8 Realizations from 2015

2015 was a year of my highest highs and lowest lows.

This is probably why, as I played back the year, I realized I had learned a lot about myself. While 2014 was the year I thought I’d finally gotten to a good place in my career and personal life, 2015 was the wakeup call that things aren’t so simple.

Below are 8 takeaways that I think are worth sharing.

  1. Silence can damage you more than protect you.

Growing up, instead of getting embroiled in the bitter arguments of my classmates, I just listened. I figured it was the best way not to upset anyone and not contribute to a culture I greatly disliked. Silence was a protective mechanism for me.

In 2015, I realized I‘ve stayed silent because I was afraid of pushing people away. But it’s had the opposite effect.

I’ve realized by avoiding conflict, other people sometimes didn’t realize who I really was because I wasn’t speaking up. I avoided saying anything because I thought that conflict would hurt more. If I said something, I might hurt someone, make them angry, or I might lose them entirely. I told myself time and again, “It’s not worth bringing up. I won’t say anything this time.” But I was wearing myself down by avoiding the conversation.

Since I realized this, I’ve revisited these words from a friend on multiple occasions:

“Sharing your opinion is a mechanism to filter out people that you don’t like. It is also a way for others to gain respect for you because you shared your opinion, and it offered them a different perspective, and shows that you are able to stand up for yourself.”

I’m working to counter my silence.

2. Self-blame can be hard to detect, especially when it’s prevalent.

Blaming myself when things went wrong was so built into my “normal programming” that I didn’t even realize I was doing it in copious amounts until I got some nudging from others.

It’s important to acknowledge your responsibility, but in the right amount. And it’s important to (learn to) believe it’s okay to mess up. It’s normal. And you can be better next time.

3. Sometimes situations have more power than you do.

This year I watched a moving film called The Stanford Prison Experiment, based on the real-life research of Dr. Philip Zimbardo. It showed the incredible power situations and our roles have on us.

I was forced to acknowledge multiple times this year that as much as I am in control, my circumstances also play an important part. This should help me reassess the level of responsibility or blame I actually take when things go wrong.

4. Realizing what mindset you have can make a big difference.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck explains:

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence. … Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.
A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. … It creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice.

People said I was “smart” growing up. I had a passion for learning. I devoured books, I loved the sciences, and I loved the challenge of trying to master something. I also worked really hard.

But I believed if you were “smart”, you’d either get great grades with little effort because you were naturally talented, or for people like me, if you worked hard enough, eventually it should become easy. I equated easiness with smarts. So when I worked my butt off and got good grades in my CS program in undergrad, I never felt smart because it never got easy for me. I took it as a sign I was not smart.

I realize now I’ve come to see parts of myself as fixed, although many parts of myself are indeed growth-focused. That negative thought pattern made me shy away from pursuing some things in recent years. My desire to learn them wavered because I thought to myself, what was the point?

I’m trying now to shift the fixed mindset parts of me to be more positive. I’ve already started to rediscover my love of learning by listening to educational podcasts and watching YouTube videos on topics I love that I hadn’t kept up with in recent years.

Dweck paints a picture of two worlds:

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

I want to live in the second world.

5. Listening to your feelings and trusting your feelings can be two different things.

You know that feeling you get that something’s wrong, but you don’t know how to describe it? I hate that. For a long time, I believed that if I couldn’t articulate what was wrong, I was wrong. That my feeling was not a good enough reason to make a decision. I listened, and threw it away.

This became a problem for example when I turned someone down for a third date. I almost made myself physically sick trying to rationalize why it just “felt right”. I eventually did rationalize it, but that’s not the point. The point is, the feeling was right. My conscious mind just hadn’t made all the connections yet.

(Similarly, I’ve been in many situations where I’ve seen a bunch of red flags that I can articulate, rationalized them away instead of listening to my gut, and then regretted not acknowledging something was wrong sooner.)

I’ve realized that discounting these feelings is a terrible disservice. Even if I haven’t figured out the words behind them yet, they’re usually right. I’m going to try to put more trust in these feelings from now on.

6. Empathy is great, but you can actually have too much of it.

Moods are contagious. If you have too much empathy, you’re like an extra-porous sponge. This puts you at risk for secondhand stress.

If you have this problem, switching to a compassionate mindset is one thing that can help keep you sane. More on this and other tips about managing excess empathy are in this Lifehacker article.

7. Black and white thinking is a defense mechanism that can backfire.

For much of my life, I lived by a somewhat rigid set of self-made rules. For example, when I applied to college, I applied to one school and one program and put all my energy behind that. When I told myself I couldn’t get involved with someone because of X or Y, I clung to that rule. It gave me comfort to make a decision and stick to it.

I tend to be an all-or-nothing person. You can call it passion. You can call it focus. You can call it single-mindedness. You can also call it stubbornness. And this leads to inflexibility.

Earlier in 2015, I felt stuck. I came to suspect it was at least partially because I wasn’t exploring the “grays” of life. One day, a light bulb went off and I told myself, “I don’t have to do anything.” I suddenly felt empowered, freed. I realized I’d been living my life by shoulds and musts. If you’re curious, this article goes more in depth on why black and white thinking can be so damaging.

For part of 2015, I took risks and explored the grays I’d avoided. That period was the best I’d felt in a long time, maybe the best I’d ever felt. I was happy, and confident, and energized.

But at some point I regressed. I had forgotten that phrase, “I don’t have to do anything.” The day I remembered that was the day everything came rushing back, and it helped me realize I’d become stuck again.

I‘m going to try to remember that people and situations are shades of gray and try not to make too many rules for myself.

8. We are not our thoughts or feelings.

In 2015, I went through a period of depression. Thanks to those who listened to me talk through things, even if you didn’t know.

I work at Facebook and one our core values is “Be Open”. In the last year, I’ve been incredibly inspired by employees who have shared some of the most painful experiences in their lives. If you haven’t, you might like to read Sheryl Sandberg’s note about how she dealt with her husband’s unexpected passing, or Mark Zuckerberg’s note about the miscarriages that he and his wife went through. These are two well-known examples, and I can assure you that others have been just as brave. Each time someone has shared something like this, it has opened dialogues, helped us grow closer, and understand one another more deeply. I believe this is incredibly important, and so I decided to share my own experience.

My thoughts were out of control. If they were usually hard to rein in, like an energetic dog running around a yard without a leash, this was more like an assault. I couldn’t stop negative thoughts from returning, repeating again and again no matter how hard I tried.

My feelings were similarly unstable. I was constantly being tugged downward. The best I could hope for some days was “okay”, a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. And at the slightest nudge, the slightest gust of wind, my mood could shift, and I could barely hang on.

There’s a difference between depression and sadness. When I’m healthy and sad, I know I’m sad, but I’m not held captive by it. It’s part of me, if unpleasant. With depression, I couldn’t shake it. I wasn’t in control. It was constantly hanging over me, pushing and prodding. A recent Lifehacker article covers the difference between depression and sadness more.

Headspace helped me fight this with techniques like labeling, with reminders that our thoughts and feelings are like traffic passing by. The guide reminds you that “we are not our thoughts and feelings.”

At first, I thought this was BS. What are we, if not our thoughts and feelings? I eventually began to understand. Our thoughts and feelings are a filter on reality. That 60% on a test? That could be a D- that makes us feel like a failure. Or, it could be an A on a curve, an A that makes us feel like we’ve triumphed. (At least in engineering school, this was true.)

So experiencing a setback or failure may make you feel like a failure, but it does not make you one. There’s objective evidence none of us were failures our entire life. As much as our minds may be dead-set on convincing us otherwise, we can and will succeed again. That’s what I told myself time and time again, even when my brain was telling me it was impossible.

I’m making meditation and exercises like labeling and visualization a priority. By gaining more control and peace of mind, I hope to create a better me.

To close, 2015 made me realize I still have a long way to go.

I’m still figuring out and improving on what kind of person I am at 27. I somehow thought I’d be done by now, that “me” would be set in my mold once I hit this age. I thought I’d have figured out who I am and overcome my weaknesses — except for a few that seemed okay to live with, like tending toward clutter or cutting deadlines close.

On one hand, to see so many flaws and open questions about who I am is disheartening. But, on the other, I guess it means I’ve got a lot to look forward to this year.

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