Amy Sundberg writes about figuring out whether an ambiguous situation is a date or not on her blog. Over on facebook, and interesting conversation ensued about people’s various experiences with “Maybe-dates” or, as I like to call them, ambigudates. I was going to smugly say that I’ve never been on an ambigudate, but then I dug deep down into my memory banks and remembered that I have been on one. It’s been over 25 years, so I think the statute of limitations has expired on privacy, and I’ve long since lost contact with the other party, so I think it’s safe to share. Anyway, I spent a very enjoyable day hanging out with a guy I had met and found cute and intriguing and attractive. I thought it was a date. Or might be a date. But it unfolded more like a hangout between friends. Nothing romantic happened.
And that’s the whole problem. My default approach to romantic relationships at that time was to show absolutely no interest until it was completely clear that the boy was very interested. As you can imagine, I didn’t get any dates that way. It turns out that boys (or humans, really) don’t like to declare strong interest in someone who is showing no interest at all. Ideally, interest is revealed mutually, and in small increments to begin with.
As I recall, much of the conversation revolved around the boy’s desire to become a Catholic priest. I guess any girl would be confused on a “date” like that. But he was a kid and I was a kid, and I think that might have been intended as an opening for me to convince him of the sweet benefits of non-celibacy. Which I understand is an easy persuasive argument to make with a 16-year-old boy. So.
I couldn’t do it. I was too afraid of rejection. I couldn’t declare my own interest until I was 100% sure he wouldn’t reject me. Ever. That was unrealistic. So I basically created my own ambiguous situation. Then I was disappointed and kind of angry that it didn’t turn out the way I wanted. Catholic priest indeed! What a waste of my time! Hmph.
Any wise grandmother will tell you, “We create what we fear.” If you are afraid of rejection, you’ll manufacture it by getting yourself involved with noncommittal people and ambiguous situations.
It takes two to create an ambigudate. Over on facebook, the main source of the situation seems to be lack of clarity about what the other person is thinking. The other person has asked you to hang out, but they didn’t make clear whether it was a romantic hangout or not. You feel some interest, so you agree, but you don’t know what to expect, and there’s a hesitance to ask because you then might be facing the embarrassment of declaring romantic interest in someone who only wants to be platonic friends. Ack! Rejection!
But if you don’t ask, you’re rejecting yourself. And look at it from the other person’s point of view. If they were romantically interested in you, and thought they were being clear about it, and you show up to the date acting like it’s a platonic hangout because you’re confused, they’re likely to pull way back because now *they’re* the one embarrassed.
The solution to all of this is to stop worrying so much about the other person’s level of interest and concentrate on your own. If you’re interested in the person romantically, you need to be clear with yourself first, and then you need to work up your courage and be clear with them. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the other person intended the hangout to be a date or not. If you WANT a date, this is your big chance and if you don’t want it to end in disappointment, you’d better say something. And if you can’t tell whether you’re into someone until you know if they’re into you, you maybe have a bit of an issue you should untangle.
The worst that can happen is they only want to be friends, and if your self esteem is healthy, that’s pretty ok, isn’t it? Right???
Where it can get tricky is with a person who has been a longtime friend. You’ve developed romantic feelings and now you don’t want to “ruin the friendship” by declaring interest unilaterally. But no matter how far the romantic exploration goes, the friendship–if it was real, mutual, and healthy–is only really ruined if one person can’t handle rejection. Again, self esteem is your key to surviving the situation.
A lot of people want more assurance of reciprocated interest before they show their hand. I know I did on that one ambigudate long ago. It took me quite a long time to realize that I actually can read those signs pretty reliably. For girls who like guys, I would say guys are really pretty easy to read, at least for the minimal level of attraction needed for a first date. For other gender combinations, I don’t have any advice, and of course for individuals your mileage may vary. But I feel pretty confident saying that if you’re a girl and you’re getting a vibe from a guy it’s real. That doesn’t mean he wants to date you, it doesn’t mean he’s boyfriend material, it doesn’t mean you’ll be hearing wedding bells, but you can trust your gut about attraction.
Other than self esteem, there are some safety reasons to clarify ambiguous stuff. Some people use ambiguous “hangout” requests to slide into casual or FWB situations. If that’s what you want, great, but it still should be clear up front. The problem is, if you’re somebody who is looking for sex and companionship with no commitment or without the “work” or emotional involvement, or if you’re just an emotional cripple who can’t really handle relationships, you’re not going to get many dates being up front about that. Or, you’re going to get dates with people even more emotionally crippled than yourself. So a lot of people who are not looking for a real relationship or can’t handle one will be very ambiguous and allow you to think that you’re beginning a real relationship when you’re actually just hooking up. They will take whatever you are willing to give for as long as it’s convenient for them, then they’ll check out and move on when you start calling them on their shit or the next new and shiny thing comes along. If you can’t handle that, you want to define those dates and be up front about what you’re looking for and what your needs are.
If you’re looking for a real relationship, it is therefore pretty important to clarify things right from the beginning. Truly, there’s never a wrong time to clarify where you are in your relationship, whether it’s the first date or the fiftieth.
The other thing is–gosh, it’s only a date. I’m not sure what’s happening in our culture where adults feel that it’s too risky and too much of a commitment to go on one single date to figure out if there’s potential for a relationship. Instead, I hear a lot of people saying they need a lot more undefined pre-date platonic group activity. Are we all in the 8th grade? If you like someone, try going on a date. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t accept another. Easy!
I’ve been doing boundaries wrong my whole life, guys. In my defense, I’m not the only one.
Ideally, boundaries form throughout childhood, as you learn who you are, and who you are not. Natural boundaries happen spontaneously, because they are based on healthy self care and self esteem. If your childhood is bumpy, however, it’s easy to get off track with that natural process and become lost in others. I emerged into adulthood not really sure how to protect myself, what was allowable or not in interactions with others, or how to get what I needed in my relationships. At one point in high school, I didn’t talk to my best friend for two months. I don’t remember the triggering incident, and I don’t remember the reconciliation. I do remember the pain of separation, and realizing that I was punishing myself. I remember the lost time, and to some extent I’ll always live with the regret for wasting those two months, shortly before our lives took us in different directions forever. I stopped speaking to her because I was hurt, I didn’t know how to talk to her about it, I wanted attention, and maybe I wanted to punish her a little for whatever unremembered thing she did…that I now am sure had nothing to do with me. After we made up, I promised myself I would never hurt someone I love with silence and stonewalling again. Never, ever.
Having eschewed the tools of passive aggression, and having no permission ever in my life to engage in frank aggression, and also having no natural boundaries or assertive communication skills, I became like Kenny from South Park. Kenny dies in every episode. At the first hint of any conflict, I sacrificed myself, taking in the blame and the responsibility…and the control. Oh, sweet, sweet control.
I became the Nicest person ever, and held a barely conscious belief that if I followed excruciatingly correct rules of Nice Behavior, Nice Words, and Nice Actions, that other people had to be Nice to me, also. I invented a sort of Nicey McNicerson Social Contract. And it sort of worked. As long as I stuck with other people who subscribed to some version of Nicey McNicerson, and as long as I continued sacrificing myself, denying any anger or other Not So Nice Feelings, even from my own awareness.
But sooner or later, we all experience a violation of the Nicey McNicerson social contract. We either encounter a person from Fuckyouverymuchville or we can even run afoul of other Nicey McNicersons. The First Amendment of the Nicey McNicerson Bill of Niceness is that we don’t compare or debate what the rules are, because everyone is supposed to know how to be Nice. So the first time two Nicey McNicersons encounter a true conflict of values, mutual self-destruction is assured.
We do have a social contract. We have laws. We have rules of etiquette. But none of that replaces personal boundaries. Personal boundaries are the N of 1 version of all of those social rules, and as such, fundamentally can’t be assumed to be known to anyone other than the individual they apply to.
I now think of Tony Stark when I think of boundaries. Tony Stark (Ironman) has some kind of weird hangup about people handing him things. It’s never explained in the movies, but he gets quite upset if someone tries to put a package or letter or something in his hand, and he curtly informs the violator to set it down or hand it to an assistant. This is a quintessential example of a personal boundary. Boundaries can often be inferred from norms of social behavior, but many can’t be and you really can never be sure where they are until they are communicated verbally. We can’t have rules of etiquette applying to every situation and every person and every person’s unique set of feelings and circumstances. To be generous, one should generally assume that a breach of etiquette is a boundary issue unless you’re very sure that you and the violator are from the same sub-sub-sub-culture where all of the rules of etiquette are known and shared among all members.
Boundaries are more than just rules for how people can treat you. On a deeper level, they’re about teaching others to respect who you are, as expressed by your thoughts, feelings, and needs. As such, they’re rarely as simple as a rule that says “If x, then y.” More often, a boundary encounter looks more like, “I don’t like it when you x. Please don’t do that again.” That means anyone who is not able to say words like that—to everyone and anyone—does not have functional boundaries. That includes a very large number of people.
I’m still a work in progress with boundaries. There’s often a pretty long delay between the ringing of my boundary alarm and the initiation of the hamster wheel of a response. Often, by days or more. It becomes awkward to bring up something that happened several days ago, and say, “You know, actually…” But it’s necessary.
In years past, I thought having boundaries was about quietly withdrawing from people who made me uncomfortable, often in ways I couldn’t have articulated in a simple statement even if I wanted to. Ironically, I both wanted them not to know I was withdrawing so they wouldn’t be hurt, and ALSO to know exactly why I was withdrawing, and feel VERY VERY SORRY. The real message conveyed by withdrawal, silence, blowing people off, taking them off your Christmas card lists, not inviting them to things, etc., etc., is actually nothing. Some people won’t even notice. Others will be vaguely puzzled. Some will notice, and be extremely hurt, but they still won’t know what’s going on or why. Lack of data is lack of data. I may have achieved the same result by withdrawing from a relationship that I would have by confronting the behavior, but by not confronting, by never confronting, I sent a message to myself that I was not worth it. Asserting boundaries creates self respect, even if the other person doesn’t respect you, respect your boundary, or even remotely “get it.” If I have to lose someone from my life who doesn’t “get it,” I’d rather have the satisfaction of knowing I stood up for myself.
In the past, lacked boundaries to such an extent I didn’t even know where they should be. I felt other people’s feelings, analyzed their thoughts and behaviors, and tried to manage their responses by giving them what I thought they wanted or by expressing myself optimally so as not to cause upset. If that sounds kind of manipulative, it is. It’s not that I was never direct. In the land of Nicey McNicerson, I was actually a bit of a bitch. I dared to express preferences, not always like the same things my friends liked, state openly that I didn’t feel like joining a group activity, etc. Nicey McNicerson can get pretty hard core if they want and I wasn’t hardcore. But I really was not able to assert myself in the areas that were important to me.
I am slowly developing these skills, and some of it has been awkward. My husband deserves credit for his patience. Because anger is often our first “alert” that a boundary has been breached, many of us new to boundaries vent that anger at the person doing the breaching. But flipflopping from one dysfunctional boundary practice (withdrawal) to another (aggression) is not a solution. It may represent progress, but it’s not a place you want to stay unless you want to die alone and be eaten by your cats.
It was a revelation to me when I realized boundaries have nothing to do with blame. If asserting and holding boundaries are my responsibility, then there’s no room to blame the other person for crossing a boundary. The truth is we bump into other people’s boundaries all the time in life, and almost everyone does it unintentionally.
Sure, there is a small percentage of the population that push boundaries on purpose. They are deeply disordered people who either consciously or unconsciously get off on it. But if you treat everyone like an Evil Boundary Pusher you are not going to have any people left.
On the other hand, if you grant everyone a basic assumption of good will, but hold your boundaries firmly, you’ll find the Evil Boundary Pusher bounces off harmlessly. Evil Boundary Pushers can’t have any fun with calm assertive types. You don’t have to put black and white hats on people and label some people “Good” and some people “Bad” and then hide forever from the bad people because you’re too Nice to tell them off. (The case of the Evil Boundary Pusher who is actually an abusive parent or partner is another topic for another blog. For this purpose, I’m talking about casual acquaintances.)
Boundaries are for your own behavior, not others. A lot of us try to control other people with our boundaries. When I stopped speaking to my high school friend, I was hurt and offended by a behavior of hers, and the silence was my way of trying to force her to change. When we reconciled, she was the same person as before. All that had changed was that I had learned to accept her as she was.
Let’s say you set a boundary with your mother. You ask her not to call you at work anymore, because the interruption throws off your groove. She also pushes your buttons and makes you angry, which results in distraction and screwups. So you ask her, Nicely, not to call you at work. And she doesn’t. For two days. The the third day, there she is, calling you at work. You answer the call and tell her, very sharply, “I told you not to call me at work. This is very distracting and I do not have time for this right now!” and you are upset for the rest of the day. And now your Mom’s upset and confused. Everyone’s upset.
What if, instead of punishing your mother for violating your Precious Boundary, you had simply let her call go to voice mail and returned it after work? Would that be so terrible? Your boundary is for you, not your mother. You are never going to change your mother’s habit of…I don’t know..impulsivity, or whatever it is that makes her think she has to make a call as soon as she thinks of it. You just need some uninterrupted time to get your work done. The boundary is for getting your needs met, not correcting someone else’s character flaws. You have plenty of your own. Work on those. And, as a bonus, since actions speak louder than words, your mother may “get the message” that you don’t want calls during work time if you simply won’t take them. (Remember, you already told her–this is not a case of passive-aggressive withdrawal and seemingly random behavor uninterpretable to an observer. Mom knows why you’re not answering the phone, because you told her.)
Imagine if Tony Stark lectured everyone who tried to hand him a package about the evils of handing people things, rather than just accepting that the world is full of people who do that. By keeping boundaries about yourself, and taking responsibility for them, you respect others and let them be who they need to be. Boundaries are for you.
Yes, some people are persistent. Some people are aggravating. A very small number are predatory. Maintaining your boundaries means owning your feelings and taking care of yourself, not projecting thoughts and motives you know nothing about onto others. You don’t have to know why other people are doing the things they do to know you’re not ok with a certain behavior or interaction. And just because you, personally, are not ok with a particular behavior or interaction says diddly squat about the morality, social acceptability, or inherent rightness of the behavior. Other people might be totally ok with the behavior that’s driving you nuts. It doesn’t have to be “bad” to be a boundary for you.
A lot of people think boundary violations are mostly about being asked for something you don’t want to give, or being pressured in some way. Those of us who have had poor boundaries have been violated repeatedly in that way. But we have also violated the boundaries of others, and we have to own that. By trying to predict and control other people’s responses, by feeling their feelings and making assumptions about what they want, we’ve usurped their autonomy, and possibly made them feel kind of icky. What you think of as empathy may be perceived as unwanted intrusion by your target.
When you’ve grown up in less-than-ideal circumstances, you become hypervigilant. One manifestation of that quality is being exquisitely sensitive to other people’s feelings and mood changes. It’s a survival strategy. But in adulthood, it can be less than helpful. No one can read minds, and our spidey senses can mislead us catastrophically. Even if we’re right—and us highly sensitive, empathic types often are—if we don’t give someone a chance to identify their own feelings and make a choice or a statement based on that, we are interfering with their connection to self, putting our own egos in their way. I know I get very annoyed with people who name my feelings for me, even when they happen to be right. I prefer to be asked how I feel.
Having healthy boundaries means pulling those antennae back in and using them only when necessary, choosing verbal communication over mind reading, and curiosity over assumption.
Flattery is also a boundary violation. Basically, whenever you want something from someone, and try to get it from them without asking directly, you may be violating a boundary. Being direct and asking for what you need is a healthy boundary practice. And in order to ask for what you need, you have to know what you need. Identifying with your needs means having a solid sense of self. It’s all connected.
Sometimes we violate our own boundaries. Gossip and oversharing are boundary issues. Both practices are rooted insecurity. We think that by volunteering our own or others’ secrets, we can shortcut to the trust phase with another person, and get them to like us—the holy grail of the people pleaser. Inappropriate disclosure can have the appearance of building intimacy rapidly, and so in our eagerness to feel close and to feel important, we end up saying too much. I have fallen into this trap, on both sides. If you think you have no secrets, and share personal information with everyone, what you actually have is no boundaries. Likewise, when you share the personal information of others, there’s often a justification that you “care” and you’re just trying to find solutions for them. Alternately, some people justify that kind of gossip by rationalizing that the target will never know, or that he doesn’t deserve respect for his privacy because of some kind of character flaw or bad behavior. All of that is justification for a deep need to seek the approval of others by sharing privileged information and the appearance of superiority or specialness. When your boundaries improve, the desire to gossip and overshare disappears. In fact, it becomes tedious when others do it.
Having healthy boundaries is so simple if it comes to you naturally. You don’t even have to think about it. But if you didn’t receive that skill in your developmental toolkit, it can be extremely complicated and difficult. Now that I’m aware, I’m shocked at how often people tell me about some person or other that offended them and they never said anything. If the situation continues, it inevitably results in some kind of ugly conflict, reinforcing everyone’s avoidance behaviors. Usually the excuse for not telling the person who did the offensive thing is that they “should know.” Well, obviously, they don’t know.
A lot of people who are forming healthy boundaries for the first time get very emotional reactions from friends and family, sometimes even resulting in loss of relationships. In the process of developing my boundary skills, I asked a friend who has healthy, firm boundaries if he’d ever had a problem setting a boundary with a friend. “No, never,” he said. “I’ve never had a bad reaction.”
Not so lucky, me. My attempts at setting boundaries have been fraught with emotional overreactions and traumatizing retaliations. The difference, I believe, is in trying to walk back from some very unhealthy, enmeshed, boundary-less relationships. It’s the difference between reminding someone who is currently standing on the sidewalk not to step on the grass and calling the police on someone who is actively turfing your lawn with their pickup truck. No one would get that far in if they didn’t have boundary issues of their own, and once people get used to a version of “you” and are comfortable with it, they can feel very personally attacked when you tell them things are going to have to change. Furthermore, remember that people with poor boundaries tend to withdraw or aggress, so when you’re starting to set boundaries, you can’t be surprised if you encounter some withdrawal or aggression from people who are unable to talk about how they feel or what they need. Remember, this is not the land of Nicey McNicerson. Everyone is not obligated to applaud and support your personal growth.
Knowing people may be hurt when you assert a boundary does not obligate you to take care of them. In fact, there’s nothing that undermines a boundary faster than pursuing another person for their approval or agreement or good feelings about your boundary. Other people are responsible for their own feelings. At the same time, knowing people might be hurt when you assert a boundary is not license to be cruel or heartless. If you can’t set a boundary without insulting someone, or violating that person’s own boundaries, then you’re not setting a boundary. You’re engaging in some unhealthy drama, and possibly trying to control somebody.
At the end of the day, I know now that boundaries are not about picking “good” people and letting them “in,” while excluding “bad” people. That’s a childish and simplistic view of human beings. Boundaries are a way of relating to all people. They do not create intimacy, but are necessary for intimacy. People can’t be close to each other unless their individual differences are recognized and honored. Learning about boundaries has in some ways made the world a harsher place for me. No more Nicey McNicerson social contract. I have to accept that I don’t get along with some people, and never will. I can’t be everyone’s friend. I can’t please all of the people all of the time. That’s hard. The reward is that I can stop committing suicide every time I see conflict on the horizon. I think that’s worth it.
I was at the book store recently, buying a different book, when The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo caught my eye. The cashier was trying to get me to pay for the book I was buying, but I kept ignoring her as I perused Kondo’s slim volume. I ended up taking it home, and becoming completely entranced. Like every other organizing guru, Kondo advocates rigorous decluttering. However, her approach is slightly different. Kondo claims her clients do not relapse to clutter, like just about everyone who undertakes a massive organizing project. Her method involves radical, one-shot tidying of your entire home in a short period of time, ideally six months or less. When done right, she claims, it will “stick” and your entire life will be changed.
That’s a departure from the “baby steps” methods of most other decluttering systems. The other difference is that she does not advocating organizing one room, drawer, or closet at a time. Instead, you gather all items of a category from every part of the house, discard, then organize all at once. That way redundancies and satellite clutter won’t undo your hard work.
The last unique element of her method is an animistic reverence for belongings. She talks about objects as if they have souls and feelings, which at first glance may seem silly, but addresses an emotional reality that I think is missed in most other systems. Our objects accumulate emotional charge; we have feelings about our stuff. Kondo insists you must personally handle each and every item, and search your feelings, keeping only items that spark joy. In running through this process with my clothes, I realized that a lot of my belongings not only don’t spark joy, they carry ugly burdens of obligation, guilt, or other heavy feelings. Kondo urges us to release those feelings by acknowledging the purpose once served by the object, thanking it, and releasing it. Even things never used can be thanked for the idea or potential they once carried.
I loved reorganizing my drawers and closets with Kondo’s method, and it is indeed wonderful running my hands over the neatly bundled rectangles of clothes that, without exception, make me feel happy and good about myself. There’s something deeply, deeply satisfying about opening a dresser drawer organized Kondo-style. She brings a passion to the subject of home organization possible only in someone obsessed with the subject from early childhood.
Kondo has a sequence for organizing types of belongings, and the sequence makes sense. I’m planning to follow her system, but am doing some pre-decluttering first, to make room, and because I have a lot of junk just sitting around that I know is going, no soul-searching necessary.
Writers, don’t panic. Although Kondo’s standards are just as strict for books as they are for clothes or other clutter, she does specifically give authors a pass to own more than her recommended number of books. Phew!
Kondo says her clients tend to experience positive life changes, and I can see why. If getting rid of a few souvenir T-shirts I never wear can make me feel emotionally lighter, I can’t wait to see how I feel when I lose a ton or so of junk from my basement. I hope my remaining possessions can show me better who I am and what my priorities are. I’m excited.
I recently rebooted my yoga practice, after months of extremely sporadic attendance. The “starting over” process has shown me how my practice has changed since I first started. One thing I might have expected after four or five years is to be really strong and flexible. That hasn’t happened, probably because I just haven’t put the necessary time in. Other things have happened, though.
I don’t get sick anymore. I want to whisper this quietly, because I don’t want the gods to punish me for hubris. It’s not that I’m claiming credit. I just…stopped getting sick the season after I started doing yoga. Maybe once a year, I have something resembling a cold for a day or two–very tired, vaguely sore throat. That’s it. I don’t know whether to attribute it to sweating in the heat and humidity, the “immune stimulating effects” claimed for certain postures, or what. I try not to take it for granted. It’s not a superpower, and I’m sure there’s some component of luck and some other component of good hand hygiene. It just is, and I hope it lasts a long time.
I don’t think about the heat anymore. When I started bikram yoga, the instructors were always talking about how the suffering from the heat is all in your head, and I was very skeptical. It is most definitely possible to experience heat-related illness in class, and everyone should know the signs and take care of themselves. But I’ve found even with sporadic practice, and having most certainly lost much of my acclimation when I returned, the heat just didn’t bother me. I come out of class, and other students are commenting, “Wow, that was a hot one!” and I’m honestly surprised because I just didn’t think about it.
I don’t watch others and am hardly aware of their presence. I am neither interested in comparing my poses to other students, nor am I worried that they’re looking at me and judging or comparing themselves to me. This is really nice and not that easy to “turn off” when you’re a self-conscious newbie. It’s *not* because I’m such a rock star. As I said, my practice is pretty average. I just don’t care. I’m there for me. Not anyone else.
I don’t worry about my weight or size and those things seem to take care of themselves. I’m not trying to say “stop thinking about your size and it will magically become a 6.” I’m just saying I’ve become more accepting of whatever size I am, and I might, possibly, have interrupted a mild cycle of yo-yo dieting that was not in the best service of my health. Maybe. It’s hard to say.
I don’t care what I wear in the room. Some things are more comfortable than others, but my main concern is achieving legal modesty and not getting behind on laundry. I used to fuss over having just the right outfit for optimal heat dissipation and minimizing my perceived body flaws that I thought others cared about.
I don’t worry much about what I eat before yoga or how close it is to class. Granted, a huge, spicy burrito is a poor choice, but I find I’m ok if I eat a reasonable meal before class.
I don’t feel guilty if I need to leave the room or take long breaks. I know I’m there to do my best. If that means lying on the floor or running to the bathroom four times (mmm spicy burrito) then so be it.
I’m looking forward to seeing how my practice evolves in the future. Will I ever achieve flexible hamstrings? Or will I develop totally new, unexpected side effects? Time will tell.
I’ve heard it said that 95 percent of what’s going on in our heads is unconscious, and therefore that increasing consciousness means bringing more of the unconscious material into the the conscious realm. And that certainly applies in some cases. I’ve known people so unconscious that they look like they’re sleepwalking. You look into their eyes and there’s just this bottomless pit with…something…looking back at you. They do things, and they don’t know why they do it. They project their behaviors on people around them and then react to those projections. It’s really messy. Those people are sitting at maybe 98% and need to dig hard to bring that 3% into the light so that the water level of the unconscious is somewhere around nose level or lower.
But for the average person, I believe that becoming more self aware is not so much a process of bringing everything into the light of consciousness, where you’re consciously thinking about it all of your live long conscious day. My experience of increasing awareness has been more of knowing that there’s stuff down there, and how to access it if I need to. Being aware isn’t, “I know exactly why I did this and therefore don’t need to think about it or examine it.” In fact, I find people like that priggish and insufferable. Being aware, to me, is being in touch enough with your “observing self” to know when you need to send a query to the deeper parts of you to find out what’s really going on. “Why did I have those feelings when that thing happened?” “What do I hope to get out of this situation?” “Why am I not wearing pants right now?”
If you’re able to send queries to and receive answers from the depths of your unconscious, you’re functionally aware in every situation without having to run a constant background track of “THIS IS WHO I AM AND WHAT I DO AND THESE ARE MY BEHAVIORS LET ME SHOW YOU THEM.” Instead, you’re sensitively responsive to every situation and the very act of admitting you do not know all of yourself becomes an acceptance of both self and others. It’s accepting of others because it is innately generous to be willing to examine your own motivations and reconsider based on others’ needs and feelings, even if you ultimately can’t be on the same page.
I believe self awareness is especially important for writers, because the activities of writing are rather dissociative and ruminative by nature. How did most of us become writers? We discovered reading as escapism and made a lifestyle of it. Sound familiar? Hmmmmm.
The problem with that is that the stuff of a book is the same stuff of our heads. It’s fair to say that 95% of the story a writer creates is not on the page, but in the writer’s head. And another 95% of the story that the reader experiences is not on the page, but in the reader’s head. The two inner experiences are linked by a thin chain of text, and the best way for the author to create an inner experience in the reader that resembles the one she intends is to have a strong connection to that inner experience in herself–including the mass of material contributed by her unconscious. No access to the unconscious means relying on luck to get the message through. It means throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing if it sticks. It means getting pissed at your crit group for “not getting it” or “getting it wrong.” It means swearing at your editor for messing with your “vision.”
All of that can be helped by knowing how to look inside yourself for the answers. Want to know why all your readers hate your female characters? Query your unconscious. I promise you the answers are there. Want to know why clowns and zeppelins are dominant themes in your work? Go fishing in your own mind. Want to make something brilliant and transformative out of your problem with women and your fascination with clowns and zeppelins? Grab a shovel and start digging.
The main tool for querying your subconscious is emotion. Emotions come from a more primitive part of the brain–a part that exists in your subconscious mind and your body. Emotions emerge from that part of the brain and are experienced in your body. Some people live very much in their heads. Writers are very prone to being in their heads and out of touch with their embodied emotional experience, but they are not alone. It’s a very prevalent style in our culture. In fact, it’s dominant. When people dismiss or try to shut your emotions down, they’re acting out their own disconnection.
An emotion isn’t complete until it’s been felt and experienced in the body, and then acknowledged and accepted by the higher brain. That means naming your emotions. If you have trouble, start with mad, sad, glad, scared. When I’m feeling something, and I don’t know what it is, I write all four words in a column in my journal, and then I go down the list thinking, “I’m mad because…” and wait for an answer. If nothing, I go to the next item, “I’m sad because…” At some point, there’s always a zing–a physical sensation in response to the words that hit the target. Once I’ve named the feeling, I usually know why I’m having the feeling. It’s that easy. Then, often, there are tears. That’s the release. It takes about two minutes to feel an emotion. It can take hours, days, weeks, or a lifetime to avoid one, and what you get in the meantime is depression, anxiety, avoidance behaviors, self-abandonment, procrastination, and, most importantly, not living your fully true and authentic life.
Every scene in a story has an emotional message. When you connect with your own emotions in the scene, you also connect with your character’s emotions. Your character may not have the same emotional response that you would in a situation. (In fact, please, don’t make all of your characters projections of yourself.) But if you remember the four basic emotions, you can also target your character’s “zing” and make your story more true and more resonant with the reader.
Anything that tunes you in to your bodily experience of emotion will provide clues as to what is going on in your subconscious mind. Another way in is through dreams, and keeping a dream journal. Again, emotion is the key. The content of the dream is incidental, and may or may not be useful or significant. But the emotion is a huge signpost. What is the emotional message of the dream? Is it mad, sad, glad, or scared?
(People block glad feelings as often as the other three “negative” feelings, by the way. Living in your head has the unfortunate consequence of cutting you off as equally from joy as it does from pain.)
Beyond those basic techniques, there are innumerable paths to self awareness. Obviously, people make awareness the pursuit of a lifetime, and whole religions are built around it. If you know how to fish your own deep waters, rather than living in just 5% of your head, you have access to the entire, amazing depth of who you are.
The first time I noticed my soul was missing I was lying on a massage table in downtown Chicago. Her name was Rosalyn, and she was about my mother’s age. We knew some of the same people and places, it turned out. For an hour, she put me back in my body, piece by piece. And when I walked out, I knew I had to leave a situation in my life that had long since exceeded its LD50. It didn’t stick that time. I floated away again, and it’s been a long, slow process pouring me back into my skin.
I lost most of the month of August, I think. At one point, I wrote an entire article, and when the editor sent it back to me for corrections, I couldn’t remember writing it. I had to shuffle through my notes looking for clues as to what I was thinking when I put down the words. That’s when I started taking much better notes. At some point, I was in California. I looked at whales. I ate burritos.
In July, I went to Detcon1, the North American Science Fiction Convention in Detroit’s Renaissance Center. I was mostly floating ten feet above my body due to nearly poisoning myself with pickle shots the first night. Plus sheer panic. I ran into a friend there, in the hotel lobby. This wasn’t a friend I normally talk about personal stuff with. We’re not emotional support buddies. But a moment happened where he asked me how I was, and I said, “I don’t know. I’ve had so much drama in my life lately, and I’m starting to wonder whether I’m the cause of it.” I don’t even remember his answer. I was so out of it.
I’ve shared that I have PTSD. I thought a lot about trying to explain why, but there’s really no single reason, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t process it in public. There are many reasons, but the main one is that the source of my trauma comes down to OPB—other people’s behavior. And I’m not blogging that shit.
I had a very simple way of controlling the world, especially the chaos of OPB. It was all my fault. I wasn’t consciously aware that I was blaming myself and making myself bad in order to latch onto some sort of sense and safety in a dangerous world. It took a critical mass of OPB to break me. And it took being broken open for me to release that belief.
What that looked like on the outside was me being very easygoing, very accommodating, very people pleasing. Letting offenses slide and “forgiving” without really thinking about what happened. Not feeling my own hurt and anger, much less doing anything about it to protect myself. Claiming to have boundaries, but backing them up any time someone stepped over. Realizing it wasn’t my fault was like stepping out of a bonfire. And the burns–the physical and emotional violations I endured–will take a long time to heal.
My purpose is not to blame OP or get in anyone’s way on their own journey. OP are human, and they make mistakes, just like I do. And although there is plenty of accountability to spread around (because OP are accountable for their own B), all that belongs to me are my own actions and my own feelings. And the truth is: I didn’t take care of myself. I took responsibility for OPB. As hard as I could. Because it had to be all about me. Especially when OP told me it was about me. But it wasn’t about me at all.
Calling a soul back takes a long time and a lot of work. It takes more than one deep tissue massage.
I remember the first day I wasn’t triggered all the time. In the space between intensities, I finally understood what had happened to me, and how much damage I had taken. I felt deep loss and grief for myself. I didn’t know how I could ever be whole again. But I started calling myself back.
I remember dancing the kalamatiano with strange Greeks under the moonlight.
I remember going to every single party or social occasion I was invited to. Did anyone notice my soul wasn’t attached? I think they probably did.
I remember one day I felt like making something, so I took all of my yarn—all of it–and started knitting in random stripes. When asked what I was making, I said, “A square.”
I remember sitting down for coffee with a friend who had been through some of the same experiences with the same OPB, and feeling so much pain for her as I listened to her story. Oh God! How cruel OP can be! And seeing myself in her, I was finally able to feel compassion for me.
I remember dawning awareness of tingling like butterflies on the skin of my back, wondering what I was feeling, and realizing it was joy. Joy has a feeling on my skin! And it’s weird and wonderful. I am alive!
I remember being able to finally go to yoga class. I knew all along it would help, but I couldn’t go. Until one day I did, and went for ten more days in a row.
I remember having an idea for a book. The first one in forever. And wanting to write it.
I remember when I found my voice again, and realized my story is mine to tell.
My spirit walk is not done yet, but enough of me is back to say that I’m not the same person. OPB is not my problem anymore, forever and ever amen. But beyond that, walking around an empty shell among the living has changed me in ways I am only beginning to understand.
I know the answer to the question I asked my friend back in July. It’s not about me. Drama happens. OP make choices. Sometimes they make really sad, shitty choices. And when they do, they tend to blame somebody other than themselves, because that’s the nature of sad, shitty choices. I spent some time seriously pondering whether I had been blamed for the divorce of somebody removed from me socially by four or five degrees (because I’m so powerful?)—that’s how surreal 2014 got. In the end, I’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter. When blame starts happening, the train is already off the rails and on fire. That’s not my problem. OPB isn’t about me.
I was asked for advice recently about how to confront people who were making fun of a disabled person. The situation was awkward, and the person quite understandably froze up in the moment and was looking for a better way to respond. She’s professional in a disability-related field, and she can’t let those comments slide. She wanted to know how to take a stand without triggering a negative reaction or retaliation.
Two years ago, I would have problem-solved with her, asking for more information about the people making the comments, and suggesting non-threatening ways of educating them. I would have shared her concern for not hurting their feelings.
Instead, my response was pretty clear and immediate. “You’ can’t,” I said. “You have to just tell them and they’re not going to like it. And, yes, they are probably going to bitch about you behind your back.”
My answer to that question represents an interesting evolution in my thinking. I realized that at one time in the past, I held some sort of belief that I had to anticipate a person’s response to my words and pre-emptively take care of their feelings. In essence, I was always taking the other side in any argument, abandoning my own side.
Another mistake I made taking that approach was projecting too much of my own personality on them. I knew that if I were called out on something like that, I would feel catastrophically ashamed. Because I tend to be very sensitive to criticism, I feel obligated to pull my punches when dealing with others. That’s a mistake because everybody isn’t the same. Just because I prefer a feather touch for myself doesn’t mean others will respond to the same gentle approach. Maybe they don’t listen unless they’re beaten over the head with a club.
So how do you anticipate and tailor your approach to the “learning style” of an unknown listener?
You speak your truth and let them deal with it in their own way.
And you know what? If someone is engaging in a behavior as cruel, unaware, and immature as making fun of a disabled person, they are not going to have an instant epiphany when you call them on it. Any change, if it happens, will happen over time and with reflection. And if they retaliate, if they gossip, if they hate you and try to make your life miserable, other people of conscience will notice that, as well.
What if they got called out every time they tried to make fun of a disabled person? Would they come to a spiritual awakening? Would they be more compassionate? Would that part of their brain that is supposed to do the empathizing start functioning better?
I don’t know. I can’t know and can’t control another person’s feelings or behavior. I can’t make them grow.
But I will tell you what would happen if they got called out every single time they tried to make fun of a disabled person.
They would stop doing it.
The amount of energy required to speak my truth plainly is approximately 1/100 of that required to run (flawed) simulations of other people’s reactions and try to manage them and then justify my own original position. I’m glad to find myself on the low energy side of the curve, finally. There are times to practice persuasion. But those are not most times.
Here are thoughts that no longer trouble me:
But what if there was a misunderstanding? What if they are too embarrassed to correct me? What if they are really sorry and want my forgiveness? What if there is something important I am missing about the situation?
I’m still not taking the other party’s side. I am not counsel for the defense. I am on my own side. If the other person has an explanation, an excuse, an apology, a mitigating factor, then he can use his words and make his own defense. If he won’t speak for himself, then the prosecution rests.
It’s not easy to speak your truth when you’re expecting a negative reaction. It is normal to freeze up and feel anxious. I am still a work in progress when it comes to assertive communication. Not feeling responsible for the other party helps a lot.
Who doesn’t like a To-Do list, with a lot of satisfying checkmarks next to completed tasks? We all like those check marks, but what are we doing to ourselves when we give ourselves a To-Do list? Do you have such a list handy? Can you grab it and take a look at it? How many items are on it? How many did you actually check off? How did you feel when you received that list from yourself?
Each of us have selves made up of many parts, but we are often not conscious of the dialogue and interplay between the parts. Only when we imagine an action like a typical “To-Do” list as an interaction with another person can we see what an asshole move it is. Imagine making a list like that for someone else. Or actually do it. Think about someone you love in your life, a partner, a child, a sibling–someone you have no current conflict or simmering resentments with. Then make them a 30-item To-Do list and tell them they have to finish it by the end of the day or else.
Do you feel like a jerk? That is how you are treating yourself.
What kind of lists and requests do we make of someone we love? We don’t flog them with an impossible list of tasks that they can never finish, and possibly deprive them of things they need–rest, praise, gratitude–until they finish (which they never will).
From now on, I suggest instead of “To-Do” lists, you make yourself a “Honey-Do” list, with yourself as the “Honey.” Think of all the things you want your “Honey” (aka yourself) to do for you, and then remember that your “Honey” gets grouchy and depressed if he/she doesn’t have [fill in the blank] and that your “Honey” gets overwhelmed if you ask him/her to do too many things at once. Also keep in mind that some tasks are triggering for your Honey, because Honey is a work in progress, so if you must add triggering tasks to the list, keep them to a minimum and make sure Honey has what she needs to get through them.
Remember, lastly, why Honey appreciates a “Honey-Do” list. It’s because Honey has gifts and talents and skills to contribute. Ideally, Honey is completing the tasks for you because he/she loves you and wants to make you happy with the gift of completed work, whether that’s changing a light bulb, taking out the trash, vacuuming, or whatever. So, in giving yourself that list, keep in mind that you want to give yourself the gift of feeling loved and appreciated.
When your “To-Do” list becomes a “Honey-Do” list, it becomes an exercise in self care and compassion. It is a list from yourself to yourself itemizing needs, wants, and obligations. Identifying which tasks to take off the list–because only an asshole would demand them of you–can help you simplify your life. You might also filter out demands from other people, or places where you’ve volunteered or said “yes” when you should have been taking care of your own time and energy. Would you let other people make endless demands of your Honey? No way!
It sounds paradoxical, but we can only take care of others when we take care of ourselves. Nobody wants you to be a martyr for their happiness. That’s gross. When you start becoming a resource for yourself, others around you will automatically be happier, too.
So quit with the Nazi list-making. Be realistic about the time you have and make sure to fill your needs and reward yourself, just like you would if “Honey” were your partner or child.
I just returned from another great weekend with my tribe at the annual Confusion science fiction convention. I attended my first one in 1998, but have not been at every Confusion every year since then. The convention has evolved in a delightful way. Once attended by a handful of mostly-local writers, the con has become an underground lit extravaganza, attracting many dozens of writers from all over the country. So many writers are regulars at Confusion now that I haven’t gotten around to making an acquaintance with all of them. Writers are my people!
I had four panels, all of which were well attended. I moderated three, which is a job I’ve become comfortable with. At Curing the Common Cold, I announced that since research in cures for the common cold were lacking, it was time to start a patient advocacy group, which I named The Con Crud Association of the Americas (“We are all survivors”). At the Short Fiction panel, we decided it was a new golden age for short fiction, sort of, if your definition of golden age is having more markets than ten years ago and getting slightly better pay rates, but don’t get carried away or anything–you still can’t make a living writing the stuff. At Build Your Own Apocalypse, the audience flatly rejected my proposal to wipe out 80% of the population with plague in favor of being enslaved by robots. And at the late night time paradox panel, Ted Chiang schooled us all on the difference between a paradox and an inconsistency while Doselle Young time-jumped for the pure hell of it.
The convention had many emotional highs and lows. I had several friends show up that I wasn’t expecting, and hadn’t even had the “Are you coming to Confusion” conversation with because they lived so far away, including a surprise Howard Tayler! I had drinks with an old and dear friend who we both agreed would be dead right now if not for a timely diagnosis. I perfected my “sit in the lobby and see who wanders by to chat” technique. I exorcised some demons. And I did a much better job of managing my energy and taking care of myself than ever before. Although I was sad to have to go to bed kind of early Saturday, I had zero regrets about saying, “I am all out of Catherines, I’ll see you tomorrow,” in contrast to many past conventions where I pushed myself into debt on self-energy and paid a hefty price for it later.
As always, there were too many people to successfully connect with everyone, so regrets if I missed you. Let’s do this again in 2016.