Being powerless is scary: confronting the delusions of the romance narrative trap


Over the last few weeks a good friend and I have been having this recurring conversation about attachment and intimacy. We have both been struggling with attachment issues arising in different situations. She says needs intimacy but doesn’t know how to pick which situations are worth her energy. She will meet someone and think they have a connection, only to find that person ambivalent, or find herself in the reverse situation, withdrawing from a love interest who has become too needy. Sound familiar? Just more of the ins and outs of the romance narrative trap, right?

We have been going over and over various factors in this conversation, and listing our limited options: look for someone who is…, learn to be single better, etc – when it occurred to me that maybe our biggest problem is that we think we actually have more control (or should have) than we really do. “That’s a scary thought,” my friend replied, “How do you navigate romance if you have no control?”

Really, with these ‘matters of the heart’ we don’t really have much control, do we? We can’t control who we like or how they will respond to us – our control is very limited to small gestures and behavior… It’s kind of like steering an inner-tube down a river. You never know who you will bump into or whether you can stay connected for very long… or what debris you will encounter along the way.

“So is the bottom line that you should just accept the lack of control in romance and let yourself be swept down the river?” – That’s up to you, but given the lack of control, is it not a bit futile to gesticulate wildly at the current? “Very futile.” And we do seem to strain ourselves going over and over our very limited options… but lack of control is so hard to accept that we get caught up in the minutiae all the same.

This was starting to look rather bleak: “What that means is even though I’m putting time and energy (and getting caught up) in situations I maybe shouldn’t, there is no point trying to do anything to change the pattern, as I really don’t have any control over stuff.” Well, you only (mostly) have control over how you react to the powerlessness… which is your pattern. It is hard to face sometimes, especially if you’re someone with slightly neurotic over-thinking tendencies, but while some things can be relatively self-determined, a lot of the time in life things just happen to us and all we really get to choose is how we react.

“Being powerless is scary, people never care enough about me for it to feel okay.” For you to feel safe? “Yeah… seems that the only person in the end who fully cares about my well-being is me.” Well.. we are all the centre of our own universes – so that makes sense – for everyone…

“It would mean that if you want to be looked after by another person you’d have to accept that they won’t always care about you.” They may not – and they will definitely die at some point too. “Another truth!” Yup – it’s the dirty truth about attachment – and why Buddhists say it’s the root of all suffering… which it kind of is… but is also pretty integral to life. “Maybe life shouldn’t be totally without suffering.” Well, if it should be, we’re all doing it wrong – these are all things that are we are better off learning to accept – over and over – acceptance is a practice, not a one-off event. it’s like emotional breathing. “Emotional breathing?” It’s a metaphor. “Oh”…

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republic of mind

Republic of mind

 

People tend to be chained to particular ways of seeing…

We are meaning-making beings, and while we don’t really 100% know if any of the meaning we’re making is actually REAL, outside of our heads, we continue to make meanings all the same – in much the same way a spider spins her web. We have some ‘free will’ or agency in the meanings we choose to create, outside of those we are taught from others. We can question, observe and weave new meanings from experiences.

Subjective experience

We can look at whether the meanings we are making actually serves us of makes life difficult (PSYCHOLOGY). We can construct interesting patterns of meaning and argue about whether some are better than others (PHILOSOPHY). We can develop ways of testing our meanings with repeatable, measurable observations (SCIENCE).(Yes, I know science is a methodology, so stop treating it like a religion already). We can turn our intuited, felt or thought meanings into art, music, creation, function. We can sell or buy some representations of meaning, others, we may consider priceless.  The bottom line is, we are all continuously creating, co-creating and re-creating meaning. That is basically what human beings do.  If nothing else is gained from an experience, we can use meaning to learn and interpret experience into ways of making sense (THINKING) that may serve us better and perhaps even lead to less suffering and more joy… or we can keep being miserable, if that seems like the easiest, safest option. Either way, people tend to choose the meanings that they think will cause them the lease amount of pain. We are pretty simple that way.

 

Meaninglessness?
There may or may not be a greater ‘meaning of life’ or lesson – but having one may either help or hinder us. It is more practical to have meaning that helps us. ‘Objective’ reality is possible, but we are not it – we are meaning makers. We have some relatively consistent experiences of ‘reality’, day and night for example, but we cannot help but make meaning out of them – it is our condition.

Even to say something is devoid of meaning is a kind of meaning and assumption. The only real truth is not to know…
But we can chose to make meaning that serves us.

 

meaning making 1

 

Does my meaning serve me? (THE ETERNAL QUESTION)
• Does it resonate?
• Does it make me happy, or worried?
• Does it help me do/be well?
• What does it make me create? (relationships, dramas, pictures, love, art, communication, joy, spreadsheets..?)
• What am I afraid of?
• What am I joyful of?
• Can I alter my meaning to make me more joyful and less afraid? (if not… why not?)
• How?

Some potential meanings:
We are the universe’s meaning-making babies – we were created by god/universe/whatever(?) To make meaning (love, art, abandon)

Having purpose is practical – whatever it is (within reason… uh?). Without purpose the chances of being effective are very low.
Some purposes:
 To learn
 To love
 To be safe (the catch 22)
 To make better
 To challenge and question
 To help
 To share
 To be recognised
 To change
 To heal
 To be happy

Goals
It’s hard to achieve any goals if you don’t have any. Achieving makes for happy brain joy <3. Unfortunately, having goals makes us vulnerable. If we want something, and it has meaning for us, and we are attached to that meaning, it can feel really shit if we don’t get there.  On the other hand, it will feel really shit anyway if we’re too scared of getting hurt to even risk having goals. Life’s tricky like that. This is why they invented motivational posters.

REMEMBER
Other people’s meaning is different, not necessarily inferior… bastards. Sometimes other people’s meanings don’t make sense – at all – but that is probably true for everyone. That is why self-examination is quite handy.  There are probably a handful of wobbly underlying-thought’s/meanings that underpin your basic assumptions about life. If you don’t mind excruciating mental discomfort for ultimate rewards, try picking your brain apart, piece by piece, figure out where all the things you think you know come from… Mum/Dad? Science? Religion? Yes, they were all a bit wrong. That is how meaning works. It is always at least a bit wrong, because we are subjective meaning-making creatures. That is just what we do… so when you come across those meanings that seem dreadfully wrong, in comparison to yours, just remember not to be a dick about it, or all the other people will learn is that you’re a dick.

 

Trying not to hurt someone, and other self-fulfilling prophecies

It is almost the plot of every romantic comedy and about half of all dramas: X knows/thinks/finds out something about Y but doesn’t say anything. Ridiculous things ensue that would never have happened if X was just honest about the situation from the beginning, but hey, then we wouldn’t have a plot, would we? Y eventually finds out and feels betrayed/hurt/angry – and much worse than had the information been effectively communicated in the first place.  We are often careful about what we say to the people we love. Sometimes this is sensible, there’s no need to be an ass, after all, but usually when there’s a real tension, and often insecure attachment, trying not to hurt someone goes beyond politeness into dishonesty and manipulation.  We are actually trying to escape taking responsibility for reality, and we might be deluding ourselves on the road to even more pain and destruction.

trying not to hurt someone walking on eggshells

It is one of life’s great ironies that being well-meaning often leads to making a much bigger mess.  The little wall of dominoes we build up in order to protect people we care about from what we actually think is just waiting to cascade into chaos.  If only things were simple and easy. If only contradictions cancelled themselves out and disappeared in a puff of logic. Most of the time we are not even honest with ourselves. We convince ourselves we are doing the right thing when really, trying not to hurt someone is actually trying not to hurt yourself. No matter how altruistic you think you are, you’re acting in your own self interest and avoiding potential stress/pain/guilt.

Speaking of guilt… what I call guilt-cake is another fear-based self fulfilling prophecy. This is evident in people dieting in a conventional way (or giving up smoking). People start by feeling guilty about their weight and fearing the social/personal stigma and so on. This motivates the restrictive diet. The diet causes stress which causes people to feel bad which causes them to feel entitled to eat cake to feel better. Cake causes more guilt which causes more cake which causes more guilt. Here is a carefully constructed diagram:

guilt-cake

If guilt is a secondary emotion based on fear, as we have been led to believe, then perhaps all this fear stuff is self-fulfilling when left unchecked. This sentiment is expressed by Wait But Why in their post How to Pick Your Life Partner:

Fear is one of the worst possible decision-makers when it comes to picking the right life partner. Unfortunately, the way society is set up, fear starts infecting all kinds of otherwise-rational people, sometimes as early as the mid-twenties. The types of fear our society (and parents, and friends) inflict upon us—fear of being the last single friend, fear of being an older parent, sometimes just fear of being judged or talked about—are the types that lead us to settle for a not-so-great partnership. The irony is that the only rational fear we should feel is the fear of spending the latter two thirds of life unhappily, with the wrong person—the exact fate the fear-driven people risk because they’re trying to be risk-averse.

Of course, it all comes back to fear, so be careful if you’re making decisions out of fear, they may not be the best ones. Human beings are not very good at dealing with fear.  The protection patterns we develop unconsciously through watching our parents and society, as children, are often not very helpful, in fact, they are awfully dysfunctional and account for a lot of what is wrong with this world.  The end.

Oh wait, not the end; there needs to be some advice. Okay, so here’s the thing: be honest if you possibly can. Don’t be an ass, but try not to hide the truth either. If your significant other is really insecure, you’re not doing them any favors by propping up their insecurity with lies and obfuscation. If you can’t work out how to communicate effectively and openly, you may both need therapy.  But really, who am I to judge? I’d just rather not have to cringe at the obvious chain of events leading to relationship train-wreck that comes from trying (too hard) not to hurt someone. Oh yeah, and don’t feel guilty for eating cake. Break the cycle.

Do you fall into the lottery trap? On real happiness and problems with fantasy/destination thinking.

If you reach the destination of life, then what? Then you will be very embarrassed. – Osho

When I was growing up us kids, enthralled by the deluxe smorgasbord of TV advertising, would continuously ask mum “can we go to Disneyland?” or other requests obviously out of our budget. “When I win Lotto” she would always reply. It took a while for us to realise she never bought lottery tickets. Despite that, she still had the fantasy herself: if I win lotto I’ll buy a place in the Coromandel…” I didn’t question it until recently when I started to wonder if this mass social delusion that more wealth (particularly if won) equals more happiness. Apparently it doesn’t.

Research on happiness suggests that people are generally no happier (or sadder) a year after winning the lottery – even if they win millions. Interestingly enough, people are apparently about the same level of happy, a year after becoming paraplegic, as they were before.  Now, that is something to really chew on for a while. If these things we wish for, long for, fantasise about are not actually associated with happiness, then what are we doing to ourselves?

We are projecting our happiness into the future. This is so appallingly common. We have been taught since childhood that when we get to the next stage happiness awaits us: when we finally get to school – when we can read/write/swim/ride a bike we will finally be happy.  When we have a friend, or a lot of friends, when we have a boyfriend, when we graduate, when we finally get a job or clock this XBox game or reach our weight goal we will surely be full of endless joy. Obviously, when we grow up we will be happy. Yes – because we can have ice-cream for dinner and no one will tell us what to do and we can have all these cool jobs and things: happy as! Wait, being grown up is just as much work. Making decisions is tricky. Money is tricky. I bet I will be happy when I reach that next goal: have a baby, get a promotion, get married, buy a house, sell a house, buy another house: happiness will abound! Oh, wait, I’m still chugging along. I know, when I get discovered for my real shining talent as a singer/actor/genius or win lotto or NZ’s Next Top Model I will then be happy… except it hasn’t happened yet, so where is my next goal? I know: when I retire I will be incredibly happy because I can do whatever I want! Yay! No job! Except that retired people often (not always) get depressed because they aren’t contributing to society as much as is satisfactory. They have removed the work from their lives and many interesting things can fill those empty hours, but real happiness is still only a goal away, or did I waste my life going from one goal to the next, projecting my happiness into the future instead of realising that happiness is only ever now? After all, what is the real destination of life? Death? Are you just biding your time ’til the Armageddon comes? Are you hoping for a blissful after-life instead of making the most of this one?

All the Zen dudes will tell you that: happiness is only ever now. They reckon now is the only thing that really exists anyway. The past is just muddled memories in the narrative we tell ourselves about our lives.  The past is often full or sad stories or nostalgia that we can re-live over and over to no-avail.  The future is just projections and uncertainty. Many an anxiety can be found in thinking too much about the future. Life is very uncertain (yes, I have been reading too much Osho).  All this is very obvious. Happiness is a choice, moment to moment. If our established thought-patterns are interfering with our happiness we can change them through therapy or self-help or bazillions of other methods. Thoughts can be changed.

The problem with the “if only”, lottery-type thinking is that it’s not in the moment. It comes from being unhappy with our jobs and our lives and our lack of options. We have been taught to think that money is the problem and that money (particularly a large lump of it right now) is the answer, but really, with more money just comes a different level of finance to deal with.  Don’t get me wrong, having not-enough money and struggling for survival really sucks, but unless your fantasies about winning lotto are a helpful coping strategy for dealing with real hunger and desperation they are probably doing you more harm than good.

For most people who read this, who are in the pattern of ‘lottery thinking’, it is a little escape from the drudgery of every-day life. You wake up, you go to work, you work, you come home, you *insert escapist media here, eg: Playstation, movies, TV series, Facebook*, you maybe get a bit of creative time to work on building that model air-plane, writing that screen-play, painting that impressionist take on the New York skyline, re-designing your poodle’s coiffer, you practice in your steam-punk death-metal band and so on… and you dream… you dream of all the poodling, steampunking, screen-playing you could do if only …If only you had more time, if only you didn’t have to work.

Well, here’s a thought: how about, instead of fantasies and escapism, you try making little baby steps toward genuine happiness. There are two ways to do this and you probably should do both:

1: Choose to be happy. Try it now. Just one moment of happy. Just one moment of letting go of the struggle. Relax those shoulders. Breathe. Good, now go on. Don’t grimace. Smile. Yes, yes! That’s it!  You’re doing it, baby. Every time you realise you’re in a yucky mind state, your going around in circles, you’re dreaming of that day you finally reach heaven STOP! Yes, now, relax. Smile. You don’t even have to smile, but find a tiny bit of happy just by dropping all the shit. I’m glad you’re so good at following instructions. The more you can choose happiness in moments, the more moments of happiness you may experience in your life. Don’t just depend on the external world for you happy, DIY it.

2. Make steps towards doing more of the things you really love. What really feeds you? Do you even know? If you’re not sure, think about the experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve created and done, that have given you moments of happiness. Don’t tell me you’re not creative. Creative is part of human. You are continuously creating the story of your life in your head (right now), how do you want your story to go? Try new things. Figure out what brings your joy, little by little. Write a list. Figure out what you want to contribute to the world in your lifetime. Make baby steps. If your job sucks the life out of you, look for a better one. If you don’t have a job, figure out how you can contribute to your community. Community can feed us when jobs can’t. If you love to paint, sing, write, draw, ski, ride, explore, love, share, don’t relegate your passion to: ‘if/when I have time’. Everyone has the same amount of time. Everyone. It’s how you use it. If you want to be happy, let yourself do the things that bring the happiness with them. Let go of your own internal barriers to happiness. It takes a lot of time to master an art so start right now. You never know, you could be the next professional poodle coifferer.

Facebook: just like the Sims

There have been a few times in my life where I have gotten addicted to games; growing up I went through phases of being hooked on particular games on our families old Mac computers and more recently I went through a bejeweled fad. The most serious addictions I’ve had were as a teenager to Diablo II and the Sims (1 and 2). I used to love making the houses and decorating them. Perhaps designing the barbie-like characters made up for my barbie-deprived childhood. I would sit at the screen and stare at my little people, taking good care of them.  They were always bathed and fed and well-rested whereas, after staring at the screen for so long, I could have done with some bathing and feeding myself.  I would get anxiety when they burnt down the kitchen but felt proud when they studied and up-skilled and no longer posed such a great fire-risk.  I gave up on the Sims because I realised that I was putting all of this energy into something that wasn’t really feeding me.  It was a hard sacrifice to make but ultimately more rewarding.

Dopamine is an interesting brain chemical. It motivates us and gives us that sense of accomplishment of attainment, how-ever brief.  It is the primary brain chemical involved in addictions to cocaine, shopping gaming and Facebook.  Every time that little red number appears at the top of the screen you get a little bump, every like on your hillarous re-posted meme, every comment on your wall just reinforces the pattern.  Validation. It’s a trap!

The Facebook trap is a lot like the Sims trap. We can become pre-occupied with virtual lives – with the lives of other people, with our own closed-circuit-insular-universe to the point where other things are less important.  When I’m tired and don’t have other exciting things I do I always check Facebook looking for connection, validation, that little bump. I have been through times where I was getting psychologically dependent on Facebook to the point where it started to bother me. Unlike blogging, where I have the room to be creative and expressive, where I am building something that lasts and sharing ideas with the public, Facebook is insular and offers less space for expression, it rewards conformity and encourages me to share other people’s creations (which is not a bad thing) rather than develop my own.  I’m not saying Facebook is absolutely evil, and it certainly offers more real-world agency in communication and networking than the Sims does, but I am saying that it’s ultimately less satisfying than actually doing real stuff.

Dopamine is very relevant, but we can’t just reduce everything down to a neurotransmitter. Reality tends towards the complex.  There are lots of weird things happening in our brains, but what is easily observable is that doing something that triggers the reward pathway in the brain without achieving any meaningful results is infinitely less satisfying than doing something that activates the same pathway but does not accomplish much. Gaming and Facebook are less satisfying (for me, anyway) than working on a novel or writing a blog post – even reading a novel or doing the dishes, and yet, they are easy ‘lazy’ habits to get into.

Recently I went through a period where no one was liking my Facebook posts. WTF? Usually a plethora of people care about what I have to say.  I started to feel strange.  Out of my hundreds of friends, no one was bothering to comment or validate me – or even argue with me. No one was reading my blog posts either. How rude. As a result my blogging got more prolific than it ever has been, and more personal too. If no one cared, I was even more motivated to carry on with my life.  Something did seem a bit fishy though and then I realised that I must have somehow accidentally changed my Facebook settings so I wasn’t sharing my posts with my friends.  Hmmm.

This experience mirrors my experience lately of feeling like I’m walking in the dark.  Everyone seems very distant, and very few people seem to understand anything that is going on inside my head.  I suppose I’m not understanding most other people either. It’s kind of like temporarily regressing to teenage-insular-fog-brain, everything is a bit distorted. So if this blog post makes no sense, that will make absolute sense to what I’m going through.

The end.