'I'm Bored and Dissatisfied and I Have No Idea What I Want From My Life!'
Your mother taught you not to trust yourself when it's exactly what you need the most.
Ocean (1979) by Helen Lundeberg
I’m in my mid 20s and it feels like I have been stuck in a cycle of discontent for about eight years now (since I started university). I don’t trust myself, and am basically lost in every aspect of the world, and am terrified that it will always feel like this.
Most recently I have moved to a new city, have started a new job, and am in a fairly new relationship. My issue is I feel dissatisfied. My job is fine some days but sometimes very boring due to all the sitting in front of a computer screen. This leads me to have frequent existential/overthinking meltdowns which distract me from my work, one of which led me to write this letter in the middle of a work day (I work from home). My boyfriend is sweet but a bit disengaged and I don’t think I feel passionate enough about him/us and kind of wish I had listened to my gut instinct and broken it off earlier with him but now we have reached this place of feeling comfortable.
Me and my mother have always had a bit of an enmeshed relationship, which has lead to a lot of internal confusion and distress. She convinced me to do a rather specific degree when I was young and didn’t know what I wanted (at all). I hadn’t really even considered university yet as I was still finding my feet. I don’t remember all the details but she would get so upset and fretful if I expressed other wishes or any doubts about what she wanted me to do. I was extremely unhappy and confused at university because it’s like I wasn’t even the one who had made the decision to go there, and I was introduced into this idea that life had become something that was forced upon me, and that there was no way out. She would suggest that if I dropped out my life would be a complete failure/disaster and I would be totally lost. I had also been experiencing severe anxiety for quite some time which added to the difficulty (which my mum would always see as something I had just made up in my head). So anyway, I managed to graduate university and after finishing I did some traveling and tried out a couple of different jobs. I also impulsively decided to do a masters degree which I got halfway through before the Covid pandemic and just general mental health struggles led me to drop-out.
Regarding jobs, I have so many fantastical ideas, and they’re all quite random. I like working outside, with my hands, and making things... But I guess I should probably stick it out with my new job for a bit longer.
My mother also tends to get quite involved with my love life, constantly telling me I am too picky and that I should basically just give anyone a chance. Last year, her nagging started to make me feel ashamed and stressed out, so I started dating and basically jumped into the relationship I find myself in now.
I know I am an active participant in this mother/daughter dynamic, because I find myself going to her for advice and assurance. She often says I am just being pessimistic and just need to be grateful. I also know that I *can* be ditzy, unfocused, and naive so I can understand why this might trigger her controlling instincts, yet she has a habit of controlling everyone around her. I have gone through so many phases of rebellion and detachment, I do feel like I have developed emotionally and matured, but I am still stuck with the echoes of the same internal dilemma. We are very close and I like spending time with her but it’s like all of her unhelpful opinions are now ingrained in me no matter how much I try to intellectually reprocess them.
How do I learn to see myself as capable and stop feeling a deep need for external validation? I know there is no wrong or right way to be or live but I still crave guidance. How do I find happiness? I feel like it’s impossible for me. It feels like there’s never enough time to make important decisions. Every decision I make kind of feels made out desperation, to escape a living situation, to start afresh somehow. Then I end up feeling rootless and lost and rushed, like I have so many stints at life but never a consistent image to hold onto. I have a terrible fear that I don’t possess the courage or knowledge to make these big life changes, or to say no or to change my mind about a person or a situation, because of how I failed to know what I wanted in the past. I am embarrassed that I don’t know my own mind. I just want to create a life for myself that I feel happy with.
Lost and Confused
Dear Lost and Confused,
When your mother talks about what’s right for you, she’s usually talking about what works for her. That’s true for most mothers, but it’s particularly true for your mother, who has spent your whole life telling you how to proceed based on her values and needs.
“How else can a mother be?” you might ask. A mother can be a person who, as you grow older, shifts from telling you what to do next (wash your face, brush your teeth) to asking you to experiment and see for yourself what you like and don’t like. A mother can go from quieting your tantrums when you’re tiny to listening closely and asking good questions when you say “I feel negative” or “I feel lost.” A mother can encourage you to notice and pay close attention when you feel confused or uncertain without immediately trying to squelch those emotions because they make her feel anxious. When you’re upset, a mother can say, “These feelings aren’t ‘bad,’ they’re informative and worthwhile, because they’re telling you what you want from your life, letting you know which things bring you joy and satisfaction, what feels incomplete or unacceptable to you.”
We can forgive your mother for being just like many if not most of the mothers in the world. These are ordinary mistakes that most parents make. I’ve made them myself! Most people hate feeling out of control of their lives more than they hate anything else on the planet, and nothing in the world makes you feel more out of control than a child who grows rapidly into an independent person. Suddenly your tiny baby has her own mind, her own ideas about the world, her own needs and desires, many of which are very, very different from yours. And her truest desires and values sometimes take the shape of sadness, rage, disappointment, shame, and confusion, particularly when she’s young and hasn’t figured out what makes her happy yet.
But even as we fill our hearts with love and forgiveness for your mother and all of the other parents who make the mistake of trying to tell their children exactly what they should want and what they will need and how they must live, we also have to say this, clearly:
THESE PARENTS ARE MAKING A HUGE MISTAKE.
Teaching your child that she can’t trust her own instincts and follow her own heart is the biggest mistake a parent can make. This mistake is why I make a living writing this column. I guess I should thank parents for making this mistake so often. But I’d rather be broke and live in a world where parents understand how to cultivate self-trust, confidence, and passion in their children. That world would look very different than the world we live in, which is filled with bewildered, dissatisfied adults who eventually power down their emotions so much that they don’t even expect joy from their lives anymore.
Now obviously we are all twitchy, impatient, hard-to-please animals. We want what we want, and our culture does very little to help us to develop into mature, enlightened beings who feel fully alive and well. Our culture rarely advertises the deep satisfactions of hard work, or promotes a patient devotion to a cause without obvious rewards, a deep connection to our own bodies and desires, or a meaningful, gentle connection to others. What our culture teaches us is that life should unfold like a shopping spree: You get the friends, the degree, the boyfriend, the job, and then you start having kids. You do the things everyone else does to get these things, and you are satisfied with them until you aren’t, and when you aren’t you upgrade, get something better, throw the old thing away without thinking about it.
You don’t overthink it. You don’t feel too much. Even with so many self-help gurus and influencers and TV shows and movies blasting out words about feelings and self care, in our day-to-day lives we are constantly told that emotions are scary, they need to be controlled, they are the enemy. No matter how often outspoken pundit types lament the rise of the needy, incapable snowflakes of the world, it’s STILL not that socially acceptable for ordinary people to look deep within for answers, for peace, for a richer connection to the world around them. Nope! In most circles, we are expected to simply do what other people do and shut the fuck up about it.
And the irony is that NOTHING makes you a needier snowflake than believing in your heart that you can’t trust yourself, that you’re incapable, that you SHOULD quiet your emotions, and that you’re bad and selfish and lazy if you can’t fit in easily with the world as it is.
Nevertheless, at every turn we’re taught that the only way to avoid being ditzy, unfocused, naïve, and dissatisfied in your 20s (which, by the way, is a description of almost every 20-something I’ve ever known) is this: You make a plan and you stick to it. You are serious and focused. You know what you can afford and what comes next. You stay the course even when things feel wrong. You repeat your beliefs and values, which are actually just the beliefs and values of the people around you. MIND OVER MATTER.
And when you fail at this and you say something like “Why do we live this way?” or “I might like working outside better than this” or “Why do I feel worse after talking to my boyfriend than I did before I spoke to him?” the smart, serious, pragmatic stoics around you say things like “Why are you doing this? We were having a perfectly nice time and then you got all weird.”
And look, lots of people prefer to live in that pragmatic, unquestioning place for the stretch of their whole lives. That’s how so-called civilized society works these days. Let’s go ahead and throw all of those inquiry-averse humans in with the well-meaning parents who inadvertently teach their kids not to trust themselves, and let’s forgive all of them together. This is not some bullshit gesture, either! Deep, thoughtful exercises in forgiveness are part of the heavy lifting of learning to trust yourself. Compassion is the bedrock of deep connection and it’s also one of the primary building blocks of optimism.
That’s what we want for you right now, even more than a big-picture plan: compassion and optimism. I don’t think it’ll be easy for you to move forward without making a kind of internal break from your mother, so you can figure out what your own private thoughts, ideas, emotions, and deep needs are. But I also don’t think it’ll be easy for you to navigate the world without honoring your love and affection for her. You’ll have to be patient with her when she pushes back on the things you want, too. It might be harder for her than it is for you, because she’s more stuck and rigid than you are. So compassion is a crucial element of how you move forward. Every single night, I want you to write down reasons you should forgive your mother for who she is. This is also a path to gratitude and optimism, and — crucially — it leaves some room for you to feel dark emotions, too, which is something you might be craving right now.
When you’re depressed and anxious, sometimes darkness is what brings you back to the light. When you make some room for the truth of your most negative feelings, you free yourself from the tense, blocked state of carrying those bad feelings around yet trying to suppress them around the clock. People like to say that negative feelings are bad for your health, but it’s more accurate to say that repressing negativity can be very stressful and exhausting for many of us. Because once you let a so-called negative feeling show itself and express itself, once you enter a place where you have space and time to accept the full force of your humanity, including your sadness and anger, you’ll find that you feel a million times lighter for a while. It’s like throwing up. You’re tormented from holding all of that anger and sadness in, and when you let it go, you feel less sick.
The way your life is currently set up, no one will want you vomiting around them. So I really do want you to commit to finding a therapist. You have a lot of soul searching to do — as most people do in their 20s and early 30s, particularly when they have a parent’s voice ringing in their ears around the clock.
And to be clear, I don’t think your mother has been wrong about everything. When you’re not sure what you want, it’s not a bad idea to get a degree or stay at a job that bores you for a tiny bit longer than you might like. Sometimes not changing anything at all is the very best move a confused person can make in that moment. It releases you from this neurotic place where SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE FIXED, and allows you to be patient and observe your emotions as they come and go. Remember that once you’re the boss of you, which is how it should be, it will always be possible to quit things. I am a big, big fan of quitting; it’s why I have a career I love now. But there are also times when you’re not fully equipped to FACE THE VOID.
This is why I want to caution you against confronting your mother, dumping your boyfriend, quitting your job, and getting a job as a landscaper all in the same month. I mean, some people do big, dramatic things like this and they go incredibly well. But there is some risk to that all-or-nothing approach when you don’t trust yourself yet and still have your mother’s voice in your head telling you that you’re helpless and incapable. I think that the first step is to address this voice, notice it, observe it, and also tell it (the voice in your head, not your actual mother) to go fuck itself.
There is no perfect, easy path forward, to be clear, even if you slow down and live where you are without trying to change anything yet. You will feel lost and sad often over the course of your life. You will feel confused and overwhelmed over and over. Expect it. Life doesn’t get better and then stay perfect forever.
But you wouldn’t want that life. When I read your letter, I get a clear sense that you want to feel deeply connected to yourself and others. You want to know why you do what you do. You want passion, and meaning, and joy. And if you want those things, you have to make some space for sadness, anger, loss, rejection, and frustration, even. You can’t just sweep everything under the rug like lots of other people do. You have to let the darkness in, make space for it, express it, and forgive yourself for it. Feeling sad, mourning where things went wrong in your life, will free you from this jittery, overthinking place where you’re always trying to DECIDE SOMETHING. Giving yourself permission to follow your own desires, to acknowledge what you want, to cry when you’re disappointed, to show your true self, will teach you to trust yourself, and allow you to be exactly where you are without trying to change anything or own anything or upgrade anything.
You don’t need upgrades. You don’t need for everyone around you to change immediately. You need to learn to rely on yourself, very slowly. You need to wander and feel sad and let your natural optimism rush in. You need to let your real voice ring out through the noise and disapproval of others. You need to learn how to connect with the moment, drink it in, and suddenly believe in your own heart. You need to do these things privately even when no one around you gets it.
Find a therapist. Learn to meditate. Spend more time outside. Slowly gather information about who you are without that loud voice telling you what’s good and bad for you. This process will be slow, and it should be, so be patient. That bossy voice is LOUD, and rejecting every single thing it says and ditching everything that came from that place all at once is likely to feel like jumping off a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Take your time instead. You must be kind to yourself, above all else. Let the answers, which are living in your body now, rise up and show themselves at their own pace. What you want is not necessarily the exact opposite of what you currently have. Feel where you are.
You might feel like you’re alone on an island. I’ve lived on that fucking island, so I know how hard it can be. But listen to me, and believe one thing, even if you don’t believe anything else: You are not ditzy and unfocused and naïve. You are behaving and feeling the way a person who’s been told not to trust herself ALWAYS BEHAVES. Ditzy just means scattered, because you’re looking for real sources of joy beyond what other people tell you is worthwhile. Unfocused just means impatient, because you don’t want to do the things that other people do with their time. Naive just means idealistic and imaginative and sensitive and capable of wild brilliance that some people will never understand or achieve themselves.
This is your most important work right now: casting off this false identity that plagues you and isn’t even real. This work is crucial and necessary! And it’s not about THINKING YOUR WAY OUT OF THIS TRAP. It’s about feeling the truth, which is that you are a whole, bright, intensely focused, open-hearted person who has an enormous capacity for joy.
I know a lot of adults who were told and shown repeatedly by their parents that they were incapable of dealing with life on their own. Sometimes they threw themselves into doing the exact opposite of what their parents wanted, which could include good things like pursuing their dreams and also bad things like addiction and escapism. The key to avoiding the bad shit is to REFUSE TO BELIEVE that your mother is secretly right, that you’re lost and incapable of navigating life. The key to avoiding the bad shit is to learn to trust yourself.
And even though you might believe that there’s a whole, wise person living under your skin right now, later you might think, “Polly doesn’t know me! She doesn’t know how bad I am, how hard it is for me to focus, how dumb and clueless and fantastical I can be about everything.” This is what I used to think when I read self-help books when I was young: This person doesn’t understand how depressed and paralyzed I feel, how selfish I can be, how confused I get. The answers aren’t clear, ever. I need someone to tell me what to do.
You told me everything you love in your letter. Reread it. You know a big part of what you want. Keep feeling everything. Be dissatisfied. That’s how you should be right now. All of my dissatisfaction with bad boyfriends and bad jobs and boring, flat, pointless-looking lives led me to the good life I have right now. Where you are is good. You’re figuring out what you want, what you need, how to feel passion, how to welcome joy into your day.
This hard work never ends. That’s what’s good about it. It keeps us engaged. And joy requires engagement. It requires things that are sometimes hard. Satisfaction requires dissatisfaction. Light requires darkness.
Here’s an example from my own life: I’ve been a little dissatisfied and lost over the past month because a voice in my head is telling me I’ll never write another book. But I resolved to listen to this darkness a few days ago, and I already feel lighter and more optimistic now, because I’m committed to letting the truth of what I love, which lives in my body, rise up and show itself. I can give myself more space and time to exist in this murky place where I feel mad at myself. I can wait here for the opportunity to shatter some of my knee-jerk negative beliefs about myself, and build something more resilient in their place.
The deeper you dig for knee-jerk beliefs, the more twisted they get. I would tell you five or six of mine just to make you laugh, but they’re almost too absurd to laugh at. Yesterday, I was talking to my husband and I realized that some of my most screwy beliefs right now are “I got cancer because I’m selfish and lazy” and “I will never be as good a person as my husband is” and “I don’t have any new insights to offer the world.”
You dig for darkness, you drag it up into the daylight, and you laugh at it.
Someday soon you’ll laugh at the idea that you’re ditzy and you can’t trust your own judgment. Get a therapist. Hold out for a smart one. Keep your job for a while and invest that money in therapy. The more time and space you give yourself to grow (plants need periods of darkness and periods of light each day!), the more you’ll notice that when you fully welcome sadness and anger, they often bring with them intense feelings of compassion and love and hopefulness.
You’re not a flake. You’re a serious person with a huge heart who wants more. Honor who you are. Listen for your own voice, now just a whisper deep inside you. Trust that whisper. Love it like a tiny bird’s egg. Be patient. Even right here, right now, that whisper is growing louder. Feel your heart opening in this moment. Watch the world around you grow more colorful and detailed, almost like looking through a magnifying glass. Joy lives inside your cells, even now. You don’t need anything to change in order to feel it.
This is the divine center of every life: feeling fully alive and attuned and receptive to reality as it is. Accept this beautiful curse, this wretched gift, that is so brilliant and bright that it makes other people’s approval or disapproval feel as significant as the chattering of birds outside your window.
MATTER OVER MIND. You are grounded in this world. You’ll walk out into the heat of summer and you’ll know in your body that your love for this life is real, and the truth of what you love matters. You’ll let your heart tell you where you should be, and tell your mind to simmer down, back up, relax, and follow for a change.
Forgive how long it took to get here. You got here. Forgive the forces that slowed you down. You’re here now. Take a deep breath. You are electric. You are hopeful. Can you feel it? Find your way back to this feeling whenever you can. This feeling is your map. This is love and acceptance. This is clarity. It’s been living inside you this whole time. Listen as your whisper becomes a roar.
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