That’s Enough with Heather Havrilesky
Welcome to our 2019 premiere—where we dig deep on all the ways our culture tells us we’re not “enough,” and get some help figuring out what to do about it.
We’re joined by writer and cultural critic Heather Havrilesky, author of the new book, What If This Were Enough. We talk about writing NY Mag’s “Ask Polly” advice column, facing our emotions and sad moments head-on, and how we can all make 2019 the year we stop beating ourselves up and learn to enjoy ourselves a little more.
We live in a world that tells us that we don’t have enough, that we need more, and that…the feeling of wanting more is somehow a moral failure on a personal level.—Heather Havrilesky
Plus: Katel shares her gratitude journal, Sara unpacks her judgey feels, and we talk through all the ways we’ve both felt inadequate or unproductive at work—and how we’re moving past it.
More from Heather:
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Sara Wachter-Boettcher Do you want to be more organized and less stressed in 2019? I mean, obviously. So, you should check out Harvest. Harvest makes super-helpful software for planning projects, tracking time, sending invoices, and more. It’s great for freelancers or consultants, and scales up for large teams of all kinds. Check it out today at getharvest.com/strongfeelings to get 50% off your first month. That’s getharvest.com/strongfeelings. [intro music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out] Hey everyone, I’m Sara.
Katel LeDu And I’m Katel!
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together. And Katel, this is our season premiere!
KL Oh my gosh, I know. I am so psyched that we are kicking off this year as Strong Feelings. And I know this sounds funny, but can we say hi to our listeners?
SWB Yeah! Hey! Hi everyone! So, welcome back. And yes, you are in the right place. This used to be No, You Go. If you missed that memo, we talk about it in our December finale, so definitely go back and check that out.
KL Yes! And if you’re new here, hi! And thank you for listening. I am Katel LeDu. I’m the CEO of an independent book publishing company called A Book Apart, I might be a little bit of an oversharer, and even though I’m the boss in a lot of areas of my life, I get completely and utterly stuck in a lot of other places. So, I try to talk through that sometimes, because I know it helps me—and I hope it helps other folks who might be listening.
SWB And I am Sara Wachter-Boettcher. I run a little consulting company called Rare Union and I’ve written a couple books. One of them was actually for Katel’s company! And then the most recent one is called Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech, which makes me a lot of friends at parties. [both laugh] And that’s actually one of the things I feel like I’m still figuring out, which is what happens to your consulting business when you get super honest and kind of political in a book like that? Or in a podcast like this? Will people still want to work with you? [KL laughs] And by you, I mean me. [KL laughs] So umm, I’ll let you all know when I figure that out!
KL Yeah, keep us posted. Okay, so, it’s January, New Year, new name, fresh start. So, what are we doing today?
SWB Well, we have one of my favorite writers on the show—Heather Havrilesky.
SWB She is a cultural critic and she’s also known as Ask Polly, the advice columnist for New York Magazine’s The Cut. And did I ever tell you how I started reading her work?
SWB Okay, so it was maybe 2003, 2004. So, we have to go waaay back to baby Sara.
KL Yes. [laughs] Ughh, love baby Sara.
SWB Okay. So, I was in college and I worked the swing shift at a credit union doing customer service. “Thank you for choosing Pentagon Federal Credit Union, this is Sara, how may I help you?” [KL laughs] And I had this coworker, Noelle, who was just a little bit older than me and a lot cooler than I was. I was always trying to do a really good job at work and she was very much like, “this place is not worth all of me.” [KL laughs] “I am just gonna coast on by and get on with my life.”
SWB Which she was probably right about. So, anyway, one night she sent me this link to something called Rabbit Blog, and that was Heather Havrilesky’s blog!
SWB And so I remember that Heather also seemed way cooler than me. [both laugh] And she had that kind of detached Gen X sort of droll, funny way about her.
SWB And I remember I read all of the archives of her blog between calls. And then I realized she had been a writer at suck.com before that, which was like the first place you could find satire on the internet in the late ’90s. And so I started reading her work there. So yeah, I was a longtime fan. And it was kind of a joy after I lost track of her for a few years there to discover her again writing Ask Polly, which is such a strong recommend to me. I love that advice column, if you haven’t read it before. But she’s also been a cultural critic for a long time, so she writes about pop culture, and books, and modern American life for New York Times magazine, and she used to write for Salon. And so now, just a couple months ago, she had a new book come out and it’s called What If This Were Enough?
KL Ugh, that is such a good question.
SWB I know, right?
SWB I have been rolling that question over and over in my head since I read the book. And so I was really excited to interview her, especially here at the start of a new year and a new season. I don’t really do resolutions. No judgment if that’s something that works for you, but I find that resolutions tend to make me feel like I’m giving myself a jail sentence of some sort because it feels punitive.
SWB Like I’ve done something wrong and now I need to like…
SWB Correct. Yeah. And not every resolution feels that way, but that’s kind of what I have attached to them. What I do like though at the New Year is that it is this kind of moment of transition. And that helps me take a pause, reflect on things and oftentimes reprioritize. And especially as I tend to have a lot of different stuff going on at the same time, so taking a moment to prioritize those things and think about them differently is helpful. So, “what if this were enough?” is a question I have been asking myself in a lot of different ways. So, what if I have enough already? What if I’m doing enough already? What if I AM enough already? [KL laughs]
KL Ugh gosh, I mean this is something I struggle with a lot. I run a company and I still feel like an imposter. I am the boss and I’m still like, “should I be the boss? Should I be in charge? Am I the right person?” And I really want to be open about feeling that way, but it’s hard because I want to admit that I feel like an imposter, but I don’t want anyone to know [laughing] that I’m an imposter.
SWB Yeah, I have felt that way too. And sometimes I’m thinking, okay, I’ve created a successful career for myself, I’ve done good work, I’ve accomplished lots of things that mattered to me—there’s still this little part of me, this little voice that’s wondering, when are they all going to find out I’m a fraud? [KL laughs] Or, when’s it all gonna crumbling down on me and I’m going to have to go back and work at that call center again? [KL laughs]
KL You never know! [laughs] So, I don’t think I ever told you this before, but actually I felt so much like this the first time I met you.
SWB Wait, really? When?
KL Yeah, so this was three years before I actually got to know you. It was right after I joined A Book Apart as the Managing Director and you were still the Editor in Chief at A List Apart.
SWB Okay, yeah. So, for anyone who is outside of that particular bubble, A List Apart is like a sister publication for people who work in tech and design. And yeah, I edited there for several years.
KL Yeah, so I’ve talked a little bit about this on the show before, but I felt really alone when I started there and I was figuring a lot of stuff out solo and kind of making it up as I went along. Like creating a budget and a P&L for the whole business and building out a lot of the operational framework, which was like creating pre-press checklists so we knew exactly what to expect when we were dealing with printers and the warehouse. And I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’d never worked on book publishing before. So, that was fun and exciting. [laughs] And I was really comfortable doing editorial work and managing a publishing process, but I’d come from a very different flavor of that at National Geographic. And I was sort of like, great, this is awesome. A new job, learn a whole new thing. So, I was figuring out a bunch of stuff, and our book pitch review process was actually something I’d really wanted to put just more structure around because we would have great discussions about proposals that would come in, but we didn’t really have any criteria that we were weighing pros and cons against. And I went looking for some advice and I just thought I’d try reaching out to you and asking you what your experience had been because you’d not only been managing A List Apart, but you’d written a book, so you’d been through a whole different part of the process. And I was so nervous. I was kind of a big fan of you and your work and you’d written that book, you just got shit done at A List Apart. And then I was late for the call we had set up! I remember feeling so inadequate, [laughs] like before I’d even met you.
SWB Aww, I’m so sorry! [KL laughs] You know, I will tell you this. I remember us having that call, I don’t remember you being late. That is lost to time, I have no recollection of that because it wasn’t a big deal to me. Also, I had no idea that you could possibly feel that way. [KL laughs]
KL Well, good. That makes me feel a little better. So, we got on the call and after I think I did a lot of apologizing, I asked you all these questions and you were so generous with your time and just very kind. You shared a lot with me and I felt very reassured.
SWB Well, what’s funny about that meeting is that I actually remember back at that time being a little bit jealous of you!
KL [gasps] What?!
SWB Yeah, okay. So, I was running this magazine as a side project and it was meant to be a side project, I was being paid a stipend to do it and I do think I did a good job with it. It was a pretty popular magazine and I was able to sort of grow the budget that it had and pay people better and publish more and all of that. But I felt like it was such a little insignificant thing compared to what you were doing because I was like, oh, you’re running a publishing house that has like real products [KL laughs]—like, real money, right? [KL laughs] You sell things for dollars, [laughs] and then people buy them and want them and read them. And that’s just such a different kind of setup. And so in my mind, you were running this real legit business and therefore you must be more legit than I was.
KL Oh my gosh. I can’t—I just can’t imagine both of us thinking these things now. And I mean, it took time for us to get to know each other, but then we ended up obviously being friends. But just also learning that we could really trust each other. Turned out I think that those fears and worries that I was having were totally not based in reality and I was letting them crowd my thinking and sort of how I was going into that situation.
SWB Same. And I think for me, part of the problem was that I feel like at that time I was still in a place where I felt like I needed to establish myself. I didn’t necessarily feel like I was stable in my credibility or in my profile, so I think that I was often going into situations—I don’t know that I could have seen this at the time—but I was going into situations feeling like I needed to look at how I was doing in relation to others and whether I was doing enough, getting enough opportunities, established enough, etc. And it put me into this place where I was feeling like a fundamental sense of scarcity. And I think that scarcity concept is something that I’ve heard kind of around recently.
SWB And it’s helpful to think about like, oh, I was thinking of it from the perspective of like, okay, there’s only room for so many people to have success or to get the things that they want, and so I need to jockey for position amongst them. And it’s not that I felt directly competitive with you. I did not actually want your job…
SWB But it was that I was coming at it from this place of comparison like, “is what I’m doing as valuable or as big or as real or whatever as this other person?” And when you do that, what I realize now, of course, is you can’t really see the other person because you’re not there to see them, you’re always there comparing them to yourself. And if I can’t really see you and come to the conversation with your needs really in mind, it’s very hard to get to know somebody and then to trust them.
KL Yeah, totally. And I do want to say that I feel very seen by you. One of the many reasons I love you is that you always look for ways to lift me up, which is just so incredibly kind and nurturing I think in our friendship. Like you make a point of introducing me to people as the CEO of a company!
SWB I do love to do that. [both laugh] It makes me happy because I think that—honestly, it depends on the scenarios, I don’t try and do that in every social setting—[KL laughs] but there are times when I see people notably shift the way that they are reacting to you because I’ve said that. And I mean that’s kind of bullshit in some ways that that happens—
KL Sure. Of course.
SWB —but I think it’s so easy to condescend to women and that gives a way to make sure that that doesn’t happen as much. Anyway, I also really like to do that because I guess I feel like telling people how fucking great my friends are is really fun. [laughs] It’s a really enjoyable thing to do—
SWB —once you realize, “I’m okay and I don’t have to worry about how I’m perceived in this scenario.” Right? It takes a lot of pressure off of yourself. So, once I stopped feeling like I might be revealed as a fake or whatever, then I didn’t have to care about any of that! And that I think is one of the things that has shifted the kinds of work I have done over the past few years and the people I’ve gotten to partner with. You’re one of them. I love that we get to do this podcast together and also explore all kinds of other schemes together. And there’s a few other people I have collaborated with on different client projects and they’re all people where I feel like I trust them immensely and I know that they trust me. And I don’t think I would have gotten to that place if I was still stuck in that sense of “am I enough? Am I okay?” all the time.
KL Yeah, I totally get that. I used to feel so worried about just what everyone else was doing. And I think I had this big fear of being seen and exposed, like you said. And getting over that fear is what has allowed us to collaborate so well I think. And we wouldn’t have been able to see each other’s strengths if we continued coming from a place of that comparison instead of paying attention to what we could add to each other.
SWB Right, like we actually don’t need to be good at the same things.
KL Yeah, exactly. We contribute different energies to our partnership and that is good! I feel really motivated by how driven you are and how productive you are. I love seeing progress happen in things that we’re doing; it makes me want to do more. And even though I think I am a little slower at some things than you, I hope that actually slows us down a little when we need it, in a good way!
SWB I do work myself into a frenzy sometimes. [both laugh] Oh gosh. Yeah and slowing down has been hard for me. I had to slow down a bit over the fall after I had knee surgery and then I had to really invest in healing. And I found that very frustrating and I had to think about why I was so frustrated by it. And one of the reasons—I think the biggest reason—was that it made me feel unproductive. And that is like one of the worst feelings for me—not feeling productive. And so I’ve been thinking about why that is. And, you know, Heather talks about this in her interview, so I’m excited to dig into it there, but there’s this very American obsession with productivity. And intellectually, I know that that is bullshit. Like I make fun of all those articles that are like “10 things all successful people do before 8am!” [KL laughs] And they’re all like, “you write 1,500 words and then you run 5 miles and then you meditate and then you have a quality discussion with your children and then you network over coffee” [KL laughs] and I’m just like, when are you getting up to do all these things?! [KL laughs] Because there is like 12 hours of things!
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB I know all those things are bullshit. I know that they really fetishize productivity, but I still tend to judge my days—like was it a good day or was it a bad day?—by how much I accomplished. And I still tend to put too much on my to-do list and then beat myself up for not finishing it, when it was never finish-able in the first place. And so I don’t think that’s just me, I think that’s kind of a cultural problem where I think we really get sold this idea that our value is in our productivity and that your humanity is equal to your output. And that gets embedded pretty deeply, especially if you’re not aware of it, you’re not paying attention to it. And so I think something I’m really trying to do this year is start to separate out, okay, I am a person who enjoys activity. I like to do a lot. I like to keep my brain and my body busy. And that’s great! I can do a lot and I can be a person who enjoys that, but I don’t need to churn out more and more tasks just because I feel like I’m a bad person if I stop. There’s no value in being productive for productivity’s sake.
KL Yeah. It’s actually funny that you say that and you feel this way about yourself because the other day, I had this jam-packed schedule and I was thinking, “how am I going to get everything done?” I just felt really overwhelmed. And on top of that, I had meetings all afternoon. And then my afternoon cleared up because some meetings got cancelled and I remember texting you, “ahhhh, my afternoon meetings got rescheduled. Little wins!” And you texted back, “room to breathe.” And I literally took a deep breath in and let it out, just feeling so relieved. So, I feel like you do this a lot for me; you help me sort of reset my view on how productive I need to be.
SWB Yeah, I mean it’s a lot easier for me to say that to you [KL laughs] than to say it to myself, right? Giving myself room to breathe is much harder.
SWB Because I think it’s a lot easier to be kind to the people you love than to be kind to yourself.
SWB And that’s something actually I think Heather was really good at talking about, too—that as an advice columnist, something she had to do that was hard for her was to learn to take her own advice! And I thought that was a really interesting piece of the conversation is how hard it is to deal with your own bullshit [KL laughs] even when you see other people’s.
SWB So, it was such a fun conversation, why don’t we get into it?
[short transition music plays]
Interview: Heather Havrilesky
SWB Heather, welcome to Strong Feelings.
Heather Havrilesky Hi, thank you for having me on your show. I’m very excited to be here.
SWB I’m so excited to have you here. So, first up, let’s talk about What If This Were Enough? It’s a book of essays and I really loved it. Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about what that means? Why is that the question you want people to be asking themselves right now?
HH Well, because we live in a world that tells us that we don’t have enough, that we need more, and that our feelings of longing for more either can be answered with some product or something to buy, or some way of improving ourselves and becoming better, or they’re a reflection—these feelings of longing—are a reflection of our personal failings as human beings. In other words, the feeling of longing, the feeling of wanting more is somehow a moral failure on a personal level. And so my book sort of is this somewhat ambitious attempt to build out a lot of these essays and go somewhere with some of these ideas and really kind of investigate and think about how we can fix this bad place we’re in.
SWB Why did it feel like something that really needed to happen right now? I think you’ve talked a little bit about this in the introduction to the book about sort of the particular cultural moment we’re at and the particular set of garbage that we’ve gotten ourselves into.
HH Well, we’ve kind of evolved into this strange state. Part of the problem is obviously social media. Everything that existed before in our culture is sort of sped up by social media and thrown in our faces repeatedly by social media, so that we sort of navigate this hyperaware state of the kind of texture and feeling and the messages of our culture, but we’re also alienated from those messages because they’re fed to us through the tiny screens we carry around in our pockets and they’re fed to us through our computers. And we also process all of this information in a really personal, uhh [laughs] isolated way because it lives in our, you know, [laughing] in our pants! Or it lives in our purses! It’s hard to find at this moment some kind of documentation of where we are or a snapshot of where we are that isn’t all an extreme closeup on one thing or another. And I really with this book was trying to sort of piece together a lot of extreme closeups and a lot of experiences into a more sort of sweeping and yet relatable understanding of where we are in our culture at this moment and how it hurts us, essentially. And in my book it’ll be something like “The Fifty Shades of Grey Series” or “Foodie Culture” and, you know, Yelp reviews of restaurants as like an artifact of foodie culture. Or the sort of comments by Susan Sarandon after the election of November 2016. And so you zoom in on these small things just to bring it back to that lived experience of navigating within a culture that doesn’t necessarily do a good job of connecting with us or connecting us with our own humanity.
SWB Yeah. So I think one of the essays that I read that I really love that I think, like you said, was very relatable to me was that essay “Stuffed” where you talk about Marie Kondo and the decluttering movement and sort of how attractive and popular minimalism has become. And in that essay what I really loved was the way that you were connecting that also to the kinds of constant distraction of alerts and texts and the digital landscape that you were talking about a minute ago, too. And how attractive minimalism looks in that context, in that particular moment. But there’s kind of this false sense of satisfaction with that because you’re very quickly pushed into replacing that minimalism with buying the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. It’s like a constant cycle. And so, I’m curious after doing all of this thinking, how do you see us trying to work ourselves free of that constant cycle of ridding ourselves of our stuff and then replacing it with more stuff?
HH I honestly feel like every day presents a new kind of challenge as far as keeping the clutter of novelty out of your life, keeping the clutter of too much information, too much news, too many texts, too much stuff in your house. The way that the world works now, there are so many levels of invasive clutter in our lives that it’s incredibly hard to just live a very kind of considered, thoughtful existence. It’s hard to do the things you love because you’re constantly being interrupted. And so I actually think that my new path is extremely regimented, which sounds kind of anti-joy, but that’s sort of where I’m pointed at the moment. I know how much joy is sparked by going on Twitter and I have to close it down to 15 minutes a day. And I know how much I love reading and I have to expand that part of my life to an hour a day no matter what. I think I’m kind of standing at the edge of really just allowing myself to be extremely structured in a way that I have always resisted.
SWB To me, it sounds like sort of a sense of vigilance. Like you have to vigilantly protect the stuff that’s going to allow you to have the joy?
HH I think that the confusion that a lot of us have is if you’re vigilant in shutting things out, or if you’re vigilant about getting rid of clutter, is that just a form of sort of punitive, self destructive, self monitoring? Or are you trying to get to some kind of best life by making everything clean and immaculate? But the path doesn’t lead to excellence and bestness, it just leads to enjoying the moment and enjoying your day, which is kind of what my whole book is about. I feel like you can fight these fights for good in the world and you can be productive, but ultimately you have to remember and understand what feeds you and what makes you happy and what you truly enjoy. It’s amazing, some days I just feel like I go online and all I see are people talking about things that they’re buying or consuming. And the culture itself protects us from reckoning with ourselves in that—in a serious way. Does that make sense? I think that one thing that I’ve always wanted to just say over and over again was that this is not the realm of idealistic hippies anymore. We all actually have to really clean up our acts at this moment because we’re seeing the results of our high capitalist ways in very kind of concrete and terrifying ways.
SWB Yeah. That actually brings me to something else I want to talk about. I want to ask a little bit about your work writing advice because when you mentioned a moment ago reckoning with yourself—I think that that is actually a pretty useful frame for a lot of how I read the advice that you give. Really asking people to reckon with themselves, which is fucking hard, but that is often the biggest work to be done. So, I know that what you do in Ask Polly and the advice that you’ve written, you don’t really do the kind of practical tips like, “my aunt wants me to come to Thanksgiving, but I hate her” kind of questions. You do this thing that you’ve called existential advice, which is more of the “how do I get my mind right,” or “how do I come to terms with things?” And I’m really curious with that—how did you find that particular voice or that particular angle on advice?
HH I knew that I was never going to be interested in just giving concrete advice. I don’t actually have a lot of good, concrete advice to give people about difficult social dilemmas in their lives. But I do think there are noises in your head and bad voices in your head as an intelligent, complicated woman that become amplified and grow and multiply as you get older. And you can kind of see it once you hit your forties. You can see the people who have effectively shut down all reckoning and are just like, “nope, I don’t think about that.” And you will ask them questions and they will say to you flat out—it’s almost like Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation—“that is not my thing. I would rather fish. You are making it too complicated. Why don’t you just be more quiet so I don’t have to hear you?” There was no way I wasn’t going to write about just long winded, complicated, messed-up advice that led to “why are we here anyway? What is the meaning of this?” It’s really strange as a writer to find the thing that you’re sort of born to do, writing wise. Ask Polly really felt like that for me and I’m just very lucky that the thing that I was born to do is entertaining and useful to other people because it could just as easily be the opposite scenario.
SWB Well, so you say you feel like you were born to do it, but was it ever weird to be the one giving advice or to feel like you had insight for others?
HH I still wonder if I have anything to offer advice wise. I didn’t really think that I was some kind of a wise human being when I started down this path at all. I just thought I could write in a free-form way about human problems in ways that would be entertaining and funny mostly. And now, I’ve done it for I guess six years and part of the strange thing about giving advice for a living is you kind of have to take your own advice [laughs] and you have to—to do it well, right? And you also have to ask yourself why you’re not happy a lot, which is its own kind of corrosive thing to do. But I think that I’ve kind of had to clean up my act and reckon with myself a ton because this is my job and I’ve learned a lot from doing that. I hit kind of a crisis point about three years ago where I just had a lot of problems in a lot of my friendship relationships. I have a really solid marriage and that had been worked out and my kids are great, a lot of things in my life—my career is great—a lot of things in my life have kind of gone smoothly for the past decade actually. I mean, really smoothly. But friendship was like my last frontier; I hadn’t figured it out. And instead of just saying, “whatever, these people are bullshit, I can’t handle them, I should just cut them out of my life,” I had to really interrogate what was going on with some of my friendships—new friendships and old friendships. It was like everything started to implode and I had to look at my attitudes about people and about how I look for rejection in minor interactions with people. I mean, I had to look at my shame, which I didn’t even really use that word until this process started. And this wasn’t with a therapist, I was just sort of doing this freelance on my own in order to keep doing my job because I kept trying to write my column and thinking, “well, you’re a mess. Look at the way you’re living. Look at how bad you are at maintaining friendships. What’s wrong with you?” And actually, it’s been great. I came out of the other side of that so much happier. And now I’m just, I mean I think processes are just one where I become more and more of an evangelist for doing this kind of reckoning. I mean, I see the people who do that kind of reckoning and it helps them so much. I mean, my husband’s in therapy because I pushed him into therapy because I was like, “it’s so good!” and he was like, “I don’t want to walk into the darkness. I don’t want to know how much darkness is there.” And I’ve just been saying to him, “go! Go straight to the center of everything bad and live there for a while, it’s so good!” Because you come out of it—you carry these things around and they’re controlling your behavior and you don’t even know it. It’s such a great process. You feel like a different person if you do this kind of work a lot on yourself and if you get to the state where you are unafraid, you know? You’re not afraid of what is real and not afraid of reality. Which I think is just a central problem that Americans and that all of us in our culture have. It’s this feeling that we have to keep reality out of our view or we won’t be able to function anymore. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all just saying that casually, it sounds kind of abstract. But we have this sort of idea that we have to live in fantasy and escape. We have have to be focused on the future at all times, we have to be focused on a better self that’s waiting for us in the distance, far away. And that we can’t just live in this imperfect moment and soak in everything about it that is good and bad and not okay and okay and wonderful and divine and also just inadequate. That once we lean into the moment, and once we lean into how broken and screwy and habitually foolish we are, the more we can actually enjoy and savor what we have and really connect with other human beings. Every time I sit down to write my column, I find myself walking toward that message. I mean, it’s obvious that going to therapy is like the short way of saying it, but a lot depends on the therapist you have and your relationship to what you’re doing in therapy. Even if you find a great therapist, your story around seeing a therapist can be “I’m kind of sick, so I have to see this person to help me get less sick.” In contrast to the idea that “I am discovering what I carry around with me and it’s making me understand how to just accept and be in my life without judgment.”
SWB Yes! And not put that shit onto other people.
HH Oh my god! [SWB laughs] I mean, the thing is—yeah! And also, I was always afraid if I’d lost my edge, if I lost my rage at myself that I projected onto other people, then I’d just turn into this saintly, healthy, guru type of lady and I’d just be boring as shit to everybody around me. [SWB laughs] That doesn’t really happen actually! [laughs] That would be great actually! The happier you get, the more you’re like, “hey, that would not be all bad if I were just a bland angel made of light.” Like okay, bring it, that’s fine. But that’s not how it goes, right? You’re still carrying around so much; you’re never going to get rid of all of it. That’s part of the message of my book. What if this were enough? The thing is, the whole picture has an inherent contradiction, right? I’m talking about excavating all these things and looking at your darkness, but I’m also talking about dragging that darkness around [laughs] until you’re dead too! [SWB laughs] Because you can’t get rid of it, you know? You don’t have a choice. It’s wired into your synapses. I mean, I have a nine-year-old and a twelve-year-old. And my nine-year-old said to me the other day, “I feel guilty because I didn’t do anything today. I did nothing productive.” And it was like a Saturday, right? And meanwhile, my husband and I say to the kids all the time, “enjoy yourselves, relax.” We are the least overachievement-focused parents. And it’s so strange because the more you say to kids, “whatever, maybe you should just skip school today” or “who cares what your teacher thinks? Let’s just have—read a few books today and blow off your homework.” The more you say things like that, the more kids who are just wired like crazy, neurotic beasts, like you are, say things like, “no, that’s not even an option!” Like they just come back at you with their nature. And it’s funny, but it’s also hard to get—it’s actually really hard to coax a human animal into a state of like, “just enjoy yourself. Just tell me what would make you happy.” I think that that’s something that—it’s kind of a rare message to give anyone. To remind them that simply, should you succeed, should you be more successful? I don’t know. Would that make you happier? Are you sure? These are questions that we don’t ask. We just assume that everyone should be more and more and more successful. Achieve as much as you can! And do, do, do!
KL It’s so true. I mean, I find it resonating with me a lot. You’re touching on a lot of stuff I wanted to ask about because in an interview in The Atlantic you talk about how you tend to stay away from advice like “you’ve got to love yourself” because that doesn’t really fix anything if you’re feeling self hatred or if you’re in that low spot. And I feel like part of this is that we get all these messages that we’re supposed to be happy, look on the bright side, do a bath bomb and love yourself, and not really talk about our negative emotions or give them a lot of time. So, what’s an example of what you tell people when it comes to actually dealing with those negative feelings like pain and sadness and unease?
HH Well, what’s funny about the “do a bath bomb and love yourself advice”—I understand that advice a little bit now that I’m happy, but back in the old days, I just encountered that kind of noise as like “who can do this?” What do you mean love yourself? I actually struggle now when I write my column not to skip over the middle part and just go straight to the “celebrate yourself,” you know? Because I’m a happy person, so it seems obvious that that’s where you should land. But the middle ground, the middle state is a state of—and also, by the way, it’s a recurring state. I define myself as happy now. I call myself happy and I own my happiness out loud, which is very grating I’m sure to many people. But I also return to a mood of despair regularly. I’m an extremely moody person. And, you know, whatever. Your emotions don’t just change entirely and now you’re clean and pure and made of light and you’re happy all the time. So, the middle state for me in welcoming sadness and longing and mourning and loss into your life is sort of a combination of allowing it to be and allowing those emotions to sort of have a little time instead of pushing them away. And then also refusing to treat your sadness as a moral failure I think is a big, big part of understanding and allowing room for sadness. And so I can’t say enough about how important that piece of experiencing sadness is. It was such a dimension of my sadness or anger in the past. My sadness or anger were always accompanied by this voice that said “why are you sad? You are so broken. Why are you angry? You are just an angry person. You are just pathetic to feel anger.” Which I mean maybe that’s only a way of processing emotions that’s common to someone who was raised by people who often said “I cannot handle your emotional self, please hide it from me.” But I do think, you know, 50-60% of parents—just my loose statistic—[all laugh] treat things that way. I think it’s very common. Bill and I—my husband and I—found ourselves doing the same exact thing to our kids that was done to us even after having a million conversations about how we would welcome our kids’ emotions into the picture. A really common thing with people who grew up in really disordered families is to either overcorrect and say, “all of your emotions”—I mean, you see this among progressive parents often—“every emotion you feel, I want to hear all about it. I have endless time for all your emotions. And wait! Your teacher isn’t stopping class to hear all of your emotions, what is wrong? Let’s go talk to her!” Or to say, essentially “stop, don’t do that! Emotions are—you should be ashamed of them. Go to your room and feel that, don’t feel it around us, you’re bringing everyone down!” And we found ourselves saying that to our kids. It’s really hard not to do. The irony is when you grow up in a family where that’s how you’re treated, you actually associate other people’s emotions with a really dark, heavy feeling of your life being out of your own control, the same feeling you had when you grew up in a house that was chaotic and pretty negative and out of your control. So, there’s a lot of calibrating that needs to be done, right? You have to find some way to get the voices around emotion out of your head and just experience the emotion for what it is. Sadness is a beautiful thing if you welcome it in and treat it the way an artist treats it, which is to kind of examine it and sit with it and create from it and use it. When you see the world through a sad lens, it’s a really beautiful thing. You see new colors and new angles of light and you experience people in a different way. And you connect to people in a different way. And it’s an opportunity. But it’s really, really hard to get there until you can say to yourself, “I am going to feel sad again. I am someone who feels very sad when I feel sad. I’m going to get mad again and I’m going to feel out of control again and that’s a very predictable thing in my life. It’s the way that I am. And it’s not my personal failure that these are things that I experience.”
SWB Gosh, I just think that’s so important. And so hard for people to do when they’ve built up so many habits around constantly berating themselves for having all of those quote-unquote “failures.”
HH Yeah, I mean just keeping the voice from informing everything you do—the negative voice—is the first layer. And then excavating it from emotional experiences I think is deeper down. Just keeping yourself from waking up in the morning and saying, “ugh, I haven’t even unloaded the dishwasher yet. Goddamnit, I’m a failure.” [laughs] You know? That’s stage one. And then stage two is “why am I to blame for being a human animal?” [laughs] “Why do I turn on myself the second I’m not wooo winning?” But once you kick those noises out around your so-called negative emotions and start treating all of your emotions as these interesting discoveries that have answers within them and that allow you to feel and to see in a more vivid way and to experience the world in a more delightful way, then you are suddenly on this new plane where you’re not constantly fighting things off. You’re not constantly like, “I don’t want to have a bad experience, you better stay away from me.” You actually have experiences and sometimes they’re a little negative and you just look at it and observe it and you enjoy the negative aspects of experience sometimes. I mean, if you’re really doing well with it. It’s not like you just forever and ever become this amazing spiritual being that can do these things, it takes constant reminding just to do the basics, right? But also the more you do it, the more it happens without a lot of thought. It becomes your new habit. But I can’t think of anything in my life that has changed my life more than just the feeling of “I am not going to make a moral judgment of myself based on [laughs] what I experience emotionally. And I’m not going to do that to other people. And I’m going to live in the open and I’m going to cry openly and people are going to see me do that and I am not going to be embarrassed by it even if they’re embarrassed by it. And I’m going to be compassionate towards them when they are embarrassed by my emotion.”
SWB Gosh, yes. I mean, I personally will cry pretty much anywhere, and don’t care where and I’m not ashamed of it. [KL & HH laugh]
SWB I didn’t always feel that way. I definitely cried in some work bathrooms. [KL & SWB laugh]
HH Well, I don’t work in an office.
SWB Yeah, neither do I, [laughing] so it’s not a problem anymore!
HH Yeah, it’s easy to brag when you don’t have to go into an office.
KL Yeah, or sometimes I just have to turn the camera off on my conference call and I’ll just be like, “it’s fine!” [all laugh]
KL [laughing] Yeah, exactly.
SWB But I do, I really love this push to be able to say, look, you can feel negative feelings, you can have challenges, you can cry your heart out and that doesn’t necessarily mean anything about you except that you have a negative emotion and you’re crying. I love that and I’m curious if—we’re just about out of time here—and I wanted to ask, our listeners are going to be hearing this just about at the beginning of 2019, so a fresh new year. And there’s always a lot of pressure at the beginning of the year about, what are you going to change this year, and sort of like making resolutions, and a lot of stuff that I think fundamentally people mean well—obviously they want to have good changes in their life—but can end up feeling like even more ways to feel bad about themselves when they don’t live up to it. And so at this moment, I’m curious if you have any thoughts about how can people start their year with that kind of intention in mind, an intention of not beating themselves up so much?
HH I think a very common trap that a lot of us fall into these days is we really stick with this notion of ourselves as little machines that need to be productive all the time and the more productive we are, the better we are. And there are just a lot of different aspects in our culture that feed into that message. But that’s not how it feels to be happy. Being maximally productive is not going to make me happy at all. Also, the thing about to-do lists is where is it all leading? It’s just leading to enjoyment theoretically, right? Are you going to be happier once you’re 15 times more successful than you are right now? You might be a lot less happy if you never learn to enjoy your day along the way. The point of success is supposed to be to enjoy your life. So, are you going to then land at some successful point and start enjoying your life then? And when is that going to happen? Are you going to be 50, 55 and nearing retirement? Are you going to work like crazy in your twenties and then in your thirties you will for sure slow down and enjoy everything? So yeah. Look, if you string together 365 days in this year where you are sure that at least you are going to enjoy your day every day, I guarantee you you are probably going to exercise more, you’re probably going to cross more things off your list, you’re probably going to have better relationships with everyone in your life. And you’re going to be happier overall, simply because you did that one thing. And I guess it’s probably important to say if you’re sad all day, does that mean you didn’t enjoy your day and you’re a failure? I think enjoying your sadness is a worthwhile goal too. Savoring your sadness or leaning into your sadness—that’s another way of enjoying your day is taking what is and savoring it, even if it feels a little bit bad.
KL I love that and I have loved listening to you this whole time. Heather, thank you so much for being here. Your voice is exactly what our listeners need heading into 2019. So, one last question. Where can folks get a little bit more of you in their life?
HH Well, my book What If This Were Enough? is essays—I talked about it earlier—you can pick that up at your local library, you can buy it from your local indie bookstore. I am writing a weekly column called Ask Polly that is on The Cut—that’s New York Magazine. And I’m on Twitter, it’s @hhavrilesky. Try to spell that and it should pop up.
SWB [laughs] Well, thank you so much for being here. And everyone, pick up What If This Were Enough?
HH Thank you so much for having me; I really really enjoyed our conversation!
[music plays for ten seconds before Alysa’s voice comes in over the top]
Alysa Lucas I’m Alysa Lucas from Best Forevers, a podcast for kindred spirits. I’d like to start a movement where we spend more time loving on our friends. Because although our friends are important to us, they’re often in the shadow of other relationships. So, if you want to love on your friendships a little bit more, embrace friendship a little bit more, or just appreciate your friendships a little bit more, then this podcast is for you. We’ll explore all the different ways friendships take place, share the amazing stories of friendship and discuss best practices for the difficulties that friends may experience. It’s time to embrace friendships because without our friends, who would we be? So, check out Best Forevers on iTunes, Stitcher and all the other podcasting listening venues. And be sure to follow bestforeverspod on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. [music continues for another five seconds and ends]
Fuck Yeah of the Week
SWB Okay, it is time for a segment I always look forward to—the fuck yeah of the week! I am so excited because I feel like I could use a boost. So, Katel, what is making you say fuck yeah this week?
KL I am saying fuck yeah to my gratitude journal!
SWB Wait, I didn’t know you had a gratitude journal?
KL Yeah! So, I started it this fall when I was starting to feel really burned out. And I’ve done it nearly every single night since I started it before bed.
KL Yeah. Sometimes I will fill a page of stuff, sometimes I will only write a sentence or two. And I don’t know, something about just thinking back on my day, no matter how uneventful or even bad it may have been or felt, there’s always something I find that I’m grateful for. And having this practice, this sort of habit has really been keeping me grounded.
SWB Okay, so when you say gratitude journal, [KL laughs] I have to admit, the first thing I imagine is like a very Pinterest-y post of like a curated desktop with a really cutesy coffee mug on it and then this millennial pink journal that says gratitude on the front in that gold script [KL laughs], like that Live, Laugh, Love font?
KL [laughing] Yes.
SWB And I do a little eye roll, which I’m going to admit is totally unfair! First off, if you like the gold script and the millennial pink journal, that’s fine. In fact, I do like the color millennial pink, it’s fine.
KL Yeah, of course.
SWB I am a millennial. But I do want you to tell me more about this. What do you do with your gratitude journal and how do you use it?
KL So, I know. I honestly had the same reaction when I first sort of started looking into what they actually were and I absolutely almost bought one of those millennial pink versions. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I actually kind of just rolled my own, if you will. I do it with two prompts. I basically just use a plain journal that I have. One prompt is “what was good today” and then the other one is “what are you excited about tomorrow?” And it’s just kind of shifted the way I close out a day and it does something to my brain to kind of reset it. It’s also right by my bedside, so when I wake up in the morning, it reminds me and I’m like, “okay, there are these things that I said I was going to look forward to.” So, that’s awesome.
SWB What’s something you wrote in it recently?
KL [laughs. Okay, listeners, this is a little embarrassing, but it’s okay, I’m owning it. All right, so this is from early on. “What was good today? Went to therapy, ran five miles and walked the dog. It was sunny and hot. I made delicious coffee and a light breakfast. I wrote a little bit and got some work done. Folded all the laundry!” [laughs] And then what I was excited for the next day was I had no meetings!
SWB Okay, that’s like a big excitement. [laughs]
KL Big excitement, yes. But I was going to try to stretch, maybe do a little yoga and that I was going to try and drink more water and go to bed early. And also I was really excited because Sara was coming home from a trip soon. [laughs]
SWB Aww! [both laugh] I like that I made it into your gratitude journal.
KL Absolutely. You make a lot of appearances, I will say. So yeah, so sometimes it’s literally just one or two things that I’m just kind of like, “oh great, I actually went out and had really nice coffee today” or “I made it out for a run.”
SWB Yeah, just celebrating the little things.
SWB Okay, so once I get over kind of my initial snooty reaction to this idea, i love this because it actually reminds me of Heather’s advice where she talks about making sure that you enjoy your day. And so I am thinking more about well, why is it that when Heather says make sure you enjoy your day, I’m like “yeah!” and then when I hear about a gratitude journal, I’m just like “eww, that’s stupid.” What is it that makes me bristle? And I think there are actually two things. Okay, so one, I think sometimes when people start talking a lot about positivity, what ends up happening isn’t just they want to celebrate some good stuff, it’s that it’s a way to distance themselves from having to deal with negative things. And sometimes those negative things are like systemic injustices or avoiding their own anxieties or fears. And I really don’t want to fall into that trap because I think it’s so important to have uncomfortable conversations with yourself and with your friends and family about the state of the world. And I think it’s important to call yourself on your own bullshit, right? Reckoning like Heather talked about.
SWB So, being grateful doesn’t mean not talking about the stuff that’s fucked up. And sometimes I feel like that’s what sort of happens. People will start to be like “no, keep it posi!” And I’m like “Mmm… can’t we talk about posi stuff, while also acknowledging reality?”
KL Right. Yeah, I totally agree with that and I very much get that. And I think because—and this isn’t supposed to cancel each other out—but I think that there are a lot of places in my life where I’m trying to do that so much more and in a much more present way that I was like “okay, this is a really little thing that I’m just going to be like this gives me this little touch point of some gratitude and some hopefulness and that’s okay too.”
SWB Yeah! Well, it’s essential, right? You have to be able to celebrate some of that stuff. And while you need to have hard conversations like we all need to be having hard conversations, you can’t deny yourself feeling any good feelings ever.
SWB That’s not going to solve any problems.
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB Okay, so the other thing that I think often has made me bristle about this stuff is that it often gets tied into some really consumerist messages.
SWB There’s a very large market of what I would call like gratitude merch—
KL [laughing] Yes.
SWB —and I think that’s frustrating then because I think what ends up happening is a practice starts getting reduced into just a product. And you can not buy your way into mindfulness or whatever. So, I’m always really hesitant to buy into this stuff because those are the places that my mind immediately goes. So, I want to say “fuck yeah” to your gratitude journal and “fuck yeah” to both you and Heather for helping me reframe this stuff and think it through a little bit more carefully and not just throw the whole idea away.
KL Yeah, fuck yeah!
SWB Fuck yeah to that!
KL Well, that’s it for us this week. Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph at Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer, which is an awesome Philly-based band. You should check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Heather Havrilesky for being our guest today, and thank you for listening! If you liked our show today, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And hey—get some strong feelings delivered to your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you again next week!
KL & SWB Bye! [music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]