Finding your life

One of my favourite books I read last year was The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks – an autobiography of a woman who suffers from schizophrenia. I liked this book so much I recently re-read it.

The reason I liked this book so much, I think, is that it gave me insight into a mental illness that I previously knew very little about, that seemed alien and scary to me – and actually made it surprisingly relatable. I was surprised by how often the author’s descriptions of her illness and struggles just didn’t feel that far from my own experiences, or at least not far from experiences I could conceivably imagine having. When she describes feeling a loss of control over her thoughts and sense of what was real, it just didn’t seem that weird to me – I think our brains are constantly exerting a lot of effort to make sense of things in a sensible way, to filter out what’s real and what isn’t, and it’s just not that surprising to me that sometimes this breaks down. In a way, it’s surprising to me that this doesn’t break down more often, and reading this book left me with a sense that the brain – and therefore our grip on reality – is much more fragile than I thought. I’ll try to write more about this, and particular parts of the book I found interesting, at a later point, but for now I wanted to comment on the ending paragraph in particular, which really struck me the second time around:

“If you are a person with mental illness, the challenge is to find the life that’s right for you. But in truth, isn’t that the challenge for all of us, mentally ill or not? My good fortune is not that I’ve recovered from mental illness. I have not, nor will I ever. My good fortune lies in having found my life.”

I really like this focus on finding the life that’s right for you – and the idea that this perhaps is more important than any mental illness diagnosis. It’s easy to draw a false dichotomy between ‘mentally ill’ and ‘normal’ people, and then to simplistically assume that people in the former category are those who struggle in life, and the latter get along just fine. But I think finding a life that’s right for you – a place to live, ways to spend your time, people to surround yourself with – is hard, and hard for everyone, regardless of whether you suffer from any mental illness. Mental illnesses make these things hard in specific ways, and often make these things harder than they are for the average person. But as Saks says, for all of us the challenge is really the same – the obstacles are just different.

I think I like this point because it relates to a general impression I have, that finding the life that’s right for you is incredibly hard, even in the most basic sense. And a large part of how happy we are comes down to these very simple things – like living in the right place, having work that’s fulfilling, and having good relationships. These things seem obvious and simple but I think they can actually take years to get right, and we somehow feel like they should be easy. But we don’t think about them explicitly that often – we fall into jobs, homes, relationships, without thinking, and then wonder why we’re not quite happy. I want to spend more time thinking about the kind of life I want to live – down to the level of what I want my average week to be like – and how to make that a reality.

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Moving standards

Yesterday I hit a big deadline: I sent my supervisors a first draft of my PhD thesis. This PhD has been a huge struggle for me over the past few years in various ways, and the fact that I now have something resembling a submittable thesis is, in a certain sense, a really big deal. If you’d asked me a few months ago how I’d feel when I reached this point, I’d have expected to feel amazing. And yet, now I’m here… I feel kind of meh. It doesn’t really feel like much of an achievement. I’m battling with myself over whether I can really justify taking a couple of days off now before I start on all of the thousands of improvements I want to make.

I think part of the problem here is that progress has been so incremental: sure, yesterday was the day I actually handed in the draft, but I’ve been making small tweaks to an almost-done thing for the past few days, and most of the really substantial work that went into it was done over the past two-three months. I don’t have much of a sense of achievement today, because I actually don’t feel like I’ve been that focused or productive for the past couple of days – mostly just faffing about deciding whether I can really be bothered to make any more improvements before sending it off. And that doesn’t feel that great. It can be hard to feel a sense of achievement, sometimes, when the achievements we make are split up and spread out over a long period of time.

But perhaps the bigger problem here is that my standards for what feels like an achievement, what is worth being proud of, have changed. When I’d barely written a thing, the thought of having a 70,000 word draft – even if it was far from perfect – sounded incredible. Now I’ve got that 70,000 word draft, all I can focus on is all the ways it’s imperfect, all the things I want to improve. I’m telling myself that I don’t really deserve to celebrate because what I’ve done has so many flaws it barely even counts as a first draft. Sure, when I tell my friends they think it sounds impressive and tell me I should rest and celebrate, but they don’t really know. There’s something a bit impostor-syndrome like going on here – sure, other people think I’m doing well, but that’s only because I put on a good front – if they actually saw this draft or what I’ve been doing, then they’d discover I really don’t have a clue.

There’s also just a classic”hedonic treadmill”-type effect here: as we move, our standards move. We start off with an idea of what would be an amazing achievement – and by the time we get there, it no longer feels like an amazing achievement – perhaps because part of what made it seem so impressive in the first place was that it seemed almost unattainable. I wonder if there are ways we can avoid this, ways to increase the sense of achievement and satisfaction we actually get from things. Even recognising that there’s this discrepancy – between how good I feel like I ‘should’ feel, in some sense, and how I actually feel – seems like a useful first step. I don’t think I’ve ever been so acutely aware of this discrepancy, of my own moving standards, as I am right now. And yet I still feel caught by them – I can recognise that I have achieved something (at least by my past standards!), but I still don’t really feel it. I can remind myself I’m in a much better position than I was a few months ago, and that brings some relief. But any small amount of pride I might feel is easily outweighed by guilt and anxiety about all the ways what I’ve done still doesn’t feel good enough.

And I’m still battling with myself over whether it’s really okay to take some time off now. If I felt like I’d been going all-out the past few days to get this draft done, then it might feel easier. But I haven’t – it’s been more of a slow burn over the past few weeks, months (which, though probably healthier, is also part of why I don’t feel so much achievement, I think.) There’s this little voice in my head saying that I don’t really deserve to take a break. I think I have this implicit attitude that I should only take breaks when I’ve really pushed myself, when I’ve really been going all-out and have nothing left. Breaks certainly feel better, more satisfying, more deserved, in these circumstances. When I’m just feeling a bit vaguely burnt out, and I’ve had a few slow days as a result, it feels much harder to justify taking a break, and much more tempting to try and keep pushing through until I have that sense of having gone all-out. But I think these are probably the cases where rest is actually most important: because on some level I know I’m just going to keep slowly burning myself out, losing motivation, and being harder and harder on myself. I’m very unlikely to get to the point where I feel like I “deserve” a break. But perhaps it’s when I start questioning whether I really deserve a break, whether I can really justify resting, that I’m in most need of one.

It’s interesting, just noticing some of the language I’m using here – I think I have some kind of implicit underlying fear that somehow I’m actually lazy, or something. I’m scared that if I allow myself to take a break when I haven’t clearly gone all-out and achieved something, then this is the lazy, weak-willed part of me taking over, showing itself. It’s like, I don’t quite trust myself. And this reminds me of what I’ve discussed before – how I have this tendency to quickly turn things I want to do into “shoulds” in my mind – it feels like this is coming from a similar place of not quite trusting myself to actually do the thing I want to do, to actually do the thing that’s best for me. I’m sort of scared that if I don’t override my basic instincts, that if I don’t push myself, I’ll turn out to be this lazy, selfish bad, person. And yet, I think it’s this tendency to push, criticise, and battle with myself that actually causes more problems than anything else – if I could let go of these, I don’t think I’d end up being a lazy selfish slob. There’s too much I care about, too much I want in life. This is the tension I keep coming back to – this feeling that I’m often motivated from a place of ‘should’, anxiety, and not-quite-trusting myself – and that can get in the way of doing things because I truly want to, because I really care, because they actually matter.

Meditation isn’t about being “in your head”

I’ve heard a few different people express a similar thought with regards to meditation, along the lines of: “I spent a lot of time in my head already, and this is a problem for me. Why would I want to meditate, if that means spending more time alone with my thoughts?”

I think there’s some confusion about the focus/purpose of meditation here, but that there’s also something in this concern worth listening to. In many ways, the kind of person who “spends a lot of time in their head”, is exactly the kind of person who could benefit from meditation, because (at least as I understand it) one of the main things you’re doing with meditation is trying to change the way you relate to your thoughts and feelings, so they have less control over you. I think when people say they spend a lot of time in their heads, they’re describing something like being frequently caught up in analysis, long stories or trains of thought, and perhaps also being very affected by their thoughts emotionally. And though I can totally see why the idea of sitting and paying attention to your thoughts might seem unappealing if that’s your experience, I think one of the main things meditation is trying to help with is actually this kind of problem. I’m definitely ‘one of these people’ myself, and I find meditation helpful precisely because of this, because it helps me to detach from my thoughts and be less affected by them.

That said, though I think this kind of person stands to benefit a lot from meditation, their resistance to it might point to a genuine risk. Especially initially, sitting and paying attention – to your breath, your body, your thoughts, whatever – is really hard if you’re easily caught up in narratives and analysis. Doing this, at least initially, might be really unpleasant. And without proper guidance and support, if you’re easily caught up in thoughts and narratives, you might be more at risk of having negative experiences with meditation. You might find you sit and simply find yourself getting more and more frustrated with yourself, or suddenly noticing more and more negative emotions.

I guess part of what I’m expressing is that I think precisely those people who stand to benefit most from some kind of meditation practice – from learning to pay non-judgemental attention to their experience – might also be those people for which the practice could end up being very unhelpful, if not treated carefully. It’s easy to misunderstand what meditation is about, to think that it’s supposed to be relaxing. Sometimes it might be, but much of the time it’s not. And I don’t want people who find they struggle with it to think that this necessarily means meditation isn’t going to benefit them.

This post does a really good job of explaining how meditation might be worth doing even if it feels unpleasant to you, in the same way exercise is good for you even if it often doesn’t feel great. I’m tempted to go even further and suggest that if you find meditation unpleasant, it might be especially likely to benefit you. But of course, I also want to caveat that there are lots of complex factors that go into how helpful something like meditation is, I might be over-generalising from my experience, and often it’s not helpful to push yourself to do things that don’t feel good.

 

Noticing small feelings

Over time, I feel like I’ve gotten better at noticing my emotions – over the course of a day, the number of times I actually notice small emotional responses to things has massively increased (mostly through meditation practice, and internalising various related ideas.) As I’m able to notice these responses more, it’s also easier to detach from them, and they pass quicker. This has made me aware of just how many small emotional responses to things I’m having all the time. In the last few moments, I’ve noticed myself feeling excited about writing down some ideas, slightly stressed that I might not be able to get them down clearly, agitated by the noises of children playing (/screaming) outside, and a few other things.

One thing that’s helpful about realising this – that I’m emotionally responding to things in small ways all the time – is that it makes each response in itself feel like it has less weight, and so it’s easier to let go of. I realise that I can be stressed about something one moment and then the next moment excited, followed by a moment of pleasure at seeing something beautiful, followed by a moment of sadness at remembering something that happened last week, and so on. I think we often don’t think about emotions on this fine-grained a level – we tend to talk about feeling stressed/happy/excited todayor this week, or whatever, as if emotions are totally consistent over that time period. There can be something helpful to this, and it’s definitely true that a general emotional pattern/undertone can persist over a period of hours, days, or even weeks. But the problem is that sometimes I think this prevents us from noticing other emotions that come up that don’t fit that pattern – we sort of assume that because today we feel a bit down or stressed, that’s going to persist, and we’re obviously not going to also feel momentarily happy about some good memory or exciting thing in the future. But I think this is totally possible, and actually what happens when I properly pay attention – even if I’m generally feeling anxious, I can still have moments of calm and happiness.

In fact, I think this tendency to think about emotions in very broad terms – to decide that today I feel a certain way – prevents us from even feeling things that don’t fit the pattern, where we otherwise might. If I believe that today I’m sad, that’s going to influence how I look at things, and perhaps even how I interpret my own emotional responses. This is not to say that it’s not sometimes useful to acknowledge feeling sad, to recognise when there’s a negative emotional undertone to our experience. But I find it helpful to recognise that even if I’m generally not feeling great, that doesn’t mean I can’t have some smaller, positive, emotional responses to things – moments of pleasure. Recognising this makes it easier for me to notice those small moments when I do feel good, and even seek them out – which can be really helpful if I’m in a general pattern of responding negatively to things.

A related idea, now I think about this, is that maybe positive emotions are harder to notice than negative ones. There’s a lot of complex stuff to get into here – maybe we’ve evolved to feel negative responses more strongly, say, because they’re more important for survival, detecting threat and so on. We also tend to resist negative emotions in a way we don’t resist positive ones – which can make them stick around longer. All of this is just to say that it can be easy to fail to really pay attention to good feelings, especially when they’re relatively small and fleeting among an undercurrent of negative feelings. But, in my experience, they’re still there – even if small and fleeting. And making an explicit effort to pay more attention to them, to look out for them, to cultivate them, even, can make my days feel a lot better.

Friendship and vulnerability

It seems harder to make friends as we get older, because there are fewer ‘organic’ opportunities to get to know people. At school or university, you’re spending large chunks of your day-to-day with other people, and/or living with them, and it’s expected that you form friendship groups with these people. This is, in many ways, a really good way to form close relationships – because you get to spend a lot of time with people in a natural, low-pressure environment, and no one person has to put themselves out there or make a lot of effort to get to know one another. (This is not to say that friendships at school or university are easy – bullying and clique-y-ness are huge problems, and kids can be so mean. But I do think there is an advantage here worth noting.)

As we get older, it feels like we have to invest a lot more effort into friendships. Most of our day-to-day is spent with work colleagues, and it’s not really the norm that those people are your best friends. You might go out for drinks with them after work, or be friends with one or two people, but I think there’s a general feeling that if your main friends are work friends, you’re doing something wrong. Especially in big cities like London, making and developing friendships can require a lot of conscious effort: arranging coffees or dinners weeks in advance, and only seeing people once every few weeks if you’re lucky.

When more effort is required, there’s also more vulnerability involved in making friends. It feels quite uncomfortable to me to just reach out and say, “Hey, I’d like to be better friends with you – can we hang out more?”, especially if it’s someone I don’t know well, or I’ve met in some non-friend context (like work, or someone I exchange pleasantries with in a coffee shop, or talked to briefly at a party.)  But I wish I felt comfortable doing this more often. I’m afraid of rejection, afraid they’re not as interested in being friends with me as I am them, and perhaps even more deeply afraid of admitting that I’d like to have more close friends than I do, that sometimes I feel a bit lonely. Afraid that other people don’t feel like this, that they have plenty of friends, enough that they don’t need or even have time for someone like me.

One disadvantage to the “organic” way of making friends – making friends naturally with people you spend lots of time with, without any explicit effort – is that this doesn’t lend itself to really thinking about who you want to be friends with. We just fall into friendships, based on all kinds of circumstantial factors. Granted, I’m much more likely to continue spending time with people who make me feel good and whose company I enjoy, and I certainly won’t “accidentally” end up friends with someone I actively dislike or makes me feel shitty about myself. But I also have the sense that if I thought a little more about the kinds of people who really make me feel good, who I really want to spend my time with, who I want to be influencing me, I might choose some of my friends differently. And I think this is a thing I’d like to do more of – explicitly thinking about the kinds of people who I feel good around and who influence me in positive ways.

Generally, I’d like to be more proactive about friendship. But it feels scary. I think it might be helpful if we acknowledged more that this is scary – there’s a lot more acknowledgement that “putting yourself out there” in dating is scary, I think, but not so much that explicitly seeking out friendship can be just as scary, if not more so.

 

Sensations we neglect

On a walk today, I tried paying more attention to some basic sensations I tend to take for granted: what a gust of wind felt like on my body and in my hair; how different parts of my legs felt moving me along the pavement; what noises went unnoticed in the background; what smells I got a brief whiff of before they quickly disappeared.

One of the first things that struck me, doing this, is how incredibly overwhelming sensations can actually be, how much there is going on at any given moment for us to possibly sense. It’s not surprising that our brains end up completely tuning out most of it most of the time – it would just be too much to deal with. As a particularly striking illustration of this, I realised I’d been doing this ‘noting’ of sensations for quite a while before I realised that I was completely neglecting entire senses – it took me about five minutes to start recognising smells, for example. And perhaps most surprisingly, it was sight that took me the longest to actually explicitly recognise – I’d probably been doing this for ten minutes or so before I realised I’d not had any higher level awareness of my visual experience whatsoever. Perhaps this is because sight is such a central aspect of our day-to-day, moment-to-moment experience, that to bring explicit attention to it – to actually note what it is that we’re seeing and how our visual experiences feel and vary – can seem kind of strange.

It was paying attention to smells, though, that felt most interesting and novel to me – I think it’s very easy to take our sense of smell for granted, but that smell actually has a huge amount to offer our experience. A certain smell can evoke incredibly strong emotions and memories in a way that our other sense can’t quite match: the whiff of someone’s perfume, or the smell of a certain building you used to work or live in. I remember going back to the building I lived in in the first year of university and being totally taken aback by how strong a sense of nostalgia I got from the smell of the building alone. If you’d asked me before that what the building smelled like, I couldn’t have given you any kind of answer, but somehow as soon as I was there it was incredibly familiar and evocative.

I ended up spending some time today, on this walk and afterwards, trying to pay more attention to smells. What was strange at first was that it was very hard for me to pick up on any distinctive smells – but slowly I would start to notice stronger smells from moment to moment, and subtler differences arising. The wafting smell of cooking as I walked past different houses – Indian spices one minute, the smell of baking the next. The smell of the moisturiser I’d put on my face moments earlier. A slight hint of the plants I walked past in the park, and then the smell of fumes coming from the road. When I walked in my front door, I realised just how distinctive the smell of my house was – something I’d never appreciated before, but which immediately made me think of the first time I’d walked in that door. Suddenly, I wanted to appreciate the smell of everything – thankfully no-one else was home, or I might have looked a bit of a lunatic. I smelled different foods in the fridge, thinking about which seemed pleasant to me and which unpleasant. I sniffed various different perfumes I own, each giving me different memories: different times in the recent past when I’d worn that perfume regularly, the people I’d been with, how I’d felt.

I spent about twice as long eating lunch as I normally do, wanting to smell everything I was eating, and taste it more too. I enjoyed what I was eating so much more and interestingly, suddenly felt way less need to put salt on everything – I realised salt wasn’t really enhancing the flavour so much as giving my mouth this strange immediate hit of sensation.I realised I like mustard a lot more than I thought (weird.)

I forgot about smell again later, though I kept coming back to it periodically, paying more attention. What this has made me realise is there’s so much more pleasure to be had in smell than I’d ever realised – and in all the subtle everyday sensations we take for granted more generally. It’s so easy for our brains to end up tuning these smells out, because there’s so much to take in and they’re not really all that ‘important’ – we can do without them. But – though I feel kind of like a massive hippy  saying this – I do think there’s a huge amount to be gained from re-appreciating something as subtly pleasurable as the sense of smell.

Enough

When I go for a long run, often I find the latter parts much easier than the beginning. This is strange in a way – you might think as my body gets more tired it becomes more of a struggle. But once I’ve been running for half an hour or so, my mindset shifts – I feel like what I’ve already done is enough, that I could stop right now and I’d still have been for a decent run – which, ironically, makes it easier to continue. Anything I do beyond that point is a bonus. With the feeling of having done enough, a lot of pressure and anxiety that was there previously disappears. I’m no longer worried about whether I might get too tired (I am tired, but it’s ok), or counting the minutes until I feel like I’ve been going for a “reasonable time.” I just run, one stride at a time, and start to really enjoy the rhythm of it. I think literally every time I’ve ended up running longer distances than I have in a while, I hadn’t set out with that goal – I’d just kept running once I hit the goal I normally set myself, freed from the pressure of doing “enough.”

I think this kind of mindset – the anxiety of doing “enough” getting in the way of my more natural motivation to do things – is pervasive in other areas of my life too, especially work. I’m so often worrying about whether I’ve been productive enough – I constantly have a certain goal or number of hours worked I feel I need to meet in order to be satisfied. Until I reach that point, my motivation primarily stems from a feeling of should, from anxiety – that if I don’t reach a certain point I’ll feel a failure, my day wasted. But once I get to that point – if I feel genuinely satisfied that what I’ve achieved meets a certain bar I’ve set for myself – I can let go.

Ironically, it’s often then I do my best work – both in terms of output and my enjoyment of it. It’s when I’ve already met all my goals for the day that I feel like I want to get ahead for tomorrow. It’s when I’ve already written a blog post for the day that all these other ideas I want to write about start streaming in. It’s when I’ve already been to the gym in the morning and ticked off my “exercise” goal for the day that I really feel like going for a swim in the evening.

It’s like all of this anxiety about whether I’m meeting some standard I’ve set for myself is getting in the way of my intrinsic motivation to do things. I’ve been realising recently that often even things I genuinely want to do can end up feeling aversive, like a burden on me – because my brain quickly and naturally develops a feeling of “should” around any goal I set myself. It feels like this stems from a deep, vague, fear that I’m somehow not good enough – not until I’ve worked enough hours, run far enough, achieved enough.

I wonder what it would feel like not to have this – to simply wake up and feel like I’ve already met this standard of ‘enough’, to always feel free to do things because I want to, or they’re important – not because I should. I think some people feel like this, but that this anxiety of not being enough is also pretty pervasive.

It’s interesting to ask where this bar for what’s “enough” comes from, and things that can shift it. It’s influenced a lot by societal norms and culture – when I was working an office job, I started to internalise the narrative that as long as I sat at my desk doing vaguely productive work from 9 til 6ish, I was doing enough. That’s what others around me were doing, and what they deemed enough, after all. Doing a PhD, there’s risk that it never feels like you’re doing enough – there’s always something else that needs doing, your incomplete thesis looming in your mind. The more I spend time around super ambitious and hardworking people, the higher my standards for what’s enough get.

My standards also shift as my expectations for myself shift based on my actual output. Having struggled with motivation a bit recently, I got to the point where even managing a couple of good productive hours a day felt ‘enough’ – because that was the best I’d been achieving recently. But as soon as I had a few good days, my standards started to rise – and suddenly what had been good enough a few days ago no longer was. In a sense, the fact that my sense of what’s enough shifts so easily, and is so relative, should be enough to convince me that it’s not really rooted in anything real – nothing beyond my own self-judgement.

I so want to live more of my life in a state of ‘enoughness’, so my motivation can feel like it’s coming from what I genuinely care about and want, not feeling like I have to meet some standard or I’m a failure. The anxiety I feel when I’m scared I might not do enough is, ironically, what so often gets in the way of achieving more. The anxiety that I might get tired before I’ve run enough is most of what makes the running unpleasant and hard, which is what makes me want to stop. The anxiety that I might not be able to finish a project to a good enough standard, or fast enough, is what makes me procrastinate.

I don’t really know yet how to deal with this, to be honest. The short-term solution is to try and set low standards for what’s ‘enough’, and use strategies to ensure you meet them as often as possible. For example, I’ve recently been starting work earlier in the day before doing other things, so that I can maximise my chance of feeling like I’ve done ‘enough’ earlier in the day – and sooner get to a place where I’m free from that pressure.

But this really feels like just a bandaid: working effectively within the constraints of feeling not good enough, while continuing to feed the feeling. Maybe it sounds idealistic, but I guess I have hopes that I could free myself from these constraints entirely: completely lose the anxiety, the self-judgement, the feeling that I’m not good enough until I’ve achieved enough. It’s like I’m waking up every day thinking I need to prove myself, and I don’t want to feel like that. But despite all I’ve said here, part of me is still afraid that if I lose all this, I might just not achieve anything. I’m afraid that if I learn to feel like I’m good enough without achieving anything, then, well – I might not amount to anything. And that wouldn’t be good enough.