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The Internet's Best Advice Columnist on How to Survive Your Teen Years

The Internet's Best Advice Columnist on How to Survive Your Teen Years

Heather Havrilesky has been making Wednesdays the best day of the week—our apologies to Friday—since 2012. That’s the year she started dispensing life-changing advice in her beloved column Ask Polly, which first appeared on The Awl until New York Magazine stole her away. (And when New York Magazine steals you away, you know you’re really on to something.)

Heather has the ability to answer wildly specific questions—“I’m a 26-year-old writer in Manhattan with too much anxiety and not enough friends!” “My boyfriend cheated on me with my best friend and then kicked me out of his apartment!”—with wisdom both universally relevant and refreshingly blunt. She's the definition of real talk. Now you can stop taking up half your hard drive to bookmark her last hundred columns, and instead pick up her shiny new hardback, How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly's Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life, that hits shelves tomorrow. We talked to Heather to find out what she was like as a teen, and how she'd do things differently if she knew then what she knows now.

I was a cheerleader. I was kind of a joiner. My family was very out of step with mainstream Southern culture, where I grew up. I’m from Durham, NC. I’m the youngest and I was determined to crack the code and figure out how to be popular and how to get boyfriends. I was totally boy crazy, a little bit insecure, and I was kind of a chameleon. I knew how to charm people into liking me. Everyone in my family was an outcast, and I was determined to be mainstream. I wanted to do all the things that the cool kids did. And I succeeded. It was pretty soul-sucking for me, and looking back I probably wouldn’t make the same choices now.

From the outside, I seemed reasonably confident. When I was in seventh and eighth grade, I was plagued by self-consciousness. I remember sitting in class and thinking about how I was sitting the entire time I was in class. I would think, “Is this the way that people sit, or is it better to sit like that?” My face broke out a lot, I had huge tinted Barbra Streisand glasses—which are actually popular now—and I had bad hair. When I became a cheerleader and started hanging out with those girls, I closely studied the things they did in order to be not so out of step with everything. I was insecure and obsessed with fixing myself.

“A winning strategy is to power down your feelings and mimic the aliens around you.”

I was incredibly emotional. Very quickly in junior high, I figured out that I needed to get on top of my emotions and understand how to control them, which I did with limited success. It was almost like I needed to learn the code because I suspected that who I was naturally wasn’t someone who people would accept and embrace. I felt like a freak who needed to mimic the enemy. That’s a common feeling for teenagers, I think. When I was successful in high school in my senior year, that came from being more confident and behaving from the heart. I gamed the system, and then learned how to be an actual person.

A winning strategy is to power down your feelings and mimic the aliens around you. I’d say 50% of the people you meet on the street have been living by that formula since they were kids. I remember when I was in my twenties, that struck me in a really violent way. There’s a time when you feel that the world is run by robots. Part of growing up is realizing that people have winning formulas, but that doesn’t mean they're soulless.

For women, a big part of the challenge of facing the world—which is hostile to women explicitly—is accepting that it’s not crazy to feel insecure and neurotic and confused by the messages you receive, or to feel unnerved by the wider world. You’d be crazy to feel not unnerved by it. If you’re not unnerved by the madness, you’re not paying attention.

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