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How does a thinking person form a solid, loving relationship with herself? This is the essence of many questions on readers’ minds as they seek advice from Heather Havrilesky, the writer behind the Cut’s advice column Ask Polly. If it feels like the whole world is rejecting you, how can you stop rejecting yourself? What if you just can’t stand to be alone with yourself? “You can be glamorous or invisible or a fucking ramshackle mess,” Polly writes, “and you will still be worthy.” Read on for her nine best columns with self-esteem advice.
A young woman wants to work toward accepting what she feels are wasted years in college. Polly points out the first problem is the shame surrounding the question itself; there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive enough to have feelings about the past. “But you don’t even know what the world is made of yet,” she continues, “because you’re too angry at yourself for not being perfect to see clearly.”
An Unchanged Person describes his past as an unhappy, alcoholic 20-year-old and his current moment as a healthy, professionally successful and sober 30-year-old. But despite reaching so many personal goals, he still feels unlovable. Polly explains this makes sense, because “becoming successful and healthy only ‘fixes’ your outer appearance.” The solid kind of self-acceptance he’s after, Polly says, isn’t instant — it takes years of work.
Very Weird & Very Lonely describes feeling socially isolated, theorizing that other people are repelled by a severe skin condition. Polly examines other root causes of isolation, and recommends seeking other forms of skin care. “You’re a sensitive guy with sensitive skin,” she reassures him, “that’s all.”
A reader who self-identifies as very smart details mental-health hurdles. But these struggles might not be as unique as the reader thinks, Polly says: “Most of the smart people I know have been depressed and/or anxious at one point or another in their lives.” She suggests taking a step back and a step down from where the reader’s self is currently residing. Because, after all: “You are just a person.”
A reader who feels like she has no real opinions of her own wonders if a lack of soul is to blame. Polly points out that this reader is asking interesting, deep questions — and that she’s sensitive enough to know she’s prone to idolizing others. Knowing is halfway there, she reminds us: “Most of all, remember that messy and self-doubting does not equal stupid.”
Tightly Wound wants to know if she should lighten up. She’s felt fairly secure about being attached to her routines, but would she benefit from listening to recent suggestions that she’s too uptight? Figuring out how to balance what we want with what the world wants, Polly reminds us, is a lifelong endeavor. “You can structure your world however you like,” she says. “But I would urge you to interrogate the things you do to keep the world OUT.”
A young woman uncomfortable in her own skin wants to know how she can love herself while improving herself. She should start by reexamining the qualities she likes and dislikes, Polly says — what’s really going on behind these opinions? “You can be glamorous or invisible or a fucking ramshackle mess,” she says, “and you will still be worthy.”
A reader concerned with validation asks Polly how she can learn to believe her own worth. Polly explains that feeling worthy requires feeling all sorts of other feelings. “Let your feelings show you what they want to show you without pushing them away or stopping short at because you’re a loser or because you’re weak. Be patient with yourself,” she tells us, “and your feelings will point you back out to the world, to new ideas, to new principles, to new adventures.”
Nervously Still is unhappy the moment her schedule breaks down. How can she ever enjoy a vacation or moment of peace in the face of these feelings? To do so, Polly says, she needs to develop a lasting and rich relationship with herself. “The more you accept the full scope of what you feel when you’re still,” she explains, “the more present and relaxed and loving you’ll become.”
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