This week, we’ve decided to do something a bit different: post an email conversation we recently had, which spring-boarded off one of our phone conversations. A mentioned that she felt that her current job “exposed her flaws”, an experience that she had also had in a previous relationship. B had some thoughts about that, and the following chain ensued. Enjoy!
I've been thinking about what you said about how relationships and jobs can clarify your flaws. My boyfriend through college was a huge fan of that perspective. His idea was that one of the most loving things you could do for someone was be in love with their potential, see the best in them and help push them to be that best version of themselves. I found that outlook exhausting at the time... I still kind of do... but I don't know, I guess there is something important about leading someone to fulfilling their own highest goals for themselves. I guess really I'm struggling with it because I have so little ambition, and so I resist being told that I'm not fulfilling my potential. Even if reaching a little bit higher would be good for me. Anyway, just some thoughts.
Aw, thank you for your thoughts. Your perspective makes a lot of sense. Even though I said on the phone that being with my ex exposed my flaws and made me want to push to make myself better, I don't know if that second part is really true. It’s true in the sense that I tried to reach outside my own limited perspective and see the ways other people see the world. As in, not everyone has the same needs, wants, desires, and preferences I do, though mine obviously feel the most natural to me and it's easy to project them onto everyone else. Although almost everyone wants to be loved, feel useful, etc., we have differences too. An example with my ex is that when my feelings are hurt, I withdraw for a short while but then want to talk it out and have human nurturing. But he just withdraws, period.
BUT the sense in which the second part is not true is that I didn't feel like I had to change to be a better fit for my ex; I didn't have to constantly strive to be better in order earn his love, or earn a greater quantity or quality of it. I get what your college boyfriend believed, and his perspective is similar to the one that Eli Finkel takes in the book I just read, The All-or-Nothing Marriage. This perspective is that when we seek self-actualization through marriage - which many people now do, consciously or not, in the modern Western world - what we want is a spouse who supports us in many aspects of our growth: growth through our hobbies, our jobs, our interactions with loved ones, etc.
Ambition is a tricky word to bring into this, but useful for clarifying what we think of when we think of personal growth. From what I know of you, you strive to be a good person, meaning a person who pursues what you define as meaning and value in many aspects of life. You left a job you didn't like to take one where you feel like you're filling a need in your community that no one else can. You strive to treat everyone in your life with kindness, empathy, and consideration. You and your husband (C) got a dog, which is challenging and beautiful and exciting. You pursue hobbies that bring you joy because that has more meaning to you than sitting around at home all the time - but of course a balance between the two is good. :) Maybe you don't define that as ambition, but it sounds to me like you are not static in your personal growth. The things that bring you meaning and reflect your values naturally contribute to your personal growth, no matter what it looks like to outside folks. Now perhaps you don't define all that even as personal growth (let alone ambition), which is perfectly valid. But whether it is personal growth, ambition, both, or neither, it seems that C supports you in all of this. You are not pursuing these things to win his love, but they integrate naturally into your life partly because of C's support. I'm pretty sure you would be doing all this even if you weren't married to him. But maybe just being with C brings more perspective into your life and helps you understand how we all have similarities and differences that we navigate in our relationships. So maybe that is what I meant when I chose the (perhaps inaccurate) phrase "exposing flaws."
In terms of jobs exposing flaws in oneself, I think that for me, that was just another way of saying that OBVIOUSLY each of us is more suited to certain jobs than others. And I actually don't think anyone should change themselves or strive to be "better" to fit a job that isn't really a good fit. Maybe in small ways - for example, my current job shows me how I sometimes lose motivation when I'm not stimulated by a task, but I should push a little harder to work through that because we all can't be intellectually stimulated all the time. But in the big picture, no, I don’t think we should work to “improve” ourselves enough to learn to be happy (if that’s even possible) in a job that’s not suited to us. (Of course this assumes we have the privilege of choosing from multiple jobs, which is a huge assumption and an issue for another post.) While we’re making that assumption, though - I read Meghan Daum's essay collection The Unspeakables a while ago, and if I remember correctly, there was an entire essay where she argued against the concept of going outside your comfort zone. She said she’s succeeded in life by doing the one thing she was good at, loved to do, and felt comfortable doing: writing. That's not to say that being a good writer is always easy and comfortable; like all art, and all work in general, it requires blood, sweat, and tears. But she never tried to branch out, and I kind of agree with that approach. Though we may have more than one comfort zone, and we may try new hobbies and visit new places, maybe sticking in our comfort zone(s), especially when it comes to our careers, isn’t so bad after all.
I like the rewording of "exposing flaws". Maybe it's because I'm working in ~such~ a strengths-based workplace, but it seems to me that what you're really talking about is that a job/relationship can help clarify potential growth areas for a person - we aren’t really discussing flaws at all. I totally agree with what you said about personal growth being a value for me - I definitely think it is. But I also think I separate those things from my official career. I want to be a well-informed, well-rounded, and capable person, but I don't care at all about advancing career-wise or achieving other markers of success (such as buying a house, pursuing higher education, making 6 figures, etc.) Part of this is probably a function of my privilege - I don't have to worry about my personal growth in anything other than personally pleasing ways because I am already successful enough in the ways that society cares about. I have a job, I have a degree, I live in a pretty great place.
I'm wondering how Dr. Finkel feels about applying Maslow's hierarchy of needs to his theory that we reach actualization through our marriages. I know in a magazine I read recently, he talked about how marriages in the modern day can fulfill that actualization function precisely because they no longer have to serve basic survival functions. Tying that back to ambition/personal growth, maybe I am pursuing these things outside of my career because my career, such as it is, is stable enough that I don't feel like I have to.
Do you feel you have to reach a level of stability within the relationship/job before the thoughts of personal growth creep in? For example, is this "exposing potential areas of growth" something that you think happens in every relationship no matter length/depth, or is it something that requires a certain base criteria of "survival" needs to be met?
I guess what this is really all boiling down to is that the more I think about this idea of utilizing the different perspectives in a relationship or job as a springboard for one's own personal growth, the more I feel super lucky for being able to do it. And the more inspired I am to use my situations to keep that going. I hate it when I get on board with things like Personal Development Plans, but I guess they're ok if I co-opt them for my own purposes.
Haha, I agree with what you said about hating getting on board with things like Personal Development Plans (though we ironically run this advice blog). You well know that I have ranted several times about the modern-day cult of efficiency/productivity, and about how the separate but related cult of personal growth/wellness/spirituality, on top of being geared toward middle- and upper-class white people (white women especially), CAN be seen as a way that capitalism, in this crazy world that grinds us down so much, is telling us we should fix ourselves, NOT the system. But this is not a political blog, haha. So to answer your question - I honestly don’t know if I would or wouldn’t have thoughts of personal growth at a low level of stability because I’ve always been privileged enough to have my basic stability/security needs met. My best guess is that, in cases where a relationship or job is barely keeping those needs met, I would still have thoughts of personal growth. I would just be so grateful for having my basic needs met - i.e., I would hopefully not take it at all for granted - that I wouldn’t HOPE or EXPECT anything more, even though my thoughts might still stray that way. In sum, like you, I feel super lucky to be able to use my jobs and relationships as springboards for personal growth. :))
Hi A and B,
For the last 8 months I've been dating this truly fantastic girl I'll refer to as D. She's personable, witty, ambitious, and exceedingly smart. She's got a really neat career lined up for her future and has wife material written all over her. I've had so much fun spending time with her these past 8 months. We go to events together, tie our social plans in with some of our friends, and occasionally spend the night together.
Here's the problem: I wish D could just be my friend
I'm just not into her romantically. I think this stems from the fact that the way she presents femininity and the way I perceive femininity just don't match up (for what it's worth, cis-het guy here). That's nobody's fault, but it makes it hard for me to feel attracted to her and feel a burning passion for us to be together.
I'm extremely conflicted because I've been enjoying having this best friend/companion in my life, but I feel like I'm having to fabricate my romantic interest more and more in order to maintain it. The two of us have talked about this a bit and she's not of the same feeling; she both enjoys me as a companion and as a desired romantic partner. From our last conversation, it's now on me to figure out what I'm doing and I'm scared of all my choices. Which feel like:
a. Commit to it hard. People learn to love each other over time, right? She's been such a good companion that it's not worth risking losing that stability for either of us. Simultaneously, this option feels incredibly trapping.
b. Wait it out. Maybe we change up things in our relationship? I don't know. I'm not expecting her to change as a person, so maybe I just need to change how I perceive her? I fear the longer I wait to make a decision the more it's going to hurt and cause stress in the meantime.
c. Let her go. This is kind of where I'm at, but it feels incredibly selfish and stupid. As much as I'd like to, I'm not sure D would be comfortable transitioning much of our companionship to a platonic relationship. And I certainly have the friends and emotional resources to make it through a breakup/singleness, but I'm not sure she does.
I can't stress how much I care about her and want to hurt her as little as possible. I understand now why people lie and make excuses for breakups, but the two of us have been honest through difficult stuff so far, so whatever I choose, I have to own it.
As complicated/conflicting/confusing as your situation might feel - and we certainly want to validate those feelings - we agree with each other that your best option is to let her go. You yourself say “this [option] is where I’m at,” which helps us identify it as the choice that might be most genuine to your true emotions and needs. Other signals, for us, read almost as red flags; namely you say, “I’m having to fabricate my romantic interest more and more in order to maintain [the relationship];” and the option of committing to a long-term romantic relationship with D “feels incredibly trapping.” The fact that you’re having feelings of fabrication and entrapment - and that they’re growing over time (at least the feelings of fabrication) - cannot be rationalized or justified by some of the other things you say.
Two rationalizations include, “She’s been such a good companion that it’s not worth risking losing that stability for either of us;” and she “has wife material written all over her.”
For some people, it is acceptable and even preferable to choose a partner/spouse for stability, personality compatibility, etc., and not for any romantic compatibility. However, we would wager that those people, while they might vaguely miss feelings of passion, would not use words like “trapping” to describe the relationship with their significant other. At the same time, we want to acknowledge what you and our other readers already know: burning passion is impossible to sustain over decades of partnership. It may ebb and flow, but it is not consistent. That being said, you cannot work on bringing passion BACK into a relationship if it was never there in the first place.
Also, while 8 months does signal some stability, walking away now is as not as much of a sunk cost as walking away after years. And people separate after decades together! If it’s not right for one person, it’s not right; it takes two to tango. Even with the wonderful platonic aspects of your relationship that are still healthy and stable, it seems you are looking for more passion. If you stay with the wrong person and want something more - even if you tell yourself the friendship is amazing and worth the “something more” you’re sacrificing - we guarantee you will be more lonely than if you were truly single and romantically alone.
Another of your rationalizations is that you’re not sure she would want to stay friends with you and/or have the emotional resources to make it through a breakup/singleness. While you presumably know her well and we do not know her at all, we would caution you against assuming what she will or will not want, and what she will or will not be able to do. It sounds like you feel guilty that you’re not into her romantically - that the version of femininity she presents and the version of femininity you’re attracted to don’t match up. But remember, there’s a difference between refusing to accept someone as worthy of love and respect as a human being because of how they present femininity and not being personally romantically attracted to them. It’s totally awesome that you’re thinking about the nuances of gender and representation and presentation. It’s not as awesome that you’re staking yourself and your relationship on this hill.
It also sounds to us like your guilt is translating into a) a fear that she will fall apart if you leave, and b) a desire to save her from this fate and play the martyr. (If you didn’t have this fear and this desire, why else would you call letting her go “selfish”?) Our advice: don’t play the martyr. It’s not a great heroic act to stay with her and fight through your feelings of entrapment; you will not be “saving” her from some terrible future loneliness. She doesn’t need saving, and you both deserve better.
Also, we doubt you can “change how you’re feeling about her,” as you suggest you might be able to. We think this scenario would be (relatively) more likely in the context of a long friendship that eventually develops into mutual romantic attraction. But it is NOT likely when you two are already existing in the pressurized container/label of a romantic relationship. And since it sounds like D might want a romantic relationship or nothing, leaving no room for the less-pressurized context of friendship, we suggest you give up on the idea that one day your feelings for her might change.
One last piece of advice for you, and for any person in a relationship: in our opinion, it is never okay to cite physical traits as a reason for breaking up with someone, no matter how much that is your personal truth. It can be okay to say “I’m just not attracted to you (like that),” and leave it there. But we think people should never get more specific, never explicitly say, “oh, you weigh too much,” “you’re too short,” “I hate your voice,” “your style of femininity/masculinity/haircuts/shoe choice does not turn me on,” etc.
Obviously you value honesty, and we admire that very much. You say, “I’m having to fabricate my romantic interest more and more in order to maintain [our relationship]. The two of us have talked about this about... the two of us have been honest through difficult stuff so far.” So, we’re not sure if this means that you’ve told her you’re not attracted to her because of how she presents femininity, OR if you’ve told her you feel like your romantic interest isn’t genuine and you’re simply not attracted to her like that. There’s a BIG difference between the two. People cannot control many aspects of their physicality, but even the ones they can (e.g., haircuts) belong to them and them alone. When a romantic partner cites a specific physical trait as a turn-off, that is likely to stay with the jilted person for a long time, perhaps their entire life. There are few personality types that would be minimally affected by such an experience. We are NOT saying it is shallow to leave someone for physical reasons; we are saying it is unnecessarily damaging, or at the very least rude, to speak those physical reasons aloud.
But of course, it is up to you to decide what to say to D. As you wisely say, “whatever I choose, I have to own it.” Above all, we think you should choose to let her go.
Now that it is 10pm, I am finally sitting down to write to you. I had thought up my topic this morning - how I feel way too busy, like I never have enough time - and then, throughout the day, I kept seeing posts on social media in that same vein. E.g., “I have priorities, my problem is most of them are first priorities;” someone quoting Maria Popova: “The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living;” and advice that having fun is a key to good health, and “requires disconnection from routine.” SO, signs from the universe that I chose a good topic. :)
Basically, I was wondering if you had any advice for me on how to create more time and open up space in my life. Too often I feel rushed, and like I never have time for what I REALLY want to do. Being an adult is crazy: I do my laundry, go grocery shopping, make meals for the week so I don’t always eat frozen food and/or eat out, do dishes, exercise, hang out with friends, try to go on a few dates so I can say I’m “trying,” etc. My evenings fill up so quickly and I feel like I never have enough time to do NOTHING. I also try to practice my flute, read for fun, and work on my creative writing. At the same time, I think to myself, I must be doing something wrong, I’m not SUPPOSED to feel this crushed for time. So I judge myself and think the problem is more me than it is the society around me (it’s probably a mix of both).
One concrete thing I should maybe do is quit the poetry journal I joined as a reader (i.e., reading and voting on poetry submissions, about 3-4 hours a week). I just joined at the beginning of January, so I would feel bad for quitting barely 2 months later. But it is a lot of work, and though I do get some benefits from it, I think it’s taxing me more than anything. But I’ve thought this for weeks and haven’t quit! B, help me quit!
I also deleted my dating apps in January and have just gone on a couple dates since then, but this one guy I’ve seen twice keeps asking and asking for my time on weekday nights, and I keep saying no. I’ve finally asked him if we can keep it to weekends for now. I’m proud of myself for voicing my needs, but his prior neediness (what I perceive as neediness) keeps weighing on my mind. I enjoy hanging out with him in person but I don’t enjoy how much he’s asking of me. Is it even worth it to keep seeing him? I’m lonely and I want a boyfriend, but I also feel like my time is precious to me and I don’t want to share it with this guy. Does that mean he’s the wrong guy, or that I need to focus on me right now and shouldn’t be looking for a relationship with anyone, period?
Perhaps I haven’t given you enough context for you to answer all these questions - but any thoughts are appreciated. :) Much love to you, B.
I definitely feel you on this question - I believe we both recall the fateful day when I declared that showering takes too much time.
I see a lot of absolutes in this question. I’ll start backwards, because I think your last paragraph is the easiest to address. Not wanting to spend weeknights with a guy does not automatically equal that he is the wrongest wrong guy to have ever lived, or that dating is not something you should be doing at all right now. It just means that, right now, for you, dating on the weekends is all you want. That’s fine! That’s a perfectly valid way to date!
Good on you for telling boy what you wanted. Now it’s up to him to say, “Yes! Weekend dates sound wonderful, let’s do that.” Or he can also say, “I’m looking for someone to spend every waking minute with. So sorry that is not you, but I wish you the best.” Vaguely wanting a boyfriend does not mean that you have to automatically give over all your time to a potential beau. You don’t need prove that you are “serious enough” or “really trying” to date. You also don’t need to give up dating altogether if weekend dates are something you enjoy. Embrace being a person who dates on the weekends, and feel no guilt for saying no to weeknight dates. Weekend boy may eventually turn into All the Time Boy. He might also turn into Never Ever Boy. I think going on dates when you feel like your schedule allows for the moment is a great way to let that all unfold in its own time.
Now on to the trickier stuff. As much as I wish I could, I can’t wave a wand and give you 5 more hours in the day. Also, knowing you, you would fill those hours with worthwhile things that you are passionate about and we would be right back where we started. And I don’t think cutting out some things that you love is going to actually give you any more peace about how your time goes by. So I think it’s probably better to focus on ways to maximize your time doing things that you choose.
One way that I do this is by combining things. I am a big fan of having an audio book or a musical or some band that I LOVE playing while I bop around doing chores. Is there a way you could add a soundtrack to your daily chores to make that time feel less like awful drudgery and more like a nice little interlude in your day? Additionally with date boy, can you plan some dates that also get things done for you? I personally would LOVE going on a date to the grocery store (especially one with free samples) so that we can both get our weekly groceries, then going back to one or the other’s house to cook a meal/meal prep for the week together. Is that something that you would like?
If that sounds way too stressful, there’s also the opposite strategy. I’ve noticed my husband feels way more stressed out when we try to do too many things at once. He prefers to do a task, give it his full attention, and finish it. Are you trying to pull yourself in too many directions while you race around completing little bits of things? Do the unfinished tasks weigh on your mind so that you’re never truly relaxed? Maybe you need to take a breather from doing all the things at once and just pick one or two priorities a day. Yes, they may all be first priorities but I don’t think the world will end if a day or two passes on them.
Which brings me to my last suggestion. Write things down. I don’t know what kind of schedule/to do lists you may or may not already make, but the human brain calms down almost instantly when it can see a clear list of all the tasks waiting for it. Letting things float about nebulously in our heads makes them bigger than they really are. Even tiny tasks like dropping a letter by the post office can take up way too much executive functioning if we constantly fear we will forget it. But if “Mail letter” is written down in a place where you trust that you will look at it, that small task can leave your conscious mind.
For me at least, I’ve found that writing out a list focuses me enough that I can accomplish all the “obligations” and find some time to just chill and breathe.
And to your last question - should you quit reading for the poetry journal? Based on your letter, I’m leaning strongly towards yes. I don’t think it’s out of line for you to tell your contacts at the journal some version of exactly what you told me. Life is unpredictable and even commitments made with the best of intentions can not work out. It doesn’t make you flaky or irresponsible or bad at time management to realize “this is a thing that I like, but it is not a thing that I can/want to/am able to do right now.” I would send them an email saying something like, “Dear Journal People, I’ve really enjoyed my time reading for Journal and am grateful to be a part of this effort to publish such talented new poets. As I’ve settled in to my role here, I’ve realized that the schedule really doesn’t make sense with my life right now. I’ve had several new projects pop up at work/I recently got a cat/I have familial obligations that are now taking a significant portion of the time I thought I could devote to Journal. While I regret that I will have to step down so soon, I would rather that Journal have a reader who is able to give this role the time that it deserves.” You can also add in something about how you would like to come back on when your schedule calms down, but only add that part in if you REALLY mean it.
Hope all/any of this helps! Wishing you all the very best and a few moments to yourself each day.
I’ve always had trouble with my different worlds colliding, ever since I was in elementary school and I didn’t want my friends who were in band to hang out with my friends who were in Girl Scouts. Looking back, it was definitely a coping mechanism for a girl who was a bit of a people pleaser to not have to reconcile how differently she acted around different groups of people. Now, at 23, I’m much more solid in myself but there is still one significant area where I can’t seem to get my worlds to mesh. My husband, newly married for about 7 months now, still doesn’t really hang out with my family. Part of this is probably my fault, as when I met my husband I carefully kept him apart from my family because I was scared of how they would react about my asserting my own identity. We spend time with his family all the time (usually helping out with difficult situations or holiday obligation), but any suggestion of going over to my mom’s house for dinner or joining her for some event is like pulling teeth.
I think part of the problem is that my husband has a pretty exhausting family where new crises pop up pretty much every week. I’m worried that he thinks getting closer to my family will add even more people that will drain on his energy. How do I help reassure him that my family really does just want to chill? Is there a way I can approach this without entering the “Your family is exhausting and mine is great” territory? Or do you think it’s best to let my husband stay a bit separate if that’s what he wants and just spend time with my family on my own?
Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!
I think that meshing the world of your parents and the world of your partner is a big challenge in many people’s lives. And, as my wise mother said today, the first year of marriage is also especially difficult for many people. From what I can tell, you and your husband are doing a great job, but bumps along the road are perfectly natural. Let me try to address each of your questions - pulling from our phone convo also - and then address other concerns you didn’t phrase as questions.
You say you want to reassure your husband that your family really does just want to chill. On the phone, however, you made it sound like the issue is more that, no matter how chill your family is, your husband is such an introvert that a dinner or event will definitely drain him. I think that whether your family is chill or not is not the point. Your family could be the biggest pot of drama in the world, but you still get to ask him to spend time with your family for YOU.. This also touches on the second question - comparing families - and makes it kind of irrelevant. I understand that, as an independent adult, being around the family you’re born into can be exhausting. That’s why boundaries sound like a good idea in terms of both your family and your husband’s. It’s good to want to be there for family during a crisis,, but it’s also ok to say when it’s too much. Telling everyone that a scheduled dinner once a week, or once every other week, is all you guys can do each month might give you more time to focus on yourselves..
I don’t think dinner once a month is too much to ask - thereby answering your last question - and here’s why. I understand that your husband is an introvert and may not actually enjoy the dinner, no matter how chill your family is. You said you’re afraid you might feel like a nag for pushing him to go, for not meeting his needs halfway. Well, at this point you’re going 90% of the way, and he’s barely compromising! It is not your job to make him 100% comfortable 100% of the time, and protect him from any inconveniences. It is an inconvenience to YOU to feel the emotional pain of him not spending time with your family. On the phone you said it matters more to your parents than to you, but based on the fact that youwrote me, the fact that it matters to your parents means it matters to you. SO, you are being inconvenienced every time your parents ask to see him and you have to disappoint them (which sounds like it happens more than once a month), and he has been inconvenienced maybe twice in the past 7 months. I get that, based on his personality, seeing your family might be more of an inconvenience to him than it would be to most people. But that’s what loving someone means! It means sometimes (SOMETIMES) inconveniencing yourself to give the other person what they need, and expecting the same in return. That’s why dinner once a month might be a good idea - it makes sure that “sometimes” stays sometimes and doesn’t devolve into “too often”.
Regarding the fact that you think this might be your fault - I know your tendency is to blame yourself. But I don’t think this comes into play here. I know you both grew up in the same town, and you live there now, and both sets of in-laws still do too. That’s a lot of history to blame current habits on. But marriage is a whole new world. It is perfectly natural to ask for things now that you didn’t ask for - in fact actively avoided - in high school. However, if you think the conversation would be smoother if you discussed what the family visits were like in high school, and how that might impact expectations now, by all means, go for it.
On that note... the question now is what concrete advice can I give you for broaching the topic of monthly dinners with your parents, if indeed that’s what you decide to do. You mentioned on the phone you might bring it up in terms of a New Year’s Resolution - or maybe a New Year’s Tradition, since he likes that word better. That’s a good idea! I might start the conversation saying something like, “Because the holidays are a time for family, I’ve been thinking more about what we’ve already talked about - trying to spend more time with my parents. I know that you really value your alone time, but it’s also really important to my parents to see you a bit more than they have these past 7 months. Is there any way we could compromise and start a new tradition of monthly dinners with my parents? We wouldn’t have to stay for hours or anything, but maybe putting it in the calendar and committing to it would make the boundaries comfortable for both parties - not too much socializing for us, and more socializing for my parents than they’ve had with both of us, together, in the past.”
Obviously that’s just a rough sketch of a proposition. But hopefully it gives you ideas for talking with your husband! I think early in a marriage is the best time to practice speaking up about your own needs, even when they might conflict with your partner’s. “Compromise is key” is a cliche for a reason! And your husband might even pleasantly surprise you; after all, you married him for a reason. ;) Good luck!
I wish I knew what to write you about. I wish I had one concrete problem with a bunch of concrete examples that you could tackle. I could write about the guy at work that I’m friends with and slightly tempted to date, but I know I won’t end up dating him. I could write about how I’m dreaming about my ex-boyfriend several nights a week now when I barely have in the past year, but I’m too embarrassed to talk about that. I could write about how all I have left to do now - other than work 40 hours a week and try to have a reasonably meaningful social life in Chicago - is wait for decisions from poetry MFA programs, but I’m terribly impatient and, as my mother would say, “discombobulated” about it almost constantly. But maybe there’s nothing I can do about that. Maybe it’s just my nature. Actually, maybe there is something I can do about that, but that would involve tackling the worst parts of my nature, and I’m tempted to say I’m too embarrassed to talk about that.
So, regarding the MFA thing, here’s what I’m embarrassed to talk about. If I don’t get in this year, I will need to draw on a lot of resilience to re-apply, or build and work towards other plans, or do any number of things. And the thing is, I know I COULD do that, but I don’t want to. I feel like I’ve already used up a lot of resilience in my life, and like I deserve for one thing I really want to manifest now (read: this spring) without having to wait or work any more. BUT that’s not true! I have had a relatively easy life, and I am so privileged, and so many people everywhere have their resilience and spirits depleted in more numerous and terrible ways every day, and DESERVE doesn’t even come into it. People get what they don’t deserve - either more or less - every day! But even putting that aside, I DON’T deserve a break from drawing on my resilience. Like I said, my life’s been relatively easy! But still, if I look deep inside myself, what I feel is a terrible entitlement to get what I want this spring, and if I don’t, I will have to do a lot of emotional work to rewire my thinking. Maybe I should start doing some of that work now, but the problem is, I don’t know where to start.
Thanks so much for any of your thoughts, B. I know I look like a jerk, but thank you. :)
All my love,
First of all, you don’t look like a jerk. You look like someone who is in a very uncertain time of her life who would like very very much to be certain. This in itself is not a bad thing and not something you should be embarrassed about. You are allowed to want what you want. That’s literally what people do. We’re human, and we have dreams and goals and we put a lot of effort into achieving those. So of course you are dreading having to do that all over again - especially right now when you have just finished that big push. Honestly, I would be sincerely worried about you if you came away from writing MFA apps and you were just dying to be rejected so that you could do that all over again. It’s totally, one hundred percent, ok to hope for things to go your way, and to be disappointed if they don’t.
I think sometimes we fall into this trap where we start thinking that it is OUR fault for being disappointed by things for DARING to wish that a certain outcome would be possible. When really, circumstances can just be disappointing. Especially with something as personal and vulnerable as writing, I think you realize that you have put a lot of yourself into this app, and any rejection of the application is going to feel like a rejection of your self. I’m sure you know the fickle nature of acceptances, and how exactly the same application might seem different depending on whether the reader has eaten lunch or not. So I won’t try to explain away the why of possibly getting rejected, because I think it’s more important to address how you might feel should that happen.
I wonder if somewhere in the back of your head, you’re building a little protective cocoon around yourself so that just in case you don’t get in, you will have already done a lot of the mourning. In rushing to “draw on your resilience...and do any number of things,” I see you trying to go straight to the “I’m ok and I’m working toward a new goal and this setback was just a) a challenge on my road to MFA success, b) a blessing in disguise, c) a sign that this dream is not for me, or d) any other number of things”. Especially in Western, conflict-driven culture, there’s the temptation to frame everything as a narrative toward an eventual happy ending (whatever happy might look like for you). But that is not necessarily how life works. Sometimes sad things happen and we are just there, feeling sad about them for a while. And maybe you learn something from the sadness, and maybe you don’t, but it’s far far easier on yourself to just let the sadness happen than to try to paper over it with new dreams or reassurances that you can’t possibly feel sad because other people in the world have felt worse and ignoring their sadness is the sign of entitled privilege.
The thing about sadness, or any emotion really, is that we can only really feel how those things happen in our own bodies. Yes, empathy is an amazing, wonderful thing, but the worst pain you, personally, have ever felt is still going to be the worst pain that you have ever felt. Refusing to let yourself acknowledge that this is painful and hard FOR YOU - no matter how much other people may or may not be suffering - is like refusing to let yourself be happy over finding 5 dollars in your coat (for a delicious latte?) because someone somewhere in the world has just won the lottery. For better or worse, sometimes we have to narrow our focus down to just our own selfish lizard brain so that we don’t explode.
So. If (and that’s a big if!!! You might get in, you know!) you don’t happen to be accepted to any of the MFA programs, I officially give you permission to be sad about it. To wallow, if wallowing is your style. To take extra nice care of yourself for a couple weeks. To call your Mom/friends as many times as you need even if it’s just to say, “I got another rejection letter and I’m really sad.” People who are truly in your tribe will get that, and will genuinely want to be there for you in this hard time. I give you permission to just write for yourself for a year, or two years, without the pressure of new applications. I give you permission to apply again immediately if that is what feels right and healthy for you.
Your own guilt about being upset about something that is upsetting to you is not doing anything positive for you, or for these other people who deal with what you define as truly upsetting things. Is there some way that you could act on those feelings? Is there an organization you believe in that you could volunteer with? Is there a place near your home where you could join (or start!) a writer’s workshop that specifically looks to include the voices of marginalized or oppressed people? Is there a way you could use your talent for writing to improve a charity or other group that is actively working to relieve some of the circumstances that force other people to use more resilience in their lives than you have had to?
You see, there is nothing wrong with feeling and owning your own emotions. There is nothing wrong with asking for support from your people when you go through one of life’s setbacks. But endlessly denying your own emotions in the name of recognizing that other people have capital P pain is martyrdom to a non-existent cause. I’m not saying that you should force everyone to treat you with kid gloves because you have the sads, but there is something helpful in letting yourself have the sads and not adding a whole bunch of guilt and anger on top of that. Anyone who does bring up THE SUFFERING OF THE WORLD when you tell them about your own small sadness is not part of your tribe and should be quietly crossed off your list of friends that you go to for support.
Whether you get in or not, don’t forget to congratulate yourself for the hard work you have done to get to this point at all. You have done something big, and that something will reverberate through the next season of your life even if you don’t end up attending an MFA program. Take a break if that is what you need, or do something totally unrelated to any future or career aspirations. Give yourself space to breathe and grieve, then keep writing through it all.