.
It’s completely normal to be conflicted about which path to pursue. It’s normal to be indecisive and afraid of everything. Not every project is meant to be finished. It’s also very hard to finish anything until you stop seeing your unfinished work as proof that you’re a quitter. Instead of giving yourself a hard time about this very normal state of affairs, try to celebrate the fact that you have so many interests, skills, talents, and sources of inspiration.
There is no moral to the way you’re living. You are not DESTINED to flail and fail. You must retire these terrible stories. You are not aimed at some finish line. Every day, you are involved in the hard work of living.
You’re figuring things out. You’re devoting energy to experimentation. Have a little faith in that process. Be patient with yourself. Eventually, you’ll choose path that feels reasonably rewarding. You don’t have to commit your entire life to it. The most important thing — more important than the career you pick at this particular moment — is that you learn to celebrate the Hannah Montana part of you. Figure out how to enjoy and support that dreamy being. Honor her. Grapple with what she brings to your life. Take her to therapy. Treat her with kindness. Forgive her.
She’s such an important part of who you are. And what you’re telling me is that you want to keep believing in her. You want to believe in magic. You just need to make sure that you don’t get too distracted by external measurements of success. Because the real joy comes from making things you love. The joy lies in the work itself — in engaging with your craft and believing in it and talking to other people about it.
Don’t expect every single creation to be perfect. Don’t expect to finish everything you start. Being an artist and inviting joy into your life requires you to take an UNFINISHED shape most of the time. You are a work in progress. You are here to receive this day’s inspiration. That takes patience and compassion for yourself. It’s not about getting somewhere else. It’s about being who you are and living where you are, every day.
So love each thing you make for what it is, and celebrate the fantasy-fixated survivor inside of you. That’s you taking a shape that welcomes joy. Trust it.
Then take that shape out in the world. Welcome new, mysterious sources of joy. Watch them come floating in your direction. Feel it. This is your power. This is what makes you special. Believe in it. It is everything.
In the comments section, let’s talk about relishing our most embarrassing dreams. Right now, I’m taking a novel structure class and voice lessons, both over Zoom. There’s something so tasty and important about being a big, clumsy novice! Tell me how you manage your inner Hannah Montana. Feel free to share this column with a friend, and consider subscribing if you’re not a subscriber yet.