Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Case of the Sorry Jackass

We always want to give credit where it’s due, so here’s one for our least favorite advice columnist Ask Polly. Yesterday she was responding to an anguished young woman who, by her own testimony had been "on the Polly train."

The woman had been doing what Polly said, had undergone therapy and whatever… and still was seriously alone and embarrassed. It was not working. Things were getting worse. She is in emotional turmoil. She has accepted Polly’s idiotic injunction to embrace her imperfections, even her badness… and it was not working. She had figured out to regulate all of her emotions and no one was responding.

To put it in slightly different terms, she had gone through the therapy that taught her that she needed but to do the proper amount of emotional gymnastics and the world would open itself to her. It was bad advice to begin with. It’s still bad advice. But, Polly, who does not know any better, keeps hawking it. After all, she has a great gig at New York Magazine, and her millennial readers do not know enough or are so emotionally damaged that they think she is handing out pearls of wisdom.

All except the woman who calls herself Embarrassingly Alone. We are surprised that Polly is responding to this letter because it indicts Polly for the insipid mindless advice that she gives out.

And Polly seems to understand that part. In a rare moment of self-awareness Polly offers an accurate description of herself:

I’m not some all-seeing judge. I’m just another sorry jackass muddling through, trying to do my best and failing half of the time.

When it comes to her column, half the time is wildly optimistic.

So Polly offers empathy. It’s a good thing to offer when you don’t know how to think and when you do not want to admit how you and your band of brainless therapists have contributed to this mess.

I don’t think you’re being melodramatic. I hear you. You’re telling me that you’re hurting and nobody shows. I’ve felt that way before, and I know how shitty it feels. Even though you’re blending together the past and the present, your family and your friends and me, it’s still accurate for where you are right now. Right now, it’s obvious that nobody is showing up the way you want them to.

Of course, this merely repeats what Embarrassingly Alone has written… so Polly has nothing to say, except that she is a “sorry jackass.”

Anyway, I enter in evidence some excerpts from the anguished letter, written by a woman who is a recovering anorexic and who has undergone more than her fair share of therapy. Here, therapy is the problem, not the solution:

My hands are covered in jam because I just had a breakfast I didn’t want. I’d like to go wash them, but I’m too sad to care enough to make myself actually stand up. I was struggling with anorexia for the last several years, in and out of treatment, and I’m just now figuring out how to eat, but it doesn’t feel very beautiful or interesting. It kind of just feels shitty and sad and banal and like you always have sticky hands from a stupid breakfast you didn’t want to eat.

I can’t really explain to you why I’m writing except to say that I’m starting to suspect that some of the main people I’ve relied on and looked up to in my life don’t really understand how abandoned the world can leave you, and I’m starting to feel like a weird freak who knows the secret (that the world can really fucking leave you) and, in that knowing, I’m marked like motherfucking Cain. I’m trying to love and trust my people and to tell them that I’m sad and angry, but these days I’m wondering if they don’t know how abandoned I feel.

She wants all of these people to feel her feelings. I wonder where she got that idea? Therapy has made her a self-absorbed whiner and complainer. Therapy did not tell her that such an attitude sends other people packing. Friends want to see you at your best, Aristotle said, not at your worst. Even, and especially when your therapist and Polly have told you that your worst was your truth.

Moreover, when therapists tell their patients to be independent and autonomous, not to rely on other people, to be perfectly self-sufficient… they are suggesting that they will always be alone.  This is what Embarrassingly Alone has understood. I fear that she has understood it correctly.

They just keep telling me things that would technically be good for people who haven’t been dreadfully alone to hear, but when you have stared into that abyss of absolute self-reliance, then hearing the people you love say that you need to figure things out in your heart, and then, after, come to them with whatever you’ve realized — well, that sounds a lot like someone walking quietly out of the room and locking the door behind them, shrugging, Figure it out, kid, this will be fun. And I can’t admit to them what I’m looking at — this locked room, this empty coast — because then they’ll start to wonder what must be so wrong with me that I’ve learned what those things look like.

Again, the notion that you need but fix what’s inside, that you need to recalibrate your emotions and then, lo and behold, the world will flock to your doorstep… was and still is a lie. And, of course, EA understands that she did not just learn it from therapy. She learned it from Polly:

I’ve been on the Polly train of trying to accept being broken, but I think I’m butting up against a wall of what I let myself believe broken meant. I’m realizing that the depth of anger in my heart, the rage and horror and deep sadness, goes way past the wall I always told myself was the boundary of the rational. I had never even been to that wall — I spent all of my time being so loving and careful and compassionate, and now that I’m finally inching toward it, I’m suddenly seeing that where I am is just beyond.

And naturally, therapy has taught EA to blame it all on her family. Dare we suggest that she did not have a very good family life. But, rehashing the past, feeling sorry for your upbringing, will not cause people to show up for you, to reach out a hand of empathy. It makes her self-involved to the point where other people are avoiding her:

My family was one of tirelessly fluctuating moods, erratic and violent and then loving and gentle; when they were in the good moods, you felt like they were the most special, extraordinary, private thing in the world, and when they were in the bad moods, you were very convinced that everyone, your mother and your sister and your brother, hated you more than they could say. It was a kind of repulsion. So they hit and they spit and they yelled, until after a while they would calm down, and if you were very, very quiet and very still and very careful, sometimes you could reach out to them at exactly the right moment and squeeze them or joke or reassure them or make fun of yourself and then they would calm down, laugh, shake their heads as though they were waking up out of a trance.

Now that her therapist has taught her to blame it all on her family, she judges her friends according to whether or not they feel her feelings:

I’ve started believing and trusting people in the last few years, finding friends who I felt really knew things and understood the world and the Real and the Honest Broken Beauty sorts of things. But, Polly, I’m starting to feel like they don’t understand what it’s like to be an abandoned kid in the middle of a packed house, where everyone is yelling at you. I’m starting to feel like they don’t know what it’s like to say, with your legs buckling under you and your face contorted and your body starving, Please help me, I need you, and to get nothing back.

As noted, she believes that she need but appear to be weak and pathetic… and that people will show up for her. In a better world she would have understood by now that she has been fed a line of bullshit… and should stop wasting so much time and effort trying to follow the bad advice dished out by her therapists and Polly:

Everyone’s advice seems to amount to something like this — that I need to admit my brokenness, that I need to ask people to come with me in the terrible truth of my weakness. But Polly, I swear I have. And nobody showed. I see my friends freaking out — in real ways, important ways, reflecting honest suffering — and I see their family mobilize around them. They do it in shitty, inadequate ways, but they’re trying, and you can see it. They try and they act and they’re there. But, Polly, when I’ve broken down — when I was starving, when I was in danger — and I admitted how broken and hungry I was, how I couldn’t eat, how I couldn’t move — everyone just kind of sat there and blinked and looked uncomfortable. And nobody showed up. So I pulled myself to treatment, and I tried really hard to be honest, and everyone said what an easy patient I was, and my insurance dropped me when I had gained enough weight. 
They have all told her to accept being broken. Perhaps they have no idea of how to fix what is broken, but it’s bad advice. EA calls them out on it:

… honestly, Polly, I’m tired, and I feel like you’re going to read every sentence of this judging me for being melodramatic or empty or stupid, for not having the grace to accept my life as a beautiful broken thing. I do feel like my life is beautiful, but right now I feel amputated, Polly, you know? And when I hear you, or my dear friends, or my therapist say things like, Accept how broken you are, accept that no one can help you except for you, all I hear is how dreadfully, terribly, depressingly alone I am.

Polly, I’ve cried, I’ve fallen apart, and nobody shows. All of the things you say will come, they don’t come. It’s just me, standing at the entrance of an enormous tunnel, and it’s dark and muggy and smells like shit, and I don’t know how I got there, and I feel like any second someone is going to round the corner and hurt me, so I scream, and all I get back a few moments later is the echo of my voice. It sounds so fucking scared, Polly, and still nobody shows.

Evidently, the woman does have some talent as a writer. In some ways she seems to have more talent than Polly. She ought now to follow the logical outcome of her own analysis and ignore the advice that she has been given, to reach out to other people, to offer something positive and good to them, to do an occasional good deed… and to disregard the notion that if only she whines and complains enough, they will come running.

Saving the best for last, I believe that her use of the expression “nobody shows” is brilliant. It is not grammatical, but that makes it even more interesting. It’s possible to defy the rules of grammar and succeed. It doesn't happen very often, but it does happen.

We assume that she means something like “nobody shows up.” But she might also be thinking of the fact that when a woman is pregnant, people commonly say that she is or is not showing. Or else, it could have something to do with putting on a show. Or with a game of show and tell. The implications are intriguing and engaging.

But, consider this one: have you ever heard of children playing a game called: you show me yours and I’ll show you mine. You know what it means. I do not need to explain. And yet, what happens when you show yours and the gesture is not reciprocated. After all, EA has exposed her weakness, her vulnerability and her shame— exactly as Polly keeps recommending— and other people do not reciprocate. They do not show theirs. They do what any normal human being would do. They turn away. They look elsewhere. Because they are trying to help her to save face… to save the face that she just gave up by showing herself to be weak and pathetic.


UbuMaccabee said...

Broken woman? I'm just an ordinary citizen, but here is my advice.

Get a gym membership. Lift weights--heavy weights, free weights, barbells. Squats, press, dead-lift, etc. No treadmills. Kettle bells are great. Get a trainer who doesn't let you slide into your self-pity. 3 days per week minimum. Check out Mark Rippetoe, he knows what he is doing.

Add swimming on the off days. Perfect cardio and easy on the joints.

Eat a diet that is low in sugar and carbohydrates.

Read Aristotle. Wisdom since 322 BC. I'd also recommend the Bible/Tanakh but in our stupid, secular age, most educated people are not prepared to read real wisdom, undiluted.

Put the emotional circus on the back-burner and concentrate on your physicality for a while. Balance your physiology and you'll likely find the rest falls into place. Do this for a year and get back to me.

Ares Olympus said...

Sometimes I wonder what pride is for, and pride can encourage you to not ask for help, to hide everything from everyone, and put forth an image that you have everything together even when you don't.

Well, so EA shows the opposite problem, or perhaps she did play the prideful game of "pretend everything is okay even when its not." Or maybe she's always been in this state of self-pity? I don't know if self-pity is good for anything, but its failures are clear - it lies to you, and dis-empowers you, encourages you to look at all the problems you don't have immediate power to improve, while neglecting smaller ones you can act on.

So UbuMaccabee's advice is sound. If you do things within your power, even if you don't "feel" like doing them, when you act towards a goal you can reach, that produces a sense of pride, and that helps offset the false voice of self-pity, and you can stop digging that hole deeper.

On the "self-absorbed whiner and complainer" label, I have mixed feelings on that. That is I have known people who seem to need someone to hear them say whatever needs saying, and getting a little sympathy in response, or at least someone who isn't throwing advice at them and telling them what they're doing wrong, it seems like does allow some release, and can them help verbalize a plan of action for the day. No one wants a "whiner" in their life, if you have one, you can lie and say "I only have 15 minutes" and they will respond, and perhaps focus what they want to say better than if you offer no limit.

MikeyParks said...

She's surprised that she's not as important to others as she is to herself? Everyone has troubles, some even greater than yours. The fact that you don't know about them is because you probably don't listen, or give them a chance to talk about themselves. Nature has marked you as dispensable; it's up to you to change Nature's mind.

Sam L. said...

MP does Tough Love.