Ask polly

How Writing an Advice Column Changed Heather Havrilesky’s Life

I have a bookmarks folder called “extremely good shit” and 25 percent of it is Ask Polly. That’s not an estimate; I crunched the numbers. Another 3 percent is non-Ask Polly articles by Heather Havrilesky.

Havrilesky is a wide-ranging writer, but she is best known for Polly, her “existential advice column” that she’s been writing since 2012, first for The Awl, then for New York magazine’s The Cut. On July 12, Polly goes print, with Havrilesky’s book How to Be a Person in the World, which is mostly made up of new columns, with a few of her greatest hits sprinkled in.

In anyone else’s hands, an existential advice column could be too navel-gazy, too repetitive, too insubstantial to actually be helpful. How to be a person in the world? There is no broader question. But Havrilesky keeps the existential tethered to the earth with stories from her life, plenty of well-placed “fuck”s, along with pop-culture references and extended Kanye West analogies.

There’s something nourishing in every column. (“We have to be self-protective but still vulnerable” is one I’ve been chewing on from the book.) But sometimes she writes things that are like opening up the fridge and finding the universe inside. You’ve come to expect that there’s going to be some sustenance in there when you open that door, and instead you get entire worlds. “Savor that precious space,” she writes, of time spent alone, working on something you care about. “That space will feel like purgatory at first, because you’ll realize that it all depends on you. That space will feel like salvation eventually, because you’ll realize that it all depends on you.”

Or sometimes you open the fridge door and a hand comes out and slaps you across the face. “YOU ARE CURRENTLY PRAYING AT THE ALTAR OF THE MOST TEDIOUS RELIGION IN THE UNIVERSE” she shouts to a woman made bitter by the rejections of men.

As Buffy the Vampire Slayer said, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.” As Polly says, “Uncertainty and vulnerability are your guides through this soggy life you’re living.”

I spoke with Havrilesky about her book, giving advice, and the gap between people’s fantasies and reality. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.


Julie Beck: It seems like there has been a newish interest in advice columns with Dear Sugar and yours and Dear Prudence and the like. Do you think there is a new appetite for this? Why would people would be interested in advice right now?

Heather Havrilesky: I think that a lot of things that have been traditionally defined as feminine are being outwardly acknowledged as interesting and valuable at this point. For a long time media was very male-dominated, and the tone, the level of toughness, and the things you were supposed to be interested in were all dictated by this reigning idea of what’s cool and what is not worth spending your time on. Emotional and psychological concerns have been treated as these soft things that are not serious or essential by the media, by writers, and by the general culture at large.

There’s been this slow shift in emphasis from living a primarily intellectual life without examining what motivates you towards acknowledging and recognizing the emotional currents that lie underneath our behaviors. At this exact moment culturally, I think people are a little bit obsessed with showing their true selves, and also obviously with social media, expressions of vulnerability and truth are becoming kind of a mainstream thing. TEDx talks are wildly popular. Graduation speeches go viral. I’m kind of stating the obvious, but it’s interesting that these things haven’t busted into the mainstream culture until recently, because you know, people sit and talk about their heavy heavy shit, and have done this for decades.

Beck: I think there is still a pressure on those soft things. I write a lot about psychology as a science, and I always feel a lot of pressure to make sure I do it super rigorously, cite a thousand studies, lest I be the one that's writing about the “fluffy” topics.

Havrilesky: Uh huh, yeah. I’m so suspicious of that. If you write a piece about anything emotional or psychological, there are places that will make you go through and arbitrarily attach a bunch of academic research to it, a bunch of statistics. If you scratch the surface of some of these studies, it's like “Oh yeah, fascinating, you took some college students and you gave them a questionnaire.”

Beck: Oh my gosh, it's ALL college students.

Havrilesky: The structure of a lot of those studies, it just makes me roll my eyes. I’d rather hear a philosopher or a really good writer hold forth on what they have imagined inside their tiny minds after taking too many drugs than see “We beta-tested 20 college seniors.” The use of statistics to prop up poorly-written survey language bullshit, that’s just my pet peeve. It’s not interesting.

The Herculean effort to make these really interesting and essential and very literary kinds of pursuits into something that’s somehow soft and pointless unless it’s beefed up and buttressed with all this horseshit, it just kills me. So yeah, I have strong opinions about that particular thing.

“Some letters are: ‘Help me make this person love me more.’ I don’t tend to answer that one very often, because obviously it's doomed.”

I just think if you put someone smart on a task that everyone has traditionally treated as a stupid or soft or silly thing, all of a sudden everyone changes their minds about how worthwhile that thing is. Like Alain de Botton writes these really loose kind of crazy books about a million different things. He’s a smart guy, and he's a great writer, and it’s fascinating to read his stuff on a lot of subjects. I don’t like every single thing he does, but it’s interesting how people change their opinion of whole fields based on who happens to enter that field and how they do it.

I'm a big proponent of “Do the things you love and make them as good as you want them to be”. Don’t decide what they are based on what a bunch of people who aren't doing them that well are doing. I love plowing into a field that’s not being well-tended. Move into something that doesn't look that great from the outside, do it your own way, make it your own thing, and raise the bar a little bit.

Beck: Yeah, get some of the weeds out. So the book is sort of loosely organized into these themed sections. Do you find that there are themes that recur in the letters, or that you keep coming back to?

Havrilesky: There’s the kind of “I can’t get over this thing, help me get over it.” That's definitely a theme in the letters. Sometimes people get stuck simply because they're stuck telling a story about why they’re stuck. I just read a letter from someone who said “I’m dating all these guys, it’s not working out, and I feel like these two bad boyfriends I had ruined me for everyone else and that’s why I can’t date new people.” And, well, the first thing you have to shake off is this story about these two bad boyfriends who ruined everything. Change the story into “Thank God I’m not with anyone like that anymore.” Other letters are: “Help me make this person love me more.” I don’t tend to answer those ones very often, because obviously they’re doomed. That won't solve your problem, anyway. “Help me love myself more” is the real heart of that problem.

Beck: Do you get letters that will say that explicitly or is that like the subtext?

Havrilesky: “Help me love myself more?” Sometimes. I like letters where the person either can't tell at all what's happening with them, or has discerned some patterns and understands the heart of the problem, but can't figure out how to do it.

“It’s always the people who want to know how to think about something who actually need to figure out how to feel things.”

Beck: This is mostly an existential advice column. While there is some degree of, like, Dear Prudence-y, “What do I DO, what do I actually do in this situation?” a lot more is like, “How do I get my mind right?” How do you sift through somebody's letter and figure out not just what would be the best thing to do in a situation, but how they might get their mind right?

Havrilesky: I try to think about how my thinking and feeling have shifted. A big part of it is “What kind of mind puzzle can I fix so that I’m not just throwing obstacles in my own path and fucking with myself all the time?” But the irony of that question itself is that it’s always the people who want to know how to think about something who actually need to figure out how to feel things.

There must be something evolutionarily adaptive about wearing out the same grooves in your brain over and over again. Or that just must be the way that effective animals are wired, like they don’t mind just chasing the rabbits down the holes over and over. But oftentimes if you can simply get someone to just let go of the problem and admit that it can't be solved using their brain, that's half of the struggle. I see more and more that the core root problem of a lot of these mind puzzles is a basic lack of compassion for the self.

So, for example, I was in therapy when I was about 29. And my therapist had me do this thing where I had to nurture my inner baby, like go back and be with yourself as a baby and give that baby love.

Beck: Eugh.

Havrilesky: And I told her, “That doesn’t sound like something I wanna do.” And she said, “Just try it, you'll be amazed.” And so I tried it and there was something gross to me about the whole thing. In the column, if I ever say “You’ve gotta love yourself,” I tend to edit it out. I think this language works for some people, but it’s not really how it comes at me. People who are full of self-hatred, it doesn’t fix it to say “Just love yourself!” Because it sounds absurd. Like, “No no no no no, I fucking hate myself, what are you talking about? I'm not just going to turn around, like, ‘I'm in love with myself.’” And also, “I am a darling little baby that deserves love”—that doesn't really work with me.

I think compassion for the self makes more sense. It’s like, I feel for myself, I’m going to give myself a break. Instead of persecuting myself, I’m going to say, “You know what, you're worthy, you deserve to be here, you don’t deserve to be persecuted day after day.” I think the reigning wisdom of our culture is that we all deserve to be punished and we’re all bad at heart. And I think that couldn't be less accurate.

Compassion for yourself means acknowledging that you, at your core, are someone with pretty pure intentions who just wants very simple things. And when you start to recognize that about yourself and when you start to give yourself the very simple things that you want, including feelings, suddenly all these mind puzzles begin to just seem like a lot of noise that you busy yourself with.

Beck: There was a column, which is included in the book, where this woman writes, “I know what the truth of a relationship is.” And then in response to that you said, “Sometimes when someone writes something that straightforward, it's the least true thing in the entire letter.” And it reminded me of this quote—sorry, sometimes I just process things through a decoupage mess of quotes—but it's from a Jesse Ball book, and it says:

I believe in discovering the love that exists and then trying to understand it. Not to invent a love and try to make it exist, but to find what does exist, and then to see what it is.

It seems like people in the letters are doing a lot of the former, inventing stuff and trying to make it exist, and then you're trying to find what does exist and see what it is. I mean, is that what it feels like, to try to read the letters?

Havrilesky: Absolutely, definitely. Yeah. That’s really smart. More and more, the longer I do this, I notice how much there’s this illusion that people have, especially with love, that they can control what happens next. It’s like they’re playing a video game, and if they play everything the right way, they can affect the outcome. It's like, you meet someone, you decide this person is the person who is going to make everything right, who's going to be your partner forever and ever, and you're never going to have to solve this problem again. And then once you’re locked into that idea, it's like you’re playing a video game.

“As long as you’re trying to get the things you need from people, you’re not going to have satisfying relationships.”

It’s hard not to develop that idea that you can control the people around you. When you’re young, you suddenly realize that when you're not interested, other people like you. I was literally just speaking to my 7-year-old, and she said when she wants to play, her big sister doesn’t want to play, but when she doesn't want to play, that's when her big sister wants to play with her. It makes her crazy. It's like when you’re dating someone and you suddenly realize they're losing interest, if you start acting like you're losing interest—Ding! They're back in the ring with you. So it’s hard not to believe you can manipulate your circumstances in various ways, because you can. It's just, you're not going to get what you want doing that, you know?

It’s true even of family relationships, friendships… As long as you’re trying to get the things you need from people, as long as you're trying to work the right levers, you’re not going to have satisfying relationships. Like what you said, you simply see what’s there. I find myself looking at these letters in such a new way lately where I just see people pushing levers and pushing buttons, and you just can't be happy going down that route. The happy route is, in fact, much more accepting and passive in some ways. You don’t have to do anything.

When you have compassion for yourself, you recognize yourself as worthy, you don't walk out the door thinking, “I am a bad person who has to manipulate other people in order to get what I need because no one’s going to love me if I just sit here, doing nothing.” And the truth is that people love a person who has enough compassion for themselves to do nothing, to just exist. People love that. That’s the most attractive way you could possibly be, is just to be someone who knows how to feel and exist and feel worthy without doing somersaults.

Beck: You said “the way you've been thinking about the letters lately”—has the way that you've approached these things evolved?

Havrilesky: It's almost like there's evolution and then there’s just weather. And then there’s just the various pressures on my life that change and my perspectives that have changed. Overall, writing the column has forced me to evolve as a person dramatically, which has been amazing. Just applying my brain to something that feels like it is actually moving in a positive direction, to move people in a direction that their lives might get better, has just made my experience of my life a million times better. It’s not that my circumstances improved drastically. I had everything I wanted when I started writing the column, everything was great, but my experience of what I have has changed drastically since 2012. I’m a lot happier than I was four years ago. So it's been a very worthwhile thing to focus my energies on.

In the beginning I thought a lot about how to empower people to move on from their crappy boyfriends, their crappy girlfriends, their crappy jobs, how to encourage people to expect more from their lives, because that’s what had served me in the past. Then I got into a phase where I was amazed at how much better I felt because I was exercising a lot, and I talked a lot about your physical self and exercise.

Beck: Oh my gosh, yeah. There’s like the two concrete pieces of advice and everything else is more vague. One is therapy, and then you wrote that whole column about why you tell people to go to therapy. The other is you always say “Exercise every day,” and it always bums me out so much.

Havrilesky: I probably need to write a column that's just about why I say exercise every day.

Beck: Even my doctor will take, like, three times a week and be happy.

Havrilesky: If you’re in your 20s or 30s, three times a week is fine. Once you get past 40—I’m 46—you kind of have to aim for five times a week. The only reason I say once a day is because I have to say that to myself in order to do it 5 times a week.

I talk about it a lot in terms of people who are anxious and depressed, or working too hard because it just fixes a lot of those things. You just feel differently when you're doing exercise. So yeah, you're right, those are my two concrete things, and then the rest is just floaty philosophical madness.

Beck: Another column that I really liked, and this one is not in the book, is the one where the person was like "Are you sure?" And in there somewhere you asked, “Do you have to build a religion around your choices?” And you talked about Cheryl Strayed who seems to perhaps have done that, with changing her last name to “Strayed” after she cheated on her husband, etc. So then the converse question is: Do you have to build a religion around uncertainty? You talk about uncertainty a lot and I've written a bit about psychological research around uncertainty and how your tolerance for it, or lack thereof, is really what fuels anxiety.

Havrilesky: I think for me, raising kids would be unbearable if I couldn’t tolerate uncertainty, because you care enormously about how these little people turn out and you can’t guarantee anything and you also can’t keep them safe every second of every day. I had a baby when I was 36 and I remember my husband, he was saying “Just relax, calm down, everything will be fine.” I needed to explain to him that those kinds of words weren’t really going to work on me anymore and they were just going to make me mad. When you have an infant, your body and your brain are in this very aligned state where you're just like “My whole purpose is to make sure that little throw pillow slash human somehow survives.” It's like the most vulnerable state you can imagine.

“Smart people create cul-de-sacs in their minds over and over again. One way out is just finding something that you know you love and doing it every day.”

One day, I walk in the door and my husband is stirring this pot of soup that’s boiling with one hand, and he’s got the baby across his other arm, and she's just like flying over the soup. And he’s talking to my stepson at the same time, and gesturing. This is like the first time I left the house, I think the baby was two months old, just to regain my sanity for a few minutes, and I come back into this scene. You’ve gotta understand what I’m seeing here—it's as if I cut my heart out and left it in your hand and now you're gesturing with it over a boiling pot of water.

So anyway, yeah, uncertainty. People talk about things that are heavy in the world and it’s almost like I have no choice but to say “I’m going to assume that bad things won’t befall us because I can’t survive otherwise.” But I also believe in having some acceptance that things are not within your control entirely, that things can get very dark unexpectedly and you don’t have a choice.

Lack of control, uncertainty, people get obsessed with that stuff. Any time you’re fixated on the same little puzzle, that says something. It's like, just put the puzzle down and walk away from it. The philosophical puzzles themselves can become traps if you burrow in too deeply. Smart people create cul-de-sacs in their minds over and over again.

One way out is just finding something that you know you love and doing it every day. And savoring the thing. I don’t think I knew how to savor my work until pretty recently. Even though I act like I’m just skinning the cat and trying to solve a problem in order to get a paycheck, I’m alienating myself from the means of production when I tell myself a story that I'm just trying to get a paycheck. Because actually, I love to write. And then all of a sudden when you acknowledge that, the writing gets better, your life gets better.

I think people are very divorced from understanding what they actually love in this life, I think it’s really easy to see your life as a series of problems instead of seeing it as a patchwork of things to savor. The circumstances in your life don’t change, the way you encounter those circumstances changes dramatically as you learn to feel what you feel and not fight it, and as you learn to give yourself space to be a full person and not some little mind-puzzle solver.

Sours: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/07/ask-polly-heather-havrilesky-how-to-be-a-person-in-the-world-interview/490331/

Ask Polly

Displaying all articles tagged:
  1. ask polly

    Good-bye, New YorkI’m headed to Substack and expanding Ask Polly to find new ways to help readers cultivate compassion and joy. Come with me!

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  2. ask polly

    ‘My Boyfriend Refuses to Change’Do you want a real partner, or someone to admire from afar?

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  3. ask polly

    ‘I Feel Like My Rage Might Eat Me Alive’You’re sad and lonely and you need to start asking for the love and support you deserve.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  4. ask polly

    ‘I’m Not Ready for Isolation to End!’Instead of blaming yourself for where you are, accept yourself and stand up for your preferences.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  5. ask polly

    ‘My Dad Died, and Now I’m Worried I’m Headed for Divorce’You’re using your anger at your husband as a distraction to keep from facing this enormous loss.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  6. ask polly

    ‘I’m Too Old and Washed Up to Succeed!’You need to rid yourself of negative delusions and build a more resilient vision of your future.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  7. ask polly

    ‘Should I Leave My Good Job to Pursue My Artistic Dreams?’Stop surrendering to your worries and learn to enjoy the risks and adventure of a creative career.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  8. ask polly

    ‘I Only Want to Date Men Who’ve Been Through Therapy!’What you’re looking for is someone who’s curious and open to learning new things.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  9. ask polly

    ‘I Want My Family to Love Me Unconditionally’The cause of your sadness isn’t the same as the solution.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  10. ask polly

    ‘My Husband Won’t Have Sex With Me!’Your bedroom has become a battleground where all of your fears and anxieties go head-to-head.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  11. ask polly

    My Friend Group Dumped Me and Now I Have No One!It’s time to stop trying to please people and start being your true self.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  12. ask polly

    ‘Do I Have to Thank My Weird Aunt for Her Terrible Gifts?’Even though her inability to hear you is triggering, consider the big picture and choose your battles carefully.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  13. ask polly

    ‘Everything I Do Fails, So I Don’t Even Try’You keep yourself safe from investing in the world because you don’t want to be disappointed.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  14. ask polly

    ‘People Tell Me I Seem Like a Snob Whenever I’m Quiet!’Confident, self-possessed women often make people nervous.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  15. ask polly

    ‘Why Can’t I Stop Lying All the Time?’You’re struggling with avoidance, anxiety, and shame.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  16. ask polly

    ‘How Do I Live Like an Artist?’Stop battling yourself and embrace the truth, no matter how ugly.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  17. ask polly

    ‘I’m Freezing My Eggs and It’s Kicked Up So Much Rage!’Throw away this complicated puzzle and reconnect with the people around you.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  18. ask polly

    ‘Why Do Other People’s Interests Make Me So Insecure?’Strong reactions sometimes hint at long-buried desires that need to be addressed.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  19. ask polly

    ‘I’m Miserable and I’m Taking It Out on My Husband’You can’t build a stronger connection when you’re committed to chaos.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  20. ask polly

    ‘Most of My Friendships Were Toxic, But Now I’m So Lonely!’Until you learn to assert healthy boundaries, you’ll struggle with all of your relationships.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  21. ask polly

    ‘I’ve Made So Many Mistakes and I’m Way Behind in Life’You have to learn to get beyond guilt and shame.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  22. ask polly

    ‘My Limited Experience With Love Has Been Totally Humiliating’When situations are murky and confusing, it’s often women who soak up all the shame.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  23. ask polly

    ‘Help, My Pandemic Crush Feels So Real!’The key is to tap into desire and imagination without always attaching it to this particular man.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  24. ask polly

    ‘How Can I Feel Confident While I’m Going Through Chemo?’When you let the truly difficult parts of life come at you full force, it can transform you.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  25. ask polly

    ‘My Future In-Laws Are Assholes!’Stop judging and take the risk of trying to understand them.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  26. ask polly

    ‘I Feel Ashamed of Almost Everything’You need to learn how to be who you already are.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  27. ask polly

    ‘Is an Open Relationship With My Ex a Bad Idea?’You have to trust your gut.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  28. ask polly

    ‘My Boyfriend Bugs the Hell Out of Me!’It’s time to step away from fear and shame.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  29. ask polly

    ‘I’m Sure My Boyfriend Is Secretly in Love With His Co-worker’It sounds like you’re the one who’s obsessed with this woman.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  30. ask polly

    ‘My Ex Keeps Emailing Me and I Hate It!’Ask yourself why you’re unsettled by his affection.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  31. ask polly

    ‘Why Do My Friendships Always Fade Away?’You have to learn to ask your friends for what you want from them.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  32. ask polly

    ‘I Feel Ugly and Lonely and I Don’t Know How to Change’It’s time to abandon your old tricks and feel your way forward.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  33. ask polly

    ‘Is This the Worst Possible Time to Break Up With Someone?’Now is the time to shower the people around you with compassion.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  34. ask polly

    ‘I Don’t Think I Can Handle 18 Months of Isolation’Resolve not to fixate on the millions of terrifying possibilities you cannot control.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  35. ask polly

    ‘Is My Sexy Poet Friend Manipulating Me?’You need to spend some time thinking about the value of boundaries.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  36. ask polly

    ‘I’m Trans and I Feel Unlovable’Stop retelling other people’s bad stories and write your own instead.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  37. ask polly

    ‘My Dream Man Moved On. Should I Wait For Him?’You need to start loosening your grip on this obsession.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  38. ask polly

    ‘I Can’t Get Over My Married Lover!’Look around and ask yourself what this guy had that you wanted.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  39. ask polly

    ‘I Want to Dump My Beautiful, Loving Girlfriend’It’s not selfish to pay attention to your desires.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  40. ask polly

    ‘No One at Work Respects Me!’Shift your energy from fixing to observing.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  41. ask polly

    ‘I Moved Off-Grid With an Emotionally Stunted Older Man!’You need to spend some more time getting to know yourself.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  42. ask polly

    ‘I Have Everything, But I’m Still Sad and Angry’Stop stigmatizing your restless desires.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  43. ask polly

    ‘I Don’t Know How to Feel My Desire’You have to learn to face your shame and sit with it.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  44. ask polly

    ‘My Life Is Pathetic!’Life doesn’t become easy and stay that way.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  45. ask polly

    ‘I’ve Lost My Joy and I Want It Back!’Give yourself room to breathe and be alive and wild.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  46. ask polly

    ‘I’m Addicted to Rejection’Find the people who can see your rays of light.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  47. ask polly

    ‘I’m Trying to Go Gray and I Hate It!’Listen to what you’re feeling.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  48. ask polly

    ‘I’ve Never Had Sex, and I Feel Like I Never Will’You need to tune in to how much control you have.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  49. ask polly

    ‘I’m Defective as a Human Being!’It’s impossible to “fix” anything if you don’t have compassion for yourself.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  50. ask polly

    ‘I Give Up!’Finding your power takes more than completing the assignment as directed.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

Load More
Sours: https://www.thecut.com/tags/ask-polly/
  1. Reverse mount bellhousing
  2. Viper diva
  3. Pocket lockpick set
  4. 26 ft wellcraft

Some of the smartest writing on the internet right now is happening in advice columns. Slate’s Dear Prudence column gives readers the singular, unhinged genius of Mallory Ortberg. Captain Awkward hands out life scripts with kindness and empathy, and Ask a Manager explains professional life with all the wisdom you wish your school’s career counselor had.

And then there is Ask Polly, the existentialist advice column born on The Awl and currently on New York Magazine’s The Cut.

As Polly, Heather Havrilesky responds to problems that would stop other advice columnists in their tracks. People reach out to Polly because life just seems … empty, somehow. Or because the letter-writer is dissatisfied, but not sure exactly why. Or because they’re wondering if they’ll ever find love, or a fulfilling job, or make peace with their parents.

Havrilesky responds with thousands of words of profanity-laced, empathetic wisdom. The specifics might vary, but the core of the advice is the same: You will be okay. What you’re feeling is messy and unpleasant and hard to control, and that is okay. Lean into the messiness, accept your unpleasantness, and refuse to settle for less than you want from life.

And now, her advice has been collected into book form in How to Be a Person in the World.

It’s not a book that benefits from being read straight through. Havrilesky returns to the same core messages again and again throughout the book, and “You should be with someone who loves your particular kind of messiness,” lovely and affirming as it is to hear, gets a little wearing if you’re reading it for the third time in 20 minutes. But as a resource to turn to, something to dip into whenever life seems just a little bit empty, How to Be a Person in the World is invaluable.

As a sampling, here are some of the best words of wisdom in the book:

If you are sick of wasting your time with tepid people:

You need to tell tepid to fuck right off, Kanye-style. If you vow right now that the second you see tepid, you’re going to back up and say, “No fucking thanks,” and move on without looking back, then your self-esteem will immediately bounce back from years of abuse. That means retiring the soliloquy about how great you are. That means no more badgering. Replace the badgering with a rap. Write it down, file it away, move the fuck on. (Fuck you AND your futon. I’ll fuck your best friend, Sean. I’ll fuck him till the dawn. I’ll make your man my pawn. Fuck having late-night drinks. Fuck playing tiddlywinks. Fuck all your tepid kinks. Your half-assed shit still stinks.)

If you told a grabby asshole to fuck off, and now you feel guilty:

What you’re describing is not a bit of drunken, idiotic grabbiness or unfortunate cluelessness. It’s malignant and purposefully demeaning. I suspect that most women reading this know exactly what that energy feels like. We’ve been there. It’s different. …

And now you’re the bad guy because you exploded! And even you believe that! Your mistake was that you tried to push your emotions aside and accept a situation that is un-fucking-acceptable. Trust me, I’m all for pushing emotions aside and dealing when life requires it. But you can’t forgive and forget, because it turns out you’re still angry.

Shutterstock

If you can’t figure out how to be angry, because you’re pretty sure you’re always supposed to be nice:

This is what I want you to accept, first and foremost: You are a nice person, and you’re also full of anger. You’re a walking tangle of contradictions. That’s okay. Most of us are like that. Women, most of all. How could we not be? People want us to be sexy warriors who roll over and play dead on command. They want us to be flirty burlesque dancers in burkas, aggressive conquistadors with cookies in the oven, Dorothy Parker meets Dorothy Gale, Sandra Bernhard meets Sandra Dee, Kristen Stewart meets Martha Stewart.

Experiments in asking for exactly what you want will go badly. Do it anyway. Do it and expect people to react badly. Because you’re sensitive, you won’t like this. Think about how they feel, and try to empathize. Watch how other people do it. I know it sounds like a management technique, but good communicators usually start with something positive, then move to the negative gently: “I love this about you, but I have to draw the line here.” “I know you’re trying your best, but this is what I need from you.” “I care about you so much and you’re such an important friend to me, but I don’t think I can do this one thing.”

If your family won’t stop telling you you’re fat:

So, look, the reasons for your anger and frustration couldn’t be more clear, and they’re completely justified. I think you need to express them. I don’t think you’ll be happy until you do.

It’s a complicated problem, but it has a simple solution: Draw boundaries and stick to them. Express the emotional side of it with care; go into detail if you want. But then shift gears and tell your family precisely what you expect from them: “No more talk about weight, food, or how I look. None.” Don’t apologize for it. Don’t second-guess yourself. Don’t get mad if you can help it. Just say, “Hey, this is what I need.”

If you keep finding yourself hooking up with guys in relationships:

When a guy gives you attention, you feel like you’re “winning” somehow. We all grow up believing that only one of us can win — one beautiful princess at the ball, among all the goofy sidekicks and maiden aunts. So every time we’re at a party, or a dinner, or a club, we organize the scene based on the same notion: Either we are the one who sparkles and thrills, or we’re some dog in the corner. We’re either the girl in the kitchen alcove, giggling and flirting, or the sad ignored girlfriend in the blurry background. We’re either the white-hot sexy girl making out in the car or the sniffling loser girlfriend waiting around at home for her boyfriend to come back.

This isn’t really winning. It’s hurting yourself and hurting other women in one blow. It’s serving your ass on a platter not to a prince but to a predator. It’s feeding into everything sick and wrong about the blindest, least soulful dimensions of our culture. When you soak up the attentions of some smarmy creep, you’re throwing away your compassion and your power and you’re empowering that creep to pick a “winner.” He’s the one who determines which girl is superior and which girl is a sucker and which girl isn’t worthy of his predatory gaze.

Shutterstock

If you think you want to be an artist but that sounds so pretentious:

There is the artist, and then there’s this pragmatic person within you who bails you out when you’re drowning. Don’t let the artist fuck with what the pragmatist is trying to do. But do let the artist take up a lot of space. Let the artist call herself an artist, even to her parents’ skeptical friends. Practice saying it out loud to exactly the people who are the most likely to think you’re a fucking joke.

You’re an artist if you create art, period. You’re a writer if you write. First, you have to claim the title. You can’t work hard until you claim the right. (For women, I think, that’s particularly true.)

Artists, pretentious or not, blustery and swaggery or self-abnegating, need to find their faith in their work all over again, every morning of their lives. You need to devote yourself to your religion, Lost Artist.

If you want to quit your crappy day job and make art but you’re scared to death:

Spend the next six months in a state of total obsession. Get up two hours earlier than usual and write before you go to work. Come home and exercise (not optional, sorry), then write for another hour. Read or watch the kind of comedy you love before bed. Don’t waste all your time socializing. Do a little socializing on weekends, but focus. Focus! …

Of course you will still question what you’re doing every stupid day, maybe for the next two decades. Even after you write a hundred funny things, you’ll believe that you’re all tapped out. I’m always convinced that every essay I write will be my last. I’m always wrong. And I can tell you from experience that if you get up early, drink your caffeine, and fill yourself with the sense that you are going to TURN THIS MOTHER OUT, SOMEHOW, SOMEWAY, you will find the inspiration and the tenacity you’re looking for.

Shutterstock

If you want to quit your crappy day job but you don’t know what to do instead:

You already know for a fact that you don’t want a job in corporate banking. That’s never going to change. I would make a plan to quit within the next year. I would make a plan to save money and scale back your spending. I would commit to exercising once a day, to keep your spirits up and tackle your anxious nature. I would put your ideas about your new career on paper. I would talk to people who do what you want to do for a living. I would take action, and yes, maybe dedicate nights and weekends to figuring it out.

If your friend’s in trouble and you don’t know how to be a good friend to them:

Never use an “I told you so” attitude to let yourself off the hook from showing up for someone you love. And don’t use the “I don’t know what to say” excuse, either, or the “I’m afraid I’ll say something wrong” excuse. You probably will say something wrong. That’s okay. JUST SHOW UP. Show up and say, “God, this sucks. I’m so sorry.” Just keep saying that, and keep showing up.

If you’re not satisfied with what you’re getting from life:

Stop being grateful for scraps. Everything good in my life has surged forth from one crucial moment or another when I said, “I am not settling for these scraps anymore. I want more than this for myself.”

And finally and most importantly, if you feel unlovable:

It’s time to forget about being lovable. And in fact, it’s time to forsake someone else’s idea of what gives you a spark or no spark. Block the “other” from this picture. No more audience. You are the cherished and the cherisher. You are the eminently lovable and the lover. You are a million brilliant sparks, flashing against a midnight sky. Stop making room for someone else to sit down. Fuck “good” partners. Fuck waiting to be let in. You are already in. You are in. Cherish yourself.

Sours: https://www.vox.com/2016/9/13/12326672/how-to-be-a-person-in-the-world-heather-havrilesky-ask-polly-book

Ask Polly

Displaying all articles tagged:
  1. ask polly

    Good-bye, New YorkI’m headed to Substack and expanding Ask Polly to find new ways to help readers cultivate compassion and joy. Come with me!

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  2. ask polly

    ‘My Boyfriend Refuses to Change’Do you want a real partner, or someone to admire from afar?

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  3. ask polly

    ‘I Feel Like My Rage Might Eat Me Alive’You’re sad and lonely and you need to start asking for the love and support you deserve.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  4. ask polly

    ‘I’m Not Ready for Isolation to End!’Instead of blaming yourself for where you are, accept yourself and stand up for your preferences.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  5. ask polly

    ‘My Dad Died, and Now I’m Worried I’m Headed for Divorce’You’re using your anger at your husband as a distraction to keep from facing this enormous loss.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  6. ask polly

    ‘I’m Too Old and Washed Up to Succeed!’You need to rid yourself of negative delusions and build a more resilient vision of your future.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  7. ask polly

    ‘Should I Leave My Good Job to Pursue My Artistic Dreams?’Stop surrendering to your worries and learn to enjoy the risks and adventure of a creative career.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  8. ask polly

    ‘I Only Want to Date Men Who’ve Been Through Therapy!’What you’re looking for is someone who’s curious and open to learning new things.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  9. ask polly

    ‘I Want My Family to Love Me Unconditionally’The cause of your sadness isn’t the same as the solution.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  10. ask polly

    ‘My Husband Won’t Have Sex With Me!’Your bedroom has become a battleground where all of your fears and anxieties go head-to-head.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  11. ask polly

    My Friend Group Dumped Me and Now I Have No One!It’s time to stop trying to please people and start being your true self.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  12. ask polly

    ‘Do I Have to Thank My Weird Aunt for Her Terrible Gifts?’Even though her inability to hear you is triggering, consider the big picture and choose your battles carefully.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  13. ask polly

    ‘Everything I Do Fails, So I Don’t Even Try’You keep yourself safe from investing in the world because you don’t want to be disappointed.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  14. ask polly

    ‘People Tell Me I Seem Like a Snob Whenever I’m Quiet!’Confident, self-possessed women often make people nervous.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  15. ask polly

    ‘Why Can’t I Stop Lying All the Time?’You’re struggling with avoidance, anxiety, and shame.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  16. ask polly

    ‘How Do I Live Like an Artist?’Stop battling yourself and embrace the truth, no matter how ugly.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  17. ask polly

    ‘I’m Freezing My Eggs and It’s Kicked Up So Much Rage!’Throw away this complicated puzzle and reconnect with the people around you.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  18. ask polly

    ‘Why Do Other People’s Interests Make Me So Insecure?’Strong reactions sometimes hint at long-buried desires that need to be addressed.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  19. ask polly

    ‘I’m Miserable and I’m Taking It Out on My Husband’You can’t build a stronger connection when you’re committed to chaos.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  20. ask polly

    ‘Most of My Friendships Were Toxic, But Now I’m So Lonely!’Until you learn to assert healthy boundaries, you’ll struggle with all of your relationships.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  21. ask polly

    ‘I’ve Made So Many Mistakes and I’m Way Behind in Life’You have to learn to get beyond guilt and shame.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  22. ask polly

    ‘My Limited Experience With Love Has Been Totally Humiliating’When situations are murky and confusing, it’s often women who soak up all the shame.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  23. ask polly

    ‘Help, My Pandemic Crush Feels So Real!’The key is to tap into desire and imagination without always attaching it to this particular man.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  24. ask polly

    ‘How Can I Feel Confident While I’m Going Through Chemo?’When you let the truly difficult parts of life come at you full force, it can transform you.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  25. ask polly

    ‘My Future In-Laws Are Assholes!’Stop judging and take the risk of trying to understand them.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  26. ask polly

    ‘I Feel Ashamed of Almost Everything’You need to learn how to be who you already are.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  27. ask polly

    ‘Is an Open Relationship With My Ex a Bad Idea?’You have to trust your gut.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  28. ask polly

    ‘My Boyfriend Bugs the Hell Out of Me!’It’s time to step away from fear and shame.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  29. ask polly

    ‘I’m Sure My Boyfriend Is Secretly in Love With His Co-worker’It sounds like you’re the one who’s obsessed with this woman.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  30. ask polly

    ‘My Ex Keeps Emailing Me and I Hate It!’Ask yourself why you’re unsettled by his affection.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  31. ask polly

    ‘Why Do My Friendships Always Fade Away?’You have to learn to ask your friends for what you want from them.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  32. ask polly

    ‘I Feel Ugly and Lonely and I Don’t Know How to Change’It’s time to abandon your old tricks and feel your way forward.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  33. ask polly

    ‘Is This the Worst Possible Time to Break Up With Someone?’Now is the time to shower the people around you with compassion.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  34. ask polly

    ‘I Don’t Think I Can Handle 18 Months of Isolation’Resolve not to fixate on the millions of terrifying possibilities you cannot control.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  35. ask polly

    ‘Is My Sexy Poet Friend Manipulating Me?’You need to spend some time thinking about the value of boundaries.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  36. ask polly

    ‘I’m Trans and I Feel Unlovable’Stop retelling other people’s bad stories and write your own instead.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  37. ask polly

    ‘My Dream Man Moved On. Should I Wait For Him?’You need to start loosening your grip on this obsession.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  38. ask polly

    ‘I Can’t Get Over My Married Lover!’Look around and ask yourself what this guy had that you wanted.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  39. ask polly

    ‘I Want to Dump My Beautiful, Loving Girlfriend’It’s not selfish to pay attention to your desires.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  40. ask polly

    ‘No One at Work Respects Me!’Shift your energy from fixing to observing.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  41. ask polly

    ‘I Moved Off-Grid With an Emotionally Stunted Older Man!’You need to spend some more time getting to know yourself.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  42. ask polly

    ‘I Have Everything, But I’m Still Sad and Angry’Stop stigmatizing your restless desires.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  43. ask polly

    ‘I Don’t Know How to Feel My Desire’You have to learn to face your shame and sit with it.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  44. ask polly

    ‘My Life Is Pathetic!’Life doesn’t become easy and stay that way.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  45. ask polly

    ‘I’ve Lost My Joy and I Want It Back!’Give yourself room to breathe and be alive and wild.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  46. ask polly

    ‘I’m Addicted to Rejection’Find the people who can see your rays of light.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  47. ask polly

    ‘I’m Trying to Go Gray and I Hate It!’Listen to what you’re feeling.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  48. ask polly

    ‘I’ve Never Had Sex, and I Feel Like I Never Will’You need to tune in to how much control you have.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  49. ask polly

    ‘I’m Defective as a Human Being!’It’s impossible to “fix” anything if you don’t have compassion for yourself.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

  50. ask polly

    ‘I Give Up!’Finding your power takes more than completing the assignment as directed.

    ByHeather Havrilesky

Load More
Sours: https://nymag.com/tags/ask-polly/

Polly ask

The morning we talk, Heather Havrilesky has woken up from a nightmare in which her middle school–aged daughters were in college, having a party in a dorm room, but she hadn’t been invited. Then she saw delicious sandwiches everywhere, which she would have loved to have if she hadn’t already eaten. Then, she looked around the room and there were all these college students—oh, wait, it was full of 40-somethings, too.

“I asked my daughter why she didn’t invite me, and she said, ‘These are all young people.’

I said, ‘What about these people my age?’ and she told me they were five years younger than me. She didn’t invite anyone over 43—like people above [that age] don’t matter anymore. I woke up feeling left out and irrelevant, which is just bizarre, because my conscious mind is not in this place!” she laughs.

Havrilesky is the woman behind The Cut's advice column, Ask Polly, and she’s telling me this anecdote to illustrate how she’s “on the same rollercoaster as everyone else,” which is one of the reasons the column has become one of the most popular of its kind in a relatively recent wave of feminist, witty, no-nonsense advice-giving. Her advice often advocates for radical self-acceptance and honesty, delivering truthfulness peppered with swearing and pop culture references, whether she’s responding to someone who’s grappling with a dying parent or a recent graduate who’s crumbling under societal expectations of greatness.

We were meant to be meeting at a Mexican cantina in her Los Angeles neighborhood, which I’d daydreamed about extensively—as well as attending a reading of hers with Ann Friedman—but life had other ideas. Instead, we’re having to Skype for our interview coinciding with the launch of her new book, What if This Were Enough? But it’s okay: Havrilesky talks thoughtfully and is generous with her time, and is as funny as I expected as she moves between her treadmill desk (“a little bit obnoxious,” she says of the contraption) and her sofa.


Watch: Virginie Despentes on Killing Rapists

Though I try to stay on topic, it’s hard not to ask Havrilesky for advice, a problem I share with many others on the internet: She says people often want her to DM them advice, as opposed to printing her answer. It has to be an automatic no, she says: “It’s nice to feel wanted, but it’s also impossible to serve at every term.”

What if This Were Enough? is a collection of essays about how we got here, and more specifically, about America’s moral decline viewed through the lens of popular culture (though, given that the rest of the world consumes American culture and that we’re all in this dumpster fire together, it will be of interest to readers everywhere). She dissects the culture the country has been metabolizing for the past decades, and the consumerist messages we receive day in and day out on social media (which are, of course, no longer framed as brands selling us products, but instead about us being brands, and actual brands being lifestyles). One of Havrilesky's greatest hits was her 2016 Cut essay “It’s Never Been Harder to Be Young,” an extended version of which is included here and focuses on the “popularity contest” life and work have become.

Despite the saturation of books about the present, What If This Were Enough? feels cathartic in the style of Good and Mad, Rebecca Traister’s treatise on the political power of women’s anger. Havrilesky's book is hilarious and pulls no punches, and its cohesiveness feels fresh. Here, Don Draper (who could, better than anyone, “evoke the terrifying state of having it all but needing more”); Tony Soprano; Fifty Shades; Shirley Jackson’s books; Marie Kondo’s neurotic decluttering; the foodie movement; and modern obsessions with survival fantasies all belong together—they’re parts of the same Rubik’s cube.

The pleasure of the book is that what brings all the pieces together are several short personal essays, including one about a toxic relationship and another on how awful going to certain parties can feel. Bringing more of herself into her writing has made it better, she argues. “ You can be so caught up in your own genre that you believe, My writing is only supposed to do this one thing. You’re not taking some leap into some ‘soft’ art simply by bringing human concerns into your writing. Human concerns should be in all writing.”

Havrilesky has written cultural criticism for 15 years, including stints as a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, book critic for Bookforum, and seven years as Salon’s TV critic. She started writing the Ask Polly column six years ago for The Awl before moving to The Cut (though she’d started writing advice in 2001 for the webzine Suck.com and later on her blog). Ask Polly was conceived as an existential column, and that’s feeling quite literal lately.

"There are things that come up in life that you can’t just navigate around. You have to go straight through them."

She reflects on the collective feeling of doom: “There is a bleakness to the letters now that did not exist in 2012; it’s completely a world apart. There are decades where you feel like everything looks apocalyptic.” In the spring of 2017, it got to her, too. She started to order survival supplies online, and it helped to face those feelings in a more direct, practical way. “I almost had to confront the idea that an apocalypse could happen. Suddenly, the bleakness transcended just, Everything is terrible, and moved into, When things get worse, what do we do—and I have two kids, how am I going to handle that? [Maybe] we all have to kind of go to that reality. By the same token, you can’t walk around saying ‘the world is ending’ every day.”

Her message is to tune into everything. “There’s nothing honorable about flipping out. I think that’s a missed cue of the current moment,” she says. “I don’t mean forcing the bad things into a happy little shape. I mean more instead of holding them at arm’s length, allowing them in and dealing with that reality—which is sort of ordering the fucking water purification pills—but then letting in the good things too, and living in the reality of today. We don’t necessarily need to reinforce in each other the sense of panic and darkness, it’s kind of acknowledged now, and it’s not denial to still want to be happy and connect with other people. We’re animals, and we’re going to fucking try to survive, it’s not dishonorable to want to enjoy the time you have.”

Havrilesky likes these kinds of heavy questions. Her overall approach is to dive into a letter and let it go once she’s done: “My relationship to the letters is hard to describe. They’re this weird part of my life that’s a constant. I feel connected to the people who write to me. I care often more than I want to, but then I also try very hard to set it aside—otherwise, I’d go nuts.”

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Some letter-writers stick in her mind. Others, she knows she can’t help. “Ask Polly gives you the illusion that there’s a solution to a lot of things, and that’s mostly because I choose letters where there is somewhat of a direction.” It’s instructive, she says, to know that sometimes there is no external solution. “There are things that come up in life that you can’t just navigate around. You have to go straight through them, and that experience has probably influenced the way that I answer questions. Particularly with psychological issues and emotional issues, a lot of us want to just seem healthy while we remain unhealthy.”

She says she sees it all the time: the people who face things and move through them come out differently on the other side to those who just “find a life hack around something that they’re carrying around—and always will, you know!” All of her advice happens to crystallize to this. “As you get older, you can tell that the people who do that work and face that reality are the the calmest, most centered, happiest people you know. So it’s easy to recommend that process, even though it’s grueling when you’re in the middle of it.”

Tagged:feminismCultureFeminismeTVPOP CULTUREInterviewsAdviceBroadly FeminismBroadly Pop CultureBroadly Culture

ORIGINAL REPORTING ON EVERYTHING THAT MATTERS IN YOUR INBOX.

By signing up to the VICE newsletter you agree to receive electronic communications from VICE that may sometimes include advertisements or sponsored content.

Sours: https://www.vice.com/en/article/9k7xye/ask-polly-heather-havrilesky-interview

.

Now discussing:

.



240 241 242 243 244