Hey all :).
Mmm, it’s good to be back :). Last week, after my last post, I had a series of experiences that were very high-growth socially and mentally. “High-growth” for me constitutes events that are demanding, scary, often exhausting, and ultimately extremely worthwhile… this set had a bunch of really nice experiences too. All of which means I’m still staggering around trying to parse everything :).
It’s pretty great to have experiences that make your mind work differently. I feel like there’s probably a bunch of new insights that are going to come out of this, and I’ve recently made some great progress in part due to the above. But that’s for another time—for this post I thought I’d run you through what I spent the last hour and a half thinking about. It’s pretty messy, but I think there’s some informative stuff there that will help me sort through more of the biases and structure in my mind in the future.
All right, here goes. I noticed today that I was feeling dissatisfied and disappointed in myself. This particular brand of dissatisfaction is very familiar to me—it stems from feeling that I haven’t spent enough time on… whatever it is, though it’s usually work. I don’t like feeling like I’m not doing “enough” in whatever it is that I’m supposed to be doing, and try to allocate my time so that I’m doing enough work, and enough mental growth, and enough social, and whatever else I’ve decided I want to make progress on. I’m often frustrated that I can’t spend enough time to be “good enough” in all of the goals I want to reach.
(“Being enough” is my focus of the week. I seem to transition in and out of these focuses pretty quickly as I add them to my bank of concepts-that-seem-to-describe-something-about-my-experience.)
I went to therapy, and he pointed out that I was talking really fast, and seemed to feel an urgent need to sort through all that I was thinking about, immediately. (This is true.) He also pointed out that relaxing was an option, that I’m good enough as I am. (I also believe this. But I can be better. But yes, relaxing seems good, because being stressed about something like time allocation, when I’m already doing pretty well at it, seems unnecessary.)
We tried to brainstorm solutions to this time allocation situation, but didn’t make much progress because I’ve thought about this a lot. In terms of hard solutions, I seem to be optimizing a fairly complicated problem that has a bunch of intrinsic tradeoffs, and think I’m doing pretty well given the circumstances. What I really thought would be useful would be a way to make me relax my perception of wasting time, when I don’t actually think I am. But we didn’t go that route, and instead my therapist asked me about things I do to relax. I said I’ve been exercising and sleeping and taking care of myself, and he asked me about music and painting. Again he asked about music and painting, neither of which are my interests or relaxing for me, which we’d discussed last time. (I’m also especially negatively triggered by being encouraged to do these two activities in particular, due to some past experiences.)
I felt a fair amount of frustration with my therapist laying down their interests over mine. It’s very fast, in the moment—the thoughts are something like: No, those aren’t relaxing, why are you saying that, oh because you enjoy that, gah, that’s annoying, no whatever it’s a small thing we’re going to move on soon, respond mildly, next. And all of these impressions are very rapid, and take place in the few seconds where I’m listening and then constructing a response.
But this was a contrast to how I’ve felt in previous conversations with my therapist, and another conversation I had on Tuesday with someone who was there to “figure out my world model”. The person I was talking to in my Tuesday conversation asked the same types of questions as my therapist: “what does that word mean for you”, “what would happen if?”, etc. But that person stopped me halfway through and announced the following, which was astonishing to me:
“Wait. You seem to think I endorse a certain set of options.”
Me: “Of course. I’m talking about crushing emotions, and crushing emotions is bad, and I should be more compassionate towards my emotions, etc. etc. Everyone says this, and that’s why I think I know what you’re going for.”
“Ah. Let me clarify—that’s not what I’m here for. I don’t think I know what you should do. I don’t think anyone knows, except that you know. I think you should do whatever is best for you, and if crushing emotions is what’s best for you, you should do it. I’m just here because I’m curious how your mind works.”
This was astonishing for me. First of all, the fact that they thought that I knew what would be best for myself. (…What?? What kind of idea is that? Why would I know?) But since that idea has been introduced, I’ve started noticing that there usually is something I want in conversations: for example, I wanted to steer the conversation with my therapist in a certain way, though I didn’t at the time.
That was the smaller realization, but the largest one was this: I felt so much better after that conversation. I didn’t learn anything from the person—they didn’t tell me how to become better in any way—and I still felt so much better after that conversation. It was kind of this crushing relief, that they didn’t want me to be any way, that I wasn’t supposed to be relaxing or having it figured out—that it was all fine. That they listened, and understood where I was coming from, that they were just curious in how I was doing things, that they weren’t leading me anywhere. It feels like—I don’t know, giving me space. I don’t think I give myself space very much at all, and when I talk with people I don’t think I encourage them to give me space, and it’s hard for people to give space in general.
But this— the idea of listeners giving space, or specifically, not doing so—seems to be something that I’ve been frustrated with and saddened by in general. There are many ways to not “listen” in the way I’d like to be listened to, and many of those ways make me feel lost, alone, and like I didn’t do things well enough. A common mode that I’ve been struggling with a lot is when people listen to give answers. I like answers. I like easy solutions to problems. But I feel like a lot of the time these days, there aren’t easy solutions, and I know what the solutions are supposed to be. When people tell me things like “You need to relax”, or “That connection doesn’t make sense, just stop thinking it” I want to scream at them: that’s not the PROBLEM. That’s the output of the problem, that’s a symptom of the problem, but there’s an entire structure here, we need to work through this structure and find where I can reshape it. I mentioned this particular situation last week, but it comes through in different ways. When people are impatient that I haven’t fixed something already. When people point out a logical fallacy that I’m aware of. It is good to point out the contradictions in my thinking—that’s when I make enormous progress, when people point it out. But it works best when people are patient with me. When they’re trying to understand how the system works, not trying for solutions. Apparently I’m very sensitive to attitude and approach. (I mean, I still learn a ton from whatever effort people are wonderful enough to invest in me. I just end up feeling misunderstood and sad afterwards. That seems illogical… but I guess it’s because I’m not only looking for solutions, but also connection with people, and delivery matters a lot for the latter.)
The next question is: so what are you looking for in “listening”, if it’s not any of the above? And what came back when I was writing is that I want people to recognize how hard it is. How hard I’m trying, that there are difficult hangups in my mind and that they may be stupid and illogical, but they’re still hard. The worst is if people convey the illogical parts are just silly: that’s sad and painful and frustrating and self-anger-inducing, because I know. Then sometimes people sincerely tell me that they believe for me it’s hard. (I’ll come back to my response for this—it’s surprisingly not positive.) What seems to be okay is the following, which I’m always very surprised when people execute:
If people say it seems hard, and they mean it sincerely, and it feels like they’re meeting me as an equal. I want them to know where I’m coming from, and see why it’s reasonable, recognize an analogy in themselves, see me, and join me. That’s what I want.
It is so wonderful when people do this. But it’s a really hard response to generate. I don’t think I’m good at it myself.
But that’s the best-case scenario. What’s a good scenario, which is when I get exactly what I want, and people tell me I think it’s hard? I queried myself with the following: what if people sincerely believe it’s hard for me—they’re completely sincere—but it doesn’t feel like they’re feeling it with me. Then what? What do I do? And what I seem to do is: get angry and feel like they’re being condescending and blow them off. Even if they’re completely sincere.
This seems weird. It’s hard enough to get people to say that they think something is hard for you that isn’t for them—why should I be getting mad at a good portion of the people who make this attempt? This thought brings me to a bunch of connected ideas about what I think it means to be vulnerable, and what connection is, and what good listening is. And it circles around to a topic that I spent a lot of time on in the past week: my concept of strong, and how that seems to be an integral part of my current identity.
What I seem to want out of good listening is for people to recognize my struggles or my successes while still recognizing what I see in myself, what I love about myself. And something that seems important to what I see in myself is the idea of being strong. This definitely isn’t the only thing I see, but it’s relevant to me right now because I felt like “strength” wasn’t being recognized in some recent conversations and that triggered a ridiculously strong sense of identity-threat that I hadn’t know was there.
Something that I consider pretty fundamental to myself is that I basically believe I can do anything, given enough time. This sense is one of the most unwavering convictions I have, and it does a lot for me. It’s true for me even if it’s not quite true in the world—I don’t have to do anything spectacularly, I just think that I can do a lot of things well if I spend years on it. This is something important and true for me.
Being “strong”, for me, applies in the physical sense, related to the above. It’s important to me that I could run a marathon if asked, right now, that I can push myself to do whatever you need me to do, that my body will do what my mind wills. It’s freeing, that realm of possibilities.
But being strong also refers to how I govern my mind. Being strong means being brave, when I’m flinching away and scared of things. (I’m scared of lots of things. Lots of things make me nervous, lots of things worry me. Trying things despite that is bravery for me, and strength.) And being strong, fundamentally, means taking care of myself. Means that other people can do whatever they want, that anyone can hurt me, and I will always be all right. I will take care of myself. I will move emotions around and consider other peoples’ perspectives and try to be fair to everyone and live up to the ideals I’ve set for myself and I will take care of myself.
Being strong, in that sense, I also label as “independence”. That I don’t need to rely on others, that I have the capacity to take actions to change the world around me, that I can fulfill any needs I have by acting in ways that will encourage others to care or help. I am responsible for my own happiness, I’m responsible for fulfilling my needs, I’m responsible for my time, for fulfilling any goals I have, for meeting goals that others have for me, for not wasting my life, for doing what is right, for protecting others from negative emotions I have. I am solely responsible for managing myself and my emotions, and if anyone wants to help out with that, that’s wonderful of them and I’m very grateful, but it’s not their responsibility, it’s mine. And I can always take actions to make whatever needs I’m trying to get fulfilled more likely to be fulfilled.
That’s the background that I’m working with. And when you have this sort of outline, there’s some interesting things that come out of it (you’d probably be able to predict several of the failure modes here :)).
One thing that happens is something along the lines of victim-blaming, though I don’t usually think of it that way. Here’s what happens if I come out of an upsetting social situation, in which I was unhappy but didn’t tell anyone about it or remove myself.
Mental monologue: what the FUCK were you DOING, you KNOW that you shouldn’t have just let that happen, you could have taken ACTION why didn’t you CHANGE THE SITUATION you’ve DONE THIS BEFORE come ON Monica.
Basically, I feel very alone and isolated and not recognized and hurt, and then I add on all of this fury at myself for letting it happen. There are some decent lines of reasoning here: I don’t let other people know in the situation because I don’t want to dump negative emotions all over them when it’s not their problem to deal with. I usually try to fix the negative emotions myself in the moment, and when I can’t do that I get failure signals and that gets added to the mix. Then I get the retrospective, which, because I believe that I can take actions to do anything I want to do, I get angry at myself for making the situation turn out badly. Failure modes :).
Last week, though, I was introduced to this marvelous concept which is that I can talk to people when I’m upset, and maybe the upsetting situation doesn’t have to happen because people also want to reduce the pain I’m feeling. Or that I can even talk to people during the retrospective, when I’m upset, and they’ll be willing to deal with the emotions with me. I have no idea what to do with either of these ideas, but I have evidence twice now that the latter strategy works. What even. The person I was doing it with was like: “One can talk about problems,” and I was like “?????” and my conclusion is: “This just exploded my search space. I had no idea that problems could get better if I talked to people about them instead of just dealing with my reactions on my own.”
I don’t think this is going to always work—my emotional reactions are still my own problem—but it’s crazy to me that there are people who are willing to deal with them to make my life better. And people may be willing to deal with them in the moment when the emotions are absurd and don’t make sense and aren’t fair to the other person—they may be willing to deal with them then. They may even want to deal with them then. There’s some indication to me that this is what people mean when they mean vulnerability. They mean that you’re exposing yourself to all of the bad listening above—to people thinking your worries are silly, to opening yourself up to hurt because maybe people are too busy or don’t care enough to deal with you—but that in those moments when you really could use some help, they also want to help, and we feel close by being able to help others.
Another part of being strong: I expect to have to take care of myself, and I know how hard it is to be fair to people and find the best light of situations so you don’t have to condemn others and feel like it’s your fault you sat there and listened to them, and the mental manipulation necessary and pain of trying to deal with hurt, and what it feels like to be cornered and have to just let people say their piece and not say anything, and what it feels like when people are angry and take that out on you instead of dealing with it themselves, and I don’t want that to happen to you, I don’t want you to be scared or helpless or angry or resentful or self-condemning, I do not want that to happen to you, so I will not let that happen to you, not from me, I will protect you from me, I will take care of myself.
Part of being strong: I will be fair. There is an ideal world in which everyone considers why other people act the way they do, and what they were feeling. I want that ideal world, and I will do what I can do support that ideal world from my side. And part of what being strong is, for me, is the determination to make that happen, the utter commitment to making that be true.
:). Something that makes me smile as I skim this over is that there’s so much underneath our concepts. When I say I’m a “strong, independent woman” as part of my identity, it means a lot of this. I didn’t even know most of this was in there, but this is part of the core of “strength” for me, and strength means different things to everyone else. We have structures on structures, and what I’ve been discovering, when I dive into this sort of definition, is that there’s a lot that hasn’t been dealt with, a lot of reactions that are grounded in ideas that make sense, and when taken to extremes don’t quite work anymore. There are solutions, but they’re embedded deep within all of these patterns I hold as important. It’s amazing to me that we can make any progress at all, when we see other people and hear them talk—we’re seeing just the tips of their icebergs, and making a stab at them, but there’s so much under the water. Luckily, humans share a lot in common with each other, but it’s astonishing that communication works at all especially when we ourselves don’t know what’s there.
I wanted to finish with the question I asked myself when I was initially writing this down, which was: why try at all? Why have all of this exposure to hurt, the possibility for bad listening in all its forms? Because I keep on trying, over and over. There’s a lot of trying.
And I don’t know the answer, but there’s a few things I could guess. I’m lucky to enjoy growth and bravery for its own sake, so trying feels something like pushing and seeing what could happen. More deeply, I think I have some strong sense that things could be better than what I’m doing, that I could be happier, that I can make this system incrementally less broken than it is, and that that motivates trying. (Past successes have confirmed this; new solutions have emerged). And I think that it ties back to what I mentioned in the beginning, that there’s a search for solutions, but that this is a lot about connection. And when you can have good listening, people seeing you, understanding you, matching you, being with you—that’s probably one of the best feelings that we can have, the best thing we could be reaching for.
Thanks to all of the good listeners out there, and all of our potential to become them :).