Adventuring

Hey all :).

I’m feeling good, this week :). There was a bit of a slump in the past few weeks—I think it was a combination of dealing with lingering feelings from the circling event and also actually needing to get my final project done. In any case, I was in one of my swings where I wasn’t really talking to people—didn’t feel like dealing with people, and was staying home working instead—but this week I get to emerge into social life again! It’s always nice when I feel like I want to reach out to people, rather than wanting most things to go away :P.

It’s also really nice to have the faith that I can hide away for a bit. It used to bother me whenever I felt like this, because I was worried I’d regress on my social skills or something, or that I was accidentally making myself sadder, or that I wouldn’t swing back out of it, or that people would call me out on it, or that I couldn’t emerge for the minimum mandatory socialization that has to happen to not fall off on work and alternatively not alarm people. Turns out, it’s all fine. I don’t actually have any problems doing some interaction and then a lot of time alone, and the balance actually feels pretty good to me when I’m doing it.

This reminds me of one of the topics I’ve been thinking about recently, namely close friendships, dating, the fraught introversion / extroversion divide, desired time spent in the company of people. I totally go through cycles, but I kind of confuse myself with how I like my people / alone balance to be :). Someone asked me about my perfect day recently, and I said that I’d be pretty happy getting to talk to various cool people all day, having interesting conversations. I’d need a few days to recover from that, but the day itself and the after-days would all be cool. In other evidence of me liking hanging out with people, I’m usually the person who reaches out to friends and old contacts, not the other way around. And whenever I get to new places, and am trying to make new friends fast, I can do social things until the cows come home, and it’s interesting and engaging for me.

On the other hand… I thought I’d changed up my patterns since getting to grad school, but I’ve settled into almost the exact same socialization patterns that I had in college. This isn’t unduly deliberate—there are circumstances of communal housing that are similar for everyone—but I could have made different choices along the way. Namely: I seem to end up in places that are far enough away that it’s kind of a pain for friends to get to. I seem to seek out friendly roommates who nevertheless mostly leave me alone, except for casual communication in common spaces. I like planned socialization time with friends, especially one-on-one, and organize meet-ups for that purpose. I still downright refuse to be contacted for spontaneous gatherings and communication, which includes not being willing to check my phone. When I need to do any sort of serious work I’ll isolate myself from people (…this is also why I ended up spending so much time on my own in college. I usually can’t concentrate around other people.) I’ll message people, but usually a few times a day is near my maximum, and I’ll see my closest friends something like once a week or so. Whoo hoo, I’m back to my normal isolationist-with-social-intensity-interspersed routines! It’s something I had to give up when I was in Cambridge—we were required to go into work on somewhat normal hours, like a proper office job, but I seem to have drifted right back into it. I’m also keeping late hours, as is my wont when schedules will let me get away with it :P. (…Uh, and part of the point of keeping late hours is that people aren’t awake. I like it when there are no external demands on my time and I don’t have to check email and such. It’s a big part of the appeal.)

But I am so good at getting people to guess I’m an extrovert :). My energy also ramps up crazily during social interactions, which—if we’re using my favorite definition of extroversion, which is “gains energy through social”—can be misleading. The key bit to realize is that social stuff feels pretty performative to me, “important” in that there are consequences if I mess it up, and interesting / engaging and in a “pay a lot of attention” way. This all means that I automatically ramp up my energy in a similar way as I’d do for anything that I feel requires my focus and concentration. I also prefer to take at least an equivalent amount of time alone after such events, though I’m definitely capable of forcing it :P. A funny mode I have is if I’m emotionally exhausted, but know that I have a while yet before it’s done, I’ll drop into this energy-conserving mode where all of my emotional reactions feel really blunted and flat. I can switch myself out of it pretty much immediately if necessary, but it’s always kind of a mood I enjoy when I’m in it, because it’s like: lay it on me, go for it, it’s totally not going to hurt or affect me as much as usual, and it just feels really calming to know that there’s nothing that I can do, nothing I have to be or react to, I’ve already had my fill and all of this stuff is just extra and not really about me or at me, just there. (Hm, that does sound like a weird state, in retrospect. Anyone else get this?)

In any case, this brings me around to: dating! Whoo-ee, dating’s some complicated business. I’ve been doing the simple version where I’m honest and blunt-ish and approximately say what I’m feeling. (Who needs subtext? Subtext is for bringing up explicitly for interesting discussion. “…so I’m appreciating this silence while you try to come up with something, but if you want I could also help you out here? We’re talking about whether we want to see each other again, yes?” or “So I notice you keep on moving a certain way, and that in some types of interactions you’ve been reacting like…” and more, so much more (evil grin)).

But I’ve been recently hanging out with a friend or two who are doing dating the normal way, and it sounds exhausting. “So, I just made the first contact for the date, but I now have to wait for him to contact me next, because I want him to do some work.” “Am I allowed to message him again? I don’t want to be too clingy.” “It’s important to play hard to get, it actually has a really effect, people become less attractive to me when they reply too quickly.” “Look at this message! What’s going on here? What’s the tone?” “Are you getting ready for your date? It usually takes me a hour or so, with all the makeup.” “So I want to have sex with him, but I can’t just say that, but if he brings wine, then I can just sort of let it happen…” “I have to have at least a few dates before I get in his car, he could do anything!”

It just feels so restrictive, and painful, and tiring, hearing about it. There are so many rules about what you are and are not allowed to say, and what you’re supposed to do to indicate interest, and what the other person is supposed to do to indicate interest, and I was like: “…if you’re interested, can’t you just message if you want to message? Can’t you just say you’re interested in sex? Can’t you just put on normal going-out clothes? I feel like the people you’re talking with aren’t super mysterious and they’re not actually out to get us, you can talk to them like you’re talking to me.”

I’ve heard that taking the direct approach is often actively detrimental. There is a reason everyone plays “the game”, and that is because playing “the game” works. Happily, I don’t care enough, and choose weird enough people, and me being out there has worked surprisingly well. I have seriously been surprised by how well people seem to get along with me, given that I’m deliberately violating the social norms. People have told me on a few occasions that they were actively surprised by how comfortable they’ve felt around me by the end, which is so strange to me, because I’m not doing anything. I’m seriously just asking invasive questions while following people’s interests and my own, and people are usually initially worried about this, and then they tell me they feel really comfortable by the end, and I’m like: people. I have been trying to learn how to make people feel comfortable about me for FOREVER, I’ve been trying to figure out how to make people feel comfortable confiding in me for WHO KNOWS HOW LONG, and all of a sudden I’ve just got it? By following my own interests and asking you bunches of hard questions about who you are and what you care about? On the first date? …This was not in the manual at all, you know. No one says this is a thing that you can do, this is not in my stories, this is a weird sneaky shortcut to some kind of emotional safety, I don’t understand, but hell yes I will take it despite having no idea how it works.

(Fine, I can hypothesize. I’ve asked people about it, actually. (Made them analyze it. This is also not allowed in my Manual of How Social Interaction Works. I think it’s kind of rude because of the cognitive overhead, but I really appreciate when people do it anyway.) The reason why what I’m doing works is something like: I’m actively curious about who people are, the curiosity feels genuine, and, most importantly, the curiosity feels open. Meaning that it feels non-judgmental and interested and compassionate, and this feels unusual to people. Who knew that I’d grow up to be a good listener—I’ve asked my friend Tiffany about when I first started doing active listening, and she said around junior year of college. Back then it was an intimidating kind of active listening that felt pressuring to people, and even now I know my questioning system can feel very pressuring if I’m pushing it that way. I still remember how miraculous it was when I first heard the idea that “active listening makes people like you”—if I recall, I got that from a book. But nowadays apparently I’ve softened the active listening without even trying. Who knew, man.)

(My mother knew :P. My parents have been working on the whole “train up Monica in all the social skillz!!” front since high school. Incredibly, I think I’ve got it now. Like, I’m actually done. There are small skills to pick up on the edge cases, and when I move to a new environment there will be extra things, but I’ve got the essentials, and the proper cues in place to notice when I need to be adjusting and learning. How insane—it’s been such a long-running training session—and I’m talking a major focus of mine since middle school, something I’ve been actively worrying about and working on all the way through college—and I’m, like, done. By my own standards, of course, since I’m sure others differ on whether I’m properly socialized, but I think I can declare success by this point. I mean, I can date now. What more could you want from me? :P).

(Less tongue-in-cheek, I say dating’s important because it requires a ton of subtextual implicit stuff that’s important in normal conversation but not the established standard.  Of course, I’ve been cheating in how I’ve been approaching it, but the fact that apparently it works anyway says to me I’m good to go. There’s also the question of what one wants to accomplish with one’s social skills. I basically want to be able to make friends with the people I want to be friends with, not offend people, be able to function well at work, and communicate my interests / needs / desires in a way that builds connection and is reciprocated. If I want more advanced skills, like the ability to lead people well, convince people, manage people, facilitate group interactions, get along with every type of person, or help people from a therapy context (for example) I have to start building again, but I’m happy with what I have given my current goals.)

(Additional addendum: saying that I’ve got my basic social skills and can come off as pleasant to most people, and interesting / appealing to a specific type that I care about, doesn’t save me at all when it comes to work :P. There’s this lovely much-closer-than-in-normal-life meritocracy going on in research, and while it’s far from perfect (just like in non-research life, there are many biases, e.g. see the number of African-American professors), you definitely have to actually be good at what you do to get anywhere. Moreover, being good at research requires a skill set that has parts that feel almost orthogonal to socialization.)

Anyyyyyyway, I had a few points I’d stored up for a while, one of which is: I give thanks for not being super invested in dating, because it makes several of my friends very sad when they want to be long-term dating and are smashing against the dating wall. Two: I have an exception for me enjoying living by myself, because one summer I lived with a friend whose company I enjoy a lot, and I had an excellent time hanging out with her more than once a week. And this leads me to my original point in bringing up dating, which was: do I want to be dating in the first place? (…I love that it took me more than 1000 words to get to this point.)

And the verdict seems to be… um, no? I’m not, like, closing this route off or anything (that seems silly, I’ve got lots of life left to change my mind as new situations arise), and if someone stupendously awesome for me wants to show up, then by all means. But I’ve done, like, a pretty thorough investigation by this point, and I keep on drifting towards the conclusion that I don’t actually need to care about this, right now.

So, hear me out! I started out this whole “figure out sex and dating” venture two summers ago because I got fed up with men telling me I should date. The last straw was an old guy telling me I was “pretty enough,” so “why aren’t you?” In proper feminist form, I decided to completely buy his importance on dating and started on the “dating adventures” so I could have concrete evidence why I didn’t want to be dating, and also I was worried I was missing out on stuff. I really liked the idea of kissing and had been wanting to try that out for a while, plus sex was scary and I generally don’t like being scared of things. Plus, everyone talks about dating all the time, and it makes good stories or whatever, plus friends were encouraging me in this project. All good, solid reasons to start dating, am I right?

In any case, I’ve been exploring this properly for something like a year and a half now, meeting up with a good number of people and even trying some short-term dating for a while. Conclusions: wow, kissing and related activities are not nearly as good as I thought they would be for me. And I did proper research on expectations, too—I for one read a ludicrous amount of romance, to the degree that I’ve read a ludicrous amount of romance-gone-wrong (the field is biased positive, but by sheer number I’ve spanned the multitudes.) I’ve also consulted with real-life people about what romance is supposed to feel like (the number of people I’ve asked “what is romance?” and the number of helpless shrugs I’ve received in reply). I’ve asked people about what the related activities are supposed to feel like, too, and also consulted the internet, and then consulted more people (“no, but what are the emotions associated it? What does it feel like? What are the analogies? What’s the closest related activity?”) I have tried things with several people who self-report that they are good at these things, and many spontaneously referenced the relative number of other satisfied partners they had had to assure me of the validity of their self-report. (…that is a monster of a sentence. That wouldn’t even pass in academic writing. Euphemisms and obfuscation and some science jargon, oh my.) I generally just met up with a bunch of people, and they even happily tended to fall outside of any single identification category. All good experiences, with some pretty cool people, and thank you to everyone who bore with me in my delusions of scientific investigation and generally was accepting and awesome with me. (Like, everyone was great with me. I know I’ve had far better experiences than most, and I’m grateful to everyone for the consideration and humor and kindness they demonstrated.)

Here’s an observation that was exciting to me: I have, on occasion, experienced all of the fluttery warm feelings promised to me by the romance trope! They were often accompanied by enough emotional baggage that I grew fearful and tired and decided that I didn’t want to do this right now. However, I have isolated the experience to myself, rather than other people: other people do seem to feel all of the reported feelings and inclinations, and I seem to… not. This is useful, because it can mean that other people are right in insisting that dating is the best thing ever, because it actually is for them, and I can also be right in saying that dating is interesting but also more stressful than I care for at the moment, like, for real, having collected evidence on myself and anything, not even repressing any more than you are, like, FOR REAL FOR REAL (I’m not defensive or anything) and I can also be right. I am still uneasy about different people having such strong opinions while each being right in their own subjective experience, but feel satisfied that it can be divided this way.

I have also learned that while people can be interested in me, I am allowed to not be interested in them, and in fact can do things like change my mind and be a little abrupt. Additionally, while I try to be sensitive, I don’t have to necessarily engage with people even though they may be persistent. (Still working on this one. I’m making much progress.) I have also learned that relationships can be very confusing, there are a lot of emotions, a lot of consideration of other people’s emotions, communication is key, and I like friend-dynamics a lot. Also, the internet can be very kind in specific places and has nice names and labels for any of the above feelings if one feels so inclined. (I like labels. And boxes. And other organizational boundaries. I am highly empathetic to people who find labels and boxes and organizational boundaries constraining.)

I also learned that I find discussion of dating and related activities quite interesting, and probably will for a while, and still like romance and imagining but don’t want to deal with actual people at this moment. I have also learned that people are highly suspicious of repression when one says such things, and suspect blockages due to fear, and perhaps that one is replacing the things that one really wants with easier-to-acquire things. Look, I can’t promise I’m not, but this stuff doesn’t scare me anymore, it just currently feels tiring, so give me a break. (Again, I’m so obviously not defensive here. I’ve internalized a lot of these arguments, and now spend a lot of time arguing with myself :)).

That said, if someone like my summer roommate appears and wants to be housemates with me for a while, I am down. If someone wants to show up and watch movies with me, so down. If someone wants to engage in “related activities”, and is, like, an interesting person who will hang out with me in other contexts as well… to be decided, really. That’s the scenario I’m currently running hypotheticals on. I suspect that if they wanted to do friend-stuff that’d be even better, but to be concluded.

AND SO CONCLUDES THE DATING SAGA! Ha, not really. I’ll still be trying stuff out and gathering additional data (read: hanging out with cool people :)). And generally I’ll be watching for if things change and generally analyzing emotional reactions. But while this was an active operation for quite a while (consult my friends on this, I’m not even changing the terminology much from how I’ve occasionally talked about it) I hit an important keypoint two days ago when I had a realization that went: “…oh wait, I’m not actually interested in pursuing this goal anymore even though a few months ago I probably would have been okay with this situation”. For everyone who listened to me talk about this and told me they thought this was a phase (I respect those people, since I also suspected it was going to be phase)—evidence seems to be leading in that direction.

It is amusing to me that I decided to go through my first 22 years of life and have no romantic /sexual relationships whatsoever, for the stated reason of “I’ve got school!”, and that I’d tell this to people and they seemed to have no idea where to store this information. I’ve been congratulated before, amusingly (…uh, it’s not like it was hard. There was school, relationships weren’t the default.) I’ve been reminded that I went to an all-women’s college and then was at an all-woman’s dorm in Cambridge. (…In retrospect, I really miss all-women’s environments. Sigh. But also, I lived in Boston over the summers, and I don’t only date men. Also I spent a good amount of time at MIT. Also, there were parties at Cambridge. If I wanted to make it work I could have made it work.) People have been much nicer about the inexperience thing than common adage would have had me believe, though I might have just gotten lucky on that front. And now, after a year and a half or so of trying this out, I’m back to where I was. Not entirely, because I know myself much better now in this area, and I’m no longer afraid of sex, and I have arguments to marshal, and amusing stories to tell (seriously, if you ever try these sorts of adventures, pick the weird nice ones. Weird nice ones make fun and pleasant experiences and excellent stories.) Also I’m more open to taking up opportunities if I change my mind and opportunities arise. But it’s been quite a ride, this whole dating thing :). (And again, thank you to everyone, and for the opportunities I’ve had, because it’s pretty special that I got to undertake this adventure the way I did.)

…You know, this was not even what I really intended to talk about, in this blog. I’ve been thinking about it pretty constantly for the last long time, but I didn’t know that I’d been wrapping it up nicely and was ready to present findings. *shrugs*

In other news, I’ve been making a lot of progress on the “identify feelings when you’re feeling threatened” problem, and I think making that progress, and changing behaviors and actually seeing the execution results has done a lot towards lifting my mood. Also, I have a lot more general blog thoughts I have written down and want to write about, and am back to wishing I had more time to write this thing. Well, I need to finish that research paper due on Saturday, and then maybe I can do another fun one next week. Man I missed feeling like I was on top of the world and knew what I was doing and was pleased with the environs inside and outside my head. I feel like it’s been a while, when it can’t have been that long, maybe a few weeks, right? But I haven’t felt chatty properly in what feels like a while. (Humor and overly long sentences, I missed it. Did you know I used to write this floridly when I was younger as well? Apparently I’ve always amused myself with overly complicated sentences, and it takes effort to make it legible. I was thinking about how many writing “dialects” I had, and I think I settled on “academic”, “normal”, and “informal” but with not too much of a difference between “normal” and “informal”. Maybe “clear” should be the middle category.)

In any case, I hope you all have great weeks, and best of luck on finals for those in the midst of that. Happy adventuring, everyone :).

Monica

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