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Love Means Encouraging Self-Trust
Give your loved ones the gift of reminding them to honor exactly who they are.
Untitled (Light Green on White) (1971) by Helen Lundeberg
Over the past week, two of my friends have been going through big break-ups. They’ve both been asking me for advice often and I’ve been doing my best to support them and give them my opinions on how to proceed.
Very few people asked me for advice twelve years ago. Support, yes. Advice, well, not the same way they do now. I generally had my shit together back then, but my way of offering guidance was much more forceful. You can see this in the Ask Pollys that appear in The Awl: there’s a lot of SHOUTING AND SWEARING and creative adjectives for shitty boyfriends.
I never wanted to lose those things completely because I enjoy them. But my whole attitude about advice has shifted. I don’t want to tell anyone exactly what to do, like a teacher or boss, because what matters is making them feel supported and encouraged enough to locate their own unique values and ideals, their own desires and dreams. Even when I write “I would do THIS,” the most important thing I’m sharing is a model of how to dig deeper, stay present, notice your feelings, and trust yourself. I’m trying to model the self-compassion and self-acceptance it takes to build and furnish and decorate your own world, a sweet little greenhouse where you can cultivate love and acceptance for yourself and others, a sparkling temple where you can pray to the things that bring you joy and inspiration, a muddy paddock where you can savor the daily pleasure of being alive in this animal body of yours, a dark music studio where you can honor the melodies echoing through your brilliant head.
My thoughts and opinions and feelings are never a substitute for yours. As tempting as it might be, after reading my words for years, to ask yourself “What would Polly do here?,” it’s far more valuable to use my words as a prompt to dig deeper, to open your heart a little more, and to shift into a more optimistic state around whatever you’re struggling with. Most of the time, even when it comes to the letter writer, I’m less focused on what they should do next — whether or not this move will go well or this relationship will improve or dissolve — than I am on whether or not they can start taking the steps they need to create their own little world, a place where they feel loved and secure and confident, a place where they can fully engage with others on their own terms, a place where big decisions feel less overwhelming, less frightening, less riddled with guilt and shame.
I know how important building that world is. For years, all of my emotional decisions transformed into elaborate intellectual puzzles. I was always plotting and replotting the epic story of my life, with me as the daring protagonist up against forces that wanted to deny me the love I truly deserved. I didn’t understand that in order to get the love I craved, I had to surrender to the person I already was, surrender to the people who already loved me, surrender to all of the skills and talents and intuitions I already had. My brain would tell me that I didn’t have enough, but my heart would say, “Everything you need is already here.”
And even though we tend to think of ourselves as foolish when we’re very young, I was more in touch with my little greenhouse and my shiny temple and my muddy paddock when I was very young than I was in my 30s. My behavior was more erratic when I was younger, but I knew who I was. But slowly, I fell into the habit of second-guessing myself constantly. My compulsion to protect myself led me to ignore my heart, forget my instincts, and fixate on defensive intellectual puzzles. I stopped trusting myself and started trying to WIN my way out of loneliness. I destroyed my greenhouse, my temple, my paddock, my studio, and turned my back on my passions, my intuitions, and even my sensations of being alive. I wanted to feel safe and protected at all times, I wanted to SOLVE my life by rejecting anyone who ever looked like they might reject me, I wanted to limit all activities to things I could succeed at, stuff I could win, friends I could impress and keep, friends who were dependent on me — a dependence I unknowingly encouraged with my own bad boundaries and compulsive, pushy analysis.
When you try to solve your problems by grinding your intellectual gears for hours, you only make yourself more neurotic, more afraid, less in touch with your own perfectly good compass. Now obviously, during a crisis, you can really see all of your mistakes. It’s easy to doubt yourself and crave guidance. But even when you’re getting support and input from others, the most important thing you can do is slow down and calm down and return to your garden, your ocean, your fort, your oasis.
If you don’t have any of these places, now is the time to start building. Now is the time to feel the despair and loneliness of having nowhere to go with your giant emotions. In the face of that despair, dare to ask yourself what might help, in spite of the pain. What could you build? What do you have on hand? What do you already own? What do you love the most? What do you long for?
As I try to help my heartbroken friends, I keep reminding myself that love isn’t telling other people what to do. I am bossy! I am always tempted to tell people things! But love isn’t giving someone an emergency transplant of your (supposed) wisdom into their body. Love is showing up, listening, and saying:
I will always be here for you, no matter what. I love your optimism and your vulnerability and your big mistakes. I love your hope and your worries and your giant flaws. I know you feel lost, but this lost feeling is giving you a rare chance to understand exactly what you value, what you crave, what kind of church will keep you at once safe and fully alive and open, what kind of garden will allow you to cultivate joy instead of dread and fear, what kind of studio you need to honor the music inside your heart.
So while I’m saying those things to my friends, I also want to say them to YOU. You’re the one person on the face of this planet who knows what’s good for you, what makes you blossom and grow, what makes you stretch and laugh and enjoy the day in spite of the darkness in the world. Trust yourself. Build that trust. And show the people around you how to trust themselves, knowing that this is the most generous way to love them.
Love that encourages self-trust is sustainable. Your garden and my greenhouse are strong enough to take pleasure in each other. Your church and my temple are beautiful enough to relish each other’s peculiar prayers. Your ocean and my paddock are wild and free enough to bring each other more wilderness and more freedom.
You might think you’re lost, but your body holds more wisdom than you know. The autumn air is whispering divine secrets in your ear. Feel this magnificent day inside your body. Let your humor and your hope lift you out of this certainty that you’ll always be lost.
YOU ARE EXACTLY WHERE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE. YOU HAVE EVERYTHING YOU NEED.
You are lovable and broken and scared, but love is all around you.
Thanks for reading! Sending you all love plus a hammer and a hoe to build your garden and your church with, so start hammering, hoes! xoxoxo