Back with the usual

So. Y’all.

It has almost been a whole month since my last blog post, which is absurd, and I can’t remember the last time I went without posting something for that long! Moreover, I’ve been wanting to and have been thinking of it at least every few days. I’m just… busy? But the puzzling kind of busy where I think I really shouldn’t be busy. There are no paper deadline anymore, but yet I seem to be thinking most of the time (some of this thinking is for work, and some is just for fun, but it’s not like I’m turning my brain off) and yet… I don’t have time for things like blogging??

What originally happened was that my big paper deadline was Feb 1st. This was a lot of work, especially near the end of it, since I was the main author and point person for the experiments even though I was working with a team of people. There was thus a lot of work-stress happening, and limited sleep.

About mid-January, moreover, things got rough with my housing situation, in that I was thinking about moving at some point and then my landlord and I had a few interactions in which I acted naïvely. Lessons learned, but it was at the point where for a week or so in the end of January, I wasn’t talking to some people in my house and was hiding in my room all the time, which was difficult to do because my room adjoins the communal kitchen. Face-offs were had, I lost, excessive drama and confusion happened, and then I ended up getting to live in one of the communal group houses in Berkeley! It’s been really good, in some unexpected ways in addition to the hoped-for reasons which caused me to look around for new housing in the first place.

Plus, teaching (TA-ing, more specifically). Teaching is totally what’s causing this “I am kind of distressingly busy and I don’t know why,” because it turns out it takes up between 20-30 hours a week, and who has time for 1) teaching, 2) research, 3) life, and 4) qualification exams with that amount of time. Teaching is totally excellent, and I love standing in front of a classroom and lecturing. I always thought I’d like it, but friends/family were unsure whether I actually would since I hadn’t tried it. Happily, it turns out that I do, and the office hours and grading and releasing problem-sets and answering questions and following up on emails and the rest of it is fine as well. Time is just a problem :).

What this amounts to is that I had my year-long-anticipated paper deadline on a Thursday, had to prepare a lecture and teach discussion sections on Friday, and then I had to pack, get furniture, and move on a Saturday, from a house where people weren’t unhappy to see me go and into a house where I barely knew the people. Early February was thus pretty rough—it’s rare that I run out of energy, but I was pretty socially and mentally exhausted for a part of it there.

Thus, I give myself a total break for early February, because it always takes at least a week to recover after a paper deadline, since what happens with paper deadlines is that you put off the non-essential things for after the deadline and then kind of blink disorientedly at the pileup afterwards. I also get really weird around people who I’m not sure like me—weird, in this case, meaning “I’m naturally shy in a lot of situations but it’s been trained into me that that’s bad and so I end up with this weird blend of being sort of anxious but wrapped up in a lot of compensation mechanisms that make it so I’m not actively feeling anxious and try to act very cautious”. The way to make this go away is to figure out if people do like me, in other words spend time with people, so I was spending a little of my time hanging out with my housemates and getting to know them, as is the case with any new place. (Answer: my housemates are both very nice, including generous and attentive, so it’s worked out :)).

Then… so here’s an action that I’ve recently noticed myself doing, which feels like a new behavior for me. It’s… okay, it’s actually familiar, but in a different context. What I’m noticing myself doing is escapism. Seeking out things that are socially interesting and feel like progress, and then trying to suck as much spontaneity out of them as possible. This last part about spontaneity feels important, and is in contrast to how I generally live my life, which is extremely planned and optimized. It’s my standard to be planning routes and food and objects needed almost all the time, such that if I’m walking somewhere or laying in bed or whatever, I’m often thinking about organization.

Normally, I notice myself doing this sort of “distract-mind-with-something-interesting-enough-to-justify-inattention-to-goals” as applied to exercise, and most prominently, reading. One of the things that I like about reading is that I’m not in control of myself when I’m doing it, which is why I’ll end up doing it for an arbitrary number of hours. I know that other people sometimes spend too long doing a thing than they planned, but I don’t, really, outside this domain. I have pretty constant pings which are “are you doing something useful? Are you doing something useful?” during almost every activity, and that’s part of the appeal of reading, that that ping goes away.

The ping also goes away during social activities! And, it turns out, by living in this new place my possibilities for interesting and rewarding social activities have increased. Thus, as a long-winded explanation for the decision I’m about to reveal: escapism + getting it off my to-do list = I’ve been making myself more busy by getting back into the dating etc. realm.

Another really weird about this is that I can apparently sort of substitute social time for reading, which is bizarre to me. I basically stopped reading for this whole last month, which is very, very, very unusual for me, and instead have been hanging out with people / engaging in new and exciting social experiences. Moreover, the social stuff and reading feel like they’re fulfilling the same sort of “gooey warm feelings / escapism” goal, which is REALLY STRANGE, because social time has historically not felt like that for me. Social time is usually very interesting but a fair amount of work. (Reading can also be a lot of thinking work, depending on how deep I’m getting into it, but social time is guaranteed thinking work.) Social time is also normally not about warm feelings, because people are confusing and occasionally upsetting and I’m usually feeling some degree of performance anxiety that I’m not thinking about, plus I’m interacting in real time with really quick people / people who want something from me / people who are asking me about opinions / people who I want to drive the conversation for, so I’ve got to be on my A-game. People are fascinating though, and I usually get some warm feelings from somewhere, I just don’t expect it most of the time by default.

Turns out I really like a bunch of people in the non-academic community I’ve been hanging around. I’ve been calling this collection of individuals “cool people”, which makes it sound like I’m doing social-hierarchy-climbing towards the cool people, which I totally am, except that when people hear this they get concerned that I’m popularity-driven, which I TOTALLY AM with regards to cool people, except that who I consider a “cool person” has some correlation with objective status and popularity but also… isn’t that? Like, if you were to list all of the high-status people in this community and then say: what’s your plan to being friends with them, I’d tell you that you’ve got the wrong list, and it’s not like I’ve got this pre-specified battle plan. But I like some of the small sub-clusters a lot, and am enamored with (it gets a little hero-worshippy sometimes) some of the key, high-status people in that group (they’re so cooooooolllll), and enjoy getting the opportunity to hang out with them. In short: I should probably stop calling them “cool people” and just start calling them “people I like” because that seems like the connotation which is more similar to what I’m doing, and also, the people I like are also often REALLY REALLY NICE and have been really welcoming, and I’ve been feeling lots of gooey warm feelings hanging out with people recently.

So I’ve been meeting and hanging out with lots of awesome people, and I’ve also been making great leaps on the dating etc. domain, and it totally feels like it’s “necessary” to deal with stuff happening with work (meaning… that I’m very unhappy with that amount of work that I think I’m going to get done compared to the amount that people want from me). (…Huh. I didn’t realize until I wrote that my feelings about being kind of overwhelmed / given-up / afraid / upset were at the level of “very unhappy”, but that seems to be what that set of emotions are. It’s interestingly extremely contained to this specific problem of time-crunch, because I really like all of the component parts of things that I’m busy with, and I like what I’m doing with my escapism time, and I’m really quite enjoying my life right now. It’s just this one thing about too many expectations about what people want me to do. I’ve been prioritizing “teaching” and “life” this entire month, over “research” and “qualification exams”… which is also a new change for me, because normally I’d give up “life” pretty readily, but I am adamantly not doing that right now. I keep on sleeping instead of blogging, for example, which isn’t a trade I’ve ever really chosen week after week, and exercising, and doing cool social stuff… I probably need to talk to someone about this, seems like it’s worth resolving.)

And, in short, what with spending weekends hanging out, and doing teaching during the week, and whatever-even-else-I’ve-been-doing-with-my-time, it’s been busy. (…I’m still SO CONFUSED ABOUT WHERE MY TIME IS GOING. HOW CAN I FEEL PRODUCTIVE MOST OF MY MOMENTS, AND YET NOT MEET EVERYONE’S EXPECTATIONS? What’s wrong with me?) (Hahaha, I enjoy that framing. It’s more that I feel really defensive and somewhat guilty about prioritizing “life”. Which is, y’know, the most standard problem of standard problems among grad students. I sometimes wished I hung around people who weren’t like: yeah it’s the worst, you just gotta sleep less, you know?) (Another frame I sometimes use for this is “do what you need to to achieve your goals”. An attitude that’s pretty common is: who cares what your goals are, someone else’s goals, and the goal you should follow, is to do the very best at whatever thing you’re doing right now. But sometimes you don’t need to do your very best at that one thing, and you can do well at two different things, and that’s actually better for your individual goals in the long run. This reasoning works in the abstract, at least, though it doesn’t really speak to me at an emotional level.) (What I really want is for “life” (which includes things like sleeping and exercising and doing things that keep me in a positive emotional state like social stuff and blogging) to be default. For everything else on top of it to be exchangeable, but for the baseline things to be just the way things are. And I’d rather not pay large penalties towards my personal goals because of this perspective. I wonder if I’ll ever get this set of issues resolved? It’s so, so common among people I know, and people seem to have idiosyncratic, self-soothing solutions to the generalized problem. It seems that there’s always going to be tension between 1) how much I want to do, 2) how much other people want me to do, and at some point you just have to pick and stick to it. I seem to want everyone to be happy with my pick, but maybe I just have to accept that other people won’t be happy? ARGGGGGG I have so much trouble with that idea, I want everyone to be happy with me :P. (Oh, that last phrase is so familiar to how my mind works :)).

Cool :). Angsting’s over, l wanna talk about some of the gooey things :).

Okay, first, my students (the ones I TA for) like me. This is amazing. They tell me I need to write in larger font on the board, but they approve of my ability to reorganize and present content such that it’s clear. I love love love being complimented for being clear in this sort of thing, and it’s really fun being an “expert” when I can actually mostly be one. They try hard and they look at me when I’m speaking and they write notes on what I’ve synthesized from my reading and my understanding and I see why everyone’s gaga over the teaching bit. All people do not love the teaching bit, but when I meet people who have left academia, a few of them mention missing this part the most.

Second, I went to a party last night where people were… gah, generous and welcoming. GAHHHHHH it’s hard to express not in onomotopeia how much I appreciated when people are generous and welcoming, and care about each other, and sympathize and listen and are funny and laugh a lot and share and are loving. When they soothe and respect and listen and care and express nice things they feel, and reach out, and so much gooey. I found myself just wanting to sit on the couch in my house, with my housemates who I also just like sitting with, and just remember and drift in all of these feelings, because people being nice is so good. Content is good too, and there was very little content exchanged during that particular party, but there were a lot of not-in-language good feelings going on and it was wonderful.

Speaking of “not-in-language” feelings—I had a breakthrough on my “meaning-laden physical contact is hard” problem! I’ve historically had trouble with things like hugging, or comforting, or cuddling, etc., because I get stuck in the complexity of formally trying to reason it out. Specifically, what goes on in my head is something like: “okay, I know what this gesture means, and this gesture means, and if you put them together it results in that kind of effect, and if I move my leg this way it means that, and oh my god if I’m doing this with my hand then what I am doing with that leg and my balance, and oh my god now I feel like I’m pretending and you want me to feel or evoke this emotion and I want to evoke this emotion and I don’t know what I’m doing and there are too many options and too many body parts and too many meanings AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!” Which, if you’re on the outside, looks like: Monica goes very stiff, looks very uncomfortable, stops talking, and starts blinking really quickly while occasionally making stuttering noises. I call this “freezing behavior”, and I’m pretty used to it happening, and feel like it’s a pretty reasonable reflection of what goes on in my head.

Then someone showed me / I figured out something great, which essentially amounts to: I have physical instincts, and I can just use those instead of trying to reason it out cognitively.

(If you’re in this community, the steps to figuring it out were this. Setting: me and them, cuddling. Them: “Try leaning into your “S1” body feelings. Let’s do a guided meditation to do this.” Me: “Huh. I bet you’re one of those people who feel emotions in their body, which is why you’re telling me to lean into my body feelings. I don’t have body feelings, and thus this guided meditation isn’t doing anything for me, but I do have feelings that are expressed through visual imagery in a mental space outside of my body, so I can try leaning into that. Oh, wow. Wait, I know how to do this. You move there and I move here and now we’re both comfortable and now I’ve achieved whatever that part of me wanted. Huh. This set of actions is totally a thread through the possible spaces of meaning but now I have a single thread to follow that also seems to align with correct behavior as I observe in others. HUH.)

(A friend, listening to this story: “…So you used mental imagery to hack your way into feeling your instincts. Awesome! You just bought yourself infinite happiness!”)

(A friend, listening to this story: “Wow, sounds like a very cognitive way to get into something non-cognitive.”)

(A friend, listening to this story: “Sorry I was zoning out could you tell that one again?”)

(A friend, listening to this story: “YEAH that sounds great, congrats!”)

(A friend, listening to this story: “Oh, that’s interesting. Could you apply to the rest of your life too?” Me: “Wait, what?” Them: “Yeah, you seem stiff on first meetings.” Me: “Wait, what?”)

(A friend, listening to this story: “That sounds really weird and non-scientific.” Me: “Yep, it’s all emotions mumbo-jumbo, but it worked! Resulted in change in behavior!”­­)

(A friend, listening to this story: “Cool! Can you tell me more about your emotions in visual imagery thing, sounds interesting!”)

But generally everyone was happy for me, which was fun, and I do like making progress on this sort of thing :). (Also, you see how the people I’m hanging out with are pretty weird by this point. My therapist recently told me: “It’s very soothing for you to put things into schemas, isn’t it?” Me: “…Yeah.” Her: “You seem to do it with almost everything, and get upset when you can’t put things into schemas.” Me: “…Yeah? Are you suggesting I try not doing that?” Her: “I’m not suggesting anything, we’re just noticing and trying to understand.” The amount of times I make this woman say “I’m not advising anything, we’re just noticing and trying to understand” is ridiculous :). But I can tell when she approves of things or not, and it’s such a default pattern to try to work from that inference…)

I also had another discovery a while back about conflict. Conflict is hard for me—I have a low tolerance for it in general, though there are odd exceptions where I’m annoyed enough that I’m going to fight you because I’m right, damn it. In any case, conflict is hard especially because both people can be right at the same time, and I have trouble with this. Recently a friend and I were playing a game together in a group. Part of this game involved frequently rolling dice. When excited, I have a tendency to announce rolls—not only my own, but anyone’s rolls that I can see. I also have a tendency to bounce my leg if sitting (I get told to stop this one reasonably frequently :P) and move around a lot if standing. I also am loud, sometimes talk over people, talk really fast, and can exude energy to the point where I get asked if I’m high :P.

My friend basically got tired of me announcing their rolls before they had a chance to, found the constant moving around was evoking bad memories and was otherwise unpleasant, and was annoyed that I was repeatedly talking over them. We had a little stare down in which I realized all of these things and stopped.

But “stopping” these things, for me, isn’t costless. It’s basically telling me to calm down and exert cognitive control again. Which means that I have to stop being excited, or be excited in a controlled way, which is kind of the same as not being excited. I was annoyed that I had to stop being excited, because being excited is freedom and fun and joy, and I like being allowed to be excited.

So I proceeded to be sad and annoyed at this friend, while also not allowing myself to be annoyed, because it wasn’t justified that I was annoyed because they were annoyed for legitimate reasons and it wasn’t right of me to also be annoyed. I also thought it was stupid to be affected by something this silly, so I was just generally trying to tamp down hard on all emotions relating to it, but it came up in therapy because I actually was quite upset about it.

My therapist said: “So you felt angry because they were telling you to contain yourself.”

Me: “Well, yes, but that’s not taking into account their point of view, which was…”

(Five minutes later) My therapist: “So you felt angry because you felt they were telling you to contain yourself, and they felt angry because you were doing things that felt like they weren’t respecting them and their agency.”

Me: “…You know, that just felt really, really different when you said it. Yes, that’s right. But that felt different.”

My therapist: “Why did it feel different?”

Me: “…I don’t know, let me think about it…”

And it turns out that I have a lot of implicit rules about what is and is not okay. According to these rules, only one person is allowed to be upset in an interaction, and that’s the person who would objectively have been caused the most harm. Since I was getting the lesser amount of harm in the dice-rolling situation, I was “not allowed” to also be upset. Turns out, it’s actually possible for both of us to be simultaneously upset, both for legitimate reasons, and what my therapist was doing was holding up both of those reasons as equal, which I definitely don’t do implicitly. That was the “different” part… that it was legitimate that we were both upset.

The other new part was that she was urging me to “be with the emotion”, which is something I hear all the time. It’s actually fairly helpful to be forced to spend some time just sitting with an emotion, rather than poking at it briefly and then trying to wrestle with it from afar. But what’s also interesting is that my version of “being with an emotion” always results in an action after. There always has to be an action that occurs to ameliorate the situation. Which is part of the reason why I was having so much trouble “being with” the anger, because if I was angry then I’d have to take some action, and I didn’t want that action to be being less excited, and I didn’t want that action to be being irrationally annoyed at this friend, and I just didn’t know anything to DO with this emotion since I was the one in the wrong in my books, but I didn’t want to do anything self-chastising for it because I was ANNOYED, god damn it, because don’t I also have the right to self-express, and it was just kind of sitting in this roiling circle that was popping up occasionally.

But it turns out… “being with an emotion” can literally just mean “be with it”, instead of “be with it and then fix it (make it never happen again)”, which is the add-on that I unthinkingly and always add onto the end of that statement. (And… almost any statement socially, really. This is always at the end.) And so when people say “be with it”, they can actually mean that two people can exist, with minor conflicts like dice-roll announcement, and that that tension can be there, and we can both be alive with it and still with it and it’s just going to be there, and I don’t have to do anything about it, it can just exist. And this is huge. This is SO MUCH less emotion that all of the reasoning and yelling and upsetness I had about this situation—it’s just there, it’s flatter, it’s just: look, there’s a small conflict, small differences, and it’s there. And that’s astonishing.

(Another funny talk I had with someone, about people being upset or sad about situations. I was talking about how repression and forcing down emotions was incredibly useful, and I used it as a first-pass for many upsetting situations. They were telling me that sounded like a bad idea. I went on to explain that what I mean by “repression” isn’t what everyone else seems to mean by “repression”, because I can only repress things if I’ve at least touched on the meat of them, otherwise the problems and emotions pop back up and I have to try to reason through them again. Versus other people seem to have this magical “don’t care” button in which they can shut down anything, even if they haven’t resolved the problem, which seems like a bad idea. But my version of repression seems pretty fine a lot of the time, and regardless useful. Then they started arguing that even if I’m doing my version of repression, I’m still not taking action, and they have a lot of trouble with this, trying to motivate themselves to take action, and you really don’t want to repress anything to take action, that should be the last step not the first. And we went back and forth for a long while, where I really wasn’t understanding their point at all, and then they said:

“Wait. Are you saying that… you’re assuming the correct solution? You’re saying you take action by default?”

Me: “Hahaha, what?”

Them: “No, I mean, this talk of repression is completely separate for you because you automatically assume that whenever a problem comes up you take action.”

Me: “…Of course? I mean, that’s how you solve problems. That’s obvious. The repression’s after that if it doesn’t work.”

Them: (incredulous)

Them: “You know, I kind of like that. Taking action by default. I might try to use that.”

Me: “…Wait, you’re telling me this isn’t other people’s defaults?!

Me: (feeling very odd about this conversation for missing this part, also impressed that they figured it out, also thoughtful)

Me: “…You know, that explains a lot of behavior I’ve seen.”

(People’s minds are so weird, I can’t even. It’s very confusing to me the level at which we understand each other, on either end (we understand so much about each other, and yet the details are wild.))

Hm :). There’s been a lot happening elsewise, but I’m feeling the desire to eat waffles then go to bed, so I think I’m going to do that. Thanks so much to you all who read it (I recently found out two of my friends skimmed through this thing, which makes me so happy :)), and wishing you the best in your weeks :).

Monica

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