Angst with a Happy Ending

Hey readers—

Sorry I was out last week! Things got busy research-wise, and then I started cramming all of my academic things in before going to a hippie-woo workshop this weekend. This particular hippie-woo workshop involved 16 adults sitting in circles and reflecting their feelings at each other. It was very interesting, and had some really excellent experiences but also had some rough times in it. I’m still kind of reeling from the tough bits, and am unsure what this blog will look like because of it.

I think I’ll just get right into it. Here’s one of the puzzles I’ve been working on today and yesterday: I don’t know how common this experience is, but I’ve been realizing recently that a lot of my really upset moments have a common flavor. If I track back to times in the last year that involved lots of crying, most of them actually feel like a pretty similar set of emotions and are in the face of remarkably similar social situations. Specifically, I’m in a one-on-one conversation, and I’ve just related either a disappointment or a goal I’m aiming for, and am asking for feedback. This is a pretty natural thing for me to do, and in these cases I’m asking for advice from someone who I respect and who enjoys my presence.

Said person then delivers advice. This advice is well-meant and makes lots of sense, and obviously works within their framework. This advice feels absolutely, completely impossible to execute within my framework. If I’d related a disappointment, then it feels like they’ve just said something ridiculously obvious, and have completely failed to understand that that particular problem is hard for me, which is the whole reason why I was asking about it in the first place.  If I’ve related a goal, it’s usually worse, because I was offhand checking to see if they had useful advice but not actually asking-asking. When people then present: “to achieve your goal, you should do x,” when x feels impossible to me, I feel like I get attacked out of nowhere. In both cases I feel like I’ve “asked for it”, so I can’t complain. Moreover, I feel like the people aren’t being mean, just failing to model me in a way that feels hurtful, so I can’t get angry. It’s kind of feeling like despair and hurt and “why did you just stab me” and helplessness and hopeless obligation. I’ve recently learned the phase “not being seen”, which I interpret to mean that the other person really isn’t getting you and didn’t make the effort to get you. It feels like the other person doesn’t care, like they didn’t take the time to listen. (Luckily, this is pretty much as bad as it gets for me, though :). I am very grateful not to suffer much in general—I get this sort of feeling a few times a year from various interactions with people, but it is as bad as it gets.)

It’s interestingly wrapped up in what I’m starting to frame as violations of consent. I was thinking about it a few days ago, and I’ve realized that I don’t approach conversations like I do sexual consent, for example. In sexual consent, it feels totally reasonable for me that if someone says yes initially, but then changes their mind, they are completely allowed to do that and if the other person ignores the change of heart, then what they’ve done is just as bad as if they’d violated consent the first time around. However, in conversations, I feel like once I’ve granted someone permission to push my boundaries, I have to give them free reign and pick up the pieces later. I’ve executed this kind of behavior historically, and in many cases it’s a wise way to proceed, especially in the face of someone with a lot of power. But I feel like it isn’t exactly serving me right now, when interacting with peers. I also don’t like that when I tell this sort of story, people who are really listening mention that it feels to them like I’m a victim, or that I felt unsafe, and that feels true. I also have this very strong, nagging feeling like I’m doing this to myself, like I’m making these situations happen, like I’m getting myself hurt. And I don’t like that at all. That feels to me like I’m trying to grasp at control in whatever way I can—which is to blame it on myself in some sense, rather than the people doing the harm—and also like a complete victim mindset, and an incorrect way of understanding the situation.

I’d probably better give some examples of how this goes. For example, I was talking about how I was anxious during a particular experience one day, and my friend turns to me and says: “Why don’t you just try to enjoy it?” Which, yes, that’s obviously what I would have liked to happen, but my experience was such that not only was I not enjoying it, I was struggling just to feel neutral about it. (I felt misunderstood, and hurt, and defeated.) Another time a friend told me they wanted me to put on a specific personality trait under stress, when this particular trait is one I’ve mentioned that I struggle with. They were taking an approach to bring it out, but I suspect that this trait only comes out when I’m completely comfortable, and they were making me uncomfortable. Another recent example is when someone told me that the way to get better at the skill I was trying for was to “stop processing it so much, and think about sharing it rather than thinking it through.” In this case, the skill I was trying for fit into a context where I felt much more freedom than usual to say and feel my own emotions, rather than considering and modeling others’. Thus, the tears were super quick in that situation, because I interpreted what he’d said as: a) I need to start thinking more about other people (“sharing it”) and be less in my own experience even in this context where I thought my experience could be mine, and b) to figure this method out, I couldn’t use the one resource which I can always rely on, which is thinking through a problem.

Interestingly, the worst parts of these scenarios isn’t even in the advice, it’s the stage after it. With friends I trust (…I stop trusting people who do the above to me, with regards to handling my emotions), if they make a mistake and give me advice that isn’t landing, they’ll back off. They’ll apologize, and listen to how I’m saying it doesn’t work. What I most often get in the above scenarios is what feels like people eating up my experience. They’ll be staring at me, at the tears, and you can tell that they’re somewhat uneasy, but they’re just staring, and they’re not taking it back. A move that people who are trained in therapy-like practices will pull is, “you know that wasn’t my intention,” when I explain how I feel in response to their advice. No shit. I know that my response is exaggerated, and I give people a huge amount of space and benefit of the doubt when they give me advice out of their own experience that doesn’t happen to fit with mine. But when “it wasn’t my intention” is followed up with a reiteration of their original advice, and the good spirit in which it was meant, it drives me nuts. Because I feel like what’s happening in that exchange is this… Them: well-meaning advice. Me: BAD BAD BAD I FEEL ATTACKED. HERE’S WHY. Them: You’re attacking me, I feel hurt that you’re upset by me and like I did something wrong. I’m going to reiterate my point. Me: FUCKING HELL I JUST SAID I FELT ATTACKED WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME TAKE CARE OF YOU AND DO THINGS FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE WHEN THE WHOLE POINT IS THAT I DIDN’T FEEL LIKE YOU WERE DOING THINGS FROM MY PERSPECTIVE. I’ll do it, though, the reassuring, because often when I’m staring at this person, who’s just staring blankly at me back (sometimes they’re even enjoying the vulnerability, you can tell), they feel like this blank obstacle that I now have to remove before I can escape. And to remove the obstacle, the fastest thing to do is to reassure them, to thank them, to start crying so they’ll eat it up, and move on. It’s really unpleasant in that I feel completely abandoned and also like they’re seeing me as weak when I do it.

When I was writing these, a few other situations came up that don’t fit the above model super well, but feel somewhat similar. This can include when I’m asking for sympathy and not advice. An example of that one was when a friend had said something about how I wasn’t trying hard enough, and the response was, “well, are you?” Which, yes, a good question to ask, but I was looking for recognition of my emotional state. Another one that happened today is that I mentioned a small complaint, with a lot of couching language and consideration of the other person’s experience. I received back a list of complaints with very little effort to understand where I was coming from. It hurts. A super fun one is when you’re bodily telegraphing “I AM UPSET” at a leader in a group, and they look straight at you, then right on past you. (It feels so absurd when it happens. I know why—they can’t take time out of the group to deal with one person, I totally get it—but it feels completely absurd, because I do facial expressions well so I know I’m communicating, and they just go right on past.) A final example situation that can sometimes happen is that someone gives me advice that I find offensive, I tell them I don’t want to consider that advice, and they get defensive and then I’m required to either reassure them or argue with them until I’m so frustrated that I start crying. As it goes—no one’s wrong in those situations, since the advice is earnestly meant, but it does feel terrible. The recurring thought I get throughout all of these scenarios is: I can take care of myself. I can goddamn take care of myself. But why are you making me do this. Why are you doing this to me. I HAVE TO PICK UP THE PIECES AND WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME.

In circling (the focus of this hippie-woo workshop), one person often is being “circled”, and they’re the ones who everyone focuses their attention on. Rules are different in circles than in real life, in that you’re supposed to bring up more raw and true emotions, even if they’re unpleasant. Everyone is completely focused on listening to your description of what you’re feeling, and then relaying their emotional reactions to your emotions. Personally, I have a bunch of rules that I employ concerning social interactions in real life, and I get to relax them a little bit in circles. Basically, I end up ruder, because I don’t filter negative reactions as much.

What was really interesting about my circle is that when I decrease the strength of those filters, I lash out a lot more when I’m feeling attacked. And I feel a lot more resentment about it—or at least the resentment is much more available for me to see. Someone said, “Yeah, I’m not feeling you right now, I’m kind of frustrated with how this circle is going,” and I said: “Well. Normally I’d ask you what I can do to make this better for you. But it’s my circle.” A different time, someone relayed an experience that they felt was similar, and I said: “Yes, close to that, but that’s actually not what I’m feeling, I feel like you don’t have my experience. Here’s my experience.” Another time, someone delivered a bunch of observations that I felt were sexist and not very applicable to me. I paused, staring at them, and then said: “Okay. Cool.”

That response (“Okay. Cool.”) still kind of blows me out of the water. It’s so rude. Someone’s just delivered their experience and advice, and I completely disagree with them, but rather than coming up with some nice, packaged response that addresses their experience but also clearly and softly addresses why I don’t agree, I just dumped all of that responsibility and presented “Okay. Cool.” The weirdest part is that it’s absurdly rude, but it’s also not. Like, I could have said: “I disagree.” Or “I feel like what you just said was sexist.” Or anything confrontational or true to my feelings at all. Instead, for social cohesion purposes I didn’t say any of the negative things I was thinking, but I also did just the bare minimum of social cohesion in that I normally would have responded much more extensively to that. There’s a lot of freedom in the circle being mine.

In my circle, the main topic ended up being consent, and how it feels like to me when people are giving me this sort of advice. To that end, people would occasionally ask me a question, and then ask “Do you want to answer that?” Which was a super weird experience, because before they tacked on that end bit, it wasn’t ever in question whether I would answer it or not. I would have to, and in a minimally polite way. But when people did ask whether I wanted to answer it… a surprising amount of the time, what would come out of my mouth was a firm and immediate “No.” This is incredibly internally surprising to me, because I’m not at all thinking “I don’t want to answer this” when people ask, but apparently when directly asked that question I know I don’t want to answer a whole host of things, that involve prettying-up my experience and framing it so that other people find it compatible. One time, when asked whether I wanted to answer a question, what came out of my mouth was “No, but it’s way too much bother not to.” And what I meant there is that it was way too much work internally to fight with the part of me that was enforcing bare minimum politeness, and it was easier just to give a somewhat polished response to the question.

(Another recent experience that happened today. I’d been really upset by what someone had said, and had actually been feeling really attacked by it all day. They’d said something not nice, I’d responded with thanks and careful consideration of their experience, and they’d said something unsympathetic back. I had the tears under control by that point, and was acting normal. They came up to me and jokingly said:

“We’re still friends?”

I smiled wryly. “I was very sad.” I checked their body language—they weren’t looking at me, were just passing through the room. “Today was really rough.”

No reply; they passed out of the room, but still within earshot.

“But yes,” I said, “we’re good.”

I don’t know what to do with the contradictions here. There are a few observations here that I wasn’t aware of, that came up over the past few days. One, that I forget to acknowledge, is that I feel these types of situations, where I’m not “heard”, really deeply. I forget how deeply I feel them because most of the time I’m not in a raw mode, or in contexts where people are telling me how to do things I’m concerned about, and the deep emotions get blanketed. (It’s really strange, actually, how well it works. Before starting this post, I was having trouble not crying every few minutes (it’s kind of been a long day, and I have the affordance to sit in it today, which is really nice). But as soon as I decided to write this thing, I went straight into this mode where I’m relatively dispassionately relaying these emotions without actively feeling any of them. It’s super, super strange.) A second observation is that I actually have a lot of politeness filters? And I do consider other people’s experiences, a lot? A third observation is that I feel like my reactions to people giving advice that feels impossible are crazy high-intensity. Like, there must be something going on there, for it to hurt that much. Because it obviously hurts a lot, and these types of situations are becoming kind of distressingly repeated, and I’m not sure what’s going on or what I’m doing to make it happen or why I’m having such huge reactions in the first place. Or how to have more productive reactions. A fourth observation is: …oh man, I get angry at stuff. I’m angry at so much conduct which I think is justifiably bad. I’m so resentful at people who make me take their perspective when they’re not taking mine. I feel like it’s unreasonable, how much I want people to just act appropriately around me, and that I’m biting people’s heads off. That I’m being unjustifiably prickly and making people jump through hoops. (…But then again… there are so many situations, where I’m having a good time and really enjoying the people around me, where I don’t bite people’s heads off and have no desire to, just want to appreciate them. I don’t like feeling like I’m unjustifiably attacking people. And there are many, many situations where I don’t feel like defending myself against people at all.)

I don’t have any conclusions here. What I know is that I want this crap to stop. Specifically, I want to stop having situations where I feel like someone’s attacked me, and I’m staring into their face, crying, while they just watch me back and soak it up. I hate it—it feels really bad, and I don’t like the recurring theme that comes from it, which follows the line of the only person you can rely on with emotions is yourself, plus a despair and helplessness feeling, which is not a mantra I want to encourage.

Luckily, it seems like there are several intervention points here. First, there’s something about avoiding these kinds of situations in the first place. I could stop asking people for advice on things that are bothering me. I kind of like doing that, though, and often it’s fruitful, and people find it interesting and it brings us closer. I could be more picky about who I ask though. I seem to go for people who I respect and who like me but are a bit edgy—I don’t know what they’re going to say, because they’re people who I think may know more about me than I do—which might be a bad choice. I’m really not sure what to do with that though. Another point of intervention here that occurs to me is I could decide I know more about me than anyone else does. That seems like something worth developing, and actually addresses a point I was going to say, which is “don’t get upset by these things in the first place.” (Easier said than done, and if someone else told me this without giving me concrete steps or being sympathetic I’d bite their head off / start bawling, but it seems like one of the end goals.)

Another thing I could do is head off the game when it starts— after people deliver the advice, there’s this horrific pause before the waterworks start, and I could try to recognize that and attempt to extract myself from the situation rather than asking follow-up questions. Another possibility is to engage the anger module once I feel that feeling, rather than the upset module. Anger feels a whole lot better and lasts less long, and I’m pretty darn in control of anger, so there’s no risk of it exploding into something nasty. (If it gets close, I’ll just start crying, so.) Another point would be to try to figure out why people telling me to do things that feel impossible is so impactful in the first place, because I feel like there must be something going on there, because the reaction is so extreme for the prompt. That’d be about dismantling that response from the ground up.

What feels important to accomplish in the end for me is to have a response that feels powerful and not weak. That stands up to people instead of making me feel small. I feel like the “lash out” response gets engaged when I feel like people want things from me that I don’t want to give them (responses, consideration of their feelings, etc.) but I always get stuck in this muddle of “it’s my fault I’m being rude” or “but you’re going to make them upset and then you’ll have to deal with that” or “I’m just being so prickly right now, and rude to them” or “I put this upon myself by asking them to make judgments” or “but maybe this’ll be useful later so I have to be grateful” (I’ve decided I’m okay with abandoning this one)… and it just feels like a mess.

Heh, sorry for inflicting all that on you all :). (Also my use of “sorry” is something I was noting over the weekend :).) Luckily, there is this mess of emotions, but it’s built on this incredible foundation and unshakable faith that I can take care of myself and am going to be fine. And another weird thing is that it kind of feels like a blessing to have this much emotion and access to it, that I can feel things this deeply. I also have a strange sense of continual gratitude to how excellent my life is, that I can have these sorts of feelings, and also no doubt that I’ll be able to surpass and grow from them. Then there’s the fact that this isn’t urgent; these are trends I’ve been noticing, and this is a long-standing type of situation that I get myself into that stretches wayyyyy back. (The “I think other people know more about me than I do, so I’m going to ask for advice and thus put myself in the way of being hurt” is a very old trait trend of mine :). So old.) (Also, it’s not like my response is going to get worse. It’s already established and can only get better :)).

One of my favorite moments this weekend was the following exchange, which I think mirrors some of what I’ve been talking about above, but with a set of people who know me and enjoy me and care about me consistently.

I’d been talking with a few friends at the end of the workshop, asking if we wanted to hang out before we went home, because I’d like to. We’d lapsed into more normal conversation by this point.

One of the friends I was talking to, out of the blue: “You seem agitated.”

Me: “…Yeah. I’ll tell you about it in the second. Could we make a plan for what we’re doing next? Should I call an Uber?”

(Having taken care of the Uber, I walk over to the friend, who’s now sitting on the curb.)

Me: “So, re: me being agitated—”

She’s looking down, and I stop immediately. She doesn’t reply for few moments, and is obviously struggling with something. She starts raising her head, making eye contact.

“—don’t worry about it,” I tell her immediately, as soon as I read her face. I know that expression on other people—that’s what people look like when too emotionally exhausted to deal with other people right now. I’ve also learned that I’m very high energy compared to most people, all the time, so I don’t need to be told at this point.

“…I,” she says.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m boxing it.”

She sighs, looking at bit relieved, and a bit conflicted. By “boxing” I mean that I’m putting the emotion away to deal with later. It’s a pretty temporary solution that I’d been executing for the past ten minutes or so—shoving unpleasantness away while I do social things—but it’s something I used to be very good at and still have reasonable capacity for.

Another friend sees us interacting. “What’s going on?”

I turn to her. “I’m feeling agitated, but [name] is feeling low-energy right now.”

My friend on the curb chimes in, sounding very conflicted. “I want to be supportive, but…”

I nod. “It’s fine.”

Other friend: “Agitated about what?”

Me: “I was just talking to one of the leaders about my circle. And I interpreted what he told me badly, like I wouldn’t be doing this right unless I was maintaining eye contact and focusing on sharing or something.”

Friend: “What do you mean?”

Me: “Like, I feel like he told me I wasn’t doing it right, and I needed to be caring about others more instead of being in my experience. Or something…”

At this point I’m tearing up despite intentions, because I’m really not boxing this thing very well right now. I’m way too on edge to talk about it, though I’m doing okay when I’m not bringing it up.

“Aw, no,” a third friend jumps in. He’s been sitting on the other side of the curb, talking with someone else. His attention apparently was recently drawn to our conversation.

“No,” he says, standing up and coming towards me, “[Leader name’s] not allowed to make you sad.”

He doesn’t ask (he’s asked before, we’ve already established what each of us is okay with in terms of physical touch) and comes right up and hugs me, tightly.

And I’m proud to say that this is probably the first hug I’ve experienced “properly” in years. Normally, during hugs, I’m all: “okay, issuing comfort, how long do we hold, how tightly do we squeeze, are they going to be good after this, what social function are we serving here, emotions organized? Okay, yes.” I’ve gotten better about receiving them, but there’s still usually a fairly involved reasoning process going on. And it was only this last year that I determined hugs were good to begin with, so that’s already a measure of progress.

This time, it was just this feeling of comfort, and support. A space to gather myself rather than a space demanding control. And I had the stray thought about height and length of hug time (I remembered that he was probably following the proper hug rule, which is that whoever needs the hug decides when to let go) because I’m hopeless and this is how I roll, but I think this was my first uncomplicated “hug as giving comfort” that I experienced mainly as such.

My friend on the curb launches herself off the curb. “I changed my mind. My desire to support you has overridden my desire to maintain a specific mental state.”

She strides over, eyes bright. And I get to hug her too.

(There was also one person who met me over the weekend who really saw me, got me, and hugged me just as I was leaving. “Remember you’re so much fun to be around. Remember that.”

And I met a whole bunch of others in passing, who said I was “so alive”, “strong”, “a leader” (when I get to do this in the right contexts, it kind of feels like I’m becoming more myself), “smart”, “beautiful”.

And I got to dance like I haven’t ever danced before? Freedom, and fun, and space, and people?

And I was expressing some of the nonsense above to the friends I met there, and so were other people, and our solution was to get together and hang out and circle each other, when we know and like everyone, and that’s going to be happening next week.)

Night, all :). I feel much better for having written this, and thanks so much for sticking through it :). I want the blog still as an opportunity to do more polished writing, but sometimes I guess I need to stick the feelings in :). (Another thing I learned at the workshop: I have an extremely expressive body, in addition to face. I’m expressing something. What are those emotions? Where are they? What do they mean? Apparently I can get even deeper access to them, and it feels like I’m starting to touch on that, sometimes. Who knew :).)

Best wishes, all, and happy to be contacted, as per usual!

Monica

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