The Very, Very Long One

Hey everyone!

Sorry I’m a day late. It’s been an exciting week—lots of social stuff. In fact, I’ve learned that there’s been too much social stuff—if I don’t have a day where I’m hanging out by myself, my internal monologue stops thinking and just loops “too much!” on repeat :P.

Heh :). This post is going to be a surprise to me, since I’ve found myself completely unable to plan it. Luckily, with so much stimuli this week, even though I haven’t had much time to process there should be plenty of content!

Here goes! Okay, first I have two moral-outrage / rant-y things, because moral outrage is always unnervingly satisfying and also I think it’s good to be aware of certain societal problems through first-hand accounts. I suspect I’m mostly sharing these for the unnervingly-satisfying value, however :P. These are just two long-term pet peeves of mine; I’m not really annoyed with the specific people implementing them, I’m just annoyed because they keep on happening.

  1. My usual “peer-pressure Monica into drinking” rant. I do not care that I “have to”, or that “I’m not being polite”. Feel free to try to convince me or debate with me if we’re having fun, but if I give you an emphatic “no”, then you should stop. If you don’t want to do the activity, don’t do the activity, don’t try to shame other people into joining you! Especially if you’re in a position of authority. …Sigh. I haven’t been pressured to drink for almost a year and a half now, and was thinking it was over, especially since I was with people I’m close to.
  1. …I continue to have trouble describing why certain ways of asking me out make me uncomfortable. It must be a combination of things, but it’s hard to describe… I haven’t yet picked out what features make a situation uncomfortable, such that all of those features are necessary to make the situation uncomfortable but a lack of any of them means the situation is fine.

Things that bothered me today: he was interrupting me when I was busy, he was approaching me in class, I never sincerely smiled at him, I answered his questions with a pedantic tone, he didn’t engage with any of my answers, I did not ask him any questions in return, and he followed me out of the building shouting my name, which he’d heard one of my friends say to me in greeting.

Fortunately, I have seen this sort of pattern before (…got stalked by a postdoc during class when I was an undergrad), and he’s younger than me, so I’m going to tell him to back off explicitly if this sort of behavior occurs again. Just… I don’t know. He started off by coming up to me and saying: “I’ve never see you here before.”

Me: *shrug* “I’ve always been in this class.”

Him: “Where do you sit?”

Me: “Various locations.”

Him: “So what do you think of this class?”

I mean, I guess kudos for him—he saw something he wanted, he went after it, he at least went for the intellectual bent as soon as he decided he liked how I looked. I guess I just don’t like when people are aggressive about it—no, that’s not the quite word. I think I’m looking for “entitled”: the idea that “I like the way you look and think, therefore we should get to know each other”, not realizing that the reverse is also necessary. I think I just want people to take how I feel into account—if not by considering that I also have opinions about them, then at least considering how I might feel as a target of this type of approach.

We had to pick partners for class projects today, and because I knew this guy was sitting next to me, I made eye contact with a friend in the class immediately and paired up before the guy could get a word in. I wouldn’t have been so aggressive about that if the guy hadn’t been talking to me before class. Then I worried about this situation for a while after, and it got me thinking about the postdoc a few years ago and how that whole situation was a total mess for months. This guy had no way of knowing about that, but I kind of just want to say (without actually engaging this guy more than absolutely necessary): no, dude, try imagining it from my perspective, just try to simulate that once, with some stranger who comes up to you and starts asking you a bunch of questions when you’re not interested, and then follows you out the door.

Hm :). My grandparents visited over the weekend, and I got to show them around Berkeley and eat food with them and tell them about my life here. It’s such a rare and wonderful experience to be with people who are sincerely happy about your happiness. I treasure that I have friends and family who feel this way about me.

I was watching a researcher give a faculty presentation today—meaning that he was applying for a faculty position at Berkeley, and so was giving a talk in front of a bunch of faculty and assembled students. His topic was the themes in all of his past research, across his five years as a PhD student and two-years as a postdoctoral researcher. As is typical for me, I was thinking about how I’m going to give a presentation like this someday, and how crazy it is that everyone who gives these presentations lays it out like they had a few big questions to answer, and then they did all of these experiments over the years that all contribute to these questions.

It’s more ad-hoc than this in practice—people make up a nice story about how all of their research ties together only after the fact. However, there legitimately are themes that people work on, throughout seven years. In presentations and in life, I tell myself stories to identify themes and where my experiences fit. Conclusions from this inform what future experiences I seek out. This sort of planning/putting things in boxes/organizing is fun for me, though I usually only do it over relatively short periods of time. I was just imagining the idea that everything I’m going to do in the next seven years has to completely align under some huge headline-y “big question”, and—not going to lie—that thought is pretty darn thrilling. Look, I have to figure out what I want to do with my life and then talk about it clearly! Everything has to relate to whatever I lay out as a thing that I care about! Look at the big challenge, look at all of the constraints, look at all of the long-term planning and meta-thinking! WHOOOOOOOOO!

(…I really do think I am far too excited about this than is merited. It just seems like a challenge that’s so much fun.)

I keep on hitting long-term, scary goals by accident. Like, last week I stood up in front of a room full of 15 men and talked about my research. What. I’m usually intimidated by bad gender ratios, but was totally not bothered by being the only woman in the room. I’m also usually intimidated in talking about research that I haven’t polished yet, and this was still in its preliminary stages. Not a problem. I was also talking about this stuff to a few people I’d never met before, including the new head of the institute. What. I mean, I was kind of busy and vaguely-worried about other things, but I didn’t even have to psych myself up to doing it, I just did it. And it went well. WHAT.

Same thing happened a few days ago. I was mentioning last week, I think, that I wanted to work with some of my crazy-awesome peers here? I just started doing it. By accident. There was absolutely no “Monica you need to do this, no really, I mean it”, which I’m really very accustomed to making myself do. It was: “oh, it’d be useful to talk to them, they’re right here, I’m going to do that now”. Is this how normal people live? Where they just do the scary things, because they’re not even scary, they’d just be useful things to do? It’s blowing my mind.

Last one: I’ve worried for a very long time that I don’t argue with people. I almost always think I’m wrong and I back down. Turns out, I have zero problem arguing if it’s something I’ve invested energy in, and I think I know more than the other person: so I both think I’m right and have something to lose (wasted time and energy) if I’m wrong. Arguing with professors apparently falls out of “Monica caring about something”. Who knew, right? There is apparently no need for me to need to learn how to argue with people; it just emerges naturally. This is eerily reminiscent of my years-long worry about “how do I ask the right questions?” and my subsequent discovery that “one asks the right questions by having done a ton of work on a similar topic and then caring deeply about some contradiction”.

I think I shot through about four of my long-term research goals in the past two weeks, with no explicit work on my behalf whatsoever. I keep on wanting to congratulate myself, but this deep sense of bemusement keeps replacing it. MAY ALL OF LIFE’S CHALLENGES NATURALLY RESOLVE THEMSELVES IN THIS WAY!

I’d just given someone a 10-minute speech about what I care about (more details on this in a second), and he came up to me after and was telling me about this low-scale EEG device that could help you meditate better. He paused, then mentioned something about how it’s not natural meditation.

“I don’t care about ‘natural’,” I announced.

He smirked. “I didn’t think so.”

(I really enjoyed how he could infer that about me, given that I’d never mentioned anything about bionics or my opinions on AI or anything explicitly in that vein. I like that he could infer my preferences within a mechanical-augmentation domain from my explicitly-stated preferences on separate topics.)

On the flip side, I just had someone perfectly infer the wrong preferences. They did absolutely everything right with regards to observing my actions and drawing conclusions, and then I just happened to have opposite hidden internal preferences ;P.

Specifically: I don’t particularly enjoy one of our culture’s parting behaviors. If someone happens to initiate that particular behavior, I’ll always return it. It’s one of those “social protocol” ideas in my head, and it’s almost habitual by this point. If no one initiates it, and the situation isn’t obviously demanding that I initiate, then I won’t do it.

Someone just recently promised me that they’ll initiate that behavior when they see me again. Which is a perfectly rational thing to do, because 1) it’s the normative behavior, so I’m likely to enjoy it, 2) I’ve never shown any indication that I don’t enjoy it, and in fact frequently partake in it, 3) I unusually enjoy when people correctly harness social protocol. And all of these things meant that this person perfectly inferred my preference and that they should be confident enough to promise to do initiate it.

… How do humans even do anything. I can see no way out of making this particular mistake except by being verbally corrected. If people are completing actions for a different reason than the typical reason, but they still take all of the actions in a way consistent with the typical reason, there’s no way out.

Ah well, that’s the fun and advantage of being able to communicate, I suppose! For this situation, it doesn’t particularly matter, because even when I tell people they usually forget (it’s much easier to reason about the average case), and like I said, it’s a pretty habitual behavior for me by this point. (Lol. Middle school. Not habitual.)

Social inference is so fun though, especially social inference through observing actions, (ooh, I’d love to study inference through observing language, but the problem gets way too complicated :(), and it’s so fun to see this sort of thing in real life all the time, when I’m working on formalizing in academic-lingo in lab :).

When I listen to people talk, I keep on getting distracted by how they’re doing it rather than what they say. It’s always fun for me when I realize I’ve been entirely focused on the content, but most of the time I feel like I’m flitting in and out. My internal monologue:

[content content Gaussian mixture models content]

ooh look how he just related that to lecture two days back and tied the structure together

[content content]

oh, he’s using the board again, interesting what he chooses to put on there versus the slide

[content math content]

math is interesting, remember what he said about math last time? And the math joke on Jaime’s shirt? How do I think about math now compared to several years ago

[math math math content joke]

oh man that was a joke, how did he make that joke, how many people laughed, why was it a funny joke, did I think it was a funny joke?, how often does he make jokes, should I make jokes during presentations, I’m too serious during presentations, I have to give a presentation

[math content content]

he’s projecting pretty well, oh there’s a question, was it a good question? How are people reacting to that question, oh he’s answering that question well, doing the thing where you actually answer a different better question, oh wait I should be listening to what the question’s answer was

[content content]

so how have I seen this presented differently, does that fit in with what I’ve seen…

…I have no idea how anyone stays focused during lectures. I don’t get too distracted by the list of other things I have to do anymore, but the amount of “evaluate effective teaching” comments that interrupt actual processing-of-information is crazy. And then there’s the difference between “fitting what you’re learning into the general structure of what you’ve heard of before” and just “understanding what is being presented in the specific context in which it’s being presented”.

I am definitely not doing the most effective learning I could be :P. I don’t how effective other people’s learning is, but I’ve just kind of accepted that this is what my looks like right now. I know I need to get around to fixing it at some point, but that’s not currently one of my goals.

Here’s one of the hard situations from this week. Last semester, there was a series of events that climaxed at some point and resulted in a complex set of emotions that I was working with for a while. Other people were involved, and everyone had made some decisions, and I was sorting out how I wanted to judge everyone’s decisions and how to interpret the situation in my mind. My goals in framing the situation was to be fair to everyone involved, and most importantly to put myself in a good, positive state to move forward.

I’d pretty much settled on my preferred interpretation, which is that everyone tried their best, and that people hadn’t made perfect decisions, but that life is complicated and we’re all trying to do our best by others while still putting ourselves first, and that overall we’d all done as well as could reasonably be expected across the sum total of our actions. (In other words, it could have been better, but I could also stop being a jerk on occasion, and I haven’t stopped doing that so I figure everyone has some right to be a jerk because otherwise I’d be being hypocritical, and I don’t want to be considered hypocritical, and this whole line of reasoning is kind of a perfect synopsis of why people aren’t perfect and we can’t expect others to be perfect because we sure as hell aren’t.)

(By the way, an example of recent Monica-being-a-jerk behavior: I’ve been subtly ostracizing some guy in my friend group solely because I’m having a knee-jerk “this is MY group” reaction, and initially I was reacting to some completely irrelevant vocal characteristics. He’s been nothing but perfectly nice to me, and I’ve not been including him, and since noticing this I’ve dialed it back a little but not all the way. Which. Is not acceptable. And I should really really fix that now and stop being like: “I have some license to be a jerk, and this is where I’m channeling it”. Okay, you know what, I need to start doing the overcompensating-for-bias thing, get it together, Monica, I’m going to do it, and if I don’t fix it then I have to write about it on the blog next week. Ug, I have no idea why this is so hard—I will report on this next week.)

Anyway… I hadn’t touched this framework for a while, because it works for me. But recently I got an email from someone close to me (though younger by a fair margin), who’d heard about the whole situation as it’d been taking place, and she issued some strongly-worded thoughts focusing on one specific aspect of the story, from which she emerged with some pretty negative judgments about the other people involved. She did it in a way that would appeal most to me—laid out arguments and evidence (thesis statement :)), well-structured, balanced throughout with hedging statements like “I don’t know the whole story”. And I replied back urging a more balanced perspective, that none of us can be perfect all the time, that everyone always puts themselves first and that any other kindness they show to others is extra and wonderful and should be appreciated, and that the story is much larger than the one specific action she was focusing on. And she complimented me for “being the bigger person”.

I don’t want to be the “bigger person”. I don’t want it to be okay to hold an opinion focusing on a very narrow subset of the story—I want everyone to try to hold the larger picture in mind. I want to be the normal person. I know that every story can be interpreted however anyone wants to interpret it, but I think that there are more and less productive ways, especially if it’s a story that you’re involved in and you move into the future with it. I’ve had people telling me that they were “on my side”—this example is an instance of that—but everyone involved here is a good person, and in that case it’s important to be on everyone’s side, and if anything negative happens then it’s important to encourage it not to happen again, but besides that it seems like we’d want everyone to be on everyone’s side, because undoubtedly we’ll be on the “wrong side” sometime in the future.

Even besides what’s philosophically fair, or what we want from a practical perspective given that we’re all going to make mistakes… is this sort of response really supporting me, the person who ostensibly is the focus? In my mind, it is not. I have my own interpretation of the story, and this is the interpretation which I spent a while on, crafted to work best for my own needs. This is the story that I tell myself so as to best progress into the future. I have the most information about this story, I know best how I want this to play out, I figured out something that works for me. Implicitly telling me that I am wrong, that the situation should be interpreted differently, opening up that situation for reanalysis, telling me I should have more negative emotions swirling around than I do—I don’t consider that especially kind. People have generally been very kind in this situation, and that kindness normally takes the form of: “it’s okay to feel whatever we’re feeling,” and when I explain how I’m thinking about it, even if they disagree, they hide that and say: “you do you, Monica.”

In fact, I know that this email wasn’t about me. I asked what prompted it, and she said that she’d been thinking it over for a while, plus one of her friends had just gone through something similar and she wanted to say something. And that she’d recently been thinking that people needed to verbalize their anger more towards “jerk” behavior.

Yes, I know. People do need to be vocal about bad behavior. They need to be very vocal about bad behavior when the other person is likely to continue that bad behavior in the future, because they aren’t aware of the bad behavior, or because they’re just going to do it anyway.

But that wasn’t what was happening in this case. Everyone was aware of what went on and what needed to be changed. And sending an email like this… you know what, it was just a mistake. And an easy mistake to make, from someone who loves me, who wanted to show support for me given the information she knew. Who acknowledged in the email, as part of her evidence, that she knows that this situation was important to me and that I spent a lot of time on it, and was showing her support in a way that is probably the most effective in the situations she’s usually facing. She was showing that she is on my side, that she cares deeply, that she’s been thinking about this for a while, that she has related it to things in my life, and she has never stopped being supportive on this front. She even wants to punish the other people involved in with passive-aggressive behavior.

You know, in a funny instance of foreshadowing, I was told that this exact behavior from this exact person would occur, very early on in this series of events. I didn’t believe it. I predicted the situation would be nuanced, and that responses would have to be nuanced, so I wasn’t expecting a one-sided reaction from myself or a one-sided reaction from anyone else. But that unequivocal support is worth something, and I think that is something to be valued. The emailer wants to go onto a job that protects vulnerable people, and she will be excellent in that position.

So I guess that this email is not what I wanted—at least, I didn’t want the particular message within, because I’m happy with how I’ve sorted the situation in my head and I’m not interested in reopening that analysis for a solution that seems subpar with respect to my values. But I can appreciate the sentiment behind it. And I can think about how other people would want to be supported, when this sort of situation crops up for others—whether they want the unequivocal support, the call to arms—or a quieter, more careful understanding.

(Note on the above: my opinions on this do not apply to the situation where bad actions are going to be repeated, in which case the preferred approach becomes much more messy. We get into the prison / rehabilitation debate, and the milder everyday versions, and that’s too much for me to try to generalize over right now.)

New story, but related to the above.

I was talking with one of the people I’m close with. Specifically, I was asking about whether they think people can control their emotions. (A running theme. I’m going to finish characterizing it, figure out how everyone else thinks about it, figure out what I think about it, and integrate it fully into my personality model at some point, but that some point is not soon.) And they said: no, without lots of training, they don’t think people can.

They then brought up “moments of weakness”. I laughed, asked “But what does that even mean?”

Silence. Then: “Exactly what it sounds like.”

“I mean, I’ve read about that in stories, but does that actually happen? Moments of weakness? Have you had a moment of weakness?”

…And lo and behold, they had.

Their partner didn’t know. It had happened once, a few years ago. Their partner had been pushing them away, and they’d been very unhappy, and it’d been a sense of freedom from the immense burden during that moment, and then they’d felt horrific afterwards. They didn’t like to think about themselves or introspect because they always felt guilty, and like a bad person. They didn’t like to judge others (which I’d noticed, they’d always been open-minded and non-judgmental, much more than I’ve observed from my people) because they could be judged.

I thought: WHAAAAAAA?

I thought: Oh, thank god I read all of those infidelity stories. They seem remarkably accurate.

I thought: This is very interesting and could explain so much about my questions about human nature.

I thought: This fact also explains specific hang-ups I know they have, and also explains why they were asking me questions about cheating, when I don’t expect that to ever be a problem in my life.

I thought: Oh holy heck, now they’re asking me to judge them. AHHHHHHHHHHH.

For those who are not aware: if you put me in a situation where I’m expected to give an on-the-spot description of someone’s essence, I am going to be very stressed. Apparently I even look very outwardly stressed in these situations. They are terrifying in all of the ways that they can go wrong. I have to say something that is true, I have to say something kind, I have to say something that they do above average, I have to say something that makes them unique, I have to say something that they will think is true, I have to say something they will like, I have to say something that is surprising to them. Very few ways to get this maximally right, and many counterfactuals to simulate. Plus, people give me a time limit! And sometimes people even care deeply about what I, personally, have to say! I’m pretty good at this if I have time to plan, and lots of space to write… but without it, this is scary stuff.

Anyhow, I got asked to describe how I viewed them now, and to list all of their positive and negative traits. I prompted internally smacked myself on the head for all of the times in the past when I’ve made other people give me on-the-spot personality analyses. Gotta stop doing that, this is a terrible problem to make people deal with.

I told him that in all of the stories I’d read, that good people tend to cheat on each other only when they’re abjectly miserable, and miserable with respect to the actions of the other person. That it wasn’t a good thing to do, but they felt sorry about it, and that the important part is that it didn’t happen again. That it didn’t change how I felt about them as a person, just that it gave me a better sense of what they were dealing with, a better sense of where some of their opinions came from. That they were still very open-minded and a good listener and worked hard and did things rather than complained, and those were all traits that I admired. And for negative traits—they just really really shouldn’t do it again. And if they couldn’t control it, if they were worried it were going to happen again, then they needed to figure out how not to be that miserable again. But if they didn’t think they could control their emotions, or change how they viewed situations, then it seemed like this was a hard problem, and that there wasn’t an easy solution. That’s why I’m being quiet, that’s why I’m thinking—look, it doesn’t seem like there’s an easy solution, it seems like it’s a very hard problem.

I can’t advise you, I said, because this is not something that I feel.

I wouldn’t cheat on someone. I would do other immoral things, but there are very, very few possible worlds where I could imagine myself cheating on someone—I have an atypically low desire for sex, I’m an atypically high future planner, I’m atypically confident in my ability to make myself feel better, and I don’t know if this is the case in all situations, but I’m atypically confident that I wouldn’t want to hurt someone in that way. Cheating is not something I think of as a possible action.

Have you heard of couples counseling? I asked. Or, maybe, talking to people who have cheated once in the past, but didn’t do it again?

They didn’t want to do couples counseling, they didn’t want to converse with others. Everyone does it for their own reasons, they told me. Just like I couldn’t advise them because I feel differently than they do, other people’s experiences would be just as foreign and not helpful. This is something everyone needed to figure out for themselves.

Well… I’d heard this before from people, in a much less charged discussion: “Why are you asking us, Monica? Isn’t this something you need to decide for yourself?” Well, yeah, everything needs to be decided by me, I have final say in how I view everything. But I outsource a lot of my questions. I use it for feedback on how I’m thinking, I use it to get new ideas, I use it to acquire normative ideas, I use it for reassurance or criticism. Even if I can’t use it for myself, I can use it to figure out how other people think. Wouldn’t it be useful to figure out how other people are dealing with this problem? Infidelity isn’t some unique problem. There are tropes. There are infidelity stories. There are common themes, there are common ways of dealing with it: this is a human problem. There may not be a good solution, but if you’re not having productive progress on your own, isn’t it best to see what everyone else has done? But I see their point. This is my perspective. This is how I approach problems. And they don’t want to approach the problem in this way.

“One of the most important phrases, I think, is that ‘I’m not teaching you to be me, I’m teaching you to you’,” they said to me.

That’s… not how I work. I want to be you if your way of doing something is much better than how I do it, given that I’m actually always me so I can’t change myself too much. But we all have our phrases that speak to us, and that one is consistent with everything that they have told me about how they see the world. So we are at our impasse. I accept that this is your problem, and that you are going to solve it, and I reassure you that I still think you are a good person and try your best and that you don’t want to make this mistake again, and are not sure how not to make it, and I empathize with the difficulty of the problem. And the most frustrating part is that I cannot offer you a solution, which I desperately want to do, because I want to help, and I want to help your partner, but even if I am able to put myself in your shoes and simulate the conditions under which you made the mistake (and I think I can to a point, drawing on various sources, and the feelings of urgency and persistence from my own bad habits) the way I think about things is so foreign to how you think about things that I’m not going to be able to simulate useful solutions, and even if I DO manage to simulate useful solutions for you, you don’t want to listen to me anyway because you believe this is your own problem to solve.


…This is one of those times where understanding the person more and empathizing with their particular point of view just makes me feel helpless. I mean, the next step in the empathy game is to be able to take that understanding and try to convince someone to do some absolute-right thing, but I am not that advanced in my working-with-people mojo nor confident enough in my simulation abilities. Then we started discussing whether to tell their partner or not, and I am of the opinion that:

  1. If you’re not going to do it again, then probably best not, except if you’re going to eventually get married, in which case maybe because I would want to know that information if I were trying to decide whether to get married to you or not.
  1. If you are possibly going to do it again… um, then I’d think it’d be good to tell your partner. Though I understand that you think you two are on the mend and you think it could blossom into something beautiful such that you are not going to do it again. In which case we’re now back at 1.

This is my guess for what to do in their case (in my case, everyone’s going to know everything, because I’d just blurt this out at some point. That might actually be part of how I keep myself in check, my knowledge that I’m crap at secrets and guilt), but I definitely don’t think there are correct answers to this one.

Re: human nature. I’ve learned that maybe one of the reasons that people are open-minded and more forgiving is that they are aware of bad behavior in themselves.

Re: introspection. I’ve learned that maybe on of the reasons that people don’t introspect is because it’s generally a painful process, and they become aware of the things they’ve done wrong.

Re: emotional regulation. I’ve learned that since maybe people don’t like introspecting, maybe this is even worse than that, and thus even more unpleasant, or they don’t think it’s possible.

Re: infidelity. I am hopelessly naïve and will likely continue to be naïve and feel like all of the opinions I’ve expressed above could be completely invalid. Also, infidelity happens, surprisingly like in the stories.

Re: human nature. People have secrets.

Re: human nature. People are very different from you. Sometimes that means you can’t offer solutions.

They said, at the end, that telling this secret makes them feel better, that it’s out in the open. Encountering empathy is important, yes. But… problem to be solved, no solution. No solution, about something that strongly affects a person they are very close to. I don’t even know what to feel. I feel like I’m seeing everything in black and white, when in its true form it is shades of grey. And I feel like I’m staring at this blank slate of grey, and trying to stare it into submission, separate it into its components, but it remains: this secret, hidden, important, powerful, unsolved complex problem.

All right, last really-big social thing of the week.

I attended a circling ring, properly :). Circling is a practice where you sit in a room with a bunch of strangers (in this case, six) and pick two people to “circle”. Each of those people has 35 minutes in which to talk about what they’re feeling, and everyone else is completely engaged with those people during that time. Everyone can bring up stories about what they’re feeling in response to the circled person’s words, and generally it’s about connecting to other people through hearing about their emotions and thought. I was obviously very into it. (Emotional reveals? Close connections? Deep conversations? I feel like I’m very predictable.)

I’m not going to talk about the other person who was circled, but I volunteered to be circled and got to collect everyone’s attention on me for a full 35 minutes plus some. It was incredible.

I sat down, made eye contact, and told a series of connected stories. I’d been thinking about emotional regulation that weekend (…if you’ll remember, that was the original conversation that started the lengthy narrative above), and how it could be connected to my life-goals. Specifically, I was questioning whether other people believed it existed, whether it actually existed, whether I actually was any good at it, whether one could get good at it, why people didn’t believe it existed, whether the general population could be convinced it existed, whether the general population could get good at it, how other people thought about the world and emotions, why “emotions make life interesting” is a good reason to try to not affect them, why feeling emotions is a life goal, why people think unconscious feelings are better than trying to justify them explicitly, why people are put off by different opinions on it… yeah, anyway, that was what I was trying to get across as my “problem”. But to set up why I cared, I wanted to motivate why I found it useful (to deal with anxiety-inducing and sad situations), when I had started thinking about it, an example of where I had used it, how I currently felt about it, and then all of my questions about it.

It turns out that sharing all of that information takes about 10 minutes if you’re talking really fast, covers several months, gives you a really good sense of who I am as a person, and is hilarious and overwhelming if you’re not already used to the way I think.

It was marvelous. People told me that I was interesting, that I was delightful, that they wanted to circle me for an hour and a half; they were really engaged, people asked all sorts of questions, people were being very careful not to be judgmental and to share their thoughts with flags like “from my own perspective”: people were just really enjoying me, and that was amazing astonishing amazing.

And because there wasn’t enough time, people couldn’t disagree with me on all of the fronts that people normally disagree with me on—I take an analytical and clinical view to a lot of aspects of life that people usually strongly disagree with, but because this was all about trying to capture who I was and connecting with me, people didn’t bring up all of the usual complaints. And they still liked me even though I knew they were disagreeing with me all over the place. I am all for overwhelmingly positive reactions even when people have different lifestyles than me.

Anyhow, it was wonderful. There were of course some interesting insights and disagreements though, which I was glad to hear. Also, there were a few pointers on how to best present to build connections.

  1. I was told afterwards that “I just have this very strong urge to tell you you’re safe.” It came out several times that I view social interaction as a performance, and that people felt like I was trying to entertain them, instead of being my true self. People said that it must be exhausting, trying to perform all the time.

My answer to that: Yep, it is tiring. Social interaction is tiring. I was hanging out with Neurofriends yesterday, and doing a bad job of social interaction because I was tired, and because I’m already on firm ground with those people: I don’t have to impress them. So I was sitting kind of hunched over and not starting conversations and not being bouncy, and that’s me. I’m also me when I’m by myself angsting about my feelings and trying to figure out how the world works. I’m also me when I’m in front of a group of strangers, miraculously pulling out stupendous eye contact and energy and hand gestures and marveling that apparently I can present now without trying. That’s all me. But I like the me that I present when I’m trying. That’s very much me as well. And I mentioned that, and the group leader echoed it back at me: “And I hear that you’re telling us that you’re you when you’re performing, and you’re you by yourself, and you’re not sure how much more you can give us.”

I also told them I’m naturally high energy. And as for safety… I mean, the whole point of doing social interaction right is so that I have this network of people who care about me. And I guess I don’t usually act like I’m “safe”, in that people have had to reassure me that it’s okay to not act perfectly, and that it’s all right to feel whatever I’m feeling around them. But I don’t feel unsafe. I like these people, and people listen, and I have faith that people will listen and support me when I need help. Maybe I’m secretly feeling unsafe, and that’s what people are picking up on. Maybe I’m feeling how I’m feeling, which to me feels safe, but only because I don’t know what true safety feels like. Maybe I’m feeling how I’m feeling, which to me feels safe, but feels to other people like it would be unsafe, but that doesn’t particularly matter to my own subjective experience.

(So many options. I made the discovery recently that people can be wrong, and that has minorly blown my world open. All of sudden there’s so much to learn about people’s subjective experiences, and my subjective experiences can be totally valid, and people actually can be criticizing them not because they’re not valid, but because from their perspective it’d be invalid but they’re actually totally fine in mine.)

Intriguingly, I had one person tell me that he felt I was “using” him and the rest of the people in the circle, by presenting my experiences as a performance. This was confusing. I mean, I was entertaining them instead of more typically “confiding” in them, but that hardly seems like “using” someone to me. And I was listening to opinions and answering questions perfectly well. His point, I think, was that I was telling stories in order to get feedback, instead of telling stories to allow people to feel close to me. Fine, that’s fair, I was maximizing one over the other. But they’re not mutually exclusive, and I think part of his point was that we shouldn’t be trying to explicitly optimizing our stories. As far as I can tell, I think this only makes sense if he was using the term “using” in a really non-standard way…

(This same person also made a mistake during another one of his questions; he said I “should be experiencing the feelings [not organizing them / analyzing them / something in this vein]”. Classic mistake! In circles, judgments need to be put into the “if it were me, I would feel like” template, because we’re supposed to be listening to other people’s experiences. Also, I’d explicitly complained about people doing this to me during the telling of my stories. This response—”no, the way you’re doing it feels intuitively repulsive to me, and I’m not sure why” is what actually started me thinking about all of this, about the idea that people can be wrong, that everyone has their own experience, that it’s important to understand why people are having this response, if they can’t tell me. I mean, if this is the best response, if it is something that I’m capable of and will bring me more happiness, and not reap bad consequences, then sure, I’ll attempt to adopt it. I have not yet been convinced of that, and the fact that people continually throw it at me, using self-assurance instead of logical arguments, is making it an interesting problem. (To give credit where credit is due, one person has argued that they think this philosophy will give me greater happiness, by making observations and drawing a direct comparison to what I’m doing. I think I agree with that, but I’m not convinced that I’m capable of doing so, that there won’t be bad consequences despite short-term happiness, and that this won’t require a complete re-evaluation of how I run my life.) (Which, again, might be necessary, if I am capable of changing at all. Which I’m not sure of. How much have I changed, exactly? How effective are any changes I make? When I consider “bad consequences”, those are usually social consequences, but how much do I actually care about these? Specifically, how much should I care about these, given my goals, and maybe it’s time to downgrade on the social optimization? What’s bringing me happiness, what’s the point of life—and, uh, why do people keep telling me I’m supposed to just “feel the feelings” when I don’t want to feel the feelings? They’re much to close-mouthed about actual justification, especially in direct comparison to what I do, for me to trust them. I’ll figure it out though (or at least an approximation), no worries :)).)

But the point related to “using” was more widely shared by the rest of the circle, in that they felt closest to me when I slowed down. I was trying to figure out what I was doing when I “slowed down”, and I think I got it… I was actively generating new conclusions, rather than presenting prepared ones. When I’m thinking things through, I necessarily go slower, and with lower energy, and people felt more connected in that instance. And that is useful feedback, and I think makes a ton of sense. I was going though my normal stories very quickly (I’ve told them to myself lots of times, because I look for themes and patterns), and people were feeling all sorts of reactions, but I wasn’t giving them time to express them. They were dealing with their own thoughts, rather than having time to evaluate me. And when I slowed down a bit, they were likely able to feel their own thoughts, but also draw deeper conclusions about who I was, and what I was expressing. And I think that’s what people want, in the end, in this sort of circle—to discover something vulnerable in a person, something they’re hiding, something they’re repressing, and to bring it out and present it to them as a gift.

…The problem is that I don’t think I repress that much. I presented a bunch of problems and things I was feeling bad over, but they were in the open. And I was doing, again, a really miraculous job of answering questions. It turns out that I’ve already thought about a lot of the suggestions that people brought up. So I appreciated when people said things like they felt that I felt unsafe, and that it must be stressful to try to perform all the time… but I’d explicitly fed them the “I think of social situations as a performance” line, and emphasized it on two other occasions, so it wasn’t like they could extract that from what I was saying and deliver it as a deep insight I hadn’t previously realized.

There were a few new things though! One of them was that the “social situations as a performance” thing made people feel like it’d be very lonely. …Um. I mean… nope, sorry, doesn’t feel lonely to me. Lonely is when I don’t have anyone to talk to about things that are important to me, and a lighter version is when I don’t have anyone around who knows who I am. But Facebook exists, and I can always drop a line when I’m feeling something that want someone’s help with, or want to share, no matter where I am. I guess it’d feel lonely, hm, if I couldn’t express what I wanted to people? But I feel like I can express what I want to lots of people. Also, it’s important to me that I have people around if I need someone to listen, and I’ve developed the skills to hang on to the awesome people who are willing to do that. Ah, I’m definitely throwing people off again with the use of the word “skills” rather than “being myself” or something similar. Being thoughtful and kind and attentive are skills, though, in my mind. Social inference and being a good person (rather than just having good intentions) takes practice. On the other hand, it’s good to know that for a lot of people, there’s something about “performance”, and preparing material, that makes people feel like this whole thing is very unnatural and not genuine.

Also I was told I was being ungenuine by presenting prepared material. … I AM FREAKING GENUINE. I DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH MORE ME I CAN GIVE YOU. PREPARING STUFF, i.e. going through stuff in my head so that it makes sense to me and is organized, IS ME. (Then again, I think this might be from the same person as before, i.e. from a single source, so I might get to ignore it.) But again, it is good to know that to appear more genuine I might take into consideration trying to generate new material on the fly in reaction to other people’s emotions, or at least toning down my presentation. The former makes a lot of sense, in terms of a conversation. It just seems weird to me to monologue to a room without having a sense of what I want to say, just because that’s failed so many times in the past within professional settings. (…Which would again be solved if I had a more separate division between professional settings and social situations. But it’s also about the people I hang out with, for which social situations are often pretty sciency, where it does help if one is paying attention.)

Someone else also said that not hearing about the negative things in my life would make him feel unconnected to me. This was in reaction to a question he asked which was: “I know that if I were close to you I’d hear about all of the highlights in your life, but would I hear about the low points?” I said “Absolutely not”. But that’s a lie. Lots of people hear about the low points in my life. It’s just that I process them a bit first, which is why I immediately told him “no”—because I got the sense that he was asking if people would hear about the low points upon my instantaneous reaction, to which the answer is still “Absolutely not”. It’s all about framing though.

Hm :). Funny, after writing this down… I get the sense that I what I learned from this experience is that compared to the average person, where I’m most different is that I approach social situations as more professional settings than most, I share more information than most and thus am less likely to feel disconnected, I’m still weirded out and unresolved re: the “feel the feelings” issue, I’ve been shaped a lot by my childhood and also by the situational expectations I’m normally surrounded by in graduate school, and that whoa, I still don’t have a great model of why people feel repelled so strongly by some of the things that I do, but it seems like it might be mostly consistent across people given the frequency, strength, and uniformity of responses I receive. (Also that I’m more introspective than most. Surprise.)

Well, this was massive. My major frustration this week was feeling pretty socially exhausted and also feeling a lot of guilt for not getting work done. I have, yet again, not gotten work done :P. But I do have to give myself a break, because there were a lot of social things, some of which were quite new and required a lot of processing, and two situations in which my opinion really mattered, and quite a few where people were telling me things that I didn’t want to hear, so I had to evaluate those and then talk myself down, and hopefully that process will get easier with certain classes of arguments because it’s very draining now. It has been getting easier, though. People do repeat themselves, there are certain types of responses, and once I’ve thought it through completely, it has been getting easier to dismiss similar responses again.

Whew. I feel better though. And I’m still really looking forward to a day when I can just sit down and do research readings, because my projects are awesome and the people I’m working with are awesome and I really just want to do that. Tomorrow evening, I think. I can miss a talk and go home early. It’s going to be great.

Thanks for sticking through with me, everyone who made it thus far! Um. I’m pretty sure this is the longest post on the recent version of the blog. Y’all are incredible and I don’t want to check how many hours this took :P.

So much love to all of you, all of us humanity stumbling through things, all of you crazy people who are following along on my repetitive fumblings. We’ll figure it out someday, or die trying :).


Ps, my new friend Daylen made me a word-count histogram of all of my posts on this recent iteration of the blog! I.e. from 2015 onwards. I am ashamed to say that the second most frequent word is “thing”. On the other hand, I am proud to say that “stuff” and “kind of” are not more prominently featured, and am making efforts towards decreasing “thing” use. I have only used it 83 times in this post, which is something like 1%, which is still obscenely high, but I shall continue in valiant attempts (…I can’t believe that’s me trying). Also apparently I am all about the monosyllabic words, and none of these words are surprising :).


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