I’ve always done really well at school, and so people always tell me I’ll do great things. Now, this is great, but I have a lot of doubts with regard to…what to do with my life, basically. I’m passionate about SO MANY things (mostly anything related to science and research) that I just can’t seem to choose that one thing that would make me the best “me” I can be. I am currently in dental school, and even though I enjoy it and my classes are fun so far (a lot of basic sciences, which I enjoy), I’m constantly worrying about not having made the right choice, and I can’t but wonder: what if there’s something else I should be doing, that will make me live up to my full potential, something so hard and unusual that it would make people raise their eyebrows? What if I don’t find my niche? What if I end up settling for something less than amazing? Am I selling myself short? Etc. etc. etc. How do I stop worrying so much? How am I supposed to know if I’ve made the right choice? Am I asking for the impossible here? -Marina, Argentina
First of all: hi, Marina! Second of all: PLEASE STOP WORRYING SO MUCH, Marina! A lot of what you are thinking about right now has to do with age, and with having the time in which to explore and choose your options. I don’t know how old you are, but let’s assume that since you are writing in to this website, you are not actually 87 years old. Which means one thing: you have time.
Choosing a career is never easy. The world is full of amazing things to do. Everybody’s life has a few roads not taken. But you, lucky person that you are, are young enough to take ALL THE ROADS. Or at least step onto them, and see how they work out. I admit: going to dental school does seem to me like a safe bet, for a lady who’s into science and research. Which is good! Security is not a bad thing. And it wouldn’t be bad to be a dentist, either, IF you genuinely knew that it was what you wanted to do in life. But right now, you don’t know that, and I think that’s what’s bothering you. More than anything else, I hear you saying that you feel trapped. Not because you hate dentistry, but because you want to know what else is possible.
So, here’s the thing: You can keep going to dental school. But in order to be fair to yourself, you have to spend the rest of your time exploring. Take all the science classes. Look into everything that excites you. No matter how ridiculous! Or risky! Or unimpressive to others! (Honestly, who wants to spend the rest of her life thinking about whether she’s impressive to other people? Not anyone with more-meaningful things to do, I am pretty sure.) Spend a whole semester studying 19th century French poetry, if that is something that you are curious about. When you find something that genuinely makes you feel alive— astronomy, medical research, horse whispering, ANYTHING—you will know. And you’ll know because it will keep you up at night, and you’ll spend your time thinking about it while you’re supposed to be learning about teeth. Or maybe find yourself in the middle of those new classes, missing your classes on dentistry. What you are doing now COULD be what you are meant to do. But you can’t know that unless you have some basis for comparison.
I’m of the opinion that everyone has a calling, and that many people feel aimless or depressed just because they haven’t taken the time to find theirs. Some people are called to dentistry; if you’re one of them, you’ll find out. But open yourself up to every possibility for a while; when one of them starts asking for you by name, you will know. And at that point, it won’t even be about CHOOSING what you want to do; it will be about knowing that you couldn’t do anything else. —Sady
I know high school years are supposed to be hell, but is it ~normal~ to feel unable to connect with anyone, and utterly lonely? —Anonymous
Honestly? No. I don’t think it’s normal. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, or the people around you, if just means that you are in the middle of many incompatible circumstances. Knowing this can be a burden, because the truth can hurt, ’cause who wants to admit that they’re lonely? But it’s really a blessing, because it means you can give yourself the power to fix it, which would never happen if you didn’t know or acknowledge that there was something to fix. You can try to take advantage of this terrible feeling.
One good thing about loneliness is that it helps you access the emotions you need to fully experience some of the world’s greatest art, movies, writing, music, and such. That great, awful feeling where you feel so in love with a song at the same time that your chest physically hurts from how much things seem to suck. Such feelings broaden our life experience and make the happy, un-lonely feelings stronger. “BUT I DON’T WANT LIFE EXPERIENCE! LIFE SUCKS!” —you, maybe, or at least me a lot of the time. Unfortunately, life is all we have, so DEAL WITH IT, or at least TRY to make the suckiness of it less sucky. For these times, I recommend “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian, No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July, Ghost World, and lots of Woody Allen (just try to avoid learning about his personal life for a while). And, after you’ve developed these obsessions, you might want to create some of your own art, too, and let me just say that it is extremely satisfying to be able to make some kind of sense out of shitty feelings, be it through drawing, collaging, photography, writing, etc.
The problem with this specific brand of sadness—loneliness—is that it’s so dependent on the people around you, and you can’t change them, and you can’t change yourself to relate to them when it doesn’t feel right. So, now that you’ve gotten to know yourself more by exploring your obsessions (TWO ROOKIE THEMES IN ONE SENTENCE, GO ME), and you’ve developed your taste, you can use all that to relate to others. Keep an eye out for events that pertain to your interests: authors speaking at local bookstores, concerts, sports events. Do you live by a city? Does it have a record store of any kind? A ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW SHADOW SHOW? Other people will be doing the same thing you are, looking for people to enjoy the author/concert/festival/game with, and so you are bound to find someone else who will understand your reasons for being there.
Now, maybe you’re lonely not because you don’t have friends but because you actually have quite a few friends but don’t relate to any of them. It is a terrible feeling to spend all night with a group of people and go home and realize that you kind of hated yourself and everyone around you for the past three hours. If you feel this way, they probably feel it too, and so no one will think you freaky for kind of fading away from the group. You might deal with the paranoid suspicion that people are judging you because lately you’ve been spending more time at home making things than hanging out, but you don’t really want anything from them anyway, and you’re not hurting them, so it’s not worth your or their caring about. (Also, don’t feel discouraged if you don’t make things that you like right away. Nobody does. And even just watching movies and developing your tastes and figuring out what you like is an effective use of time, in my opinion.)
Or, maybe you feel lonely because you don’t have a romantic partner, and you’re sick of the optimism it takes to be like, “Hey, I can relate to Janis Ian! Take THAT, people who are happier than me and make out with each other!” I am honestly lost on this one, but I do think this is the most NORMAL kind of loneliness here, so at least it’s not like everyone is having some giant orgy and you’re not invited. Just please promise me that you will remember that YOU are not the problem. It’s just that people are complicated, and it is rare for two of them to find each other and say and do all the right things that make it work out. But there’s nothing wrong with you that is keeping you from getting a lover of some kind, even though it’s easy to think, like, if ONLY I could be more X, less Y, just the right kind of Z. It is also easy to feel this way if you have the notion that your loneliness might have nothing to do with the people around you, and is just something you feel all the time, regardless of your circumstances.
When you are met with the burden of understanding things and why they make you sad, to a point where it’s hard to relate to others and you eventually become lonely, you may hate yourself a little bit, and want to make yourself more boring, pretty, passive, submissive, easier to get along with, uncontroversial in any way. But by that point, you know too much about the world and what you do and don’t like about it, you know that you feel rather attached to your opinions, your tastes, your ideas, the things that might make you un-boring or un-pretty, and you don’t want to compromise them, because they make up who you are, after all. The comfort in knowing that you are being your full self, or, if you don’t know who that is, just doing what feels right in the moment, will triumph over the comfort of knowing that some hypothetical other person is into a boring, pretty, one-dimensional version of you that doesn’t exist. Or at least the discomfort of smiling and nodding when you have so much you’d rather say will be so awful that you’ll prefer the discomfort of confusing people. It does not feel this way in the moment, but I believe it is incredibly important in the long run, in the health of YOU, and that’s who you gotta take care of.
NOW. What happens when you don’t want to take care of yourself, when you’re so MAD at yourself for being LONELY, when the person you feel alienated from is you? When everything you love has turned against you, your favorite song just reminds you of YOU, and you feel like that person is someone who just sucks?
First of all, know that you don’t suck as much as you think you do, ever, especially if you are a teenager, especially if you are a female teenager. Because we are SCIENTIFICALLY PROGRAMMED to hate ourselves more than we should right now. Because puberty sucks. (It will be over soon, or at least relatively soon, considering how long life typically is.) (Also, therapy. It’s a good idea to investigate therapy if your feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness persist no matter what else you’ve tried. Here’s some really good advice about finding a therapist.)
It’s all about striking a balance between being Liz Lemon and being Stevie Nicks. You are not perfect, because you are a human being, and in moments where you dwell on this and start to hate yourself, you need to keep a Liz-like sense of humor about your flaws. But you also need to give yourself some credit, know that you are awesome and sometimes other people just don’t get it. Know that your flaws are interesting, your loneliness is interesting, that you, you are a force of NATURE, a BEAUTIFUL, COMPLICATED human. And you think about these flaws and you feel these feelings because your world has color and depth to it, which can make the things that hurt, hurt more, but can also make the things that feel good, feel more good.
And so few people understand, because loneliness, as we have established, is not normal, but your bonds with the other few people will be the most special of all, once you find them, which you will. You and your wild heart, you’re like Stevie Nicks. Stevie Nicks wants the sadness and the emotion, she wants to scare people by saying so and presenting them with the part of themselves they’re afraid of. You’re not afraid—you’re aware. And if you’re tackling your loneliness with the right combination of acceptance and optimism, you’re DOING something about it. You’re trying to make something BEAUTIFUL out of it. You are Stevie fucking Nicks.
“I think if you are really into words and poetry and situations of life, there is always a little kiss of sadness on everything you do… It’s just the kind of person who I am. I always look carefully beneath the outward appearance of things. I want to know what’s really going on in somebody’s heart.”
A-fucking-men, Stevie fucking Nicks. Now, listen to “Rhiannon,” watch some 30 Rock, and take a nap.
Recently, my best friend started dating this guy she has liked for ages. She’s really happy, and I’m really happy for her. But the thing is, she spends all her time with him. She’s been bailing on plans with me a lot, and it kind of makes me feel like shit. I don’t know how to tell her how I feel without sounding/feeling selfish. Any advice? —Taylor
I have a rule that is totally arbitrary and yet totally works in real life. When someone’s in a new relationship, I give them THREE MONTHS to be an awful friend. Because when you’re newly in love your brain does not work in a normal way and you neglect everything (and everyone) else in your life for a while—school, hobbies, friends, family—because all you can think of is this new person and all you want to do is be around them and touch their hair and argue sickeningly over who loves whom more, to the not-delight of everyone around you. That’s how it’s supposed to go. It is a crazy, fun, giddy time, and you don’t want to take that away from your friend. However. On the first day of the fourth month of this relationship, you get to say, “OK, enough is enough, you have to start being a good friend again,” and there isn’t anything selfish about that. A good friend calls you out when you’re being a jerk. —Anaheed
No matter what I do, I can’t ever seem to catch up to my best friend. She gets better grades than me, she’s taller than me, and people like her more in general. Including my own family! How do I deal with these feelings of not being as good as her? —Libby Lee
Oh Libby, it hurts my heart so much to hear that you have been comparing yourself to your best friend in this way. It really, really sucks to feel like you can’t measure up to someone else, especially if that someone else is your best friend, because the crappy feelings of inadequacy and envy (emotions that we direct inward and that have the capacity to harm us and make us feel bad about ourselves) have a way of overpowering and scaring away the good feelings of love and affection (emotions that we direct outward and that have a beautiful way of radiating goodness unto everyone around us). Here’s the thing, though—and this is an easy thing to SAY but difficult to actually DO—we have to stop comparing the insides of our lives to the outsides of other people’s lives.
I can’t tell you how many hours of my life I’ve wasted looking at someone else’s Facebook photos and thinking, Well FUCK, this person has it all, doesn’t she? She’s beautiful and adored and photogenic and happy in every photo and I guess her life is perfect and mine is a pile of worthless rat turds. Or how many times I’ve looked at someone else and thought: What is wrong with my face that I don’t look like that? Why is my torso so long and hers so perfectly in proportion? Why am I dressed like a hideous sack of shit and this person before me is wearing the most impossibly cute and effortless outfit? How is it that my voice is so shrill and whiny and stupid-sounding and hers is so delicate and intriguing? How come I always have to try so hard and this person doesn’t seem to have do anything at all and good things just gravitate to her like she’s some kind of magnet? We’ve all been there—that place wherein we decide on our inferiority while imagining another person’s superiority.
There was one summer in high school when I was going through a particularly low period of my life: I had broken up with my boyfriend and he started dating my best friend a few months later; I was skipping school because I couldn’t stand it anymore; I felt like my parents didn’t believe in my dreams at all; and on top of it, I was achingly, painfully lonely. There was a day that summer when I went on an afternoon picnic with my friend L. and her mom. I was sulky and quiet the whole day, and at some point, out of nowhere, L.’s mom started just tearing into her. She told L. that she was overweight and needed to do something about her acne. She said that I was pretty and took care of my skin and that was probably why boys liked me and didn’t like L. She told L. that she wasn’t as smart as me and that she definitely wasn’t as pretty as me, and that instead of being so complacent and lazy, she should probably take better care of her skin and try harder at school.
A few years later, L. and I ended up going to the same college. One afternoon, out of the blue, L. came by my dorm room and confessed to me that she had always looked up to me and thought that I was incredibly fortunate and loved and smart in all the ways that she wasn’t and that she always wished she could have my life. This stuck with me, because I didn’t feel like my life was all that great. I felt like my writing sucked and was going mostly unnoticed by my professor. I was heartsick and devastated over a recent breakup with a boy whom I had thought I would someday marry. I had social anxiety and worried all the time about not being invited to parties or included in social events. I had gained weight, and my clothes weren’t fitting me anymore, and I didn’t have the money or the desire to buy new ones. And yet, one of my oldest friends was standing in my doorway telling me that I had the best life imaginable. “But you don’t really know what I’ve been through these past few months…” I started to say, but L. didn’t let me finish, because she started crying. And anyway, she didn’t know. She was only imagining what my life was like. And just like her, I’ve imagined what other people’s lives must be like, but I also didn’t know. No one us knows what anyone else’s lives are like. We only know our own, and because we are the only ones who have to live with ourselves and our imperfect lives, of course we become acutely aware of every flaw, of every single thing that we are lacking, and on the flipside, we know almost nothing about the flaws and the things that are lacking in other people’s lives.
I’m not saying that your best friend envies you the same way you envy her, and I’m not saying that your feelings about your best friend are not totally and completely legitimate and normal and real, but I am saying there will always be that someone who seems to have everything handed to them, and that you need to know that your best friend, who you might feel like is better than you in so many ways, has felt exactly the way you are feeling, maybe about you or maybe about someone else, and that we are all a part of this vicious and endless cycle that tricks us into thinking that there is value in comparing one human being to another, when in fact there isn’t. You don’t need to catch up to your best friend because you are not competing in the same race. No one is, because there is not a single race that we are all running in.
I want to believe in a world where there is no one beauty standard that we all have to live up to, and if that is true, then it doesn’t matter if she’s taller than you or thinner or more voluptuous or has silkier hair or bouncier curls or whatever. The same goes for intelligence or personality or what have you. Remember that every single person has experienced insecurity and self-doubt, even the person whose voice never cracks and who gets killer grades. I have absolutely no doubt that you are an incredible person, Libby, and there may come a time (if it hasn’t already happened) when someone will envy you and the life you lead on the outside, and you might want to say to that person, “Hey, but my life isn’t perfect!” Just as your best friend would probably say that to you if she knew you were comparing yourself with her. All we can do in this short life we have on earth is to be kind to ourselves and to remember that we all lead messy, uncertain inner lives, and that’s OK. What’s not OK is to believe that there exists someone who doesn’t lead such a life, because that person doesn’t exist, and once we accept that, we can start the hard work of really giving ourselves the beneficence, love, and acceptance that we deserve. —Jenny
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