And the therapists ask: “What brings you here…?”

Hey readers :).

Hope you’re all doing well! I’ve been continuing to learn a lot about myself, and it still feels strange to me not to be doing all of that learning on the blog. But eventually the intensity of this learning will fade off, and I imagine I’ll be back to writing monstrously-long posts again :).

One direction that’s been taking a lot of my mental cycles is: boys! I’m delving into the confusing depths of relationships (having never dated previous to starting graduate school), and there is a LOT to learn there, both about how these social interactions work, and about myself. I’m excited about both fronts. A friend was asking me why I never tried out dating beforehand, given that they’re “the epitome” of social interactions and I like social interactions. I told him that they seemed unduly complicated. This still seems to be true, and in consequence I’m quite glad that I started late. Right now it feels like relationships have the same sorts of immensely complicated and implicit structure that the rest of our social interactions do, just with new added dimensions and intensity. I thus feel safer going into them knowing that I can handle the craziness of normal interactions—this is just an extra few dimensions of craziness.

Dating—in whatever meaning that holds for you, since this doesn’t seem to be one concept—has also been informative into who I am. There’s the benefit of someone else getting to know you, and reflecting their impressions back at you. This is what happens when you make new friends, as well, but intensity and interest gets upped. There’s also a different set of expectations in these settings, and it’s been really interesting to see how I react to these expectations, and how others in turn react to me. There are certain things that I like and things that I don’t like, and some of these I knew beforehand, but in a way that was pretty buried and inaccessible given that these hypothetical reactions weren’t relevant to my life.

These different settings and expectations also pull reactions out of me that I haven’t exhibited before, and it’s always wonderful when I can surprise myself. It’s also really useful to get more accurate priors on how to act in a given situation, which I can learn by observing what other people do. A lot of what I’m doing right now is just watching other people I’m with, to understand what behavior is standard and what’s unusual. I could have made these observations earlier, in watching couples on the street, but it turns out that I don’t pay much attention to this sort of thing when it’s not immediately relevant to me :).

Plus, I’m meeting interesting people, with interesting insights, and that’s always the best, whether we’re doing something relationship-y or not. I also seem to have been slotted into a new social circle in that people want to discuss dating with me. Specifically, I’ve suddenly developed a hobby that pretty much everyone else also shares and cares deeply about, so that’s a new common topic to make connections around, and also something I’m suddenly interested in acquiring information around. And those are both good :). (ps, I don’t actually mean to call it a “hobby”. I mean it in the sense that I currently consider everything non-work a “hobby”, when in fact this seems like a domain that will loom just as large or larger than work in the future. There’s also a difference between casual and non-casual dating.)

An interesting side effect from self-learning via relationships is that this is annoying not-bloggable. My blog has changed tone pretty dramatically since I stopped writing it officially for my university— it’s incredibly personal now— but it is still a public blog. I’ve had a rule for a long time that I’m not allowed to talk about “romantic stuff” except in the abstract, and I’m loosening that rule a bit, but it’s also important to remember that anyone can look me up professionally via the blog, and often will. I feel like the tone of what I have above is about as informal as I want to be. This is frustrating, on the one hand, because sometimes I’ll want to provide examples for what I’m learning that can’t be posted. But it also feels necessary. An additional complication is that I’ve been messaging one of the people I’m interacting with, and they’re getting a ton of the insights I’d normally use the blog as an outlet for. Which could be good in the long run, actually. If my goal is to transform the blog into something a little more structured, and less rambling, then it seems it’d be helpful to redirect that rambling to someone else and use the blog as a more polished persona.

So that’s the category of “relationships” :). I think I’ve successfully acquired a therapist— harder than you might think!*— and when I go to them “relationships” is one of the things I list out as a discussion point, related to the more central point of “identity”.

(*On finding a therapist: this process has surprised me. People tell me that they’re almost always able to find a therapist on the first try. The first try! I believe them, but that seems crazy to me, because I’m certainly not able to find a friend who I’m going to talk to for hours on the first try. The first therapist I went to (who I actually liked, on the first try :P) referred me to six other more permanent therapists, and I ended up meeting with two of them who had openings in their practices. I thought one of them was fine and would work, and the other I disliked—not as a person, but as a person who I’d be paying to listen to me talk. Armed, now, with the knowledge of what I didn’t want, and also what kind of client I was compared to the average client, I started an internet search and found three other candidates. This has turned out spectacularly. I now found two people who I’d actually like to start therapy with, and I’m trying out the last one on Friday. I went from thinking I’d find no one to now having choices. I find it astonishing how useful it is to know where I fit with regards to the average client—that vastly increased the accuracy of my search, and it was so satisfying to find the search terms that would pull out the kind of people I was hoping for out of the woodwork.) (Quote from one of the therapists: “You’re trying out five therapists?” Me: “Yup.” Them: “Very careful, I can tell.” Me: “YUP.”) (But am I actually careful? I am very tentative with regards to spending money. And careful about making choices and committing to things. And careful in planning new events and projects, and careful about what I’m thinking. Okay, sure, we can call that a character trait. I also try stuff though. Carefully :P).

“Identity” :). The most profound realization for me to emerge out of Rationality Camp was this: I often don’t know, or at least can’t state, what I want. Instead of knowing what I want, I have an intricate construction of “shoulds” and excellent crowdsourcing. First, what do I mean by “shoulds”? I feel like most people have the experience of others in their lives telling them how they should act. What is the “right” way to act; what are the “right” things to do. It turns out that I am very susceptible to “shoulds”, and have a massive number of external expectations in my life that I abide by. A lot of them I think are pretty reasonable, a lot are ambiguous, and a surprising number are just strange. But I think it’s a useful venture to try to form these sorts of opinions—“do I actually believe in this expectation? Does it feel like what I want?” on the implicit rules I use to run my life. So far, I’ve found that a lot of my opinions don’t change… apparently when I’m acquiring these rules, I know myself well enough to pick and choose. But some of my opinions do, and I’m moving them in directions more aligned with what I want to have.

The other strategy that I’ve realized I use in lieu of directly knowing what I want is this: crowdsourcing. I seem to have acquired a habit of finding the people I most respect in a room, and trying to follow their opinions. I’ll aggregate opinions from a bunch of these people when I need to make a decision, and this usually results in good choices since I’m decent at picking out who I want to listen to and collect advice from.

Smart crowdsourcing still seems like a very reasonable plan to me, and I plan to continue doing it. There are few situations in which it doesn’t work very well, however. It is always emotionally agonizing for me when two of these people I respect don’t agree with each other about something I should do. You can’t average two people who have opposite opinions: you end up with a mess in the middle, when the choices are one or the other. I’d like to not become quite so distressed whenever this situation occurs. Another problem with the smart-crowdsourcing is that sometimes I’m one of the people who doesn’t agree with the person I respect, and then I send myself into this agonized mess in the middle. It really seems like, since I’m the one who’s life this is affecting, that I should probably get more weight in decisions rather than my best guess being on par with anyone else’s best guess.

I really haven’t resolved this problem yet: it being okay for what I want to not be the same as what everyone else wants for me. This feels like a core difficulty that sends tendrils up through pretty much every other domain I interact in. It’s what I’m working on, though, and seem very important and relevant for future life use :). I’ve already made some progress—I’m aware of when I use the word “should” and have decreased my use of it, I’m getting more in touch with thoughts and emotions of what I want, I’m getting help from other people, and when I encounter emotional conflicts, I’m delving into them with this perspective in mind.

Something that has been revealed to me through this process is that not everyone has this problem of shoulds. In fact, most people find the depth and convolution of my shoulds rather astonishing. We go through life and we encounter others and we know we all have our own hang ups, but it’s so surprising to me to realize that NOT EVERYONE THINKS THIS WAY. That first of all, I just don’t struggle with a lot of problems other people have, and second of all, I can totally change my should problem. I don’t have to live this way if I don’t want to. Mind blown, over and over.

I’m so excited for what’s going to come out of this. Another thing I’ve realized is that I update ridiculously fast—meaning that once I mentally work my way to a conclusion, it establishes itself very quickly and then goes on to influence further action. I was talking to someone today who mentioned that “ridiculously fast” is a matter of comparison, and that I’m not the fastest they’ve seen. Comments on this are: 1) they agreed that I am much faster than the general population, and high up even in subpopulations, and 2) that’s the social comparison part, but even without the social comparison I’m freaking out myself. The idea that things can get THIS MUCH BETTER, THIS QUICKLY, is so astonishing and wonderful and exciting and blows my world open. Just by spending a little while thinking about something, I can make measurable progress on how I’ve been thinking about a topic, bypassing the habits that I’ve been doing for years. This is incredible. This is freeing. This is astonishing.

Related to the fast-updating is the realization that I’m pretty darn good at working with my mind. Perhaps because I had years to try to make all of the “shoulds” into something coherent, I seem to be able to tap into what motivates me much better than a lot of the people around me. Here’s the idea: if you’re an agent, and someone sets down an expectation on you, and you don’t want to do it, but you are emotionally distressed enough to make yourself do it, you’re going to have to figure out how to motivate yourself without that intrinsic motivation. To make yourself do what you don’t want to do, day after day after day, you have to tap into what you do like about the task / goal, and be able to marshal those emotions and repress other emotions. Executing these sorts of mental movements for years, while also dealing with the anxiety that motivated doing the “should” in the first place, seems like it’d produce some competence in creating thinking patterns that are consciously changeable. This is a causal hypothesis, very untested, but it seems to me that this whole process might have resulted in what I call nowadays “moving emotions around”, i.e. “reframing the problem”.

Something that’s occurring to me just now is that probably the MAIN STRATEGY that I use, and that I’ve hooked pretty much all of the rest of my psyche into, is the idea of goals. In college, I knew a lot of scientist-types who weren’t able to perform well on subjects they didn’t care about, while excelling on subjects they did care about. (On the other hand, I fit the pre-med type to a T. The ones who are constantly panicked and who were very motivated to perform well across the board.) Even now, when I talk to friends, I can tell them: “oh, that was productive, because I’ve decided a certain amount of time at these types of lectures”, and they can tell me “no, I was just bored, that didn’t feel productive”. But as soon as I can place a goal down—which I can do about scary social things, or tasks I need to do at work, or a self-growth goal, or something stupid, or pretty much anything—I’m motivated. No intrinsic inclination to the activity needed at all. I can in some sense strongly dislike what I’m doing, but if it’s a goal that I’ve set, that’s not even something that I’ll be thinking about when I’m doing it. There will be vastly reduced negative emotions, because it’s a goal.

I wonder if that’s the type. If there’s a bunch of people out there who don’t know what they want, and don’t even care or know that they don’t know what they want, because they have a whole bunch of “shoulds” in their lives, and they’ve managed to construct systems for themselves that make it possible for them to pursue the “shoulds” despite having not much natural inclination for them at all. And that one of the main ways that people do this is by setting goals—not quite as ridiculously as I have, because I don’t see many people with weirdly structured social “projects” around—but maybe by doing this a little bit less effectively, by using negative emotions to motivate or by not being as happy. I think there’s probably a bunch of people who fit this paradigm. Like, a lot of people. Who are more or less effective in the “moving emotions around” and “creating systems to keep themselves satisfied while simultaneously following shoulds”.

Ooh. Now I’ll try to be on the lookout for what other people do when they’re managing shoulds, and managing themselves. The above feels like an underdeveloped argument (given I was coming up with it as I was writing it) but it seems interesting to explore the following ideas. First, that I might be good at updating because of a lot of practice at self-management, both of anxious inclinations and because of strong expectations. Second, that my primary strategy for this self-management was structuring my entire psyche around the idea of goals. And third, that there are a bunch of other people who also had anxious inclinations and strong expectations, and they’re certainly doing something to manage it, and is that something effective and what are they doing that’s different than what I’m doing?

Oh, and there are the usual questions I’m thinking about re: what’s the / a / my purpose of life, what am I supposed to do in life, what do I want out of life, my life is really good and I’m super lucky— to what extent do I owe other people because this is incredibly awesome—this seems relevant, what’s my obligation in life, etc. etc. These are the generalized, abstracted versions of the questions I’ve asked above, the seem to be the ones worth grappling with :). I have been trying to convey to the therapists these sorts of intuitions in my 30 minutes I have to try to explain who I am, and almost all of them get it. “Important life stage,” they say. “About the right time,” “learning who you are”, “natural human transition.”

That’s what I’ve got, readers :). That’s actually much more of what I’ve been thinking about than I predicted I’d be able to convey, minus all of the details that actually cause the changes in thinking :). Ah, need to go to bed though—the semester ends in two weeks, and it hasn’t quite hit me yet that everything will be due on the 12th, but on the other hand, I am intimately aware of the alarm bell that goes off every morning saying EVERYTHING WILL BE DUE ON THE 12TH :). My brain. On the other hand, I’m making steady progress on work, and life is life and I feel so lucky to be living it right now, with all of the mental growth. And Saturday is my birthday, for which I’m going out to dimsum with friends—so lucky to be here right now :).

Best wishes to you all, and thanks as always for reading :).

Monica

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