Pauline Nguyen



My most recurring dream is me being chased through my childhood neighborhood, running through my home, and leaping over fences. It is not a playful scene; it feels like I’m being hunted and I don’t know why.


I’ve been seeing a therapist regularly for the past year. My visits started because I constantly felt anxious and defensive in my work environment. Over time, we shifted from coping with my work anxiety to my personal anxieties. I’ve made some great progress and in particular, I realized that the root of my anxiety is connected to my apologies. I apologize for what I do and do not do. I apologize for being too quiet or too talkative. I apologize in personal and professional relationships. I was apologizing to others that I wasn’t the person I wanted myself to be. Last year, I was unemployed, single, and overweight; 3 statuses that have defined my self worth.


It started as a joke to my cousin. In a phone call describing how I can never be a good enough Asian daughter, I said I felt like I was chasing a mythical version of me. And I just want to fucking kill her. I felt I was always chasing her, just always behind her. This “Perfect Pauline” who embodies my dreams of being the amazing daughter, sister, friend, lover, leader, employee, etc. I started thinking and wondering if there was a correlation between my recurring dreams and my real life patterns of behavior.


I started questioning how I valued my self-worth at this moment. I knew those answers right away. There is a direct correlation between my employment, financial stability, relationship, and weight statuses to my self worth. And because I am not at my ideal state I start apologizing to myself and others for not being there. I apologize to my father for not having enough money to support him more financially. I almost wrote an apology to a contact after a meeting because I felt I was too chatty. I apologize to my reflection in the mirror for not fitting into my clothes or having them look the way I envisioned on my body.


I apologize to the cold pillows on my bed for not having anybody warm them up, for being single. I apologize for not being able to “keep” a relationship, letting FOMO keep me in relationships longer than I should, and making decisions because I’m scared to be alone. It’s compounded by the fact that I am 34, a few months away from the dreaded 35. It’s less about the number, but “Pe rfect Pauline ” was supposed to be X at 33, Y at 34, and Z at 35. It’s the curse of a goal or a metric driven person. I set these metrics and when I don’t achieve them, I feel failure and shame. And then I make apologies and excuses. It’s tiring and it undermines what truly has been a fantastic life I have lived.


I have traveled to over 30 countries. I’ve worked in male ego dominated industries like investments and real estate. I have moved to Dubai and Hong Kong without a job and made it there. I have fancy degrees from expensive schools. And yet, I’m still chasing this “Perfect Pauline”.


I am unapologizing for my 35th birthday.


About the photo:

I chose my portrait to be taken in the Harlem YMCA Weight Room. I wanted to start weight training again because it was a tangible way of seeing myself grow stronger. It thrilled me to add new 5 pounds weights to my bar and I loved the rush of victory as I raised it above my head.


When I first walked into the free weight room, I felt so intimidated by the equipment and people. I had previously lifted in CrossFit so I had an instructor and class to follow. But by myself, I felt so small, weak and unsure. So unworthy of taking time and space with the equipment that should be better utilized by the guys. I was in the middle of a mini-anxiety attack when a friendly trainer I knew started chatting to me. Like an open flood gate, I gushed about my fears and anxieties. I told him I was embarrassed about how little I was lifting and maybe I wasn’t ready to be in this room. I was embarrassed that I even confessed to him because I’m a private person. He gave me reassurance but mostly importantly, he told me nobody cared.


It’s ironic. Nobody. At the beginning, I had applied that label to myself and it make me feel unworthy of being in the weight room. But now, by applying that label to others in the gym, I felt empowered that nobody cared what I did. They weren’t judging me, I was judging myself. Like I Always Do.


Over the next month, I grew stronger both mentally and physically in that room. I ended up accomplishing my goal of back squatting over a 100 pounds, doubling my starting weight.