Life is nice

Readers-readers-readers it’s blog time!

I’m so excited. This week has been… incredibly busy? A bunch of my friends are just getting back from break, but I feel like I’ve been on continuous “go” for a while now, especially since school started yesterday. But I’ve finally carved out some blog time. This week I’m going to write out lots of relatively-disconnected little thoughts that I’ve been saving up for a while. These are things that I write down when they occur to me, at least a few times a day; elsewise thoughts can fall into loops in my mind and it’s nice to have a clean mindspace :).

I find it interesting how much I echo people’s speaking styles, after a single exposure? I don’t often notice it, but I was at a dinner party the other day and the new phrasing that was coming out of my mouth was strange enough that I checked back to see where I had gotten it from.

This time, it was “I thought I’d check the source material,” which is something that fits in my vocabulary, but not something I’d normally use. It turned out one of the people at this party had used it about 15 minutes before, and I said it when I was speaking to him again, unconsciously.

I also said “there is a Sarah,” which I would never use in my normal patterns. It had been repeated twice though previously, in this group of people, so I appeared to have adopted it. I also generally notice I tend to adopt a more casual, slang-y way of speaking with people I meet on the street, and tend to go very intellectual and fast when I’m annoyed with someone. I’m possibly most scientifically eloquent when trying to bulldoze people I’m annoyed with than when I’m actually trying, which is an interesting observation.

What’s strange to me is the actual adoption of language is unconscious. I’m aware when I’m speaking in a different way than normal, but it feels like it’s just “happening” to me. However, I’m fully aware of what was said, and who said it, and can usually track these things back to the specific instance in which the particular phrasing I’ve adopted was used. I wonder if people who pay less explicit attention to everything that’s said adopt language. You know, I intuitively think they probably do.

Another odd observation is how much I pay attention in conversations—like, if you stop focusing for a few seconds you can lose an entire sentence—and how much it seems like everyone else must as well? It’s kind of absurd that we don’t miss more than we do when talking to people. Then again… it depends on what you’re talking about. A lot of the people I talk with put content in every single sentence, but maybe most conversations you can generally get the gist of it if you zone out on occasion. One of my friends has trouble with zoning out, and really wants glasses that will show a conversation transcript on the lens so that she can catch up when she inevitably loses the thread somewhere.

I was talking with my advisor about context-switching recently… basically, I’m bad at working on several projects at once, and would rather do things one at a time. However, as a professor, apparently all they do is context-switch, constantly. My professor says it’s a skill one learns in grad school, and you can get better at it and less stressed about it.

The thing is, though, that I don’t think I’m bad at context-switching in general. I was in college at some point, and occasionally my life gets busy now (read: this semester :P) and I’m able to get a lot of diverse things done with pretty low overhead. But context-switching with projects stresses me out, because you have to hold a lot in your head. If I’m not the lead on a project, no problem, but I seem to be trying to hold the entire project in my head every time I work on the project that I’m mainly responsible for. Meaning, not only am I tracking what I’m doing, but I’m doing a lot of tracking of is this what I’m supposed to be doing, is this the best thing to be doing, which requires that you keep the entire scope of the project and where you’re going and what remains and in what order it should be done and what needs to be saved and how should this whole thing be organized—all of that, in mind. And if I’ve got this massive precarious structure in my head, and someone’s like—nope, you need to work on this other thing now—I’m looking at this crumbling, enormous thing, and I just want to be buried under it and be overwhelmed and pulled and upset because uh, I’m holding up this thing right now? I don’t like how huge it is and I’m trying to decrease it, leave me alone?

I guess the strategy here would be to break it down into pieces and work on each of those pieces. I struggle with that because I really like having the big picture (at the project-level, and at “organizing Monica’s time” level) in mind. I think I’m actually quite good at the whole organizing-time-efficiently-and-making-plans-happen-in-advance-and-in-order skill, even compared to a lot of the people I hang out with.

The strategy I came up with a month or so ago and I’ve been pushing in my head is a general “DON’T WORRY ABOUT THIS YOU DO TOO MUCH PLANNING” banner that I send around my head reasonably frequently. It is actually doing something—making me back off a little on the nitty-gritty details and try to just let things happen—but I’m interested to see how that develops further.

Wow, I notice that it often takes several paragraphs to discuss a thing that is a fragment of a phrase in my word doc of thoughts. E.g., the whole chunk above is: “Context-switchableness? Have to learn it? (says [advisor name])”

The remainder of that sentence is “but also I like blocks of uninterrupted time a LOT”, which I also think is interesting. You know how I don’t use a phone? I didn’t use to use a phone, and I still try to strongly discourage friends from contacting me on a phone. The reason I don’t like phones is that they make you way too contactable. People expect you to respond in, like, minutes. Which is completely unacceptable to me, because I need huge chunks of time—hours—where I can switch off the internet and people and just be left alone. This is a lot of the reason why I end up with a late schedule, because that’s the only time when you’re not expected to be awake and ready to engage.

This desire of mine for chunks of alone-in-head time is annoying to people. It’s annoying because it’s really nice when you can contact people in minutes, and don’t have to plan everything days in advance.

I’d been thinking about this desire as just that—a desire, and one that everyone shares to some extent, and I was just exaggerating it to be annoying for some reason, but everyone basically has the same feeling, they’re just getting over it better.

However, I was talking with people recently who were taking a different mindset. In this mindset, everyone legitimately feels different needs, and they’re forcing themselves to be in the roughly average mold as everyone else, but literally everyone has different capabilities and different defaults. So it’s not that everyone’s in the default of “oh my god why are you forcing me to be online all the time STOP” but then are just really really good at context-switching and shunting their brains to different topics… instead, there must be a lot of people for whom, like, checking messages and responding constantly feels good or something? Or like, not kind of traumatic if done constantly. Just like, a thing, maybe a mild inconvenience, maybe even good, like how I feel sometimes when I’m in the mode where it feels kind of fun to have a gazillion things to manage at once.

And if this is true… then my forcing people to plan also takes somewhat of a different light. Because I’m really good at planning. I like planning, I have a hard time turning it off, I like looking ahead and knowing the layout of my day and where it’s going to go. However, I know people often don’t like it when I make them plan instead of doing something on-the-fly. For example, before I had a working phone (read: last year), I used to print out Google maps before I went anywhere and plan my routes, and then basically get it right on the first try when I needed to get somewhere new. I still tend to memorize maps before I take off for places on my bike. But this is really hard for some people. (e.g. I suck at street names. Images are great, street names are so bad.) And I actually know it’s hard for some people, and that not being spontaneous drives some people crazy and takes all the fun out of it and makes them feel cornered. Also, I’m increasingly realizing that a lot of people around me can’t focus or take action as well as I can. ADHD doesn’t let people focus as long as they want to (…I have an astonishing ability to focus for pretty much however long I need to. I didn’t really realize this was astonishing until recently. I knew people didn’t focus as long as I did, and attributed that to… something… mainly “I’m-ignoring-this-because-it’s-confusing-and-I-don’t-want-to-think-bad-thoughts-about-people’s-willpower”). And if you need me to take action on something relatively mechanistically easy—something that involves several steps, emailing or calling or whatever, but not hard—this is extremely low effort for me. In fact, taking these kinds of actions is relieving for me, because otherwise they’re piling up on my lists, and I have to finish my lists, and I don’t want anything on my list because it’s distracting. I now am doubting that this is how completing small actions feels to most people.

I’m having a hard time drawing a distinction between what I thought and what I now realized, since I think the above may be obvious to people. But it’s something like…

Before: There are two assumptions: 1) everyone has my default skills (people are allowed to have extra skills, but they have all of my baselines), and 2) everyone basically has the same landscape of things that are enjoyable or stressful (what I’m calling preferences). Since these assumptions don’t actually align with peoples’ behavior, I seem to have arrived at an odd series of justifications for the contradictions, some of which are below.

  • If the majority of other people are showing a different preference than mine, then I’m somehow wrong, because we all have the same preferences. I thus need to compensate for my wonky and unjustified set of preferences.
  • If I can’t compensate properly, because my wonky preferences are really off from normal… well, that doesn’t make any sense, because all of our preferences are roughly normal. So how to explain it? Oooh, I know: other people also have this bad preference, but are really good at overcoming it. They are super skilled in something. Everyone has my default skills, but people can have extra skills, and it seems like the majority of the population has a skill that I am lacking. Ah, the reason I am struggling with this preference is because I am lacking a skill.
  • Hmmm, wait, here’s another weird thing. Some of my friends, who are good people and try hard and everything, are failing to achieve a thing. Why are they failing? They have my default skills—they have insane willpower, almost infinite energy, are equivalent smartness, and have strong preference to please—they should be able to apply this to any possible hard thing and at least do as well as I could do. Why… aren’t… they? I mean, obviously it’s a failure in willpower—they aren’t trying hard enough—but that’s not an okay thing to think. Some things are hard for people, we know that, just like there are equivalent really hard things for me that other people don’t find hard. But why don’t they just—but NO MUST BE SYMPATHETIC—but—you know what, we’re going to just ignore this people-failing-thing, it’s very mysterious.

For an example that wraps up all of these veins of logic:

  • Uh, many of my friends appear to be magic? Like, they do things and those things feel absolutely impossible for me. How. The thing scares me, I have no idea how they do it, but they say they like it. But—how—okay, so, well, obviously the difference is they like the thing. And we all have roughly similar preferences, so all I need to do is make myself like the thing—it’s surely possible, I can do this, I just need to willpower through it, since willpower is the core of everything if you happen to not initially like a thing you’re supposed to like. Uh, crap, I still don’t like the thing. Well, well—well who cares if you like the thing! Sometimes people are different, fine, but whatever, you still need to actually do the thing. Just—do the actions. Do whatever people are doing with whatever mindset you have, just push through it. Okay, some progress but—why are people so good at this? Why am I not good at this? Why—right, it’s because people are unnaturally skilled at this, it’s because I’m having a failure in skills here, obviously there’s some mind thing going on, but obviously I should be able to push through, if you can’t power through by brute analysis then… then… and now people are telling me that I should be good at it, that I should be but I TRIED I can’t willpower more I don’t know what to do, I don’t understand why you want more willpower from me—and now you’re telling me that since I said I want it (of course I want the skill, didn’t I just say that?) why don’t I just do it, and I know we all have the same preferences and you want me to push mine over but that didn’t work and I don’t have any more willpower to give you and WHY DON’T YOU LIKE ME I’M TRYING CAN’T YOU SEE I’M TRYING I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU’RE MAGIC AND I’M NOT, I’m sorry, I’m angry, I don’t know, I’m sorry.

(Note, for those of you who are new readers: this is not at all what’s going on intellectually :). I’m writing here from more of my emotional baseline, which also has beliefs, but my emotional center is much more inaccessible than my intellectual self and, as such, its beliefs don’t always make logically-cohesive sense. They’re pretty decent instincts, as they go, but are often slow to adjust to changing circumstances.)

But! But. I’ve been teaching myself some new tricks recently and trying to push those into the metaphorical hindbrain :).

First acknowledgement: Here’s a new knowledge bit, Monica, take it or leave it—most people don’t try to willpower through hard things.

I think, since I’m good at willpower, and willpower and intellectual analysis are my fallbacks, I tend to think that every time someone succeeds at something I find hard, it’s through a success in willpower. That means if I don’t have a success it’s through my failure in willpower, since it was just as hard for them and this is the path they took.

I… I really don’t know what to replace this with, but it just doesn’t make sense that people are willpowering through whatever crap I find hard. People just don’t find a lot of those things hard. And when people are telling me to do things that they find easy, I shouldn’t hear that as this request instead: “You just need to goddamn try harder, Monica, because I just told you to match my preferences and the way to do that is to try harder.”

(One of my friends said the following thing once: “People are already generally doing the things they find easy. If people aren’t already doing [x type of] research, it’s probably going to be a lot harder to get them to do it than it would be if you were simulating convincing yourself, because people gravitate to the things they find easy.” That comment still puzzles me at an emotional level, but I like thinking about it, because I think there’s some real truth I’m not acknowledging there.)

Point 2. Here’s a thought: People don’t all have the same preferences. And it’s okay. It’s OKAY. You are allowed to like the things you like, and dislike the things you like, and—nope, crap, I don’t believe this one. I still want everyone to want roughly the same things. Hm… let me try a “because” on that. I still want everyone to want roughly the same things because… it’s fair. Because you have to. Because you have to do what people want from you, and that means you have to like it, because you’re not allowed to not like it and be angry with them, because then they’re going to hurt you, and then you’re going to have to do it anyway, because they’re right and you’re wrong so it’s better not to think about it.

…Oh, okay, that’s informative. Thank you emotional self! (It’s always funny how the emotional self has good reasons for beliefs that off the top of your head don’t make any sense. I believe in the emotional self though—it’s got its own set of logic, mostly revolving around protection from hurt, recently :)). So there’s something about it being safer to have the same preferences, and—oh, there’s also my recent narrative about people being dangerous! In therapy a few days ago I described people as “jumbled messes of emotion and color that are literally going to explode at you if you don’t try to control any part of them you can—if you don’t understand what you can say as input and what’s going to come out as output, if you don’t make them into this comprehensible black box where you understand at least some of the wires.”

I think I’ll probably have to sort through my “people are dangerous” narrative, since it runs deep. The tag of “people are dangerous” is just my newest iteration of it. It ties in a lot with my strong need for everyone to be nice around me, and to fulfill expectations, and to have very clear expectations set for me… when I think about the “people in dangerous” kind of behaviors I have, it ends up feeling like a tangled, wrapped up ball of Christmas lights that feels incredibly cringing-away-from-things and desperate-to-please and afraid-anxious. Basically, if I can figure out how to get enough new frames that I don’t believe this one, I’m going to be so well taken care of :).

But anyhow, let’s try my last easy thought. (I feel like I’m describing my feelings right now, but not at all taking advantage of all of the possible fixing-this approaches that would be possible reading this from an outside intellectual perspective. Maybe someone will point some easy way out of this to me, or maybe I’ll come back to it later and come up with something myself. It literally just takes a sentence in the right moment for me to get a perspective change, but it’s hard to make that sentence.)

Last easy thought: people have different skills. Yeah. Yeah. This is my new realization as of a week ago, and more yesterday. Yesterday was about the intersection of preferences and skills, actually. It’s like: different people find different things hard. It can actually just be really really hard for me to be accessible by phone constantly, and that’s fine. That’s a real thing. It’s not that other people have more skills than I do, it’s that it’s literally just not as hard for them. Interestingly, I don’t seem to have to do much adjustment for the “other people can’t do what I can do”, since I already have a strong sympathy-understanding-they-just-can’t-for-some-reason response built-in. But I think the update there is not that people are unable to do specific things, but that the meta-skills are different too—what the landscape looks like if you don’t have willpower and energy and brute processing power to throw at it. The update is that it’s not about specific damn-can’t-do-the-thing, but about perspective, about what mental resources are available when you grab for them, the idea that other peoples’ default go-to I-need-help tools are not the same as mine are. (And so will succeed in circumstances mine won’t, and fail in circumstances mine won’t, but they’re different.)

I think a lot of this feels like a gradual expanding of my new “people aren’t always right” belief, which is built on the idea that all of us are basically the same. (Made up of the same cloud, my mind is throwing up at me. It’s a grey cloud, and the “people aren’t always right” belief is sort of like a castle on top of it. Since talking to my friend who can’t see mental imagery, I’m appreciating my own more.) And I love the “people aren’t always right” idea, because it’s helped so much with the “people are dangerous” front, because it means I can listen to things people say and aren’t immediately wrong, don’t have to have a reaction to it.

(One thing that’s super super puzzling to me is why I’m so unguarded with people. Like, there’s a part of me that feels deeply threatened by people, and yet I seek out new people and throw as much of myself at them as possible, and hope that they’re nice and don’t say anything I have to take to heart. This doesn’t make sense. Why am I not more scared? There must be some weird exceptions and compensatory stuff going on behind the scenes, and I am really puzzled about how those are working.)

Whoop that long. Back to your regularly-scheduled short(er) bits, here we go :).

At this dinner party the other night, I told my “breathing too loudly” story. This story goes as follows: when I was in high school, during a certain period of time my mother liked my sisters and me to all be downstairs, in the living room, rather than upstairs in our rooms. This is because I spent most of my time in high school either studying or doing sports, so if I was allowed to be up in my room all the time studying, then no one would ever see me.

However, I’m not good at studying with people around or with noise, which is why, to this day, I still need to do all of my serious work alone and in silence. (It’s mighty inconvenient, may I tell you :P).

At one point I even yelled at my sisters for, quote, “breathing too loudly”, which I still get teased about today.

And that’s the punchline of the “breathing too loudly” story. This is one of my stock stories, that I’ve told many times, and when I deliver it, it is funny. People always laugh at the last line—incredulous, amused—and I mean for it to be that way, that’s the way this story is told. It’s not a “should be told” this way, or anything I’ve thought about deeply—that is just this story: this story is about friendly teasing about obnoxious things we used to do as children, and it is humorous because of how ridiculous a response that is.

I told this story incidentally, an “along the way brief story about me” in answering a question at this dinner party. And I got dead silence. I even added the “I still get teased about this today,” with a sheepish smile, because I was getting nothing, and the there was a little bit of laughter. But everyone always laughs at that story—when people care about you and are paying attention, and you’re giving them humor cues, people are primed to do this.

The follow-up question was, sympathetically: “And how do you feel about that situation, where you had to sit downstairs?”

I’ve, like, never ever ever had that happen, and I feel… kind of touched, actually. This happened to be an entire group of people who knew about or experienced need for silence and preferences around social stimuli, and they were listening to this story, and they weren’t listening to my delivery cues, they were filling in the story. I think when I tell this story normally, and people are simulating themselves in my place, when I come out with “and I yelled at my sisters for breathing too loudly” it’s a total surprise because it’s nothing they would do, and so it’s funny. I think with these people, they were simulating themselves in my place, they were not enjoying it, they were listening to what I wasn’t saying, about being stressed and noise-bothered and not a particularly yell-y type of person in general, and they ignored the humor cues, and gave me silence. A “that’s not funny” silence, a sympathetic silence, and a “tell us more, if you’d like” end.

This reminds me of one of my friends, who once told me that no one believes her about things she finds really upsetting because she delivers “I’m really upset” stories in a monotone. Since I heard that, I’ve been watching my own tone when I talk about things that upset me, and I’ve been very surprised, because that’s almost never been the case for me. When I talk about things that upset me, I’ll often do it in a serious voice, which gets taken somberly. I’ll also often do it with a serious voice but smiling, and that gets treated pretty much exactly the same as if I’m making an upset face with it. I didn’t expect this, because the words contrast my facial expression—I do amused, or just smiling with flat eyes—but people have no problem interpreting this, and don’t smile back. Never when I’m telling a joke though, and especially not with like 5 people all doing it at once. I guess it could have been the delivery—it’s possible I did it differently than usual—but the sheer amount of surprise that I felt afterwards assures me that I didn’t think I delivered it that differently.

I wonder, then, what stories function like this for other people. Probably the entire class of embarrassing stories, which were not fun in the moment for the teller but need to be told as humorous as a defense mechanism. (And eventually embarrassing stories can become relegated to an independent “younger self”, at least in my experience, so then I don’t mind telling them because they’re not about “me” anymore.) Not actually sad stories, which can’t really be told as humorous very well, because people can read the sadness in the content. Oh, people-are-still-resentful stories—stories where people are still kind of aggravated with the teller for doing a thing, and then teller has to make themselves out as outrageous and the story as humorously awful for the other people to blow off steam. You know, I’m pretty sure the breathing-too-loudly story is a “people-are-still-resentful story”, or at least that’s why it became a funny story in my mind, because it kind of had to. Everyone was upset in that situation, but I was the one who took the bad yelling action unsolicited, as it were.

There must be other stories that function as funny stories when they weren’t actually funny to the person—I feel like there are many types of stories like this, that range from—oh, black humor, of course. That’s definitely the canonical example, and there’s got to be more in the “I’m kind of uncomfortable range”—slapstick, I guess as well. Wait, what’s pure, happy humor? No, that definitely exists as well, like when someone does something clever, or unusual, or sweet, and it’s delightful. I’m getting anchored here on my existing story, but that slight uncomfortableness, that I’m not even aware of anymore when I tell the story, combined with laughter is so—interesting. It tastes like something, hard to grasp, kind of dark, kind of sharp, kind of out of reach.

Well. I really liked talking with this group of people—they kept on reading true things into what I was saying, kept on reading the backstories, and it was pretty amazing. I love when I have people’s attention and they’re using their minds to figure me out.

I was talking to a friend about therapy, and she was telling me (ooh, look at all of the “she”s in the blog today. For a good while I only had stories about male friends, very glad to have female friends back in my life. Acknowledging that gender is complicated and nonbinary and that this perspective also makes a lot of sense to me.) that she wouldn’t want to do therapy, because she doesn’t want people influencing her when these are her issues, this is who she is. And every person brings their own form of feedback based on their perspective, even if it’s just how they smile or when they nod or when they frown slightly. And my friend doesn’t want that, doesn’t want to be influenced or changed by someone else’s perspective when what she talks about is her own.

…I’m just really grateful for her for saying that. People don’t often have that kind of insight, and she was saying it off-the-cuff, and I see what she means. I can’t really see what she means and what I think about therapy at the same time (which is interesting, and feels like a real stopping point for me being able to gain a cohesive understanding of people. I feel like I can’t back up enough to get multiple perspectives in my head at once. I feel like I’m in mine, and I can zoom into other people’s, but then I want a “model of people” and I’m flicking through individuals and I’m like NO, I want a model with ALL OF THESE PEOPLE AT THE SAME TIME.)

(With regards to my personal perspective on therapy and how I differ, I think it’s something like: I want the therapist’s perspective, since I assume it’s a “normal” perspective…? Oh interesting, that might go down the track of wanting to know what’s normal and typical and how I’m different and how people work, but the wanting normality thing is not necessarily because I want to be normal so much as I just need to know what normal is. …Wait, that’s weird, why is that such an urgent need, huh.)

But anyhow, I really like hearing her perspective, which seems like a great reason not to go to therapy, if you’re exposed to what I think is the principle of it in the first place. You have to want to be changed, or… well, I think it can still work, but it’s going to be a lot more painful for everyone involved.

Someone was asking me if I liked libraries. I said no, because if I wanted to study, I’d go to a quiet no-people place, and if I wanted social, I’d go to a social place. But I like book stores, and I like books, so libraries are good because: books!

This response produced much happy discussion about books among the group, which my companion responded to with a smile and: “Everyone here likes books.”

“Are you surprised?” I asked.

“No. It’s just cute,” he said, and smiled some more.

He paused, then said: “Sorry, I didn’t hear your full answer about libraries,” so I explained my reasoning about libraries again.

“Ah,” he said, nodding. “Libraries are a place of worship for me.”

“Ah,” I said, nodding. None of my reasons would be relevant, then, and I could definitely see how one could love libraries if one viewed them as places of worship. “That makes sense,” I agreed.

Hmmmm :). I got through not very much of this word document, but am glad I got to share what I did about thoughts this week :). Thank you all for reading as always, and wishing best weeks to you all :).

Monica

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