EVERYTHING IS FINE. SO WHY DO I FEEL LIKE A TOTAL LOSER?
I’m a PhD student, living with my dad and commuting to school about once a week. I was very lucky to get a scholarship that covers my tuition and living costs (so basically, it’s a job.) I’m really shy and have a congenital disorder that is sometimes invisible, and sometimes fucks my life up horribly. I don’t have many close friends living nearby and though I socialize, I haven’t been able to make really deep connections recently (I moved, lost a lot of connections, and other life stuff.) I’ve been trying to put myself out there, going to training sessions, and volunteering as an email counselor at a children’s charity, and my academic supervisors are pleased with my output, and I write fiction on the side and am querying my first manuscript, so really, things should be great, right?
Except I feel like a complete and total loser. I guess depression has some part to play, but I’ve had a lot of therapy and I do all of the work to keep myself going (exercise, dressing according to my shape, trying hard to practice good self-care). I make plans to see my old friends whenever I can. I make plans to travel. I do all these things, sometimes exhausting myself in the process, but there are so many days when I still beat myself up for not doing more, or doing better, and being a real adult with friends and plans that go beyond watching crime shows with my dad every night.
My dad’s pretty cool with me living with him, and has refused to let me pay rent and bills—he’s been on his own because of work for a while, so he likes the company; and with me working from home, I can do the shopping and the cooking most of the time. To me, a student living from home and being paid a scholarship, life should be pretty sweet. I mean, what am I doing wrong here? Why, when I’m doing all this stuff, do I feel like I missed about a billion steps to adulting? Am I really a loser?
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
I am answering your letter today, particularly, in part because I found it so moving but in part because it is emblematic of a certain thread in a number of the letters I get. It seems like there are a lot of people with a very clear idea about how they OUGHT to be doing things, in order to be a proper adult, or a good spouse, or a better friend, or a hotter lover, or whatever. They’re not receiving any complaints at all, but still somehow they’re – you are – convinced that you’re Doing It Wrong in some way that is being kept a secret and will only be revealed when it’s become catastrophic. Like there’s another shoe waiting to drop.
Here’s the thing, Brave Correspondent: You don’t really say, in your letter, how you feel about your life. You don’t say if you’re enjoying your travel, if you feel loved and tended to by your old friends or excited about any of the new ones, if you feel good about what you’ve been writing, if you enjoy your academic program, if you’re fulfilled by your charity work, or even what your favorite crime show is. You’ve reported how you think other people would see your life, and that you think you’re not doing a good job with it when you compare it to everyone else’s life.
This is what my smartypants friend Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg refers to as “comparing your insides to other people’s outsides,” and I have long found it an incredibly useful concept to keep in mind. Especially these days, when social media is full of everyone you know or have ever known posting selfies with the Prime Minister/among their beautiful children/hand-feeding orphans/on a mountaintop/etcetera it can be very easy to assume that everyone else’s life is actually an endless parade of delightful moments and you’re the only one who’s a fucking wreck every morning trying to locate the combination of strength, patience, and optimism it takes to put pants on and go out.
Let’s just be real for a minute here: That’s most of everybody.
For sure, there are people who rise at 5:30am full of joy and serenity, salute the sun on their handmade sustainable bamboo yoga mat, drink a cup of organic tea, draw on their Lululemons and spring, like gazelles, out into the world. I tend to assume that these people are so insulated by privilege that they have actually nothing to worry about, though statistically some of them must just be congenitally optimistic and a certain additional portion extremely well medicated. For the rest of us, though? Every day is kind of a crapshoot, and we are all basically acting like ducks about it – our feet are paddling wildly, but underwater. Above the water we are trying very hard to glide serenely across the lake, because all the other ducks seem quite serene as well.
Here’s a question: What if you only did what you actually wanted to do, plus whatever you have to do to meet the demands of your academic program/job and so forth? What would happen if you let yourself focus all that energy on only and exactly what really feel good for you? Some of those things might be the kind of thing that is Good For Us but not exactly delightful, but many of them could be, you know – just things that you find actually pleasurable and not exhausting. Maybe they will turn out to help make you a more interesting writer or a more diligent student, or maybe they’ll just be fun and pleasing to you (which is a totally valid reason to do a thing). If it feels annoying or tiring or hard to make the plans but great to see the friends, that’s one thing (everyone who hates making plans and arrangements, hands up. Hi.).
Now, for sure, depression is real. Sometimes knowing that means noticing what messages are the voice of depression and consciously not listening to them, sometimes that means seeking talk therapy or medicine, or hospitalization, or whatever will let us turn up the radio in other parts of our lives loud enough to drown out the voice of depression. Part of acknowledging depression as a real thing means acknowledging that it takes a real toll on us. Depression can keep us from actualizing our ideas – our plans and dreams, and even our intention to unload the dishwasher—and sitting on the couch binge-watching White Collar and eating reheated lasagna instead. Which is not ideal.
But it’s also not ideal, however, to exhausting yourself making plans you don’t want in order to have a life that more closely conforms to media (including social media) messages about How Your Life Should Look. I understand (from personal experience) that there’s a daily internal debate for a ton of people who have chronic illnesses, mobility challenges, mental health issues and so forth about what a given time period can hold before one runs out of spoons. I think it’s very common for some types of therapy to push people, especially younger people, toward maintaining a socially acceptable-looking life that’s only sometimes actually what the person wants. And I think that the rushing current of heteronormativity and neurotypicality and in the world leads people to right where you seem to be – prioritizing an idea of An Adult Life (as demonstrated by straight white able-bodied well-resourced cisgender people) over the actual life you would like to be having. Part of being an adult, is to some extent, getting to figure out what we actually want, and doing that. What if being an adult included loving ourselves in our wholeness and doing that well, without worrying about what that looked like for other people?
(Go ahead and take a minute with that idea. I can wait.)
So, Brave Correspondent, here’s my two-part challenge to you: I would like you to see what it’s like to only exhaust yourself doing things you feel excited about, and to focus the rest of your energy on doing things that are pleasing to you. I mean, also take your vitamins and brush your teeth and maintain the physical plant as best you can even if it does not leave you full of delight, and there’s work to manage and probably also the dishes. But otherwise, how about a one-month experiment? Starting Friday, and for all of April, only do things recreationally that you actually like, or think you’ll like, disregarding entirely the idea that certain kinds of activities or pursuits are “better adulting” than others.
I have an idea that when you turn your energies and talents toward what feels delicious and nourishing to you, rather than the meal in the photo on the back of the box, you will discover within yourself new possibilities and vistas that just aren’t visible from where you are. No matter what other people think about how your life should look, or what the optics are, or how you ought to be spending your time and energy—tune in your own station right now. It’s spring, many things are coming into bloom right now, Brave Correspondent. I’d love for you to be one of them.
Love and courage,