How I fixed a sinking ship, and let go of the debris
Last weekend, over a couple of days, years of depression and months of reflection distilled into an imperceptibly fast emotional shift. With a sense of catharsis that seems on a par with finding God, or falling in love, my depression essentially disappeared. I’d been trying to make my brain manage all my projects, and my emotions manage all my relationships. And I’d found my brain completely leaky, my emotions over-worked, with no results to show for it.
I was letting myself stress over minutiae, because I thought that was the path to perfection. Getting that email or message just right, obsessing in advance over the perfect plan for my projects (and some perfect equation that told me exactly how to prioritize them all); trying to guess exactly what people wanted, before even speaking to them. And because of that, I was ignoring my natural abilities to trust my instincts about what I should be doing, and to empathize with the people immediate to me. Social life, romance, career; it didn’t matter. If I cared about it, I was failing at it. Because I was attached to a notion of “perfect” which did not model my emotional needs.
I’ve learned to slam on the break. Before I even turned the key.
- Dear Evan Hansen
Somewhere along the way in my life I picked up the notion that I wasn’t in charge of myself. Trying to dedicate my life to improving the world, without a real sense of self-esteem or self-worth, infected my sense of boundaries and prevented me from actually managing inputs and outputs, in both emotion and time. I had no idea how I was supposed to be useful to the world, or more accurately, no faith in my beliefs about my potential value, and as a result found myself seeking constant validation and under-applying myself; deadly afraid of people criticizing the ideas I had about how to create a better world, even from people who did nothing but watch from the sidelines. Seeing this happen in high-profile ways to the few people whose lives were obvious, unqualified net-positives for the world, like Elon Musk, was a piece of the puzzle.
Controlling people found themselves drawn to me because I would indulge them. I started “cruising” last year (gay slang for using public spaces to find sex) because it was a rejection-free, no-obligation way of sating my loneliness without relinquishing my freedom (something which, having no concept of boundaries, I had not learned how to actively defend). And I was wondering why I was unhappy: I thought I was doing what I wanted, getting some dim satisfaction by being of maximal value to the people I encountered, whether it was validating my altruism by being maximally polite to lecherous old men I found disgusting, or validating myself with attention from the few guys I found palatable.
Fundamentally, my approach to life was too passive: trying to get self-esteem from satisfying (as best I could) the desires of the people who happened upon me, in situations where I could plausibly deny “actually trying” to do anything (because trying is vulnerability, and I did not have the self-esteem to safely process being vulnerable — no sense that my desires were fundamentally worthy of satisfaction, or that my value to others was something I was willing to announce beliefs about). I wasted time hiding in these shadows, ashamed of my desires and unsure of my objective value. The only real release I got, and wound up seeking with increasing fervor, was when I shone through this shame in a few specific scenarios: meeting somebody organically; without ambiguity of attraction. The eye-contact, the instant smile and completely shameless connection. Socially-approved and romance novel material shit. Which led to my experimentation with being more bold and shameless with expressing my sexuality, trying to tease this kind of interaction more out of my everyday life. I’d found another piece of the puzzle.
Back to passivity. I had messaging anxiety because I was afraid of being unable or unprepared to deliver the perfect responses. I was trying to manage other people’s emotional reactions for them, because of some deep expectation that I couldn’t handle their response to me in turn. Years of dealing with passive-aggressive guys on dating apps, being as polite as I could, and still receiving hatred back. I was trying to be a self-elected sponge for negativity, because I thought that’s what the (seemingly) negativity-filled world needed: if I absorbed all this negativity, there would be none left, and everyone would be happy. But some people are deep wells of negativity, and I needed to realize that it is not my responsibility to fix that (altho I can still honor my altruism by trying to pick up the slack along the way, so long as my boundaries are respected). Noticing this perfectly compatible compromise between altruism and selfishness is liberating.
Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs.
I didn’t realize my reticence to be forthright about what I wanted in sexual negotiations was creating a lot of that negativity I was getting back. Partly because being forthright implied that they wanted something from me, which seemed arrogant; and partly because I was ashamed of what I wanted, ashamed that for some people all I could see was their body (despite defending this freedom for others). Something here needed to change.
This must have been my attraction to Ayn Rand (altho she never reached “idol” levels). She just saw through a whole lot of the same bullshit as me; her tangible disappointment with the world and the systems which indulge negativity and dismissing one’s own desires, struck a chord. She saw the problems, but she did not have answers that fused seamlessly with my need to recognize altruism as fundamentally good. (We can argue about what she really meant— but language is hard, and I suspect her prose is unintentionally geared towards a small subset of people who struggle with boundaries and are frustrated by a world that seemingly demonizes them. This probably relates somehow to her fixation on BDSM, but that’s not a topic I have expertise on. I don’t think ill of her, or her enemies, altho I wish both would try to find more common language.)
I have no idea where these boundary problems came from, but I suspect schooling had some effect. When it came to bullies, I never shoved back: I reduced the space I took up. I hunched over, kept my head down, bit my tongue instead of issuing the destroying retorts that would have been so easily delivered against such plainly vulnerable targets; restricting myself in the belief that teachers would penalize me for retaliating, despite knowing that bullies themselves were free to tyrannize arbitrarily. The phenomenon of school arson never seemed perplexing to me. I would silently, internally smile whenever I heard of such things: this is what you rewarded, and this is what you got.
Probably this is why I loved reading Worm so much. (Twice.) Because I could empathize totally. It’s about an isolated, intelligent schoolgirl against whom the trauma of a relentless campaign of bullying triggers her development of superpowers and… well, you can imagine. Except you can’t, because its author is a deeply empathetic, yet darkly creative genius. Seriously, read it.
Back to the break-through. Or really, cascade of break-throughs, because what it feels like is that I finally saw the North Star, realized I’d been running away from it, and wondering why the hell I was so lost. I can’t thank enough people for the parts, small and large, they played in this.
I have taken jobs in which sensitive people recognized my skills, gave me freedom to apply myself and understanding for my imperfect communication abilities. I met people who were sensitive to my uncertain desires, and answered the cold and stiff manner (which my inability to enforce boundaries had necessitated) with warmth and flexibility. I have been part of online communities where people are thorough, thoughtful and compassionate. I have taken sports classes where the fear of looking weak and stupid flooded my veins, and yet afterwards nobody thought less of me. I acted as a life drawing model to realize my right to exist in a body without other people trying to control me. I used body-confidence in scenarios like Gay Pride, to exercise this even further — to train my tolerance against hateful remarks, to give my emotional brain the security that I could protect it from the puritanical, authoritarian impulses that still bubble beneath the surface of any public space.
And yet the true tipping-point for me, was achieving self-reliance. The good job, the savings, paying my rent in advance, having a safety net of friends, and indeed extensive cognitive legwork justifying my existence and value to the world. I wish nobody needed this to achieve peace of mind, but it may be important. It is important to build your own emotional world on your own terms, and to realize you’re not obligated to accept anybody else’s. It is possible to rebuild your self-esteem from first-principles. But you have to shore up the leaks in your emotional hull — recognize not just intellectually, but emotionally, the moral necessity of self-care, boundaries, saying “no”. The sovereignty of your own desires and needs.
Otherwise you can risk constant burnout — literally sacrificing your mind, body, and by extension your life, to external demands. As an altruist you must never blindly execute other people’s demands as the kind of priority that overrides those boundaries; they must pass your filter: selflessly, because your value is your ability to function as a self-sustained emotional unit; selfishly, because your life is as worthy of safety, satisfaction and pleasure as anybody else’s.
I followed uncomfortable situations. I thought hard about my sexual desires and what they signified about my psychology. I spoke to people, was vulnerable, got different perspectives. I took MDMA at Gay Pride and threw up outside the club. Found situations in which I thrived, and others in which I failed. And then, on a beach in Blackpool just over a week ago, I listened to ABBA and managed something I haven’t done in public for decades — I managed to cry. Reading over my messages with a boy I met in Madrid, one of the few pure connections I’ve ever managed to have, still muddied with other thoughts about how I felt at the time, how I still never fully opened up even to him. But he gave me so much warmth and patience. It was just a few tears. The beginning of a new outlook. Beginning to trust the world, the people in it, and my own ability to endure whatever it throws at me.