“Her life would be so much easier if she would just stop dating douchebags,” we say, “All his problems would magically go away if he could learn how to stick to a budget.” When it comes to the troubled patterns and self-destructive choices of others, we are Ivy League-educated psychiatrists, armed with stacks of dusty books and smug glances over the top of our understated glasses, ready to diagnose and call it a day to go back to our mahogany apartments and sip chianti. But when it’s us dating said douchebags, or spending our money irresponsibly, or hanging out with the kind of social group that exists only to make us feel unworthy, these problems are brand-new, mystifying, and completely unsolvable.
I recently found myself in a situation where I had knots in my stomach, my palms were sweating, and there seemed to be just slightly less than enough oxygen in the room. I had waited, yet again, until the last minute to do some innocuous-but-necessary paperwork, and was now rushing to get it all in on time. The tendency to put things off until I am uncomfortably pressed for time and am left rushing to pull everything off at the very last minute is no doubt a stupid one, but something I’ve been unable to shake nonetheless. As I grow and evolve, finding myself making more responsible choices in various areas of my life, there are still certain things that I seem almost determined to sabotage myself over. Perhaps I’m dating the right people, balancing my work and social life, but I’m undeniably still crippled by my inability to manage the more tedious responsibilities and to-do lists of adulthood. These problems, this pattern I’ve been able to recognize but unable to treat since puberty hit, still feel like brick walls that I cannot stop running up against.
And yet, it’s so easy to see what I’m doing. I see it in others, and even offer up concise, realistic solutions to these issues. People have taken my advice in areas where I remain embarrassingly incompetent, and it worked. It’s like an out-of-body experience, looking at myself from across the room and watching me shoot myself in the foot. It’s all so clear, so understandable, and so difficult to change. And everyone seems to have their own version of this.
Maybe it’s a certain kind of love you’re looking for — maybe even the love you think you deserve — in which your partner treats you as though you should be so lucky as to be graced with their occasional, largely indifferent presence. You continue to date the same cruel, absent assholes with whom you are never sure of their feelings, the ones you cannot feel comfortable leaving alone for fear that they will simply forget your relationship and walk away. Perhaps it will never quite manifest in infidelity, but the fact that it’s a constant concern lingering over your head is just another sign that this is what you feel you are meant for.
Perhaps you aren’t going for what you actually want. Time and time again, you let your own desires and aspirations be beaten into a kind of placating resignation, a vague impressionist painting of what you’d hoped your life to be, put together largely to please those around you and what they think is best. Maybe you see constant exit signs for a better life — the job, the city, the apartment, the lifestyle you want — and feel impotent in the face of such clear opportunity. Yet again, you stay put, complacent, and constantly wondering “what if?” while everyone around you is out getting theirs. You can see these patterns, feel them the way you might a too-tight wool sweater on an increasingly hot afternoon, and be unable to shake them.
How long does this continue? We’ve all seen people — family members, older friends, even celebrities whom we’ve gotten to know from the screaming covers of magazines in the checkout line — who allow these sad, repetitive choices plague them into middle-age and beyond. The same resigned look, the same desperate need to justify the damaging behavior, the same rationalizing of their obvious discomfort with their place in life. They have led themselves here like toy cars on a circuit — one they could step off of if they moved only an inch to the left or right, but outside of which they cannot understand life exists. We are all on these circuits, our own version of circling down a certain drain, and it’s clear that remaining in the whirlpool only leads to profound dissatisfaction. What greater fear is there than trapping yourself in a cage of your own unwillingness to grow?
I watch myself waiting until the last minute, getting that same strange, cheap thrill from willfully hurting myself, like a child pricking myself with a thorn and getting giddy at testing my own limits. “Oww, this hurts, let’s do it again.” It’s like the day my parents wouldn’t take me to Six Flags to ride the roller coaster, so I stay home, making my own stomach drop and seeing how much I can get away with. And I know that when I finally step off the track and make the right decision, it feels so good — so adult. Like getting the healthy breakfast in spite of your impulses and finding out you actually like fresh fruit cut up on your low-sugar cereal. Maybe every day will have to be this active turning towards the right choices. Maybe I actually have to say it out loud, to tell myself why what I’m doing is stupid, and will only end like it did every time before it. It’s not a very sexy thought, treating oneself like a child who has to learn to stop sticking the fork in the electrical socket, but it’s certainly sexier than ending up bitter, doing the same things in my 40s that I disliked myself for at 14.