I’m 22 and stuck! How do I break out?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, NOV 22, 2009

I think I’m a writer, but fear paralyzes me


Dear Cary,

I feel paralyzed and stuck in a rut. I recently graduated from college without a clear path and a hazy focus at best; I am lost and confused and can recognize that I self-sabotage any efforts to find my path and start my journey. I truly seem to be my own worst enemy yet I am clueless how to escape this vicious cycle.

Since a young age I have deeply desired to be an “artist”; though my true passion is music, it seems my natural ability lies in storytelling. Despite my limited attempts at creative writing, I have received quite a bit of praise and encouragement from my teachers and peers. Yet I feel guilty for wanting to pursue such, what I believe to be, a narcissistic path — that of the artist. I also have an interest in pursuing psychology, which is clearly the more acceptable path according to society and my parents, but only as a fallback. I think I would be selling myself short by not giving writing a try, yet I feel ashamed wanting to apply to an MFA program.

My immense fear of failure affects me in many aspects of my life. I rarely, if ever, take chances. If I do not feel I am in a safe and welcoming environment or if I am not positive I can succeed, I simply do not try. In regards to romantic relationships, I push people away and often am too afraid of rejection to go on a second date. I long for love, but I do not allow myself the chance to experience it. Similarly with my writing, every now and then I can get a few hours of productive work in, in which I feel open and excited, yet afterward I am consumed with self-condemnation.

I seem unable to make a decision by myself. I am always asking permission, whether it is from my parents or my friends. I rarely do what I want, so often preoccupied by what others will think, expect and want from me.

Whenever I appear to be on a streak of positive thinking and proactive habits, I find myself struck down by my own head. I am terrorized by an endless loop of destructive thoughts in which I tell myself I’m a fool to think I could ever be a successful writer, that I’m a spoiled brat for wanting to do so, that no one could ever love me.

When I am not working at my soulless and demeaning job as a waitress, I busy myself with television and the Internet. When I run out of shows to watch and blogs to read, I am filled with a sense of terminal dread and panic, a gnawing sense of avoiding something, but I can’t seem to face it. I feel the clock ticking, ticking, yet I lay frozen in my bed, staring at the ceiling.

Only alcohol seems to free me of my inhibitions. I drink pretty regularly to open myself, to afford a few hours of simple pleasure, yet the alcohol just as often turns on me, resulting in weepy self-pity or a nostalgic, heady swoon for the recent past if not for memories that never existed except in my imagination.

I so desperately want to upstart my life. I want to experience this world as much as I can — love deeply and fully, express myself, live without wondering “what if?” But something inside me is preventing me from change and so clearly doesn’t want me to find inner peace, yet I don’t know what it is. How do I move from here?

Dazed and Confused

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Dear Dazed,

I sense that you are on the cusp of letting go of your adolescent dependence on fitting in and belonging, and you need a great challenge that will propel you over the canyon. Its depth terrifies you as you peek into it and see how high you are. You think of how groundless you will be when you step off the cliff. But you need to step off the cliff. Your soul cries out for the unknown. You need nature and danger. You need something outside yourself that is not ego-related, that is not your guilt-ridden ego trying to perfect a beautiful image to be admired by others; you need the wild self not ruled by need for approval; you need a skin that is unknown; you need the growling bear of your inner truth, your soul erupting, trying to be born. What dread beast is this?

You must find out.

You must take the journey to the underworld. It is not a metaphor. You must get outside yourself and encounter some dangers and some strangeness. (Isn’t it sad that adults today, trying to protect their children from anything alien, have them chant “Stranger Danger”? Isn’t that emblematic of our sickening obsession with the pristine and antiseptic?)

This is what I understand today about our necessary progress out of adolescence into adulthood: We must face confusion and surrender to it. We must face the unknown and grapple with it. We must go into nature and experience its alien embrace. We must lie down on the earth and allow our cruder nature to be held.

So go somewhere. Maybe you need to sit in a bus station in a quiet dusty town where no one knows you and wait for the bus to take you farther away from everything you know. Maybe you need to sit under the stars in the middle of the night, or sit in your room in the middle of the night, empty your mind of ego and allow the voices of the world to speak to you. If you sit quietly and listen, if you allow yourself simply to see what appears before you, then you will begin to find your way. The night may tell you strange, unbelievable things. It may tell you things that don’t seem suitable to you. That’s exactly the point. You need the strange and alien voice of nature and the world to leaven your stagnating and suffocating soul.

At the same time that I speak in these poetic terms, know that this action is empirically necessary; it is not hocus-pocus. It is emotionally and spiritually necessary. Our culture’s language for such things is depleted, so it is no surprise that we laugh at the idea. Our cultural forms of adulthood are corrupted and geared to the continuation of military and industrial power. So it is hard to find the confidence and support you need for this time-tested journey out of adolescence.

Yet you must go into mystery and struggle. It is right there in front of you. You are right on the cusp of it. Your agonies are proof of this. Your agonies arise because you are fighting your own growth. The world is calling you. The world is telling you to grow.

The world is alive and wise and full of grace and power and savage beauty. Open yourself to it. Lie on the ground and open your legs to the sky. Lie in the sand on the ocean and let the waves cover you. Stare deep into the immensity of lost time and slow light traveling on a slow train across the cosmos. See the bigness of it. Find a tree and sit before it and ask it where to go. Do these things. Put yourself in the world. The world will answer you.

If you are to be an artist, what you learn and gain through this will be what you offer, what you craft. What you take from this will be your gift to the world.

There is no need to be cynical. Nor is there time to be cynical. You and I both know how much stupid crap there is in the world. Do not allow it to make you cynical about your own miraculous being. The crap in the world is about power and control and wealth and status; as such, it is an outgrowth of fear, the ego’s silly fear of dissolution and nonexistence; the crap in the world is not the world’s essence; it is our fear-filled distortion. Surely moguls and hustlers fill the streets and boardrooms; surely the bullshit machine of need hammers at us day and night to buy more, to keep these fearful moguls in trade; surely there is plenty of crap in the world. But the world is not crap. The world is glorious. The world is an out-and-out miracle. The world is yours. The world is calling to you.

Creep out into the night on your hands and knees and look around. Listen to the leaves snoring away their chlorophyl dreams in the night, waiting for the recharging dawn. Listen to the congregation of dew collecting in its pews. Listen to the whispering stars. This is your world. Let it strike you dumb with awe. Let it speak to you. Let it guide you. Do what it says. It will take you where you need to go.

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