Discover more from Ask Polly
'What If I'm a Machete?'
Honor exactly what you are, and it will help you tolerate the repeated irritations of life among the butter knives.
Untitled (March) (1962) by Helen Lundeberg
I have a stupid-sounding question for you. Am I too emotional to be in a relationship? Earlier today, a guy bailed last-minute on the date I had scheduled for tomorrow because “he wasn't feeling well.” No other explanation, no attempt to reschedule, not even an apology. If low-effort rejections were toilet paper, this was the equivalent of dollar-store single-ply. I was furious and texted my friend (currently in a relationship) in anger, asking what she thought I should do. She said I should "just unmatch him and move on." I know she's right, and yet I feel angry at myself for not being able to be zen about something as tiny and insignificant and par for the course as a stranger's rejection. The jerkbrain in me tells me, "You know why she's in a happy relationship and you're not? It's because she knew how to handle rejection back when she was dating, and you can't. You take things way too personally and guys can smell that on you. That's why the good guys stay miles away while the equally neurotic, mentally unstable ones cling to you like flies."
Earlier this month, I met a married couple that was very much #couplesgoals. Married for five years, independently wealthy, homeowners in America's most expensive metro area, baby on the way, the whole shebang. I was complaining about some person who I don't run into on a regular basis but who I have to deal with because he's dating one of my friends. Their response: "Why don't you just spend less time with him?" I was trying to explain: "Well, he and my friend spend all their time together, she's constantly distracted whenever he's not around and can only focus when he's right by her side, she's abandoned all of her hobbies and replaced them with his hobbies." They looked at me like I was telling them the sky was green, and then the wife said, like she was trying to break it to me that the sky is actually blue, "Maybe she's just changed. People change a lot in their twenties, and it's totally normal." It was like I was crazy for being this worked up about something that, in the end, wasn't really impacting my daily life. And it made me think, “Jesus Christ, maybe this is why I'm still single! All the people I know who are in relationships know how to be zen and chill about minor life irritations, whereas I'm constantly blowing them up into Crisis of the Century.”
I know that I need to learn to calm down. Here's the issue. When I was a kid (and of course this always has to go back to early childhood stuff), my parents would get mad if I got angry or sad or upset. They told me that anger is an ugly emotion, and now that I was a big kid (mind you, I was five or six when I was hearing this), it was important for me to learn to master my emotions. "Look at that other girl," they would say, referring to their friend's daughter. "She's always calm and she never gets stressed. Why can't you be more like her?" I feel as though hearing this message so often growing up, I've become hypersensitized to legitimate constructive criticism of my issues. Whenever someone tries to kindly point out that I'm overthinking things, I get upset and sad because I'm not hearing them and their perfectly reasonable opinion, I'm hearing my parents' voices in my head, saying "You're not good enough! You'll never be good enough!" And then, of course, I get upset and sad because I still haven't healed my childhood trauma, even though I've been in therapy for over a year at this point. I know I'm still young (I'm 24, though I feel a lot older, and yes, I know how obnoxious that sounds to everyone over 24), but I look at the people I know who are my age and are so much more mature and well-adjusted than I am, and I can't understand why any reasonable, well-adjusted, not mentally unstable guy would want to date me over all those other people.
You always talk about sharp knives and steady drawers. But is there ever such a thing as a knife that is too sharp for a drawer? What about machetes? What about katanas? Are there ever any circumstances where you think a knife would benefit from blunting itself a tad? If so, how can I do that?
I’m sure your parents tried hard but they also need a sharp kick in the shins, which I would administer personally if I could. I would travel to their homes and knock on the door and when they opened it, I would wordlessly kick them both in the shins and then turn around and leave. They were too smart to say the stupid shit they said to you. I mean, even though I realize that they’re also probably a little sensitive, high strung, emotional — because these are the rare and special artisanal conditions that make a machete into the glorious weapon that she is — I also blame them for their ignorance and their insensitivity.
Because no parent should point to another kid and say “Why not be more like that one?” That’s next-level dumb. That’s zero-brains-and-numbed-feelings-and-frazzled-obsessive-angry levels of dumb. No child should be asked to REPLICATE another child, to SEEM more like another kid. What does it even mean to parent, if not to delight in and embrace and rejoice the child you got, the exact weirdo monster that landed in your arms and razed your previous delusions?
I have an extreme reaction whenever I encounter that particular flavor of dumb. I once met a parent who told me, of her daughter, “She’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.” What I thought was, “YOU are not the sharpest knife.” What I thought was “You are not and will never be my friend.” Because her one job was to enjoy how uniquely clever her freakish, stubbornly determined baby was, and she wanted to let herself off the hook and be unimaginative and lazy and self-protective instead.
Years ago, I also had friends who referred to their son as an asshole, casually, but it wasn’t quite a joke. What I thought was, “This is how you make an asshole out of a little person who is pleasingly odd and tenacious and bizarrely perfect.” What I also thought was, “Maybe I hate these friends. Maybe I never want to see them again.” And then we had a falling out, which was blessed and welcomed, and I never saw them again.
I’m talking cavalierly about idiots and kicking people today. I’m doing this because it’s absolutely fine and appropriate to talk this way about humans who tell their children they are inadequate or broken or naturally stupid or naturally evil and also (this is where it gets funny!) try to assert that these traits have nothing to do with them, the parents. We can talk shit about these idiots because they are behaving and speaking in ways that are unnaturally stupid and evil. Parents like that are remarkable only in their unmatched idiocy and also their repetitive delusion that their own stupid, evil vibes will never be soaked up by the smallest, most porous, most fragile, most delicious freak monster baby who is right there in the room with them around the clock.
I’m mad at your parents. You deserved better. Feel that in your bones and mourn it.
But I’m also talking about idiots and kicking people so you can see that I am also a machete. See how worked up I’m getting over the smallest thing? That’s how I do this fucking job. I got a letter from a stranger and now I want to buy a plane ticket to her parents’ town so I can go kick some dummies in the shins. I know they have hurts of their own! If I get there and they want to tell me their hurts, maybe I’ll stay and have one of their bad sandwiches. (Surely they have terrible taste, too. Idiots who don’t pay attention often do!)
You could argue that my attitude is UNHEALTY. You could even assert that my job giving long-winded advice is UNHEALTHY. You could argue that getting worked up over stupid little things is not smart or relaxing. I would mostly agree with all of the above. But I also have to say that, as a machete, my picture is a little different from some other pictures. As a MACHETE (okay now I’m yelling, sorry), I find it relaxing to tell you that I want to kick your parents and I also find it relaxing to guess that their taste sucks. I’m imagining wall-to-wall beige carpeting and stupid figurines of little girls and lambs — you know, why not honor the adorable things you destroy in real life? When I talk about idiots with ugly figurines, that’s fun. I am a formidable weapon, and if I’m ONLY chatting about what dicks your parents are instead of slicing off heads, I think that’s a win for the whole team.
See, I implied that I’m dangerous there, because that’s how you get treated a lot when you’re sad and lonely and angry and you were told to be different for many long years of your life. But I’m not dangerous. People have been afraid of me my whole life nevertheless — another thing that happens to machetes. I have judgments that I share openly. And to be very fair, I have been reckless in spreading my judgments around. I am rethinking that part!
The point is, I can enjoy the luxury of truly interrogating my choices at every level and finding myself wanting constantly, because THERE IS NO SHAME THERE. I can improve my behavior because I forgive myself. I can handle rejection because I know it’s not personal, and I can tolerate my occasional anxious feelings, or my longing, or my certainty that something someone does is not GOOD ENOUGH for me, because I remind myself often that taking things too personally and caring too much are just part of my wiring and that’s okay and forgivable.
Noticing my flaws is just a way of polishing my blade. I enjoy noticing my mistakes now, because they’re interesting instead of shameful. I can make adjustments without hating myself. I respect my own power and I honor it, and this makes it easier to honor other people, in all of their quirks and their failings. I can have fun with people and their failings, and I can sometimes forgive them, and I can also REFUSE to forgive them at times, when I really think they’re being complete recalcitrant dicks for no reason.
In describing myself and how I manage my own bad attitude and intensity and anxious needs and longing, I’m trying to show you how to store and care for yourself when you’re a machete.
Where do you store a machete? In a drawer?
No. You shine it up and display it on a wall, or over your fireplace. You put it in a place of honor. You show everyone what you’re capable of: slicing watermelons in half, yes, and also slicing other people’s motives and delusions into thin ribbons without much effort. People are afraid, but what you do is beautiful. They just need to slow down and notice that, but most of them won’t because they just don’t get it (which is fine), like your married parent friends. Others won’t notice because they’re some variation of unnaturally dumb and unnaturally unkind.
I think your friend who can’t focus without her boyfriend is walking down the wrong path. She’s an anxious person who’s going into hiding, becoming a kind of an addict. It goes beyond “People sometimes change.” (Your couple friends are very concrete, which keeps them easy-going and optimistic, but it makes them not so great for more involved conversations about friend troubles.) Your friend with the annoying boyfriend bothers you because she’s taking her anxious wiring, which is like yours, and using it as an excuse to hide from herself and the world. You fear that outcome, and you should! What you can expect from her, moving forward, is less and less openness and generosity and more and more bad decisions that anesthetize her and keep her from grappling with reality. Her boyfriend probably does suck pretty hard, too, and it’s unpleasant to be around him for good reasons, I’ll bet. And if she doesn’t recognize that and also refuses to spend time with you alone and talk to you directly, then she’s like a switchblade that’s trying to be a butter knife. Not only isn’t that effort a damning verdict on your personality, but also, you should probably back up and exert some boundaries and just generally make sure that you don’t continue to convert her shortcomings into YOUR SHAME.
Machetes spend a lot of their early years internalizing everything that happens around them. We are constantly tempted to dull ourselves, so we can stop feeling angry at our parents and sad about strangers who blew us off. We are constantly tempted to spread butter on white bread instead of, you know, writing 4000-word responses to random strangers about how deeply fucked their parents are!
Now obviously you do need to exercise regularly, meditate, and let go of your fixations whenever possible. That said, though, the absolute BEST, most important thing you can do for yourself right now is ENJOY YOURSELF. Place yourself on the mantel, a place of great honor, and marvel at your beauty and your fearsome power.
I mean do this all day long. It’s not narcissistic to feed yourself, when you’ve spent your entire life trying to take a dull shape just to please your dull parents. Is my letter to you narcissistic, because I write about myself so much? Unnaturally stupid and unnaturally evil people will tell you that it is, because they’re angry and need more. I get it because I’ve been there. But they’re wrong. The words I’m writing to you are all about connection. We are two random souls showing ourselves vulnerably. We are defining our worlds together. We are creating a rare space where we’re able to say out loud, “HOLD ON. THE WORLD FEELS FUCKED BECAUSE IT IS FUCKED!”
But I’m also telling you that I love you for exactly who you are, machete, and now you need to love you, too. You need to love you the way I love you AND me: forever and ever and always. And if you came to me and said, “My friend’s boyfriend is terrible,” I would agree but I would still suggest a solution, which is to back up and insist on a boundary there. See if your friend can maybe try harder. Ask her for what you want, which is time alone without that dolt. And if she can’t give you that, forgive her and love her anyway but also write for a few hours about what a fucking frustrating pain in the ass she is, if you can. Write about why you love her and why you hate her, too, and explain a few times that you’d hate for her to read any of it, because she’s just a person — a person who incites the same feeling that your parents incited in you: the feeling that you alone are not enough.
That’s not how good friends act. You know that. But you can still forgive her and ask her for what you want and not cast any shame on her when you do it. You can wait to see if she’s able to give you a little thing. And you can watch and observe and notice if she’s just incapable of giving anything at all. And then you can decide to give her less of your time, your heart, your mind, your energy, your love. That’s your right.
And yes, OF COURSE THIS STUFF MATTERS. This stuff matters a lot. You aren’t wasting your time on this! My god! This is how you figure out how to love with reckless abandon and surround yourself with people who are brave enough to do the same!
I want you to start thinking through who is worthy of you. Because you have a strange habit that most machetes share, of telling stories about things that happen around you like they’re all about how unlovable you are. You also basically told me, “I should be better about this by now, because I’ve been in therapy FOR ALMOST A YEAR NOW.”
Duuuuuuude. You’re gonna be doing this for the next three decades. Can you just trust me on that? That’s not condemnation. That’s not an insult. That’s not your doomed future. That’s WHY WE SLICE, motherfucker! This frustration and this sense of unworthiness is our fuel for slicing. The reason I’m walking on a treadmill right now, three miles into my daily FOREVER WALK and 2594 words into my weekly FOREVER COLUMN, lies in that repeating story you and I grew up with, about how we’ll never be enough. The fuel is the tension between being incredible and feeling terrible sometimes, and wanting more love, more more more, to prove we’re not terrible.
The remedy for thirty years of generating frustration fuel? Having fun with what you are, and forgiving yourself for what you are, and learning not to hurt or scare or fuck with other people using what you are.
Now some stupid idiots who suck might believe that what I’m saying is WHEN YOU ARE ANGRY AND BROKEN, YOU NEED GOOD DISTRACTIONS AND VAINGLORIOUS FIXATIONS TO WORK AROUND HOW FUCKED YOU ARE.
Wrong! What I’m saying is that the more you delight in who / what / how you are, the less likely it becomes that you will hurt or scare or fuck with or alienate other people. But you won’t have the space and time to become a person who can have fun with her formidable power until you truly learn to notice how your body reacts to most social interactions with panic, a panic that says to you, “YOU ARE NOT ENOUGH AND YOU WILL NEVER BE LOVED.”
That panic is fuel. That panic is beautiful, like the panic a bird feels when a shadow falls over it suddenly. Is it a hawk? Should I flee? That panic is survival. And animals that are attuned to the world, to the threats and the beauty, the sheltering bushes and the dried seeds, things to eat and things to enjoy and things to fear, demonstrate a kind of joy in being alive, even when they’re sad and afraid and angry and anxious.
You can make a lot from that raw energy, as long as you’re not constantly beating yourself up for it or feeling shame about it. You can survive using that fuel. You can have a LOT of fun with a machete. Many have done it before! You can rejoice in your active, wild mind and you can even savor your longing for one true friend. Read Frankenstein – it’s all about wanting one friend, one true friend. What a perfect book about longing! The monster wants his creator, Dr. Frankenstein, to love him, because no one else will. HEARTBREAKING. But his unnaturally unhelpful Daddy just wants him to be like some other kid, you know, one who’s a little less murdery. Lol.
Did I mention that it’s FUNNY being a machete?
I see you, machete. Your letter is funny. You need to set out like Frankenstein’s monster, in search of new friends who understand you but who also want to function in the world and address their sensitive, emotional, anxious wiring instead of muffling it under a giant annoying boyfriend blanket. So I’d like you to aim for friends like you, who are very sharp and a little bit anxious, but I want you to focus on the ones that are thriving or at least aiming to thrive. I want you to find the ones who are engaged with the world but who can also see that the world is fucked. I want you to find friends who know how to use the fuel that’s created from the raw energy of fear and self-loathing. I want you to locate friends who understand reciprocity and also enjoy complexity, but not to the point where it keeps them from getting out of bed in the morning.
These people are rare. When you find them, I want you to cut them a lot of slack because they’ll have lots of different ways of doing things that conflict with your own. I want you to notice that they have to plan ahead because they’re anxious, for example, or I want you to notice that they can’t plan ahead because they’re anxious. I want you to notice how nothing is good enough for them a lot of the time, the same way that nothing is good enough for you. I want you to respect and adore the shiny, sharp weaponry of their personalities the way you do your own. And I want you to ask them what they really want and need, and I want you to tell them
BE GOOD TO ME.
You deserve to say those words out loud, and to feel how strong you are when you say them. And I want you to say NO to people who repeatedly show you that they’re not capable of reciprocity. Lots of people aren’t! But some people are. At first, they might look too good for you, or too boring for you, or too normal for you. They might seem too untroubled, too serene, too relaxed, too confused by the puzzles in front of you. But then you talk a little longer and you see that their minds move in many directions at once, just like yours does, so you decide to be patient so their inner weirdos can come out and play occasionally — which is enough.
I also want you to notice every single time you tell yourself YOU SHOULD BE LIKE THAT OTHER CHILD, the quiet one, the calm one, the upbeat one, the loving one. THE BUTTER KNIFE. I want you to notice every single time you feel rejected or you feel, physically, like you’re worthless or you feel like you need love, love, love, but where is it? I want you to notice how often you transform your loneliness into a verdict on your inadequacy or your neuroticism or your very sharp edge.
And I want you to say to yourself, every single goddamn time, “THIS IS JUST WHO I AM. I notice a lot and I feel a lot and I want to slice it all up into tiny ribbons for fun. I AM A MACHETE.”
I want you to savor how good you are at slicing, either on the page when you’re writing or around someone else who slices.
I want you to HAVE FUN BEING A MACHETE.
The more you have fun being a machete, the more relaxed you’ll be. You will never NOT be a machete, and you will never NOT discover rejection and longing in weird places, places no one else can see it, and you will never NOT hallucinate rejection and unworthiness in places where it absolutely does not exist. You will always notice a lot, and feel too much of it. You will always be like a bird, eating but also looking around for the shadow of a hawk. This is also what will form you into an exuberant being of brilliance and joy, if you feed yourself correctly.
Shine your glistening surface. Polish off the grit. Sharpen your edge. Place yourself high on the wall, where everyone can see what you are. Only idiots would want you to be different. Only unnaturally stupid, evil people would tell you that noticing everything and caring a lot is bad. The more honor and respect you give to your true adorable, freakish monster nature, the more love you give to your deeply lovely and delicious overgrown baby self, who should never be like any other child for any reason under the sun, the more you will bring light and joy and goodness into the world in inventive and divine ways. Be the parent your parents could never be, to yourself and to everyone who shows up with a full heart and gives back instead of making excuses.
You will find the good, shiny, true machetes out there. You will! Look for them, and make sure your edges are shining brilliantly so they can see you clearly, too. You will find yourself one night years from now at a dinner party with machetes everywhere, slicing and dicing with love in their hearts, eviscerating everything but also forgiving the fucking idiots in spite of everything. Forgiving and forgiving and forgiving the motherfucking idiots, but never ever ever ever changing for them, never ever changing one bit. Relaxing more, yes. Letting go more, yes. Fixating less, yes. But never, ever blunting themselves.
Butter knives are a dime a dozen. It’s the easiest path, to sit peacefully in a regular old drawer with all of the others. You don’t have to polish away scratches and grime. You don’t have to admit when you’re being too heavy, too scary, too much. You don’t have to show yourself to the whole world. Being a machete is embarrassing. You are too shiny, too big, too sharp. Lots of people hate you for no reason.
Try hard not take it personally. Be what you are.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! And if you’re a butter knife, be what you are and savor it. This world needs you, too. I’m making this column free because I need more parents to hear that all freakish demanding monstrous babies are perfect and all parents who tell their kid to be like another kid are stupid idiots who need to snap the fuck out of it. Most posts are not free, in spite of recent trends. Please consider subscribing so I can continue sharing widely as my whims dictate! Send letters to email@example.com.