Discover more from Ask Polly
'My Magic Is Disappearing'
When will you learn to love your cosmic mess?
Eschatos #17 (1973) by Clarence Holbrook Carter
I used to think I was a slightly cosmic, messy collection of humanity that could sniff out a kindred spirit at 100 paces and build a charming world of love and creativity around myself and anyone else who wanted in. I used to think laughing together through a moment of pain had a touch of transcendence. I used to think that my ability to entwine closely with friends - especially housemates - was a clear sign that I knew how to love and romantic love was indeed out there for me (I've been single for over a decade). I used to think I had magic in me, as well as strong depressive tendencies. I used to think they just about evened themselves out. But now, at 32, I think it could just have all been a lifelong performance. I'm afraid of future loneliness and distrustful of my old ways.
I can date the change to 5 years back when my dad died. My dad and I weren't close; he was a distant, dismissive drinker with issues of his own that he glazed over, much like he glazed over his relationships with us kids. But his death was very sudden, very shocking and painful to grieve. Quickly, my desire to connect with people (which some people had definitely commented over the years was over the top, but I always felt had a purity to it) bottomed out. I wasn't interested in near-strangers anymore; I didn't believe new best friends were out there waiting for me. I poured myself into a new teaching career instead and then eventually sought help for the workplace perfectionism that was making my world a tight, tiny ball. Therapy has helped with that A LOT.
But it's also become apparent during this last year of therapy that there are a few hard-to-swallow labels I can slap on myself. Little sense of self. Intimacy issues. False selves, stretching all the way back to insecure babyhood attachments.
Attempting to "be myself" and "feel my feelings" off the back of this has proven to be uncomfortable to the point of unbearable. I have acted out in ways that horrify me, not because they are particularly socially abhorrent, but because of what I feel these actions reveal about me deep down. Sleeping with men who aren't being particularly kind to me, holding my complicated family at arm's length, keeping secrets from those I am closest to, and manically dumping onto outer tier friends whose eyes widen at the onslaught of me. Push and pull.
I can't shake the feeling that I don't know how to love, and anything I thought was love up to this point was a razzle-dazzle cover up of neediness. I don't know how to proceed from this point. I can't decide whether I should throw myself full pelt at connection and the world, or retreat to better know myself - I've become fixated on the idea of living alone after getting a taste during lockdown. How do you connect when you don't know who you are?
Dear Don’t Know,
You know who you are better than 90% of the human population, and you haven’t lost a single ounce of the magic you had when you were younger, you just changed your story about who you are and how acceptable or interesting that person is. You believe that she’s deluded and embarrassing now. Her fragile hopes are an endlessly renewing source of humiliation, her open heart is a ball pit for unkind men, her belief in love is a prayer crafted by a simpleminded baby with delusions of grandeur.
But there’s a place on this earth for a woman like that, who’s always spilling over everywhere, vivid colors splashing on the floor, flowering vines tangled in her hair, poetry bouncing off her tongue onto the table. It doesn’t matter if the 90% of the population that doesn’t know itself better than a bottle cap recoils as her fragile hopes float up to the ceiling like balloons and the ball pit of her open heart starts to look more like quick sand. You can’t measure your value by staring into the eyes of people who think staring is rude. You can’t chart your course through life with input from people whose maps were created by their parents, handed to them, and that was that. Or they ripped up their parents’ map, but then bought a new one from a preacher, from a salesman, from a lifestyle guru, from a captain of industry, and now they’re following it diligently, no time for meandering talk about ideas and emotions, no time for push and pull.
You have to understand how limited people want to be — not how limited THEY ARE, but how limited THEY CHOOSE TO BE. And you have to be more careful with your magic. You have to treat it with respect, nurture it, guard it from critics and skeptics and people who secretly fear magic or dislike themselves or believe that putting their map down for even a second would spell ruin and despair for them. You can probably tell who falls into these categories already — that’s part of your magic, right? Slow down and respect your instincts a little more. Other people’s limits don’t mean that you’re too free.
And sure, you sometimes find yourself drawn to avoidant types who are already starting to reject you before you open your mouth for the first time. Your taste for that type of shut down, self-protective human might stay in place indefinitely, so accept a few dimensions of the drive and desire behind those preferences without making it your sad fate to spend the rest of your life among unkind men and faintly disapproving friends.
You love to dance for a skeptic, spout riddles at a cynic, seduce a brick wall. Lots of artists and writers and weirdos with big ideas are like that. Don’t treat it like an illness when it’s the source of so much music, art, and light in this world. Likewise, you can call your love a razzle dazzle cover up for neediness if you really want to, but I call it exciting and worthwhile. You’re just someone who’s curious and effusive and also very afraid. DELIGHTFUL. Full stop. Address your fears, ground yourself, hold back when you feel unsafe or overexposed. These are small adjustments, not an overhaul of your entire personality. Don’t confuse the ability to use your imagination and experiment and try on false selves with some guiding compulsion to manipulate people. That’s the kind of analysis generated by unimaginative, fearful people who are fixated on dominance and sense that you could easily outwit them. They’re wrong. People like you aren’t into dominance. You’re just trying to connect on a deeper level.
You want to work very hard to win love because that’s how it was done in your house: Clever seals balanced balls on their noses for a fish reward. Part of your drive, your magic, your ability to bend steel and grow wildflowers in your hair, lies inside that space: insecure babyhood attachments, false selves, intimacy issues. You don’t have to throw the insecure baby out with the bathwater, though. Most of the talented writers I know are clever seals balancing balls on their noses, all day long. The ones who are keenly aware of their intimacy issues, their grandiosity, their despair, and their overriding shame are just starting to accept those things now, in middle age, instead of trying to hide them. As a result, they’re finally happy.
You have a head start. You’re very young. You have a chance to embrace your enormously interesting gifts at a very early hour – the sun is just starting rise now! You get to plant some tiny seeds of hope again and watch them grow into tall, elegant beliefs and values that will sustain you through rough weather. You get to throw yourself full pelt at connection and the world, this time with your eyes open, aware of where you are, watching your step, protecting yourself just enough to build your confidence a little. Notice how your social anxiety fuels your razzle dazzle, and pull back on the throttle slightly. That is all.
It’s natural that you’d withdraw in the wake of your dad’s death. My dad died when I was 25 and I withdrew and stopped drinking and declared my past self pathetic and unlovable. I became a workplace perfectionist, just like you, and I made my world a tight, tiny ball. Every now and then I’d try to expand that ball, but I’d do so recklessly, rushing in too quickly, showing too much of myself, overdoing it, giving too much. Then I’d retreat again, humiliated, ashamed of how inappropriately sloppy and weird I was, with my traveling band and my chiffon ballgowns and my bears on bicycles. My anxious need told me I was a disgrace – unsteady, untrustworthy, unlovable. And over the years, people often seemed to suspect that I was setting a trap, manipulating them, tricking them into something, fucking with them, preparing to insult or reject them.
People are afraid of open hearts and way too many words. Sometimes I am, too. I don’t blame anyone for backing away from me. I back away from people sometimes and then I reappear. I think that’s just how life is now. An ability to withstand tiny insults and ghostings is maybe the most adaptive trait at this odd hour. Go ahead and say NO, I HOLD OUT FOR STEADY HEROES WHO NEVER DISAPPEAR! You do you. But I want to cast a wide net so I get the really freaky fish in there, along with the workplace perfectionists and the steady heroes. Courting the weirdest fish requires a slight relaxing of stringent fisherwoman standards.
The point is, we all have our upward trajectories, when our bears on bicycles charm the crowd, and our downward trajectories, when one of our bears hops off his bicycle to eat the monkey on the bicycle in front of him. Last year, I went through a dark time that ended an extended I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD phase and welcomed in a new EVERYONE I KNOW CAN GO FUCK THEMSELVES phase. I pulled through that by recognizing that I’m still sometimes ruled by insecure babyhood attachments and I sometimes don’t believe in best friends and I often hold complicated family at arm’s length. So I shut people out for a little while, and then I simply decided to let them in again. It takes a lot to make me feel safe. That’s not my fault and it’s no one else’s, either.
But then I overcorrected. When I opened my circus again, I didn’t just take paying customers, I also put on a gold lame bikini and walked around on the street, shouting about how good my show was. I sent out a few embossed invitations to random strangers who’d visited my circus once two years ago and seemed into it but then never came back and hadn’t shown the least interest in a while. What can I do, though? I love to dance for a skeptic, spout riddles at a cynic, seduce a brick wall. I look dumb and weird sometimes, absolutely, but I also need to counteract my avoidance and perfectionism with some effusive enthusiasm. It’s a trade off. Besides, being a freak means catching more freaky fish, and having more fun.
This is just the landscape when you’re open-hearted and also self-aware. Occasionally you say too much and then you have an emotional hangover for a while. When that happens, instead of living inside the realm of I AM BAD, review your choices and ask yourself if you want to choose differently moving forward. Again, these are small adjustments. Then tell yourself, “It’s not that you suck, or that anyone else sucks. You just happen to have a school bus packed full of performing seals and florists and experimental novelists and Krav Maga experts, and when people see it barreling toward them they are naturally a tiny bit fearful.”
Personally, I have to be weird or my magic is harder to find. I can’t be careful and cool. Status can’t matter. If it starts to matter, it breaks all of my bicycles. I can’t get confused and chase things that other people care about just because I like to chase shit. I need to remember who I am and what I love and why.
People like us need to be very attuned to our own desires, needs, and preferences, or else the bears start eating the monkeys. We also have to tell a thoughtful, eloquent story about who we are, what we do, and why we’re here. Right now, you’re telling an extremely flat, clinical story about yourself, to keep yourself tightly corralled, with blinders on, running in straight lines. You think you have to be direct and appropriate and humble at all times. You think you need to avoid imaginative leaps and fun because those things incite insecurity in you. You think you shouldn’t stick your neck out and try to make deeper connections because it will make you feel vulnerable.
You think you don’t know who you are because you assassinated your former self in the hopes of becoming better, more realistic, more dignified, more controlled. But it’s precisely because you have so much shame and anxious baby on board that you need those vivid colors splashing all over the floor and flowering vines winding through your hair. When you pretend to match the world, you feel muted and sad. You can’t connect with other people. And you avoid people who are like you, shiny and intense. You grow bored and unmotivated. Embracing all of the wildness and noise and color that you have onboard, telling a story that does justice to your charms and talents and weird flaws and quiet proclivities is FUNDAMENTAL to being yourself and feeling your feelings.
But right now, being yourself incites fear because you killed that person. Feeling your feelings is a clinical process for you, so every ball pit looks like quick sand. You equate being yourself with being humiliated. Your workplace perfectionist can’t tolerate it.
It’s time to loosen up and let everyone off the school bus and celebrate the ENORMOUS GIFTS AND TALENTS AND JOY AND FUN that go along with the baked-in costs of being who you are. They come together. You are a package deal.
So slow down and observe the anxious loops you fall into during the day. Resist those jittery paths and ground yourself in the moment repeatedly. Talk to your bears about staying away from your monkeys. Talk to your needy baby about the perils of unkind men. Teach your oversharing friend to slow down and think, but maintain your faith in all kinds of new friends out there in the world – avoidant ones, too-cool-for-school ones, ever-so-slightly-needy ones. Cast a wide net, and try to appreciate the variety of each day’s catch.
Let your tangled hair blossom, let the colors splash out around you again. We can laugh through this dark time, and it is transcendent and glorious. Can you feel it? Your magic is coming back. It never really left.
So tell a better story. You’re the author. You don’t need an editor or a boss or a Greek chorus to tell you how to be different, better, more perfect, less terrible. Learn to love who you already are, right now, today. Tell me you’re awful and gross. Go ahead. I’ll laugh and then we’ll laugh together. Give me your razzle dazzle. Get embarrassed. Your love is calamitous and divine. Spread it a little thicker now.
Thank you for reading! Ask Polly will appear here every Wednesday, and an extra post will appear every Monday. That’s Polly in your in box twice a week, so: