In the 1950s, B.F. Skinner got a pigeon to spend 16 straight hours pecking at a sheet of plexiglass, at an average rate of 2.5 pecks per second. What could have caused this frenzy? Was the pigeon held at gunpoint? Threatened with the murder of its family? Attempting to break the pecking record?
No. It pecked because this action was rewarded with food pellets at random intervals.
Skinner kept other pigeons too, in pellet-dispensing containers that would come to be known as “Skinner boxes.” In the second group, pecking produced food at predetermined time intervals. These pigeons would go about their pigeon business until it was feeding time, at which point they would casually peck on the plexiglass. Predictability versus randomness made the difference between sanity and psychosis.
Don’t mock the psychotic pigeons; we are much the same. From the simple slot machine to Facebook’s endless scroll, humans inhabit their own Skinner boxes. I am only a pigeon, so I scroll through 99 blurry photographs and poorly targeted ads just to get to that one video of a cat guarding its owner’s phone.
Without pausing to take the cue, I keep scrolling. I am the endless scroll. I’m a narrowed vision, a crazed emptiness, an engagement metric. I’m a shadow of myself.
I am only a pigeon, waiting for treats at the Facebook feed.
I tried to quit, but Facebook had given me a brain itch. Nothing would scratch it: not yoga, not books, not movies. There’s no jackpot in yoga, no scrolling in a book. Every activity I could think of felt boring; in the evening, it was hard to get myself to do anything.
I could have gritted my teeth and picked up a book, but I wondered if I could make things easier for myself. Was there something like a nicotine patch for the social media itch, a harmless substitute that would take my mind off the craving while I transitioned out of the pigeon’s life?
I decided to build a personalized Skinner box.
I put names of evening activities on strips of paper. Mimicking the variable reinforcement of the feed, I included chores (doing the dishes, responding to emails), wholesome pleasures (reading a book, calling a friend), and dopamine hits (ice cream, cat videos). Instead of rationally deciding how to spend my evening, I would draw an item from the box.
The effect was immediate. Even though I didn’t actually want to do most of the individual tasks, somehow I thrilled at the prospect of randomly drawing from among them. Sometimes, the sense of adventure persisted even if I drew a chore. The very tasks my rational mind struggled to coax me into were magically transformed into treats by the power of the Skinner box.
The next day, I tried simply doing the dishes without the seemingly unnecessary detour of the box. Poof! The adventure was a chore again. Clearly, the box was an indispensable part of the magic. But how did it work? I think it helped me access a different mental space. When I use the box, instead of trying to find the absolute best activity for a given moment, I open myself to possibility. I lean into my adventure-loving, curious side; I harness my inner pigeon.
I had discovered something better than a nicotine patch: a way to joyfully addict myself to the things I actually want to do.
I applied this discovery when working on a series of landscape paintings based on photographs from El Paso, Texas. When I started the project, rationally choosing which photo to work from felt like the evening fiasco all over again: no choice seemed particularly appealing. This time, I knew what to do: it was time for a handcrafted Skinner box.
Using a random number generator, I picked one of my top 130 El Paso photos. It was a dud: an abstract, nearly monochrome closeup of the desert floor after a snowstorm. I tried copying it, but it seemed stupid to aim for a realistic representation of something that didn’t even look like anything to begin with.
Besides, I’m not a monochrome kind of person. So after a few frustrated marks, I started focusing on the brushstrokes instead, transforming the image into an abstract color field. It’s not my absolute favorite painting, but I learned more about paintbrush and color use than I would have from a “better” source photograph.
I reach for the random number generator every morning… and wake excited to paint. By combining the predictability of painting at a fixed time with the addictive power of randomness, I have turned myself into Pavlov’s pigeon, drooling at the regular appearance of the Skinner box.
Come to think of it, I had been harnessing the addictive power of randomness in my art way before I knew about Skinner boxes.
Like the pigeon whose treats come at predetermined intervals, if I know precisely what I want a painting to look like, I lose my interest. To combat this ennui, I build stochastic surprises into my process. I’ll often prepare my canvases with a layer of random colors and textures. Searching for affinities and tensions between underpainting and model, I open myself to happy accidents. I find delicacies at every corner: shades of yellow and pink in the model’s skin which echo the underpainting; a figure 8-shaped silhouette which can be made to dance with swirling brushstrokes.
I don’t like certainty. What propels me is curiosity, a sense of adventure, a hope that the next pellet is just around the corner. When I make things, I try to leave room for such treats. This is why I rarely outline my posts. The first draft of the essay you’re reading was a random collection of anecdotes about, er, randomness. Before draft #2, I had no idea that any anecdote except the first would mention Skinner boxes. Writing gave me the very gift I’m trying to pass on to you: a new mental framework.
Many posts fail to deliver such kernels. As any pigeon knows, this only makes the search more enticing.
As much as it was a revelation, the “Skinner box” framing isn’t perfect. The gaze of the Facebook-scrolling pigeon is frenzied and narrow, focused on a single, distant point. Intent on the upcoming reward, she barely notices the dozens of mediocre posts running through her feed, frantically scrollingscrollingscrolling. Unlike Facebook, creative randomness expands my vision. When I make things, I am excited, sometimes brimming with exuberance — but never out-of-control frantic.
What makes the difference? It’s pretty easy to tell whether a Facebook post is a treat or not — but discovering whether a photograph is good source material for a painting requires attention and exploration. (If you’re inventive enough, anything is good source material.) Instead of treats, the Artist’s Box dispenses puzzles. Crack them the right way, and you’ll unlock the delicious core. That requires constant alertness, and since a treat can appear at any moment, I’m motivated to keep going.
A recent vacation really brought home the power of putting ambiguous treats in your Skinner box.
I love daydreaming about upcoming travel. Wanting my trips to live up to these dreams, I plan… and I plan, and I plan. I make sure I end up in the right place at the right time, seeing the sunset at the Grand Canyon and the sunrise in Zion.
Of course, nothing is ever exactly as planned. During a trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, my partner felt some knee pain and needed to stay in the car and rest, so I agreed to substitute a short solo hike for the long and scenic one I had dreamed of.
As I started walking, volcanic rocks loomed against an otherworldly yellow. The blustery landscape suited my sulky mood. By the time I reached the trail’s end — an underwhelming drip of waterfall, seen from above — I had traded disappointment for a sense of adventure. Since I had some time to spare, I decided to go exploring. I crossed over the creek, thrilled by the (minuscule) danger of slipping and plummeting down the waterfall. The view on the other side wasn’t any better, but the sense of adventure was its own reward.
Then I wandered off up another hill, idly searching for a more sweeping vista. There was no view here either. Instead, a museum opened up at my feet. Bowls of volcanic rock served up air bubbles. Tongues of lava seemed to cool before my eyes. Lichens and sulfur rivalled the abstract expressionist’s brush. It was one of the highlights of the week-long vacation.
When I returned to the trail, to my amazement I saw that it had been strewn with equally magnificent stones all along. I never had to go off-trail to see such marvels.
Oh, but I did: off-trail is a state of mind.
The pigeons with predictable feeds wander off to do other things when it’s not feeding time. Similarly, when I plan a hike with a clear treat at the end, my attention wanders before the climax. But if the treat could come at any time — and if, moreover, what counts as a treat is as much a matter of how you look as a matter of where you are, then I will walk through the landscape open-eyed — and gasp.
All of my Skinner boxes eventually stop working. I have enough of a feel for all of the tasks in my evening box that “use the box” now feels almost like its own predictable activity, forcing me to keep adding more items. And sometimes, I opt for the radical act of… rationally deciding how to spend my evening. It’s a little like putting my Skinner box inside another Skinner box — the big box sometimes delivers the small box, and sometimes the instruction “do what you think is best right now.”
Though it needs regular maintenance, the slot machine is a powerful tool. You can’t decide whether or not to become a pigeon; randomness will always be addictive. But you can build better Skinner boxes. You can addict yourself to Twitter — or to creativity. You can engineer a slot machine that will shrink your world — or one that will open it wide, then fill it to the brim with possibility.
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1) I provoked my partner. 2) He yelled at me. 3) I thanked him.
More precisely, it went something like this.
One Saturday morning, I bring up the topic of possible weekend hikes.
“In an ideal world, today I would — ”
“Is this plan going to involve both days?” my partner Ben interrupts me immediately.
No wonder I dread suggesting weekend activities… he won’t even let me finish a single goddamn sentence!
“I didn’t say anything about plans! I just want permission to dream!” I explode.
This goes on for a bit, in tight and frustrated circles, until Ben suggests that I go and meditate. It’s the last thing I want to do, but I don’t have a choice: we’d both precommitted to disengaging in the middle of arguments.
On my meditation bench, I let myself feel all of my emotions. When I have an angry thought, I turn up the volume. Internally, I say all the meanest things I can come up with.
Ben is such a stick in the mud! Such a lump. I always have to fight him to have any sort of fun. It wasn’t supposed to be like this! We were supposed to be adventure buddies!
I feel constricted, tight, trapped.
He was supposed to expand my world, not narrow it! When did this happen? When had this inspiration, this beautiful altruist who chose his job based on the number of people he could help, become a constraining force?
What would it be like to escape this constraint? I am a blazing fire. I am a storm. I am untamable.
When I finish the meditation, I know that this is bigger than our weekend plans.
“I feel like I’m the keeper of travel and adventure in this relationship,” I start.¹ “Nothing fun ever happens unless I suggest it.
“At the start of our relationship, I thought we were adventure buddies. Like that time my friend had invited me to visit her in China, and I really wanted to go, but it seemed frivolous. And you said “why not? I’ll go with you.” And then that same year we went to Morocco and to Iceland — I wanted to do all those things eventually, but you were the one who said “why not now?” And now I feel like it’s always me who says those things.”
I hesitate, searching for the least hurtful words. “I think I… a part of me… is disappointed in our relationship. Before we met, when I set up my OkCupid profile, I wrote “I love reading — but ‘at home, curled up with a book’ is not my idea of a good time. I’d rather be reading on a train headed someplace new.” I wrote that because I didn’t want to be dating someone whose idea of a good time was sitting curled up with a book. And,” I take a deep breath, “there’s a part of me which is afraid that you are this sort of person.”
Ben lurches to his feet. He looks like he’d just been punched. “Reading a book is not my fucking idea of a good time!” He pounds the table, its rattle the only sound in the icy silence. I have never, ever seen him this angry. “My fucking idea of a good time is improving the world! Reading a book is what I do to recuperate when I’m too exhausted from that.” He strides to the other side of the room, panting.
He’s a storm, a blazing fire.
I say the only words that do justice to what I’m feeling: “Thank you.”
What the hell was that about? In the moment, I don’t need to know anything more than this: I am satisfied. I got exactly what I needed.
Later, I put words to the experience. I got my Ben back. The Ben who sees suffering and injustice as problems someone needs to fix, then asks “Why not now? Why not me?” The Ben who, if he helps in China, will help in Morocco and Iceland too. Who welds ambition and altruism into an inseparable whole. Who will fight for the things he believes in. The Ben who is passionate; the Ben I fell in love with.
That’s what scared me about a lump reading in the corner: a lack of passion. All of that stuff about travel and adventure was never the point.
Of course, on some level I already knew that Ben was passionate about improving the world; I knew that he chose to work on a mobile money service in Africa specifically because of its impact on people’s lives. But his passion manifests during his workday, which I mostly don’t get to experience. Instead, I’d been witnessing his exhaustion afterwards, and a part of me started to believe that the exhausted Ben was the true Ben.
There’s a difference between knowing something on an intellectual level and knowing it in an embodied way. Between knowing Ben would fight for his beliefs and seeing him do it.
Between knowing I love him and feeling it.
The tunnels of hatred and contempt always seem to lead to love and admiration. Not just in that argument; again and again, when I let myself experience my negative feelings, I end up feeling love.
Like the time I hate a friend for her fakeness.² She gives a compliment to an acquaintance, then turns around and whispers “I don’t really believe that, but we need to support him.”
When I let myself feel the hatred, I realize that what bothers me isn’t fakeness, but honesty: I also say nice things I don’t believe, but I don’t go around admitting to it. My friend, it turns out, has more integrity than me.
Or the time I allow myself to find a friend unbearably boring. I imagine myself pounding my fists. Energy courses through my body; it feels exhilarating. “He’s pitiful,” I think. “Why did I ever want to be friends with him in the first place?” Then I remember: he’d worked so hard as a student, spending all his time on schoolwork, retaking every test it was possible retake, coming to all the office hours. All this to get what I would get by totally slacking off. Grit. Determination. Resilience. This is why I admire this pitiful person.
How can hatred lead to love? Here’s how I think of it. When I don’t let myself feel hatred and contempt towards my loved ones, I’m boarding up the doors to those feelings. Love can’t reach the places I’ve boarded up, and so it shrinks. (This narrow type of love, born of flinching from people’s flaws and my feelings about them, is sometimes called duty.) But when I open the doors, love floods all.
You know those couples who have everything going for them, then one day wake up and realize that they’re each other’s worst enemies? The ones who never argue, then find themselves in a bitter divorce? Who turn seamlessly from love to hate, with no gradation in between? They’ve always puzzled me, but now I think I understand.
It’s precisely because they didn’t argue that their love turned to hate. A part of them had always hated their spouse, but that was never the problem. The problem was that they never faced that hatred. Afraid to lose their love, they’ve been forcing it into tighter and tighter spaces. Eventually, all that remained was the very hate and contempt they’d been trying to avoid.
Another thing I think I understand now is teenage rebellion. A child loves her parents in a constricted way: she doesn’t see them as full, flawed human beings; she shuts her eyes when she sees something she doesn’t like.
“I hate you, mom!” is cause for celebration; it’s the first step towards mature love.
Periodically visiting your hatred and contempt strengthens your relationships, but that doesn’t mean you should do it — let alone express these feelings — every day. Before our argument, I had been processing my thoughts about Ben’s “lumpiness” for several weeks. If I had expressed them in their raw form earlier, I would have only hurt him. (This is also why disengaging in the middle of an argument is so helpful.) And there will be stretches of time when you or your partner (or friend) won’t have the emotional resources to process your feelings, to crawl through the dark tunnel of hate towards love. If one of you is having a particularly difficult month at work, or if your newborn has been keeping you up all night, it makes perfect sense to store your hurtful feelings in a sealed-off cellar and briefly run on the fuel of duty instead of love. But in large quantities, this is a fuel which corrodes. Eventually, you’ll want to find some space and time to convert it back to love.
You don’t always need to involve your partner (or friend) in this process, but it often helps. How do you do that without causing unnecessary suffering? That’s another thing Ben helped me understand.
Later that Saturday, on a hike on the Florida Trail (Ben’s suggestion), it occurred to me that I had essentially said a bunch of mean things to provoke an angry response out of him. “Thanks for that, again,” I say. “You put up with a lot today, and I think it was basically all for my sake. I’m not sure that you got anything out of it.”
Ben furrows his brow. “I don’t think of it that way. A part of you had been getting in the way of our relationship. We reassured that part, and now it’s no longer in the way. That’s good for the relationship — and what’s good for the relationship is ultimately also good for me.”
When I think of what makes an argument good, this is what I keep returning to. Throughout our quarrel — even when I was saying the meanest things about Ben, even when he was pounding the table — we never completely let go of this overarching sense that we are on the same team. That by fighting for our rights and our autonomy we were also fighting for the relationship. Even our hate had only one purpose: love.
—  I’ve condensed the argument into a near-monologue because I don’t think you, the reader, would get very much out of the details of the actual back and forth — but please remember that what actually happened was a lot messier than this portrayal.
 Some details changed to protect identity. Hatred strengthens relationships if expressed properly, but these descriptions are the opposite of proper expression, so I don’t want anyone to see themselves in them.
I’ve been doing a new type of meditation — “therapy” is an equally good word. There’s really nothing to it (all I do is set a 30-minute timer and sit quietly with myself), but the effects have been profound.
What I mean by “sitting quietly with myself” is that I let my attention go wherever it naturally goes, while trying to maintain awareness that I am sitting here, now, in the background. Whenever I notice that I’ve lost that awareness, or that I’m feeling impatient or distracted, I anchor my attention in the sensations in my body, then let it go wherever it wants again. If something intense, like a pang of anger, comes up, I try to give it space, lightly saying “you’re welcome here” to the experience. I try not to overthink what I’m doing, trusting my gut when something feels important. So if I feel like I need to cry, I just cry, without trying to check whether I’m truly present every second.
This simple practice has uncovered so muchunder the surface of my mind! It’s a bit like snorkeling — until you dive in, the water seems perfectly uniform, but underneath the glories are endless. One of the most interesting “fish” I have found are the emotionally charged memories which spontaneously bubble up to the surface when I am sufficiently calm. Here are a few examples.
I noticed I was stressed about an upcoming social interaction. I let myself fully inhabit that feeling and… Poof!
I am back in third grade, my bully Victoria pushing me down to my hands and knees. Pulling down my pants. Sitting on my back. I am back in third grade, a humiliated horsey.
Here, now, on my meditation bench, I can’t stop crying.
My teacher, Mrs. P, can’t stop apologizing. She gives me a beautiful little bear-shaped stamp. She pampers me for the rest of the day. She has never scolded Victoria this bad.
I love the stamp, but I don’t deserve it. Doesn’t Mrs. P. know that today was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing but the culmination of the little cruelties Victoria had been piling on me for months?
The tears come, and come, and come. Had I carried this sadness here all the way from third grade? At the end of the sobbing, there is calm.
2. I am back in Oxford. I see every shade of ochre in the sandstone, every gargoyle. I walk across the lime-green quad to the stately dining hall. The space is as it has always been, not one inch of air misplaced.
The memory is dense with feeling. Intoxicating awe at the privilege of being here, at the sight of every blade of juicy grass and every sandstone curlicue. Around that, something dark and heavy. Nostalgia? No, the feeling seems internal to the memory, something I carried with me often across this quad.
I am inside the dining hall, sitting at the edge of a group of unfamiliar faces in the flickering candlelight of a formal dinner. Inside, the darkness intensifies.
Loneliness. The word comes as if from outside me, but when it lands, my body shudders in recognition.
Oxford had been a dream come true, but my time there was punctuated with periods of despondency. I called it depression; the word “loneliness” never crossed my mind.
I found it hard to make friends with British classmates; most of the people I was closest with had been visiting students who disappeared after one year. Of course I was lonely.
3. I feel lost. The feeling is connected with a sensation in my hips, but every time I try to focus my attention on that area, I bounce off, like there’s something lodged in there causing me to skid. I feel impatient, distracted. A minute goes by without me knowing where I am. “You’re welcome here, lostness,” I remind myself.
I am back in Warsaw. I’m about to start an orienteering exercise for my scouting troop; I need find my way to given point using map and compass. There’s a knot in my stomach; I have no idea what I’m doing, but it feels too late to admit it. Should I be going north? South? I toss a mental coin, grit my teeth, and go.
“Eve?” I hear my mentor’s voice behind me. “You’re going the wrong way. Are you sure you know how orienteering works? Do you want more time to learn and try this another time?”
I should have known this by now. Everyone but me knows how to find their way.
That familiar flash of embarrassment stands for more than just high school scouting. I suddenly realize that a part of me believed that everyone except me already knows how to find their way in life. I had felt not just lost, but terrified of asking for directions.
4. I’m at my first advanced contradance. After the first number, my partner asks: can I give you an advanced-dance tip? “Sure.” It’s easier if you spin in the opposite direction to how you’ve been doing it.
I can barely hold back the tears. I mumble something about needing fresh air and stagger towards the exit. I sit on a park bench and sob; the minutes tick by. Why am I such an overwrought wreck? Why can’t I stop crying? Why can’t I just go back to the dance?
I let myself feel all of that day’s pain and shame. From the comfort of my meditation bench, it suddenly makes sense. It wasn’t just about dancing. The experience had been a concrete manifestation of an existential fear: the fear of waking up on my deathbed to learn I’d been running after all the wrong things. The fear that I had never been as advanced as I thought I was. That I didn’t belong here. That I never belonged; thinking I did was no safeguard.
The fear was exactly this: I had been spinning in the wrong direction all along.
I cry during almost every one of these sessions. That might sound horrible, but these are the cleansing tears of music, of poetry, of safety. Most of all, they are teachers.
The more I’m taken back to the past, the more I understand the present. Of course I’m afraid of meeting new people; a part of me still believes that anyone could turn out to be Victoria. And when I realize that, the fear lessens.
I think of this meditation as mental reshuffling. An experience triggers a memory, which triggers a feeling, which triggers another memory. After I observe this sequence of events, it stops being inevitable. I don’t have to consciously try to stop it — social interactions just no longer send me into a panic; dances naturally stop provoking existential dread.
The more of these friendly tears I let fall, the fewer tears of rage and helplessness I experience off the meditation bench. I no longer need to avoid my feelings; I know I have space for them all.
Sometimes I think everything is beautiful. Then I come to a place like this, trees glowing orange over cobalt hills, a beauty so blinding I veil my eyes with clichés – and my worldview shatters.
I had a dream, once, of moving to a cottage in the mountains, but I had settled for city life. I told myself I wanted closeness: to cafés, museums, friends. More importantly, Ben liked the city. (Never mind that he shared my dream of mountains, my inner conflict – it was easier to think that he didn’t.)
Besides, everything was beautiful, people as lovely as nature; I wasn’t really giving anything up. I meant it when I said it – patches of pavement, paintings of corpses, busy city squares have all floored me with unexpected glory – but “everything is beautiful” had also been the spell I chanted to protect myself from my own dreams.
It was only when I arrived at the dream, the home with trails leading out the front door, that I let myself feel my yearning. It did make sense to want this, not just weekend drives to the distant mountains, excursions to the highest peaks on the sunniest days, but the daily walk, the grass decked out with pearls after the rain, the leaves turning day by day, the birds I know almost by name.
I walk, climb on. This place, in its silence and solitude, lets me hear my own thoughts. I think about what we give up: happiness, adventure, community; success, safety, solitude.
Ben and I became nomadic just as the days were getting too short and too cold for gathering outside. (We’re in New Hampshire now, but who know’s what’s next? Not knowing is part of the thrill.) The pandemic has removed some of the tradeoffs; the dream of community is slumbering, adventure and solitude can take its place. But afterwards? Once, I would have moved to mountainous seclusion in the blink of an eye, but I have grown to love people, almost despite myself.
Walking through birdsong, I remember the first time I visited New York. Screech! Rush! Honk! No end to agitation; agitation to no end. So that’s what people meant by “energy”? The one place I could never live, I thought. I visited once, twice, thrice, and started to understand, the way you understand a second language, the attraction of cities: the beauty of crowds, faces, people, everyone with a different story, everyone a miracle.
When I lived in the suburbs of Boston, I had those glorious strangers, plus friends I’d known for years. What do I give up when I choose solitude? There is a tension in me: even these hills of gold are empty without the hearth, the heart.
Another vista emerges, horizontal strips in complementary colors: grey-blue and russet grasses, orange trees, blue hills, long thin clouds. Vertical birches frame the view and complete the picture, forming a box, a home for my vision.
I inhale; the air smells like being alive. I see my inner tensions as complementary colors, sources of vibrance.
I grew up between places. Our house in Poland was an anchor, a base, a home – but travel was always my second home. I want to have it all. I dream of a cottage in the mountains; I dream of never settling down; I dream of city friends.
I dream of a single place that is travel and home, community and solitude, mountains and city. Maybe this is what our ancestors had, hunting and gathering through the forests in a band of friends. I had this in high school, for a moment, when my scout troop backpacked through mountains of stillness, sang full-throated at the bonfire at night. I carry a nomad inside me, who doesn’t understand this world of screens and only wants to walk, and walk, and sing.
The mountains are calling and I must go. I heard what John Muir heard, but I stopped my ears. “I must go” – what sort of a reason is that? When you live in society, you do what you can explain.
Our mountain is a ski slope. Near the peak, a narrow, vertiginous ladder goes up to the chairlift. I look up. Folly to climb and folly not to climb.
I choose a place halfway up the ladder, just where delight meets fear, climb there, no further, then descend. My dreams butt heads with dreams; the tensions are what defines me.
What scares me more than a life of inner conflict is a life without it.
“For fifteen minutes, welcome everything in yourself. Invite every new experience, offer it tea, send it love.”
I didn’t have high hopes for this exercise. Don’t I already welcome everything during my daily meditation? Well, it was worth a try; I was having a crappy day anyway.
Almost immediately, I realized that what had seemed a calm mind had actually been composed of a cacophony of voices. Here’s a dramatization.
Crastie: a lovable, tantrum-throwing child responsible for my procrastinatory tendencies
The Auntie Committee: a group of well-meaning but dogmatic matrons who have taken it upon themselves to solve Crastie’s problems.
Crastie: I don’t want to write this blog post! Auntie Vigilante: No time for fretting, you’re behind on your writing already! Auntie Anti: Now, Crastie! Why don’t you brighten up? Auntie Tauntie: How about you do something nice and relaxing, like reading a book? That will cheer you right up! Vigilante: Half an hour with a book in hand, and you’ll be ready to get back to work! Crastie: I don’t wanna! Tauntie: Oh, okay… Then maybe you could do the dishes while listening to podcasts? You always enjoy that! It’s relaxing and productive. As soon as you see that glorious empty sink, everything will be right with the world. Vigilante: Now isn’t that right, Crastie? There’s no end of wholesome activities! You could water the plants in your garden. Or make some iPad sketches – you’ll gain some lovely graphic design skills too! Crastie: I don’t wanna do ANYTHING! Anti: Well, perhaps you’re right. It’s important to Do Nothing every once in a while. Maybe it’s one of those days: a nice hour of meditation, and you’ll be good to go. Vigilante: Or perhaps some gentle yoga? Tauntie: Or maybe a little power nap? You haven’t been sleeping well, poor thing! Go right ahead – a half-hour nap, and then you’ll wake up good and refreshed!
Phew! All this was going on in my head? A Committee of Aunties jabbering a mile a minute, offering a new self-help scheme every ten seconds? No wonder feeling sad turns me into an exhausted insomniac, kept up at night by the chorus in her head…
I had been welcoming everything, including the Aunties, but now I focused my attention on Crastie. What if she – I – really didn’t want to do anything right now? Could I welcome that?
I lie down and close my eyes for a little while. Then Crastie chimes in: what if we played some phone Boggle?
The Aunties are back.
Auntie Anti: Young lady, phone games never did anyone any good! You say it’ll be fifteen minutes, but it’s always a lost afternoon, not a second of it enjoyable. Vigilante: There are a hundred wholesome things you could be doing, and you choose to fritter away your time instead? Crastie: F**k that wholesome s**t!
I always wondered why my procrastination involves excruciatingly boring activities like phone games and scrolling through Facebook. Now I have an epiphany. Crastie chooses her activities precisely because they are unenjoyable. When the Aunties declare an activity Wholesome, they expect it to cheer Crastie up – so if she chooses a Wholesome Activity but continues to mope, they blame her and exhaust her with further solutions. Better to choose something which will probably make her feel worse. When it does, at least she can’t be blamed for doing it wrong.
I try out an experiment. “Sure thing, let’s play Boggle.”
It’s surprisingly fun; I’m better than I’ve ever been at this harmless game. After twenty minutes, Crastie asks me to put down the phone. “Thanks. I think I’ve had enough.”
When the Little Prince asks the Drunkard why he drinks, he explains: “I drink to forget that I drink.” While this sounds circular, it isn’t: what fuels the drinking isn’t the drinking itself but shame. It’s the same mechanism when Crastie and I play phone Boggle or endlessly scroll through Facebook. Yes, those things are made to be addictive, and at some point quitting cold turkey is the only way out. But that’s not the fundamental reason we keep scrolling. The fundamental reason is that as soon as we stop, the Aunties will wag their fingers and lament: “She did it again! All that time down the drain!”
This is why Boggle lost its addictive power as soon as I removed the taboo against it.
I should have known this. When I meditate, I make a point of thanking my subconscious whenever it alerts me that my mind has wandered. Yes, the ultimate aim of meditation is shorter and shorter periods of mind-wandering. But getting mad at myself when I fall short of this aim – negative reinforcement – just doesn’t work. My subconscious has no reason to let me know that it has strayed if it will only get scolded once it does.
I need to treat Crastie the same way: like the Prodigal Son. Unless I give her amnesty for confession, she’ll always choose to forget that she procrastinates.
Last year, I went on a ten-day meditation retreat. I was hoping it would help me write my dissertation by strengthening my willpower, but nothing of the sort happened. In fact, after ten days of paying attention to my breath, I started doubting that willpower even existed… If I didn’t want to do something, no plea or threat or appeal to duty could convince me otherwise.
Despite that apparent handicap, the few weeks after the retreat were some of the most productive in my life. I made rapid progress on my dissertation. I woke excited for my research every day. I couldn’t do anything I didn’t want to – but somehow I wanted all the right things.
I was also surprised to find that I still scrolled through Facebook. The big difference was that I noticed the scrolling almost as soon as it happened, and immediately paused and gently asked myself what I needed.
Crastie and I were on friendly terms back then. Whenever she showed up, we’d find that my to-do list had taken me in the wrong direction. I was tired and overworked and needed a break, or my self-imposed deadline had been unreasonable, or I disagreed with my advisor’s suggestion, which I had interpreted as a demand. My procrastination always had a reason.
Getting to know the Aunties has helped me understand a puzzle about depression and anxiety: why is it that every time I find a “cure,” something that reliably dispels dark moods, it stops working?
Because as soon as I know that a method “always works,” the Auntie Committee hijacks it. They create an expectation that the activity will work, which triggers Crastie’s fear of failure. “Do some self-care, and you’ll be good to go!” they chirp. This pushes her right back into the rule-following mindset which was the cause of her unhappiness in the first place.
Crastie isn’t the problem; the Auntie Committee is the problem. They transform love to duty, joy to rule-following. They don’t understand the concept of not doing anything; for them, there is only Doing Nothing.1 For them, there is no such thing as “for its own sake;” no such thing as Being, only Doing.
American culture is run by Auntie Committees. It has transformed self-care into a type of action, another item to check off the to-do list. But self-care is an attitude, not an activity: not yoga, not baking bread, not bubble baths. If it’s run by the Auntie Committee, it isn’t self-care. If it’s done for its own sake, from the heart, with no expectations, it is – even if it’s running a marathon or scrolling through Facebook.
An unhappy child doesn’t need advice. She needs a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a big, unconditional hug.
It isn’t any different when the child is me.
 I suspect they are also the reason my meditative practice keeps degenerating into a baroque litany of rules. (E.g. After every six breaths, check if you’re still paying attention; if you notice sleepy thoughts, breathe more deeply; if you can’t bear to sit still, count to ten before deciding whether to move.”)
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“Would you take a pill which removed your boredom forever?”
I almost said “yes.” Boredom is excruciating. Doing nothing – meditating, sunbathing, kicking down the cobblestones – is lovely. Boredom is an unscratchable itch layered on top of that glorious nothing. Who needs that?
I almost said “yes,” but I know the trickery of thought experiments. I hedged: “yes, if it doesn’t change anything else about my life.”
“Oh, but that’s the point: what do you think it would change?”
Recently, I wanted to paint this gorgeous view:
As usual before starting a landscape, I tallied the things I loved about the view: the depth of the green of the poplars(?), the wildflowers scattered in the foreground, the glow on the lake.
A glorious view, but fifteen minutes later I was yawning. The vista was green on green on green, and trying to differentiate those ten muddy greens from each other made me want to shoot myself.
I paused and reconsidered. What was my aim in painting? Capturing my excitement about the view. Enhancing my appreciation. Riding the edge between representation and paint, playing with my brushstrokes. Loving nature like Joaquin Mir did:
Well, I sure as hell wasn’t heading in that direction. Even if I got the damned greens right, would that take me where I wanted to go? It would lead me to accuracy, to realism – not to the type of art that brought me alive.
I loved the depth of the color of the poplars, but did I love the particularities of their muddy color? I placed a stroke of pure, delicious blue in their shadows. I put purple on the trunks. I made the grass in the foreground emerald green because I love the color, then, seeing the grass pinking slightly as it dried, added a blob of pink in for good measure.
I didn’t know where this would take me; I loved every moment.
There are terrible pictures that have taken time and pain to make, intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material. They frighten the sensitive student for the message they carry is of the pain and boredom of their making.
Robert Henri, “Art Spirit“
When I read this quote, I think not of painting but academic philosophy. How many papers had I read like that – intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material? How many papers like this had I forced myself to read through tears of boredom, since they were on the topic of my dissertation – that great amalgamation of material I thought I had to write?
Henri gave me permission to trust my boredom. What if rather than a sign of insufficient stamina, it was a sign of taste? What if these texts were exactly what they appeared: meticulously researched crap?1
I used to feel guilty for how much “non-philosophy” was on my reading list: how much literature, pop science, education. About how much time I spent painting and writing non-academic essays, or polishing the words in my dissertation to my liking. I found those things so much more interesting than what I was “supposed” to do, but I approached them half-heartedly. Now I realized that it was how Henri had said:
People are often so affected by outside opinion that they go to their most important work half hearted or half ashamed.
Henri’s insight helped me write a better dissertation faster and more joyfully. I started aggressively skimming my bibliography and writing things I would actually enjoy reading. And these parts – faster, better, more joyfully – weren’t in conflict, as I’d thought – they were correlated! Henri says, startlingly:
It is easier, I think, to paint a good picture than it is to paint a bad one. The difficulty is to have the will for it.
That’s not true for all senses of “easier,” but it points in the right direction. But then why do so many people do boring work? If it’s easier, why is having the will for it hard?
Doing and making what excites you is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. You risk judgment. You risk finding out that no one else is excited by what excites you. Straying from the beaten path, half of the time you’ll walk aimlessly through the darkling forest.
Being meticulous is safe. Doing what everyone else is doing is safe. Academia is – yes, safe.
At least, that’s what had brought me to grad school: safety, not excitement. I wanted to look like someone who does what she loves, but I was terrified of stepping outside of the strictures of academia (with its promises of status, perhaps even of stable employment) when my love flowed elsewhere.
Fear – of the “real” world, of judgment, of unemployment – brought me to academia. Boredom was the antidote which helped me escape.
Of course I wouldn’t take the pill from the start of this post. Boredom is a guide. It’s almost a moral compass. It’s what tells me that I have lost my “why.” Removing it would mean crawling patiently in the wrong direction.
People who suffer from congenital insensitivity to pain don’t live very long. They don’t notice that they’re ill until it’s too late; they burn, cut, and bite themselves without realizing.
Boredom is a type of pain, and it’s important for similar reasons. Maybe it’s even more important. I’m happy that my hand automatically escapes a hot burner before I even physically feel pain. But I wouldn’t want my boredom replaced by an automatic reflex, even if I ended up doing the same exact things I do now.
My painting – and my life – wouldn’t be mine in the same way if I didn’t actively use my boredom as a guide.
And my landscape? I painted over the patch of red-pink in the foreground three times before I found the right balance between safety and excitement, between getting it “right” and making it alive. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
 Taste is subjective, so this is all about what I personally find interesting, not what anyone else “should” be interested in.
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Everyone knows that negative feedback is tough to take. A lesser-known fact: positive feedback can be just as painful. Take Vincent van Gogh’s reaction to his first (and last) glowing review:
when I read the article it made me almost sad as I thought: [I] should be like this and I feel so inferior. And pride intoxicates like drink, when one is praised and has drunk one becomes sad, or anyway I don’t know how to say how I feel it, but it seems to me that the best work one could do would be that carried out in the family home without self-praise.
Van Gogh isn’t alone. During one of my grad-school talks, I could tell that the audience was enjoying themselves. The Q&A was lively, and afterwards several people stopped me to tell me how much they liked the presentation. But when I got home, I couldn’t access any of their enthusiasm. Curled up in bed, the only thing I could remember was the sensation of everyone’s eyes fixed on my bare face.
My brain processes praise in a funny way. Like any utterance, a compliment is a packet of information – some good, some bad. I’d like to be able to view those side by side, but in my mind, the bad parts wrap around the good. It’s a little like a nut with a hard toxic shell.
Thankfully, I think I’ve discovered some nutcrackers. I’ll describe them later in this post – but first, let’s get clearer on what the nuts are made of.
When I flinch from praise, it often goes something like this.
You say: You look so nice in that dress! I think: When tomorrow I wear sweatpants, you’ll judge me.
What I hear is not that you’re positively evaluating me, but that you’re evaluating me at all. If I’m praised, then I’m seen; and if I’m seen, then tomorrow I might disappoint you. Today I might disappoint you. You might keep looking at the dress and notice that what seemed like beauty was only flashiness. You don’t like it after all, you might decide. If a judgment is yours, it’s yours to revise; to judge is to wield power.
Every judgment implies a scale. Every scale implies the possibility of plummeting down. (This is part of why social media sucks so much. Even if there’s no “dislike” button, the “like” button implies it.)
In this case, my nut looks something like this:
Here’s a second type of nut. Let’s say you compliment me on having good taste in clothes being a good writer despite wearing socks with sandals.
I’m likely to reject this praise for a different reason: identities are damaging!1 That is, if I accept your praise, I’ll think of myself as a Good Writer. If I proceed to experience an otherwise harmless day of writer’s block, I risk descending down a spiral of self-blame. I think van Gogh is right:
the best work one could do would be that carried out in the family home without self-praise.
Better to stay away from the praise altogether.
Given the damage identities can cause, you might wonder why people would give this sort of praise in the first place.
That question is precisely what helped me find my nutcracker. I simply started asking praise-givers for their intention. Mind you, it wasn’t like I asked them point-blank “What do you think you’re doing with that praise, young lady?!” Instead, I tried to get a handle on the experience that prompted the praise. I’d ask things like
What do you value about good writing?
Is there a particular essay of mine that you enjoyed?2 What was reading it like? What did you get out of it?
After several of these conversations, I started to notice a pattern. If the praise eventually resonated with me, it was almost always because the praise-giver expressed gratitude. They were praising me because I had given them something valuable (usually an experience).
When I discovered that, I started automatically translating praise to gratitude. For instance:
You look so nice in that dress! Translation: Thank you for bringing me joy with what you’re wearing!
Rephrasing it that way goes a long way towards removing the pressure of possible judgment. It’s no longer a question of whether you’ll keep giving me a thumbs up in the future, but of whether I’ll keep choosing (or at least trying) to give you more gifts.
And for the second nut:
You’re such a good writer! Translation: Thank you for often bringing me valuable reading experiences!
I don’t have to accept the identity of a Good Writer to feel happy that my writing touched you.
The translation method doesn’t always work. Sometimes I need to ask for more details to understand why you value the experience I’ve given you. (And if I don’t value that sort of experience, I might want to reject the compliment.)
Occasionally, the compliment doesn’t even come from a place of gratitude. Sometimes “you’re such a good writer” means “I could never be so good, so I’ll stop trying.” You say you admire me, but really you’re making excuses for yourself, putting yourself down, or just trying to create distance between us.
Even in such cases, though, exploring your intention is usually worthwhile. Maybe I can help you get over your hangups about writing. At the very least, I’ll see where you’re coming from.
So now we have a couple of nutcrackers: translating praise to gratitude (for the easy cases) and exploring the praise-giver’s intentions (for the hard ones).
There’s just one more step: remembering to actually enjoy the gratitude. And that step is surprisingly hard for me. Why? As a woman, I’ve been taught to value modesty. Pride doesn’t befit a demure lady, or something like that. And as a Pole, I learned that the appropriate response to praise and gratitude is “it’s nothing!” – essentially tossing your appreciation as fast as I can.
The cultural practice of rejecting compliments actually makes some sense. Like I said, identities can be toxic, so that part of praise should be discarded. But there’s a difference between pride in being a Good Writer and satisfaction at giving someone an enjoyable reading experience. The latter is what keeps me going, so I try to train myself away from my instinctual recoil.
In the face of praise, I intentionally pause for a moment, think about the gratitude I’m receiving and try to feel it in my body. It doesn’t always feel like anything. It can even be unpleasant – e.g. if I don’t value the sort of experience I’m being thanked for. That’s okay; I’m practicing. But when it does feel good, there is really nothing like it – nothing like basking in the warm glow of heartfelt gratitude.
 For more on the dangers of evaluation and overgrown identity, check out The Inner Game of Tennis and “Keep Your Identity Small.”  This one’s a little tricky because it can sound like I’m fishing for more compliments. It helps if I make it clear that I’m just trying to understand what resonates with my readers.
Thanks to Lila, Rachel, Ann, and Mahaya from the Connection Institute for bringing up and discussing this topic. You rock! (Translation: Talking with you was an enriching experience which helped me write this.) And thanks to Ben for being the best (= e.g. finding gaps in the first draft of this post).
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I’m taking a four-week course on boundaries. When our instructor tells us that despite not minding even hour-long video calls, she caps her calls at 30 minutes, I feel some resistance. She explains that she intentionally leaves a 30-minute buffer so that she won’t end up resentful if the conversation goes a little over her stated boundary.
my limit = it starts hurting (physically or emotionally) when you do that
my boundary = don’t do that
my buffer = the space between my limit and my boundary.
So we’re instructed to have a buffer. I’m still uncomfortable with this idea. Isn’t it selfish? Isn’t it deceptive? I imagine myself as a hedgehog, who translates:
My limit = I don’t want you to do that
My boundary = where I pretend my limit is
My buffer = a layer of fake quills, like so:
The next morning, life proves me so very, very wrong.
I want to meditate in our bedroom. The problem: Ben is sitting, sockless, on the living-room couch. And so I remind him, just like I have every morning for the past month, to take his socks out of the closet before I block his way. He needs a moment. My morning routine slips through my fingers; I twiddle my thumbs indignantly.
Thankfully, I remember that I’m taking a course on boundaries.
“From now on, can you get your socks from the bedroom without reminders?” I proudly request.
“Okay,” he says. I didn’t expect him to sound this taken aback.
As I turn towards the bedroom, a bolt from the blue: “Thank you?”
He wants me to apologize? Hadn’t I just spent a month tending to the warmth of his feet, putting an extra todo in my morning routine and getting only grumbles in return? He knows that I meditate every morning – why would it be such a big deal to just take the socks out the as soon as we get up?
This is all news to Ben. “If reminding me was so hard, why did you keep doing it?”
“For you! What did you think?”
“That you really hate being interrupted while you meditate!”
“No, I just I imagined that you wouldn’t want to interrupt me, and so you’d sit huddled on the couch with your poor cold feet!”
We start giggling as soon as the words come out of my mouth. The only person in this household who gets cold feet (in both senses) is, of course, me. Projection, projection, projection. Ben’s socklessness would have caused him no grief – and if it had, he would have just stridden into the bedroom without a second thought.
I did the “selfless” thing – then both of us got hurt.
Then it sinks in: the buffer isn’t a false set of spikes. It’s a fluffy blanket around my hedgehog. It’s there for both of us.
A lot of other experiences click into place once I realize that. The time I take my guests on sightseeing trip after sightseeing trip… until I’m so exhausted that I basically kick them out of the house to organize their own damned excursion. The times when I agree to dinner delays in 15-minute increments, none of which are a big deal until I’m drowning in a pool of hangry tears and someone has to make me a sandwich, NOW.
Every time I fail to have a buffer, I end up like that proverbial frog: boiled degree by degree, until it’s too late to escape. Too late for both of us: what is boiling is my own blood, scalding everyone in the room.
As homework for the first week of the course, I’m supposed to say “no” to a request every day.
“No one ever asks me for anything,” I complain to Ben.
30 seconds later, he commands: “Could you help me install the AC?”
Of course I say “yes.”
My final realization: confusing requests with demands and boundaries with limits are two sides of the same coin.
When I fail to create a buffer, when my boundaries are limits – then my requests are actually demands. (A request-maker would be happy to say “thank you!”) What I present as a harmless blanket is actually a layer of sharp quills.
And since almost all my requests are like this, I assume others’ are too. When Ben asks me to help with the AC, I presume that he’d been sitting in the corner, hemming and hawing until he was sure that he couldn’t do it alone.
Projection, projection, projection.
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The cinematic moment which has haunted me the longest and hardest is a scene from a Tom & Jerry episode. Jerry - cheeks puffy with effort, eyes brimming with despair - is clasping his hands in supplication in front of Spike the Bulldog. Spike examines him for a moment and cheerfully trots away, with a parting “If you need me, just whistle!”
The episode is called “The Bodyguard” and its plot is simple. Jerry rescues Spike from the pound. To repay his debt, Spike promises to always protect the mouse from his tormentor Tom. “Just whistle,” Spike promises, “and I’ll come to your rescue.” All’s well for the little mouse, until Tom tricks him into chewing a piece of glue-covered gum which renders him unable to whistle. As he tries to flee the cat’s tortures, he bumps into Spike - and you already know what happens next.
How many times have I been Jerry? “Just whistle!” “Just ask!” “Just speak louder!” “Just call me up!” How many people told me to “just whistle,” blind to the glue sticking my lips together?
In my mind, Jerry’s glue-covered gum stands for every time I have found myself painfully, embarrassingly, unaccountably mute. The times teachers called on me and I could feel my knowledge evaporating. The parties spent hiding behind the host’s dog, baby, or glass of water. The high-school year when I lived in the library and could count the number of times I spoke to my classmates on one hand.
Some things in Tom & Jerry weren’t to be taken seriously. When Jerry placed Tom’s tail in a waffle maker, I knew to accept that the tail would expand to the size and shape of a real waffle without wondering about the precise mechanics. When Tom shrieked in pain, I knew to laugh rather than sympathize. Tom’s pain wasn’t real pain.
But I couldn’t, simply couldn’t believe that when Jerry fell to his knees and begged Spike for help, his pain was also unreal.
And if even I, who could watch Jerry hit over the head with an anvil without flinching, couldn’t ignore his pain here, how could Spike be oblivious to it? Weren’t Jerry’s pleading gestures as clear as the sound of a whistle? Wasn’t his anguished gaze just as piercing? Spike must have been either exceedingly stupid or willfully neglectful to act as he did.
In all of Tom & Jerry, this was the one scene that really strained credulity: Spike’s cheerful, cruel “Just whistle!” to a mouse in visibly acute pain.
At least Jerry knew what had happened: the cat literally got his tongue. I lacked even the consolation of a clear narrative. What was the glue which held my mouth shut? What did I swallow to stop me from whistling? I never did find out.
In my life, I met Spike after Spike after Spike. When I did, I experienced the same indignation as I’d felt on Jerry’s behalf. How could these people not see that I was suffering? “Just call me?” Don’t they know that phones are instruments of torture? Can’t they see the terror in my eyes? The indignations would pile up, fester, turn to grudges. Eventually, even mute Jerry would boil over and lash out at unsuspecting Spike.
What I was lashing out against was Spike’s lack of empathy. It’s only now, after spitting out most of my own sticky gum, that I started to be able to see his side of the story.
When I watched Jerry mime his distress to Spike, I had just been following his plight. Thirty seconds earlier, I’d seen him swallow the telltale gum. His distress is plain for me to see. But if I were Spike - if I had never seen anyone swallow glue-coated bubble gum, let alone choked on the stuff myself - would Jerry’s anguish have been so visible to me? If your lips had never stuck together, if in your world nothing is easier than whistling, then Jerry’s despair really might look like pantomime.
When Jerry and I accuse Spike of a lack of empathy, we’re manifesting this very lack. We are assuming that his life experience has been so similar to ours that the hypothesis “Jerry can’t whistle” is as reasonable for him as it is for us. Spike thinks whistling is easy for Jerry; Jerry thinks reading facial expressions is easy for Spike. They’re both jumping to conclusions.
Empathy isn’t one thing. I may be more empathetic than average in one sense: noticing the emotions behind nonverbal cues. But that doesn’t mean I know anything about the past experiences and stories behind these emotions. In that sense, I empathize with Jerry but not with Spike. I’ve been there; I know what his distress means.
Or maybe I don’t even know that much. In his daily life, Jerry is a gregarious, fearless fellow. The glue-covered gum is an exogenous factor. And so he doesn’t hold a grudge against Spike. He’s frustrated that he can’t communicate, but not angry. He isn’t like me at all.
I hope I can learn that from him.
When Spike said “Just whistle,” he wasn’t wrong. It might not have been as easy as he supposed, but what enabled Jerry to whistle again was continuing to try – to try so hard that he turned red in the face and spat out the sticky gum. Even if “just” feels like an insult, the solution to social anxiety is doing the the thing you’re afraid of.
In one place or another, we’re all covered with glue. What is easy for you is hard for me – and vice versa. Whether you’re Spike or Jerry, I hope you’ll remember that.
I watch “The Bodyguard” again today. For the first time in my life, I notice Spike’s consternation in the face of Jerry’s bizarre series of gestures. For the first time, I see the tenderness in his eyes as he pats Jerry on the head and quips: “Baby talk! Ain’t he cute?”
For the first time, I laugh.
Of all of Tom & Jerry’s lessons, the most profound is this: it’s just a funny story.
“There are two kinds of person. Two ways to be. Either you turn towards others — or you turn inwards, digging yourself deeper and deeper into the lonely pit of your mind. It’s like directions on a screw. See what I mean?”
I think I do. The ways of turning the screw are perfect opposites. One direction undoes the other, and only one of them is worth anything.
“I can tell that you’re the kind who turns towards others.”
This is the first time in my life I have shared a coffeeshop table with a stranger. Just a week earlier, I was living entirely in my head, weighed down by overwhelming shyness. My screw had been turning the wrong way.
But just at this moment, this stranger whom I met maybe 10 minutes before is right. It’s like a screw; once you know which way it needs to go, nothing is easier than switching direction.
This is the story of how I ended up in that café. If you struggle with social anxiety, I hope it helps you make your way to equally exhilarating places.
It all began 18 months before, when I decided to do something about my shyness. Following an approach borrowed from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), I made a list of intimidating social tasks and ranked their scariness on a 10-point scale. Some examples:
4. Saying things to myself out loud in an empty room 6 Terminating a conversation with a friend 7 Going to a party where I know almost no one (in US) 9 Taking a taxi on my own in Dakar (note that at the time I was living in Senegal and spoke almost no French) 9 Making a phone call to a stranger
Slowly, I made my way up the scale, choosing activities from the level just outside my comfort zone until that became the new comfort.
Nine months in, I’d made some impressive progress. As you can see from the list, I had a pretty severe phone phobia. I knew that if I just kept picking up the phone, I could get over the fear — but what was shocking was just how fast this happened. After each call, the scariness of the next one plummeted, and after a grand total of five calls I started preferring picking up the phone to sending an email for e.g. customer support issues.
But despite the early success, eventually I exhausted this approach. Structured interactions like ordering coffee, phoning my bank, even giving a talk became a piece of cake. What I was stuck on was conversations. I still found talking to strangers terrifying. Somehow, ranked lists didn’t help with that.
The scariness ranking was the first step on my path out of shyness. The second step was having my partner almost break up with me.
A mere week before that coffeeshop conversation, I was vacationing back in Senegal, where my partner Ben’s company is based. I’d been spending my time thinking, or trying to think, about my future, an activity which Ben and I call “staring into the abyss.”
I would be getting my PhD soon, and I needed to make some sort of post-graduation plan. I knew I didn’t want to work in academia. What I did want was anybody’s guess. I loved painting and writing, but imagining those things stretched before me for decades felt vertiginous, empty, lonely. Instead, I mostly looked away, drowning the days in mindless video games, promising myself that tomorrow I’d be brave enough.
And then I finally do feel brave. Ben has suggested that I start by thinking about my values; I open a career guide which might help. It instructs me to imagine an ideal day at work, so I visualize us sitting in our plant-filled apartment, Ben and I at desks on opposite sides of the living room. I’m polishing words, or threading a dozen ideas together until I get to the bottom of some experience. Or I’m in my studio, following my feelings until they find their most intense, most unified expression.
When Ben gets back from work, I proudly announce that I’m ready to talk about the abyss.
“Great, what are your values?”
“Expressing my experiences as vividly as possible. You know, getting to the bottom of my feelings, doing research if necessary, writing or painting about it.”
I regret the words as soon as they come out of my mouth. I think of Ben’s own core value: making the world a better place. Of how this guided his job choice, how his face lights up when he talks about the difference he’s making. How must I sound to him?
His expression is unbearably blank. My terror writes the worst across that blankness: distance, disappointment, disdain. He is, he remains, silent: stubbornly, terrifyingly silent.
I can’t take it anymore. “You seem disappointed,” I hazard.
“Yeah… Our values are… so different.”
The way he says it, the way I feel it, is the deepest abyss I’ve ever faced. It’s the feeling of standing naked in the darkness, alone.
It’s the feeling of being unloved.
He confirms my worst fears: “It’s very important to me that I date someone whose values I respect.”
I’m right at the edge of the abyss. It’s every insecurity I’d ever felt in this relationship at once. It’s wondering why he would date me in the first place. It’s looking in the mirror and finding my worst fears: selfishness, greed, self-importance. Worthlessness.
As if hearing my thoughts, Ben softens. “Look, I admire a lot about you. Your writing and your painting are amazing. You’re bold and ambitious. You never stop pushing yourself.”
“Pushing myself up the wrong tree,” I think bitterly. “Ambitious, yes; about something which is at best pointless, at worst selfish.”
I want to roll time back, swallow all my words. I want to press undo. It’s too late; I’m in freefall.
A second passes, an eternity. I survive.
At the bottom of the abyss, I hit my values.
Helping others. Connecting. Making the world a better place. It really is that simple. “Expressing my experiences?” That’s just a pale tremor, a ghost. Something I enjoy doing, nothing more. What I feel tugging at my heart with unmistakable insistence is only this: morality. The weightiest thing; the thing that binds us all.
Of course, “I want to make the world a better place” is just what I’d say to stop Ben from breaking up with me, whether or not I actually believed it. And since I haven’t actually been trying to improve anybody’s life, I have basically no credibility. Still, I try to explain.
“I just realized that I actually want to help other people, much more than I want to create things… It’s just that I’m introverted. I like people in theory; in practice they overwhelm me. I’m hopeless at group interaction. How can I help anyone other than indirectly, through writing or painting?”
I do. Letting go of my disgust, which turned to overwhelming awe. The giant mandible, the legs, the dew-strewn, fuzzy back — all beautiful, all miraculous.
“What would it take for you to see people the way you saw that caterpillar?”
I had done that before. On my best days, a smile shared with a stranger brings me face to face with the precious particularity of a life no less worthy than my own. But how would I let such experiences guide my life?
“I don’t know… I’m shy. I’m introverted,” I repeat.
For the first time in this conversation, Ben meets my eyes. “I want to grab you and shake you and tell you: you can be so much more awesome than you think.”
The way he says it, I know we’ll be okay.
The next day, I meditate for four hours (almost) straight. Day after that, I go to a café.
The thought: “How can I make this barista’s day better?” pops into my head. I test out the intention. I look in his eyes. I smile. I speak up.
As I sit down, it occurs to me that during that entire interaction, I hadn’t experienced a single moment of self-consciousness. I spoke French without thinking about it, without worrying about my accent or grammar. I made eye contact without feeling exposed.
I think I understand: It’s literally impossible to be self-conscious while focusing fully on another person. My attention can only be in one place at a time.
This might be obvious to you. In fact, you might have heard this fact trotted out as a neat trick for eradicating shyness: focus on helping your interlocutor and watch your anxiety fall away.
Sounds great in theory, but in practice I found this advice completely unfollowable. A typical conversation would go something like this:
Acquaintance: I’m feeling down today… Me (thinking): Here it is! A chance to focus attention outwards! A chance to vanquish self-consciousness! This time won’t be like last week… No awkward silence at all… Last week… Gah, that really sucked… Nonono, stop, stop, STOP! Quick! Ask a question! Acquaintance: Blah blah blah blah… Me (thinking): @#$%!
When I realized that my fundamental goal wasn’t to vanquish shyness, but simply to help, my conversations started sounding more like this:
Acquaintance: I’m feeling down today… Me: Want to talk about it?
It’s that easy.
A few days later, a friend and I are at Village des Arts, an artists’ colony in Dakar. Baba Ly is telling us about using abstract art to express his emotions. His gaze drifts upwards, towards a vast utopia seemingly hanging from the ceiling. He speaks of inner riches, of going beyond the surface. This is the art for which he stays up at night.
During the day, he makes paintings of stylized women in colorful robes, with children on their backs and baskets on their heads — the “African art” that pays the bills. At night, he pours out his soul.
I hang on to his every word. I ask follow-ups. 18 months before, I spoke maybe 50 words of French. I had nightmares about having to direct a taxi driver. Now, the questions pour out of me with no sense of linguistic mediation.
Later, I realize I made some dreadful grammatical mistakes. As in, “I knowed”-level dreadful. Not too long ago, they would have mortified me, but this time, that doesn’t matter at all. I only want to know Baba Ly’s story, and my bungled grammar is perfectly adequate to that task.
I know two things about my values now: I want to help people, and I want to learn their stories, catch glimpses of their intricate interiors. Bear witness to their humanity.
That’s why I read so many biographies, interviews, novels, poems. That’s why I look at art, feel compelled to translate, in writing, that art to human experience.
For years, I thought that was the end of it. I was doomed to mediated experiences. As an introvert, I was horrible at getting strangers to open up. At best, I could learn the stories of long-time friends. Most people — especially extraverts — were bad about talking about their feelings, anyway. Better to turn to the poets. Better to turn to my own inner life.
Now, three minutes after meeting Baba Ly, the artists’ village is a vast utopia, made up of inner worlds I can’t wait to visit.
Simply realizing that I want to help others and learn about their stories cured me of 80% of my social anxiety. You may be thinking: that’s all fine and dandy. But what if I don’t want to help others? What if I just want to be less shy so that people like me?
If so, I commend you! Just realizing what you do and don’t want takes you 80% of the way there. And if what you want is selfish, it’s especially hard to be honest with yourself!
In fact, figuring out that I, too, want people to like me was an important part of my journey. I used to be convinced that I didn’t give a damn what most people thought of me, didn’t stoop so low as a need to be liked. (So why was I shy? New people were just… intrinsically scary!)
Last October, I went on a ten-day meditation retreat. Walking silently around the grounds of the meditation center among the other participants, I noticed something shocking. I had the thought “What are they thinking about me?” literally every time I passed by another person. So if you already know that you care about others’ opinions — good job! You’re further along than I was 6 months ago.
But also: I want to grab you and shake you and tell you “You can be so much more awesome than you think!” You do want to help others. Somewhere at the core of your being is a deep well of love. If only you knew how powerful it is! How powerful you are.
Your desire to be liked is a boulder blocking that well. You found the boulder — hooray! Now it’s time to push it aside.
But how do you do that? For me, meditation has been key. The traditional kind where you focus on your breath, mere calmness and concentration, was enough to help me catch glimmers of my better self.
Beyond that, loving-kindness meditation has been invaluable. In this practice, you make a series of wishes. (What follows is going to sound cheesy, but bear with me! Cheesy or not, it’s made a dramatic difference to my life.) Those can take many forms, but the one I use is: “May I be free from suffering. May I be free from ill will. May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be truly happy.” With each wish, I conjure corresponding experiences. Hiking through flower-filled meadows. The endless benevolence of a baby’s smile. I search for memories until they are so vivid that my desire for them becomes palpable. Then I direct the wishes towards other people, taking loved ones, acquaintances, strangers, groups of people, and difficult people in turn. Once again, I make sure to generate memories which recreate these feelings, and stay with one wish until it rings true.
That last part is harder than it sounds. More often than not, I conjure up bliss washing across an acquaintance’s face only to feel a pang of dislike. I sit with the feeling until something – usually a memory – bubbles up from underneath it. Once, I found myself swept back to a moment from middle school. “You’ll never get married if you don’t wear makeup,” my friend (frienemy?) had told me. It all came flooding back: anger, then defiance, then the resolve to prove her wrong. Years of wearing my unpainted face as a badge of honor. Bingo. I was trying to wish happiness onto someone who wore makeup – but a part of me believed such people didn’t evendeserve joy!
This happens again and again. To my horror, I struggle to generate honest wishes for minorities, for older people, for those who superficially remind me of childhood bullies… Those are upsetting truths to discover about myself — but each time, simply bringing my biases into consciousness is enough to (at least temporarily) turn the truth to falsehood.
With every day of practice, I’m better able to see other people’s humanity — and I become more and more confident that seeing and honoring that humanity is something I deeply desire.
I know you do too.
Back in Boston, I decided that joining a CBT-based social-anxiety support group would help me on my quest towards gregariousness. Instead, the sessions made me feel anxious… about not having any recent shy behaviors to report.
But before I accepted that I had already cured my own shyness and quit, I gained some insight into why CBT had been a dead end for me. The therapist kept trying to convince us that it would be in our own interest to work on our anxiety. When the participants described avoiding parties or sitting dejectedly in a corner, he’d chime in: “Wouldn’t it be great if you could join in the fun and have conversations? You’re missing out, aren’t you?”
Thinking about what I’m missing out on only makes me feel worse. Like that time I went out dancing, fell out of step during the first dance, watched the second with tear-filled eyes, and ran out at the third. But when I think about what the other people at the party are missing out on, think about how I might help them have fun, I start feeling the desire to join in.
The therapist’s question was misplaced in another way too: a part of me didn’t think it was missing out on anything.
In the days when I was theoretically aiming to be more sociable but wasn’t really doing anything about it, I would state that aim in the voice of a popular middle-school kid. “You really should be more social, Eve.” But I wasn’t exactly an admirer of those kids! On some level, I thought it was important to be sociable. On another level, I believed that that way madness, nightclubbing, and sororityhood lies. Becoming more outgoing would be the first step down the slippery slope towards a life of binge-drinking.
And then there I was, my head mushy with alcohol, my words slurred and loud. It was past my bedtime, too. I was loving it.
I was out at a bar with a group of graduate students from my department, commiserating about the frustrations of grad life. For the first time, I was opening up about feeling like I didn’t belong. For the first time, I felt like I belonged. I felt connected.
Ironically, it was when I gave up aiming for connection that I found it. When I first stated my values to Ben, “connection” was on the list. By now, my conversational goal had shifted from “connecting” to “learning others’ stories.” This had two positive effects. First, I didn’t set my sights too high, didn’t conclude that an interaction was failed simply because we didn’t become best friends. Second, I was open to interactions with a much larger pool of people.
I had assumed that connection meant finding your twin in a crowded room. Armed with a detailed checklist of everything you know about your soul, you tick the boxes that others have on their lists. Soulmates are the ones with lists most similar to yours.
What if I know nothing about my soul? What if my checklist is a series of questions? What if connection is adding to each other’s lists — union, not intersection?
At the bar that night, we needed the humor and honesty that alcohol can bring. Look, my “drunk” is one beer and my bedtime is 9:30 PM. I wasn’t headed down any slippery slopes. But it was a big shift. As long as I was trying to be sociable, without asking why I wanted that in the first place, I remained torn. I paid lip service to gregariousness, but in my inner narrative the quiet nerd was the hero occupying the moral high ground, and I would balk at any activities that bore even superficial resemblance to the behavior of a sorority girl. It was only once I realized when and why sociability was valuable that I could reach for it even when it wore a cloak of sororityhood.
Shifting my focus to helping others has dramatically improved my experience of large-group interactions. I used to be filled with dread during conversations I found uninteresting. I was uninterested, so I had nothing interesting to contribute; I was bored, therefore I was boring. I didn’t belong.
Now, If I’m bored but everyone else is engaged, they don’t need my help! Since my primary aim is helping others have fun, I can simply sit back and enjoy everyone else’s enjoyment.
In the past, once I got bored, I was done. I would spend so much mental energy ruminating about my lack of belonging that I would lose the thread completely and never get back in. This only confirmed my suspicion: I was really boring.
When I cut out the rumination, I realized that boring conversations almost always return to interesting topics — and when they do, I’m refreshed and ready to jump back in.
At another department event, I’m joined by a friend I chatted to the previous week. Our conversation is nice enough, but I see new people on the other side of the room and I’m aching to meet them.
This is an entirely novel experience. In the past, during social events I’d corner an old acquaintance and hope they wouldn’t abandon me. (If there were no acquaintances, I’d go for the shyest looking person in the room.) In those days, “I’m gonna go mingle” were the words I most dreaded hearing.
Now, I felt the urge to utter them myself.
Remembering the old feeling of abandonment, I don’t do that. What if my interlocutor is like my past self? What if they’ll feel rejected and uninteresting? I stick to this conversation.
Later, I hatch a plan for next time. Instead of “I’m gonna go mingle,” I’ll say “I’m curious about those people over there. Want to come meet them with me?”
That’s one of the great things about overcoming shyness: there will always be a next time. But it cuts both ways: realizing that there will be a next time — “abundance mindset” — decreases shyness.
There are 4.6 million people in the Boston area, where I live. Even if only ten percent of those people are kinder than me, or smarter, or more interesting, or just worthwhile friends, that’s almost half a million people. Even if I were the world’s biggest snob and only wanted to make friends with Harvard professors and graduate students, that’s still a pool of 16 thousand people! If I screw up a social interaction, it doesn’t matter. I won’t be left friendless; I’ll learn something and apply it to the next person I meet.
Everyone knows this in theory, but it’s hard to put into practice. It helps to really viscerally feel the enormity of your city’s population. Once again, meditation is an asset; during my retreat, I had a profoundly beautiful sense of my insignificance in the face of the world’s 7.5 billion people. If you don’t have time for a ten-day retreat, just pushing yourself into a lot of interactions (using the ordered list of scary things I mentioned above) can help you gain this visceral understanding. You screw up, screw up, screw up… but, miraculously, there are always new people to meet.
Of course, feeling your own insignificance can be scary. There’s a degree of selflessness required to fully grasp the world’s — or your neighborhood’s — populousness. It can be even scarier when you’re counting the neighbors who are wiser, kinder, smarter, more knowledgeable, more skilled — all the people you most want to meet and impress. There are so many of those that being disliked by any one of them still doesn’t matter.
It’s scary, but think of the payoff! Now that I know how many awesome people there are, I can keep meeting new ones without worrying what they think about me. Eventually, I’ll get good enough at social interaction that I’ll make friends with some of them.
Okay, I cheated a bit. Sometimes individual interactions do matter. You might live in a tiny town. You might have a precarious job or an interview for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (You might be in middle school. If so, I’m sorry; it will get so much better than this!) But there are almost always other venues for meeting people where an abundance mindset is appropriate — if not in person, then online.¹ And if you practice putting yourself out there in those contexts, abundance mindset will become second nature even in contexts of scarcity.
The standard story about social anxiety is that it arises out of low self-esteem together with a desire to be liked. If that theory is right, then there are two cures for shyness: increasing confidence or decreasing the need to be liked. How come most advice focuses on the first cure?
“No need to be shy; you’re awesome!” People used to tell me that all the time. It made me want to scream. “You don’t understand: I know I’m awesome!” Low self-confidence was never my problem.
Well, actually, I did have low confidence about one thing: the impression I made on people. I was constantly terrified that others wouldn’t see the specialness glowing inside. But trying to increase my self-confidence in that domain would have been a huge mistake; I would never have full control over what others thought of me, and some people would never like me. That’s just what it means to be separate human beings; everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
My solution to shyness wasn’t increasing self-confidence. If anything, it was decreasing it. I had to face the fact that I wasn’t all that special, that in my town alone, there were probably hundreds of thousands of people who were much more interesting than me.
I dealt with my social anxiety not by increasing my self-confidence, but by tackling my need to be liked. (First, I had to realize that I even had that need! That was the insight from my meditation retreat.) I didn’t try to eradicate it. Instead, I let my other needs drive my actions: the need to help and to learn about others.
In the end, maybe it is about confidence. Not confidence that you’re already where you need to be — but that you’re capable of getting there. Not that you’re better than others — but that rankings are beside the point. Not that you’re special — but that there is beauty in your insignificance.
Not that you are awesome, but that you could be so much more awesome than you are.
So how do you cure your shyness? That’s the wrong question. There are so many how-to books, but the crux of the matter isn’t “how to?” but “why to?” That’s the hard part. Once you find the why — really feel it in your gut, dig it up from under piles of internalized expectations, you’re 80% of the way to the how. At least, that’s been my experience.
The “why” takes you 80% of the way there, but the 20% can be a struggle too. The scenes I sketched in this essay are al set at the start of this year. Since then, I’ve had my ups and downs. It’s hard to undo decades worth of habit, and some days – just this weekend, in fact! – I find myself wrapped in fear again. But it’s enough to know how much I’m capable of, to remember the days when my head bobbed above the waters of ego-building, to start making my way back to that beautiful place. When I notice myself thinking “what are they thinking about me?”, I don’t try to eradicate the self-consciousness. I simply take it as a cue: time to turn on the kindness. Time to twist the screw.
I recently found a document with notes I took from Aziz Gazipura’s book The Solution to Social Anxiety. I jotted down:
Before social interactions, check in about purposes, asking e.g. “How can I help this person feel at ease? What does this person really need right now? How can I give and receive even more love now?”
Something about that idea spoke to me already then, but it took another 18 months for that advice to make any real difference to my behavior. 18 months, 3 weeks of excruciating abyss-avoidance, and one terrifying conversation.
Finding your “why” is a life’s journey. I hope this essay helps you on your way.
I really mean that. Writing, it turns out, isn’t as selfish as I once feared.
Myung-suk² and I are in the same painting class. Within two sentences of our first conversation, she tells me about her parents’ disappointment at her marriage (he wasn’t a Korean), her near-death during childbirth (due to malpractice), the difficult feelings that feed her art.
How did I get her to say these things? Merely by having the intention to learn others’ stories. As soon as I knew what I wanted, I only needed to reach out my hand.
The next week, Myung-suk tells me that she’s found the perfect career for me.
“With your personality, you should be a therapist. It’s so rare for a young person to be this interested in other people’s stories!”
“I’m not sure I believe in personality,” I chuckle.
But you, my reader, who beneath a layer of fear possesses a soft but unshakable confidence: I believe in you.
Thanks to Ben – for holding drafts of this post to the same high standards as he holds me.
 I’ve grown a lot through the practice of circling. (I’m a member of this online circling community for wannabe circling facilitators, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it.) A friend also recommends Skip the Small Talk events, though I haven’t been to any yet.  Not her actual name.
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