#14

There's a right and a wrong way to introspect.

I used to get mad at myself quite a lot for my flaws. The first personal flaw I became aware of was my tendency to cry freely and openly. I cried when Mufasa died in the Lion King. I cried when my grandparents took me to the Polish deli and I didn't understand anyone and they made me try on a traditional Polish costume that was heavy and stifling (yes, Polish delis sell clothing, just roll with it). Other flaws didn't rise to the surface until I forged new relationships as an adult: my tendency to let conflict fester, or my over-reliance on interrupting people at parties, since I am not naturally good at competing with talkative people for the conversational floor.

I hated how personally wounded I felt every time someone butchered my writing in a critique group, even if it was done in the nicest possible way with qualifiers like "you've got a really great imagination, but your metaphors are just weird" or "have you tried outlining?" or "This is beautiful, but I'm a little lost." This last one was the most emotionally damaging, sending me into weeks and months of depressive revising and re-revising and re-re-revising that ended up just being even messier than before. And then I'd delete everything and start over.

I disliked that I couldn't control my emotions very well, and that it seemed like they were controlling me. So I started reflecting a lot on why I was the way I was--was sensitivity just an inherent personality trait that couldn't be moved or fixed? I wondered what sorts of experiences had made me into who I was, and I fixated on placing blame on things that had happened to me instead of actually figuring out how to fix it. In earlier posts, I've commented that I'm an empath and an INFJ, one of the most sensitive of the Myers Briggs personalities, if you buy into that personality framework. It's an easy cop-out for a lot of things, but it doesn't really get at how I can get better at expressing my sensitivity to the world, and the ways in which I react to it. 

About three years ago, I started doing walking meditation as a way to train the skills I already had: I knew I was sensitive to the world around me; I just had to learn how to home in on one aspect of my sensory perception at a time. I did meditations that just focused on sound--the sound of a train moving, or people talking. I did meditations where I fixated on one person and tried to show compassion for a total stranger just by the way I looked at them. I paid attention to my footfalls and the way the pavement felt underneath me. In the mornings, I meditated in bed, visualizing negative thoughts being exhaled like poisonous smoke.

But I still hadn't gotten to the very basic "what" questions: beneath this sensitivity to the world around me, what was I really feeling? Once I started naming the things I felt, it was easier to sit with them and acquaint myself with them without always immediately responding. If I allowed myself to really sit with sadness or anger or grief, I found that the emotions were intense but shorter-lived, and that it was much easier to recover from them. Psychologists and counselors are probably nodding their heads around this point, but I think this is something our society still really shames--sitting with feelings instead of reacting to them. We talk about how to be happy without realizing that humans are not, in fact, supposed to be happy all the time. That's not how we introspect and grow. In some instances, I have found fulfillment in negative emotions. A common trope in fairy tales like Rumpelstiltskin is that a name can be taboo; we can remove some of the mystery and power of our emotions simply by calling them by their true monikers. 

The single most important lesson I've learned about emotions over the years is that they are transient reflections of how we're feeling, but they are not who we are. It's crazy that we mistake highly fragile glass reflections of ourselves for the real body, and that we take our deepest mental reflections to be true--they're right, I don't know how to be happy! Or: I really am just a negative person. Or, I guess I must not be that good of a person if I drank three whiskey picklebacks in a row last night. 

We are never one thing all the time--heck, we're probably five or ten things at all times. We cannot box up and contain the emotions we want to feel in a time capsule, which is why I think that the mindfulness movement and our search for happiness and peace can at times create this added pressure to feel "free," whatever that means, because free might just be another word for a transient emotion too. We watch minimalist documentaries of people who somehow live with only one pair of pants and three pairs of shoes when meanwhile I'm struggling just to keep on top of minimizing the collection of crumpled receipts in my wallet. We follow Youtube chefs who have let go of their Butterfingers and chili cheese fries in favor of juicers and acai bowls, or better yet, imitation vegan Butterfingers and vegan sweet potato chili cheese fries, because there's a way to transform anything unhealthy into something vaguely vegetable-like these days (I'm talking to you, cauliflower rice and mushroom hot chocolate). We look at Instagram accounts of people trying to feign authenticity and the layers get so deep that I don't know if I can even trust the candid posts anymore of overweight yogis and stressed out mommy bloggers who are just trying to get real about their issues with anxiety and depression, but then three posts ago were talking about three-layer date bars and detoxing from life for a weekend in Bermuda. 

So, let's all continue to get self-reflective, but let's get smart about it. Reflection is as much a personal journey as scientific inquiry--we need to ask the right questions, and when those aren't working, we need to reframe them until we arrive at a workable experiment. Because that's all thinking about ourselves really is--a series of thought experiments about what we can and cannot change about ourselves.