Books

Best tip from an edgy advice guru: Be present

“I don’t mind being the fall guy if it means helping someone else,” says Heather Havrilesky of “Ask Polly” fame.
“I don’t mind being the fall guy if it means helping someone else,” says Heather Havrilesky of “Ask Polly” fame. Doubleday

Need some relationship advice? You might consult Heather Havrilesky, who dishes it out in unorthodox style via her online column Ask Polly, a hit on New York magazine’s “fashion, beauty, politics and sex” blog The Cut (www.nymag.com/thecut). Email your relationship question to askpolly@nymag.com and it can join the 30 emails she receives from her readers each week. Though we asked for traffic figures for her site, all New York magazine would say is she’s one of “The Cut’s” star writers.

Two weeks ago, Doubleday released a collection of new and previously published “greatest hits” answers to questions from her followers, unleashing the book on an unsuspecting public. “How To Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life” is frank, empathetic and helpful for those who need a dose of tough-love direction ($25, 272 pages).

Havrilesky, 46, entered the hipster website scene in the late 1990s as a writer for Suck.com, that website that covered politics and pop-culture for a Gen X audience (still online, but with archival content only). In 2012 she debuted Ask Polly on The Awl.com, a “news and ideas” website whose motto is “Be less stupid.” The advice column moved to The Cut two years ago.

Havrilesky’s résumé is impressive: She freelances articles and book reviews to The New York Times, is a columnist for Bookforum, regularly contributes humor bits to the New Yorker magazine, and was the TV critic for Salon.com for seven years. She lives in Los Angeles, grew up in Durham, N.C., and has a psychology degree from Duke University. Her memoir, “Disaster Preparedness,” was published in 2011. She likes to talk. Follow her on Twitter: @hhavrilesky

Q: You get letters from your readers every day. Do you vet them?

A: I do not. I simply get them and (answer) them. It could be that the same individual is writing every single letter I get, in which case I should give them half my pay.

Q: You’ve called your column “existential.”

A: Because it concerns that sort of bewildered feeling of being overwhelmed by how to make meaning out of your existence. I didn’t want to write an advice column that concerned small problems or even concrete specific problems, so much as epic problems with world views.

Q: Your answers are all about tough love, humor, creative vulgarity and personal information about yourself.

A: There are times when I swerve into preaching, but I find my way to useful insights into what someone can change in their life by connecting their problem to similar kinds of stuck places I’ve been, and figure out a way for them to crawl out of that space.

(In answering questions) there’s a point where I address the problem and talk about some layer of solutions. That yields to less of a puzzle-solving situation and more of the question, “How will you proceed in your life with a new point of view?”

Q: What qualifies you to give advice?

A: I’m not qualified to give anyone advice. In fact, the people who I know well don’t take advice from me. My psychology degree certainly does not qualify me. If anything, it disqualifies me.

Q: Hmm. Please advise.

A: If you’re the kind of person who says, “It is what it is” or “It’s all good,” you probably wouldn’t love my column. My message is more, “It isn’t what it is” and “It’s not all good, sometimes it’s all bad.”

My readers tend to be neurotic and smart and the kind of people who beat themselves up a lot because their brains work overtime. So a big part of what I end up addressing is how they can stop doing that and develop empathy for themselves.

The more empathy you have for yourself, the more you’ll understand your true desires and get in touch with the things that make you happy. It makes it easier to be present in the moment and be present to others.

Q: In your answers, you expose a lot of personal vulnerability.

A: That’s a personality trait of mine. As the host of the advice column, my role is to empathize and normalize things that the letter-writer has pathologized in herself or himself.

Q: In the preface to the book, you write, “There is magic that comes from reaching out.”

A: Less of the advice in the column comes from my concrete directions and more from my language to connect with the letter-writer. At some point, I start to care a lot about how things turn out for that person. Even if the person comes at me with defensiveness and anger about their circumstances, I know a lot of that comes from a lack of compassion for themselves.

Q: What role do social media play in self-compassion and the pursuit of happiness?

A: The way we broadcast happiness to each other through social media actually erodes our happiness. A lot of the messages are corrosive to our everyday happiness. We feel we don’t have the right to be happy because we’re not attractive enough or rich enough or popular enough.

Q: Why is happiness so elusive?

A: Because many of the things we require for it aren’t around us, and because of the way we define happiness (largely through materialism). Modern life is structured in ways that work against feeling very much at all. If you have to be a robot to function successfully in the workplace, and then you display emotions there, that world is structured to kind of squash (such) connections to ourselves. So there are a lot of people walking around feeling like ghosts in the machine.

Q: What advice do you give your children, ages 7 and 9?

A: The best thing I’ve done for my kids is modeling happiness. There was a point where I thought I had everything I wanted, but I wasn’t happy. I thought, “How am I going to be a good parent if my kids are witnessing this person who is distracted and annoyed most of the time?” Now, if I can dance in the kitchen while I’m making dinner, and engage and joke with them, I feel I’m doing my job.

Q: Maybe the first thing you do each morning is look in the mirror and give yourself some advice?

A: If I were looking in the mirror, I might say, “Do something with your hair.” Sometimes I wake up and my first thought is, “There are too many things to do today, I want to stay in bed.” When I get that feeling, I tell myself to simply proceed – power down negative mental noise, show up at the appointed time, be present and see how it goes. Usually, things tend to turn out for the best.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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