Today in Polly: The Hawk and The Hippos

In which we explain why this is so late.

I can’t believe we haven’t done this since last April! Heather and I both had to get through our 2022 meltdowns, and one of us had a book tour, I think. Oh and I went to college for four of those months. If it’s been so long that you don’t even know what this is, Today in Polly is a chaotically-scheduled collaborative newsletter-within-a-newsletter where Heather Havrilesky, the brilliant and universally admired author of Ask Polly and Ask Molly, joins me to competitively answer your advice questions and/or dunk on my (at best) well-meaning attempts.

I am emotionally wrung out by the two brief questions we tackled this time, so let’s just get to them. If you’d have a question for a future issue, email it to me. But now, let’s delve:

How do I stop taking everything so personally? I know rationally speaking that everyone out there is trying their best and I'm not the main character of the universe and nobody is going out of their way to make my day slightly shittier. But then something happens (coworker gives me advice on how to do my job, bf mentions he's not sure he wants to renew our lease) and wherever it is on the scale of "mild" to "existentially threatening" my reaction is always to stew about it as if it's an affront to me, well, personally. Like how could they do this to me, don't they know how upsetting they're being, etc. This is not how I want to live! Any advice for how to stop scattering blame around at every little thing and break my habit towards fundamental attribution error?

Blame Gamer

Rusty: I’m gonna disagree with all of your premises here, and that will probably annoy you which is pretty funny given your question, but hold onto that feeling and we’ll come back to it. Be assured though, I do know how upsetting I’m being.

First of all: almost no one is trying their best. For example right now I’m writing this answer at 4:45 pm on the day I promised I would post it, after wasting literal weeks when I could have worked on it. Polly’s had her part done for more than a week now. Is this trying my best? Absolutely not. It is the bare minimum necessary to get by, which is what everyone out there is usually doing.

Some people are definitely going out of their way to make your day shittier, but most people aren’t thinking about you at all. And this is constantly making your day shittier because you are, in fact, the main character of your universe—the absolute monarch and only sovereign citizen of the pocket universe inside your own head. When you wake up, who’s there? You are. And when you go to bed, guess what? Still you. For both your worst moments and your best, you were the only one who was always present.

Of course being the main character of the universe is a horror story! Think about “The Truman Show,” or that one Twilight Zone episode where the little kid was the god of that town in Ohio. Shirley Jackson wrote a story where a 1950s-era secretary out doing some errands gradually realizes she’s the subject of a citywide prize hunt—she’s suddenly the main character of her local universe, and the title of it is appropriately “Nightmare.”

The story isn’t online anywhere that I could find, but it appears in a 2018 collection called “The Missing Girl,” which Abigail Siegel reviewed in Medium. I guess spoilers for a story that is barely in print anywhere but Siegel described the ending:

After hours of trying to escape the advertisements and people following her, knowing she looks like their “Miss X”, she succumbs to this new role into which the world has put her. And ultimately, she is very happy with the change.

And that’s my answer: accept that you are the main character of the only universe you can directly experience, and start acting like it. You describe your stewing thoughts as: “how could they do this to me, don't they know how upsetting they're being…” You are an Emperor! It is beneath you to stew over what your lessers know or don’t know. The only thing you ever need to be concerned with is what Law you decree within your own universe.

Someone cut you off in traffic? Miserable peon, erase them from your awareness for the rest of time, they are not worth a single one of your precious further thoughts.

A coworker is condescending? Ok you probably have to keep dealing with them, but you owe them none of your emotional energy. Mark them down as severely disfavored in your Kingdom and then magnanimously decline to dwell on it any further. You have a universe to run.

Boyfriend goes off-script? Either of the previous responses remain available, but assuming you want to stay with this guy this is more of an Imperial Summit kind of situation. Because he’s the main character of his universe too, so you need to meet on the neutral ground where your universes overlap and deal with this as equals, with honest communication and trust and listening. I know, those things are the worst, especially compared to endlessly stewing and coming up with really cutting remarks inside your head, but you understand now that those responses are beneath you and the dignity of your office.

I don’t think your problem is one of attribution—you know perfectly well who‘s annoying you and who’s to blame. It’s a problem of response. You can’t control other people, you can only control your responses to them. So at the beginning of this, I was annoying on purpose. I’m on the other end of a computer somewhere, there’s nothing you can do about me, the only thing you can do is decide whether to be annoyed or not. So what are you gonna do?

Polly: I have some great news for you, Blame Gamer: I’m the main character of the universe and you’re merely an extremely realistic NPC (non-playable character). I can’t play you, which can be very frustrating for me at times, particularly when you obstruct my path to glory (or more importantly, tasty soft cheeses), and also when you write hauntingly relatable letters that I could’ve written. So it might help you to keep in mind that when other people do things that feel personal to you, those things are actually only personal to me, the main character of the universe. My choices will determine the fate of humankind, so it is right and just that I should take everything personally. Your choices, on the other hand… well, you don’t really have any. You’re just programmed to imagine that you do.

Wow, that last bit drills down into reality a little too hard, doesn’t it? And maybe that’s the real issue. We all make ourselves the main character of the universe, with all of the hurt and blame and great power and great responsibility that involves, in order to experience ourselves as special. We want to feel special because this broken world we live in has a unique way of making us feel like used up napkins that someone wiped their thankless, greasy face all over. With our phones in our possession at all times, we’re in constant danger of sailing out onto the violent seas of today’s internet (which is just like The Odyssey, only everyone has cool eyewear) and seeing something that sucks our souls out of our faces like a Dementor. You know, we’re just looking to return a text and we hit that Instagram icon on a whim and the next thing you know, we’re staring at someone’s cute backyard or reading their dumb romantic birthday note to their beautiful wife who has the time and money to cultivate adorable succulents or collect vinyl or fly to Italy on a whim. “That pretty bitch believes that she’s the main character of the universe, when it’s really me!” we think as we clutch our tasty cheeses in our fists until they squish out onto the floor. 

Blame is almost always a byproduct of shame and self-hatred and the unsustainable delusion that you’re the girl with the most cake. When you’re trying to get a hit of the wrong kind of specialness, the kind that tells you that you have to perform and charm and look good and forge a smooth path to greatness and perfection without fail, the kind that make you feel like warm vomit on the sidewalk whenever you fail, that’s when you start treating your loved ones like NPCs. Your blame and anger is a way of trying to play them, maneuvering them out of your path, making them give you what you need instead of listening closely to their deepest desires and honoring and respecting their full selves, which are gorgeous and hungry and actually do have choices. 

Now I’m making you sound selfish and evil and that’s not it. You’re a human animal like any other so you want things. Keep the wanting part! Nourish and relish your animal self as much as possible! In fact, the grab for uneasy, detrimental specialness is often a side effect of not being aligned with your animal self, which is much happier and more peaceful when it exercises, eats healthily, sleeps enough, stays safe from the ravenous sea creatures of the internet, and ASSERTS ITSELF OCCASIONALLY, even when it feels awkward. And if you weren’t so bewildered and lonely and exhausted in your life right now, if you didn’t feel so powerless and choice-less, you would feel more comfortable listening to advice from your coworker (Within reason. I mean, come on! Do your own job, Johnny!) and you’d make some space for your boyfriend to explain more about why he wants to end the lease (Was this a surprise? Because whew, nice way to say the relationship isn’t working, Johnny!).

Have I mentioned that you have a right to feel things? Things you don’t want to feel, but do anyway? Because I think your specific curse is grabbing for the destructive specialness of being sweet and accepting and even-keeled about EVERYTHING, all the time, simply because you’re self-aware and idealistic and open. I think you’ve reached a place in your life where you need to counteract your impulse to be chill about literally all things and start learning to stand up for your needs and desires. This is what an animal does. An animal defines its boundaries and exerts the least amount of energy needed to make its point: a snarled lip, a flap of wings. When you build a good habit of setting healthy boundaries and speaking to people directly about your desires WITHOUT SHAME, MIND YOU, you communicate clearly about who you are and what you value. 

You do this when you stop trying to be perfect. You stop blaming everyone and taking everything personally when you stop making everything YOUR PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. Once you stop telling yourself that as the main character, you have to be smooth and kind and chill in every single situation, and you start realizing that you can simply be a regular, humble animal with needs who says no to stuff she hates (when calm and well-rested!) and says yes to stuff she loves (when not drunk or on a rooftop!), you won’t feel angry and sad and rejected and contemptuous as much. 

But you know what is also true? Regular human animals feel a lot. The more open we are, the more forgiving and compassionate we are to ourselves, the more we feel. (Go read this thing I wrote on that subject, please!). Feeling more is sublime! And, somewhat paradoxically, feeling more makes you more tolerant and loving and relaxed, in the long run. At first, it’s a real tidal wave, but slowly but surely, you learn to surf. And you love people for who they are, even when they can’t give you what you want. You live in reality, with an open, forgiving heart. 

You don’t get there by imitating a person who can do that, by the way. You have to feel your way there. You have to make space for your inner brat to feel her feelings without shame. It’s natural to feel the way you feel. It’s good for you to notice your feelings, good and bad. You are a real character. You have unique and interesting desires. And you have choices. 

Rusty: I knew this would be a good one but it turned out absolutely magnificent. We just managed to use diametrically opposed premises to arrive at the same answer. So to summarize: you are/are not the main character of the universe (take your pick!), and therefore you should feel your feelings and give yourself what you need and don’t feel responsible for whatever is going on in other people’s heads. Perfect.

My father was always hypercritical of others and let us know when he disapproved of our outfits or thought we couldn’t cook. I feel this hypercritical, micro-managing impulse in me and can tell it’s ruining my relationship with my family and with others. I always have to tell them if I think they’re doing something wrong. How do I be kinder to others?

Sincerely, She Has Her Father’s Mouth

Rusty: I have never felt so personally roasted by a question. I am absolutely that father, and that person, and I’m going on five decades now without solving it myself, so I’m probably the worst person to give you advice on this. Not to mention I email my opinions to thousands of people every day for a job, and I’m right this second answering a letter from you, asking me for my advice. Honestly this is like drugs to me. I need the answer to this question so badly that I can’t wait to read Polly’s advice, which will hopefully help us both. The extent to which your four concise sentences forced me to confront my own worst character traits is probably why it took me so long to finally sit down and write this, in fact.

So, obviously, this is a problem I’ve been working on myself, and what I can do is share a few things that sometimes work for me, and some realizations I’ve had about where I think these impulses come from (again, in me). Some, all, or none of this may apply to you! If it’s none, I’m sorry! I tried! Maybe it will vibe for someone else.

With those caveats in mind: one thing that has been working for me lately is a little mantra I try to repeat to myself in my head when I sense that I am about to say something that someone does not need to hear from me right now or possibly ever, and it’s this:

Often just remembering that shutting the fuck up is an option is enough for me to realize that I’m about to do it again, and that I should stop talking (or choose not to start). It gives me a moment to reflect—not on the incredible depth and brilliance of my own wisdom—but on what the person I’m talking to actually needs from this exchange.

Because the other thing I realized is that I can be hypercritical of others because I’m hypercritical of myself and everything else in the world. Everything could be better, right? There’s always room for improvement. It’s an optimistic worldview! But I have, with much difficulty, come to understand that most people don’t experience an instant and detailed list of the precise shortcomings of whatever they’ve just proudly showed you as the expression of “an optimistic worldview.” Yeah I don’t get it either but trust me, it is a fact. It seems like usually people want… a little praise? A “good job?” Maybe some questions about what challenges they overcame.

When people tell you about something bad that happened, more often than not they actually don’t want to know what they should have done instead, or how they should fix it. They want a hug, and for you to say “dang, that sucks. I’m sorry that happened.” I know most of you are rolling your eyes so hard you’re about to fall over. I feel at least as embarrassed as you do right now, to have had to laboriously come to these very obvious conclusions through trial and error, like an alien.

So for me this comes from perfectionism and a drive to constantly improve everything, and these are powerful motivations! These are traits of high-achievers, they’re not inherently bad. But they’re the hippos of my personality zoo. They’re big and powerful and they don’t look as dangerous as they are, but if you don’t keep them behind extremely sturdy fences, people are going to get hurt.

So, I don’t know. I’m trying to build better fences, and keep the hippos over where I can… harness them when I need them? This metaphor is breaking down, let’s abandon it. I hope both of us can keep trying to do better, and meanwhile I’m gonna shut the fuck up and see what Polly has to say.

Polly: It sounds like all of your NPCs are glitching. Try rebooting and see if that doesn’t help.

It’s a testament to our broken times that MANY PEOPLE ACTUALLY DO THIS. They get tired of their spouses and they get divorced. They get sick of their family and they stop visiting. And look, that’s understandable, honestly, because so many spouses and parents and cousins are SO completely ruled by shame and out of alignment with their truest desires that they act out and insult and abuse. There are plenty of times when your family or your spouse is so fucking horrible that your only chance at happiness is to REBOOT.

What’s interesting about small irritations is that they often reflect your big picture ideas of how the world should be. So your hypercritical, micro-managing impulses are actually side effects of a larger, guiding ethos in your life, a belief that if you don’t step in and control various situations, everything will become deeply and completely fucked and stupid immediately. You have a lurking fear that life will always be dumb as long as people around you are making sloppy, bad choices, and you feel it’s your duty to either train them away from that fate or prevent the next calamity yourself. But you also feel ANNOYED that this is necessary. You feel like it SHOULDN’T be necessary! People should simply learn to do things the way YOU do them! And if they can never, ever do that, if they’re simply designed to torture you with their impossibly clumsy maneuvering and botching of all things, then you will eventually BE FORCED TO REBOOT THIS MOTHERFUCKER AND START OVER!

Now I’m not saying you’re about to quit your family and friends. I’m saying you need to zoom out and acknowledge the extreme nature of your big-picture beliefs about you vs. everyone else.

I was in that state of mind recently and rather unexpectedly, so I can offer you a colorful field guide to bushwhacking your way out of it. My husband and I have been hosting family dinners every Friday. Not Shabbat, sadly, just mundane, non-secular dinners for my mom, my two siblings, and everyone’s spouses and kids. I’m going to spare you the little details here but suffice it to say that my husband alternates these days between GREAT CHEF CAPABLE OF CULINARY GENIUS and COMPLETE IDIOT ABOUT TO FEED MY FAMILY TASTELESS GRUEL. (My husband would not dispute these charges and also feels comfortable with me telling the world about our shared reality, because he’s truly tolerant and also because he enjoys the fringe benefits of being married to the main character of the universe.)

So I would hover. I would say things about how water and beans and potatoes don’t make soup, they make a nice starchy glue for paper maché. And then, once the paper maché was divided into little bowls (by me, because my husband had a glass of wine and realized that linear time is just an arbitrary construct), I couldn’t stop myself from saying ever-so-slightly negative things like “Well, unfortunately, this is paste.”

My extended family hates it when I make these sounds, EVEN WHEN THEY’RE EATING PASTE! So then everyone is wincing at me and saying they love paste the best, mmmm, thank you, Bill, for the delicious paste! It was like being gaslit by 14 people at once—except that I really was an asshole, a micromanaging dick from hell, so I deserved it! It was the literal worst of all emotional worlds!

So I decided to remove myself from the kitchen entirely. I would let my husband make and serve paste or cook my own dinner. And I saw that there was a little bit of weird REBOOT energy floating around inside me, too, so I had to really examine what my life would be like without my husband. Would it be better? At first I could think of a lot of exciting things me and my body would do together, and it did seem so much better! But then I started noticing all of the many, many ways that my husband brings warmth and joy and fun to my life. I got in closer touch with how grateful I am for him. (This is something we hypercritical types have to do repeatedly over the course of a marriage. LABORIOUS AND TIRESOME, to be sure!)

So I resolved to become more of a spectator and supporter when he was cooking, because that’s what would make my husband and my family much, much happier and more able to taste the joy of being together… while eating paste. 

That sounds simple, but it really is that simple in this case. Stepping back and letting go makes you kinder. Forgiving yourself for wanting control but resolving to have less of it makes you kinder. Letting everyone eat paste together because that’s what they actually prefer, when it means you’re not being grumpy, makes you kinder. Letting people tell you what they really want and then giving it to them because you love them makes you kinder. 

The prerequisite to all of this is that you are kinder to yourself. I suspect that’s the real problem here. Let me model that for you. The other day, I said to myself, “No one will ever be good enough for you.” Instead of recognizing the truth there and feeling like a loser, I felt this sense of peace. I am simply a person who finds much of the world inadequate and disappointing and stupid, and it takes a lot of effort for me to let people, places, and things be what they are. 

It's a type. Rusty is the same type. And even though you might say, “Oh, you two are so alike, maybe you need to scrape the inadequate humans with lower standards out of your lives and surround yourselves with hypercritical perfectionist main characters instead!” I want you to imagine two hawks ripping each other’s eyes out with their sharp claws for the rest of time. That’s the final destination of a tireless scold who wants to raise everyone up to your standards: sitting at the top of a tall pine tree, all alone and very pissed off, anxious to soothe yourself by eating the face off the nearest rodent. 

The solution is to take pride in your merciless claws and all-seeing eyeballs without actually SAYING SHARP AND POINTY WORDS OUT LOUD. If it helps, imagine yourself in one of those weird little leather hats and blinders they used to put on raptors to force them to chill the fuck out. Imagine your clawed foot on a very short leash. Hawk no fly? Hawk no see? Hawk relax.

Forgive yourself for who you are – enjoy your fierce, unrelenting mind, in fact! But commit to saying less. That’s so much more relaxing than remaining in that “These characters are glitching! Should I reboot?” state of mind. Allow your world to be imperfect. Allow all of these characters to glitch. Delight in the glitchiness of it all. 

Rusty: It’s hilarious that my immediate reaction here was an outraged “BUT THAT’S ALL I COULD COME UP WITH MYSELF, YOU REALLY CAN’T DO BETTER THAN THAT POLLY!?” I still have… a ways to go, obviously.

Polly: See, you’re proving my point with this reaction. I’ll never be good enough for you. Awwwww! We belong together! In this imaginary internet realm we do, anyway. Much less blood and screeching that way.

Rusty: Well, this collaboration at least feels like a success, and no one had to die for it. And this “forgive yourself” thing? Intriguing! I definitely plan to look into considering it. Someday.

But until then, if YOU have a life question that’s semi-urgent and could be helpfully addressed with animal metaphors by two furious birds of prey who are trying to be nicer, please send it to me, and we’ll do this again soon. Thanks again Heather!

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