mental health

A Bar Too High

Seek No Approval

Everyone has their own interpretation of success based on their career or personal goals, whether it’s a promotion, a weight achievement, publication, or sale of a piece. Each of those things represent approval from someone outside of ourselves, usually someone we have placed upon a pedestal in admiration. They’re the person we’re going to go to with a smile when we deliver the news, and we’re going to expect them to smile in return and cheer that success; more than anything else, it’s their approval we’re chasing. And no matter how fantastic we feel about that achievement, nothing makes us feel worse than dancing in front of them and watching them stare back without any emotion whatsoever. That’s when it really hits us:

We failed.

The excitement runs out of us, the delight collapses, and the achievement turns to disappointment. We slink back to our drawing board with our tails between our legs and re-examine everything from square one. We didn’t accomplish anything after all, and we struggle to figure out where to go next, how to actually achieve something…gain that much-needed approval. The problem is that we’re setting ourselves into an endless loop of hope and disappointment broken up with gopher-pops, checking to see if that person has cracked so much as a grin yet. We become completely blind to the fact that we are accomplishing SO MUCH in the process of chasing that smile.

Why? Where is the breakdown?

It would be really easy to blame ourselves, and, a lot of the time, that’s exactly what we do. In fact, those people encourage that belief, usually because they know it’s a weakness of ours. They know full-well that we suffer from anxiety, that we desire perfection, and that we want their approval. And they sit back and laugh hysterically as we chase down imaginary checkboxes and turn ourselves inside out, trying desperately to impress them. They play on our insecurity, telling us they’re providing coaching and advice that will “improve us” and “push us toward success.” The truth is that they’re steering us in circles, pushing us away from ourselves, and setting standards that are impossible – all while encouraging us to jump for that bar.

The problem was never with us, not really; the problem was we chose the wrong person to set on that pedestal. We chose a person we might have admired (for various reasons) without doing our homework. Did we REALLY know them? Have we ever seen them actually mentor someone else? Have we seen them encourage other people? Was it done the same for each person, or did they exhibit favoritism? When they speak, do they provide equal amounts of positive and negative feedback? Are they excited when you reach a milestone – any milestone? Are they invested in everyone’s success, or just their own? If any of the answers are “No,” then you’ve chosen the WRONG person.

And, honestly, the best people to seek approval from are going to seek YOU out. These people come to YOU cheering before you even have a chance to tell them a word. They don’t have expectations, they don’t set any bars for you, and they don’t make ridiculous hoops for you to jump through. They love you, for you, and they never waver; they are the people who cheer for EVERY single accomplishment – even if all you managed to do today was get out of bed.

mental health

Primates Versus Bovines

Only dead fish go with the flow.

~Anonymous

Tell me if you’ve heard this before, “If [insert name here] jumped off a bridge, would you jump off, too?” You don’t get your parenting license unless you’re capable of uttering that question 1) with a straight face, and 2) with complete conviction behind the words. There might be a tiny bit of variation depending on background, level of frustration of the parent at the time, and whatever shenanigan you were trying to attempt, but the overall message is the same: you aren’t supposed to do something just because someone else decided it was a brilliant idea.

And I applaud that reasoning (no matter how many times I rolled my eyes in response to my own parental units); I agree completely that following someone else’s idiotic plan isn’t a great idea. Too many of the world’s problems can be traced back to people following behind other people without hesitation (again, I promise I’m not about to turn this blog into a discussion of politics – I’m just making a general point). As we get older, we seem to forget that old parental warning and heave ourselves off the bridge without a second thought.

Or is that the case?

Sure, there are people who jump without thinking; we all know suites of idiots in the world. In reality, though, there’s an underhanded conditioning going on that subverts the parental adage. (Remember, Be Anyone But Yourself? Same kind of idea.) Role models encourage you to be independent, to stand up, to not be a lemming…and then they do everything in their power to get you back into the herd. where they want you. It’s subtle, but it’s sick, and a lot of people don’t realize it’s going on; after all, they’re telling you to be yourself, to speak up, to be unique. The problem is, even though they’re saying that, they’re subverting their own words in favor of advancing herd mentality.

Now, does any of THIS sound familiar: being told not to raise your hand so often because you’re showing off/making others feel bad (or stupid or less or some other negative descriptor); having someone tell you you’re too loud/too opinionated/too controversial; hearing that you need to learn to accept that people aren’t like you; constantly being asked to sit down/step aside/move aside/let someone else speak (even when no one else has said anything); or having someone inform you that, unless you get in line with [insert name here]’s standards, you will never be successful. They are steering you back into the herd, trying to get you into back into the fold, and away from your oh-so-dangerous independent streak. The subtle look if disappointment seals the deal, twisting you back into the fold.

Why?

Why are they trying to get us away from what our parents started so long ago? Did they forget that our heritage of evolution came from primates, not herd animals? Well, maybe (we won’t get into religion here), but the truth is, herd animals are easy to control; primates, not so much. They can’t spout control rhetoric, though; that’s a guaranteed way to chase people off. So, instead, they adopt the crocodile routine and give you sweet sentiment and snap your arm off when you dare to step out of line. And it works – that’s the crazy thing. The way these people speak, the way they look at you – it stabs straight through you, making you stop and question yourself. Even if part of you knows they’re wrong, you still hesitate, and that’s how they win those tiny victories. It’s a conditioned response to want to please (unhappily, that is in our primate heritage), even as we clamor for our independence. And it’s so hard to break that habit.

How do you get out of the herd, then? You wince, knowing that you’re going to battle someone who is going to make you feel like shit for being who you are, or doing what you believe is right. You brace for the cold of being out in the world by yourself (but, honestly, you were probably already happy out there in the first place). And then you rely on sound parental advice: are you willing to jump off that bridge?

mental health

The End of the World

Rejection SUCKS. There’s no way I’m even going to try to deny that fact, and I’m sure that Dame Rowling, The Beatles, and Mr. Jobs wouldn’t have bothered to deny it, either. Getting rejected sends a shrapnel-covered ice spear straight through to the very core of your soul that sits there, slowly melting away and reminding you – day in and day out – of its presence. Even worse, you swear that everyone around you can see the damn thing; everyone has to somehow know that you were rejected. Pull that monstrosity out and eliminate the pain sooner? Are you kidding? That shrapnel acts like barbs, and you’re just going to shred everything in the process, and who wants to endure TWICE the pain? Even worse, there’s all of these “flavors” of rejection: professional, personal, relationship, even casual (remember when that taxi driver drove straight past you like you didn’t even exist?). At any given moment, you could be carrying around over TEN spears at once!

Insanity!

There’s an easy solution, of course: never put yourself out there. If you never ask any questions, if you never try anything, if you never lift your head, that spear assassin will never get you in their sight. Well, sure, that removes the anxiety of rejection pain, but it also guarantees that you are never going to get anywhere in life. In fact, you may as well start checking out real estate options for a cave and pricing out plastic bubbles to live in, but that’s basically your future. I’m not positive that will stave off all depression, but you won’t be depressed that that particular someone you’ve had your eye on will turn you down. You won’t have to worry about being turned down for your dream job (or, well, probably any job), and no one will ever tell you, “No,” because…well, you’ll never ask any questions (I’m guessing there isn’t a big demand for living in caves – just don’t pick a nice one). I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a really bleak existence, to me.

Why endure that kind of madness?

This is why taking the risk of rejection exists. Yes, it hurts like hell to get rejected. You feel like you’re entire world is collapsing, you feel like a complete failure/ idiot/ loser (insert your insult of choice), and you slink home to your blanket fort to hide in shame. That “melting time” from the ice spear grants you something, though: reflection. The majority of the time (I’m exempting the relationship section here because some people really just are assholes), there is a reason behind the rejection, and it’s a useful bit of knowledge you can carry forward. Read through or mentally review whatever conversation took place and find keywords or phrases – they’re likely in there, and they likely weren’t personal. Use that information to apply towards the next time.

Writers, artists…well, all professionals do this all the time. Your work gets rejected CONSTANTLY; it’s considered a badge of honor (sometimes, it’s funny – very famous authors were rejected and called hacks by publishing companies). You develop a thick skin (or you give up because the rejection overwhelms you), and you learn to look for those clues. No, you don’t listen to everything, because you don’t necessarily agree with everything, but there are notes you can use to make your work better. The same applies in your life, once you get past that initial wince of gut-wrenching pain. You don’t need to over-analyze (that’s an entirely different kettle of fish), but run things through your head at least once, and ask, “Does this make sense?” It pulls the sting out of the rejection, and it redirects you to a new direction. With luck, that new pathway will get you an acceptance.

Even if it leads to another rejection, just remember: at least warm and safe in your blanket fort, eventually, that ice spear is going to melt; you just have to give it a little time.

mental health

Introverts Assemble…at Home

Human contact – the final frontier.

~THE SIMPSONS

Surprise, surprise – the majority of the blogging universe is compromised of introverts. It doesn’t just stop there, though; gamers, coders, hackers, writers – all of us prefer the company of our keyboards, laptops, and properly back-lit screens to five minutes of conversation with another human being. We’re very easy to spot out in the wilds of society: sunglasses (sometimes even when it’s cloudy), hoods drawn low over our faces, ear buds in place (are we actually listening to music or podcasts or just trying to avoid listening to you? You’ll never know!), and a book or technological device in hand as a universal signal that we do not want to be disturbed. Let me clue you in on a little secret:

We don’t!

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: we are happy and content in our little bubbles! We don’t want to participate in small talk, we don’t want to make eye contact with strangers, and we really don’t want to get embroiled in a long-winded discussion about whatever you are dying to spew at us. If we could have our way, we would never venture out into public; we would spend our lives in our blanket forts, surrounded by our books (or games – every introvert is different), while our one extrovert friend (it’s a necessary evil) plies us with nourishment so we don’t die. We are SAFE in our homes where we know where everything is, and while a book or game may take a sudden turn we weren’t prepared for, that risk is something we’ve committed ourselves to. There are no loud noises (gamers are an exception – they’ve made their peace with it), there are no stressful news bites, our extrovert friend has been properly trained not to frighten us, and the worst anxiety we can expect to encounter is what to do when we reach the bottom of our To Read pile (just kidding – that pile never truly empties).

Introverts can still have fun, though – we just prefer the company of other introverts. If you have ever experienced the wonder that is DragonCon (or any of those amazing sci-fi/comic conventions – DragonCon is just a personal favorite of mine), then you’ll understand. Get a big group of us out, in our element, and we start to look like extroverts! (Just don’t engage us on our own too far away from the herd, okay?) We relax, we participate (vociferously) in discussion, we make eye contact, we shed our ear buds and hoodies (and don amazing costumes and cosplay), we STAND UP STRAIGHT! Why the difference?

Acceptance.

Our fellow introverts (and – if we’ve managed it – our pet extrovert) don’t expect us to be anything than who we are. They know that we spend 90% of our day in the shadows, our nose pressed into a book or up to a screen, existing in worlds of imagination – so do they. They know that the thought of venturing outside among “normal” people gives us hives; they share the same anxiety. They know that, once the Con is over, we’re going to return to our blanket fort brimming over with new ideas and excitement that will tide us over for months, because they’re brimming over, too. We’re not trying to seek validation from each other, and we’re not trying to gather attention from one another; that isn’t what resides at the core of an introvert. Instead, we’re sharing in the experiences of what it’s like to BE one another. We’re looking across the room and smiling as a silent, “I see you. I am you.”

So, if you’re curled up under your blanket right now, skimming through this, or if you have your ear buds in this while riding public transportation, or even if you’re someone’s extrovert and stumbled here by accident, let me take a moment to smile and let you know, “Hey, I see you over there. I know what it feels like. We’re on the same page.”

mental health

An Inconvenient Lie

Always speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.

From the beginning, we’re taught that telling the truth is good and telling lies is bad; it might be lesson one, even before we learn the alphabet. That lesson is supposed to be ingrained on our brains from a very young age – reinforced at periodic intervals by teachers and respectable adults, lest we forget – so that we carry it through with us our entire lives. And I don’t have a problem with that; in fact, I applaud that system because I believe that truth is an important foundation of our society. No, the problem comes in with the fact that no one actually means a single word of the lesson in the first place. That’s right – it’s another case of a statement with an unspoken caveat:

Tell the truth…but only when it meets these specific criteria.

Those little asterisk start to pop up all over the place – a veritable constellation of excuses to water down, “little white lie,” or out-right ignore the facts (and, no, I’m not about to get into politics, so don’t panic). You’re not supposed to, “hurt someone’s feelings,” so people encourage you to skim off the truth when they ask you for an honest opinion. No one wants to be told they’re newborn baby looks like a bright red, screaming, wrinkled potato (I’m sorry, but unless you are pumped full of mommy-to-be hormones, a newborn looks like a newborn…and, just to complete the picture, NO ONE who has just been through labor looks like anything other than a war victim). I am the only person on the face of the planet who WANTS an honest opinion of how I look in a bathing suit (for the love of the Universe, do NOT let me walk out of that dressing room looking like a complete disaster!). As soon as someone uses the words, “give me your honest opinion,” they’re looking for anything else. What they’re really telling you is, “tell me what I want to hear.”

It gets worse than that, though, because there are repercussions to being honest that no one mentions in those oh-so-important lessons. Honesty and telling the truth come back to bite you in the ass in the form of isolation, nastiness, and gossip. People will do everything in their power to convince you NOT to tell the truth ever again. It doesn’t just come from your peers, either: people in positions of authority – people you have been taught your entire life to trust – will encourage you tell the truth and then penalize you for doing so by ignoring it in favor of someone else’s lies or discount your words entirely. Over and over, you are hammered with reasons to back down, to tuck the honesty away; after all, dishonesty gets rewarded and praised all around you on a constant basis. Examples surround us everywhere: television, newspaper, social media, popularized in movies and television shows, in books; lying is placed on an epic pedestal. Truth, in contrast, limps along in the dirt and mud, feebly trying to gain attention, usually without success.

But WHY?

Is it really that difficult to tell the truth? Is honesty that difficult a concept? The majority of little kids manage it just fine (seriously – if you ever want to know how you look in something, just ask a small child). True, if you ask them who broke something in the other room when no adult was present, you’re bound to get a whopper of a story, but when it comes to the rest of life, they have truth down pat. So why have so many people failed at keeping that lesson? And why has it twisted into this cynical point of view where people turn on the truth-teller, ostracizing them and threatening to burn them alive? Are people honestly that afraid of…well, honesty?

"No one is more hated than he who speaks the truth." - Plato