From time to time I offer up some comments on New York Magazine’s “Ask Polly” advice column.
As a rule I like advice columns. I second the opinion offered by a colleague some time ago, that therapists would do better to spend more time studying Miss Manners and less time with Freud and the Frankfort School.
Some advice givers are especially good, like Emily Yoffe when she was writing the Dear Prudence column for Slate and Kwame Anthony Appiah who writes The Ethicist column for the New York Times. Both Yoffe and Appiah are intelligent, thoughtful and adult.
But, not all advice columnists are created equal. When Yoffe was replaced at Slate by someone named Marilyn Ortberg, the quality declined immediately. Ortberg is not a bad or unintelligent person, but she is simply too young for the job. I have long since ceased reading her columns.
But, a special award for bad advice must go to the Ask Polly writer for New York Magazine. I find this to be especially disappointing because the magazine often runs excellent stories about psycho science under its “Science of Us” rubric.
I don’t write about Polly very often because I would prefer not to beat up on people who are obviously defenseless. Today, however, I ran across a Polly column that makes some sense, and that spares us much of the maudlin sentimentality that makes most of the columns indigestible.
The letter writer, who calls herself “Sad and Probably Selfish” tells Polly that she is depressed. Underemployed and bereft in the big city she moved back in with her parents, only to find, as the old saying goes, that you can’t go home again.
She expected that she would be warmly welcomed in the bosom of her family. She expected to find a loving Mom and Dad, happy to have her at home again.
Apparently not. Her parents have been anything but welcoming. They have refused to play therapist to their whiny, self-absorbed daughter. This has evidently hurt her feelings.
She wrote to Polly, apparently knowing that Polly is past master at dishing out emotional blather:
And most of all, my parents have made it clear that they are uninterested in and unable to deal with my sadness. My mother has suggested I am selfish for expecting her to take on my problems on top of her own and it would be better for everyone if I just sucked it up and never spoke about it like she’s always done.
I feel invisible. I want to wander the halls weeping and force them to look at me and listen to me and feel as helpless in the face of my sadness as I do. Probably this is selfish. I’m not a kid anymore, and my parents don’t have to subvert their lives and desires to mine. But I’m increasingly resentful and depressed by their unwillingness to acknowledge what I feel. The obvious solution is to move out, but I can’t afford to and have nowhere to go. But I don’t know how to balance the strong, silent insistence that I put on a brave face and my desire to just fall apart sometimes, and the fact that I came home because I thought it was where I’d be allowed to do so, and the knowledge that that’s so selfish and immature. How do I find some peace in this situation for as long as I’m powerless to change it?
You should read this over any time you are wondering why the millennial generation has garnered such a negative reputation. Her parents are telling her to suck it up and to be an adult. She believes that they should be like whiny therapists, providing emotional support, along with free room and board.
What does Polly have to say about all this? She opens by expressing sympathy with the young woman and suggests that her mother has a problem.
In her words:
This is a woman who can’t handle raw emotion from someone close to her. She wants to help, but she can’t, and she hates herself for it. She is defensive about her inability to help you, so she calls you names to make herself feel less guilty about it.
Said mother might also feel guilty for having raised a parasite. Or better, she might not understand how the ambient culture has turned her wonderful daughter into a parasite.
It is possible that the mother might reasonably be repulsed by the way her daughter is behaving. She might feel that allowing her daughter to indulge in a regressive return to her childhood state will not help her at all. And she might very well be right.
One suspects that Polly is blaming the mother because if she doesn’t the letter writer will not follow any of her advice.
You want support, and you’re going to keep making your unhappiness more and more apparent to her, and she wants you to get tough and leave her out of it, so she’s going to keep saying hurtful things to push you away.
Polly’s solution: find a therapist. One suspects that some level of professional assistance will be useful, though Polly does not say which kind of therapist this woman should seek out.
The advice is sound, if only because it will cause this woman to stop trying to make her mother into a therapist. And hopefully it will stop her from thinking that the world and her parents exist to accommodate her emotional states.
Of course, it would all be better if the woman got a job. Recall that Harvard psychiatrist Richard Mollica once said: “the best anti-depressant is a job.” One suspects that this woman will, if she consults with a therapist, be put on medication. She ought to get a job and to get to the gym. It is not as complicated as we think it is.
Polly knows this and recommends it, but she knows that the woman had a job and friends and a gym membership before she moved back home. The woman wrote that she was underemployed. Apparently, the indignity of being a barista at Starbucks was too much to bear.
Undoubtedly, she is suffering from too much high self-esteem. She must have been told that she was terrific. And that, after graduating from college she would go out and change the world.
Then, when she encountered the real world she discovered that the world was not in on the joke. Rather than accept that she had been lied to, she moved back into her childhood bedroom… the better to regress.
The solution is simple: she like other underemployed millennials should learn how to do the best they can with the job they have.
Colin Powell once recounted that on his first job, garnered at age 19, he was sweeping the floors of a warehouse. He told himself that he would do the job better than anyone else had ever done it. And he did. One day, while he was industriously sweeping the floors, the manager walked by and saw him. The manager offered him a promotion, saying: why is that guy sweeping floors?
Understanding the way the world works—surely something that they do not teach in college these days—will serve this young woman in better stead than has all of the self-esteemist nonsense.
I would also like to know whether there was a boyfriend involved. Or whether there were a few too many hookups. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but while I agree with Polly that work and exercise and perhaps even therapy would be very helpful for this woman, the dog that didn’t bark—to take a line from Arthur Conan Doyle—is her relationship status, especially her past relationships status.
Any therapist who ignores this is a fool.
Then, Polly offers some constructive advice. If the woman cannot get a job right away she should close the book on her parasitical existence by becoming a contributing member of the household.
To help you feel less guilty and selfish, I would put two helpful household tasks on your schedule every single day. For example: Do some laundry. Weed the garden. Load the dishwasher. Walk the dog. Wash the windows in the front of the house, inside and out. The harder the chores, the better. Do things your mom has been putting off. (Check with her first.) This will buy you a lot of goodwill, and it will make you feel less worthless.
In order to feel less worthless she should make a positive contribution to the home. Instead of whining about how her mother refuses to kowtow to her emotions she should offer more help around the house.
One understands that this will feel like housework. One understands that today’s young women believe that they are much too good to do housework. Nevertheless, Polly’s advice is germane and to the point.