Permission to Flirt?

“Would you be comfortable with me flirting with you?”

I’ve become fond of asking this question lately. I’m not all that good at telling when people are interested in me, and I find it’s a good way to make sure I’m not going to make anyone uncomfortable. I’m sure it also helps that the few times I’ve asked it, people have enthusiastically consented.

A while ago, a friend of mine mentioned my use of this question in conversation, and someone responded by saying they thought that asking a question like that would kill the mood.

And I felt insecure.

Let’s take a moment to review the context in which this insecurity happened: off the top of my head, I can remember three times I’ve asked someone some variation of this question. Each time, the response was an enthusiastic “yes”, and each time I got the feeling that the person I asked was more comfortable and interested in flirting because I had asked.

It doesn’t kill the mood.

So why, in spite of that evidence, did I feel insecure when someone suggested it would?

I like this as an example of cultural norms overpowering reason and evidence because it’s one of the most clear-cut examples I have from my own life. Asking if people want to flirt has never killed the mood in my experience. That’s not to say it’s impossible that it might some time, but it is certainly to say that it’s a lot less likely than some people seem to think. I have direct, uniform evidence of it not killing the mood, and yet it is still possible for me to feel insecure about it when people suggest that it would.

What is it about brains that makes them so prone to this type of mistake? Why not spend your time feeling insecure about things you have some rational basis to feel insecure about, brain?

One Billion Dollars

“Try to figure out what you’d ask for if you were being maximally greedy.”

In context, this question was about finding a job. In the context of my life, I was thinking about social interaction.

What is the ridiculous, perhaps childish, making $1 billion a year equivalent in social interaction?

Always having people available when you need them. Having them take initiative when you want them to and not take initiative when you don’t. Having them close by when you want them close by and far away when you want them far away.

Having people ask for help when you want to be asked for help, and having them leave you alone when you don’t want one more piece of responsibility for dealing with any problem of anyone’s. Having people offer an ear when you need an ear, and a shoulder when you need a shoulder, and being asked to be an ear when being an ear for someone would make you feel good, and being asked to be a shoulder when being a shoulder for someone would make you feel good.

Being the one person that someone can talk to about this particular thing, but only when being that one person makes you feel useful and validated, not when it makes you feel overburdened and exhausted.

Having enough people and things going on in your life that you can always find something to do with someone, but not so many that you feel overwhelmed with obligation. Perhaps, in summation, being committed to in all of the ways you want to be committed to, but not having to commit in return. Just having things fall exactly where you want.

Sometimes I think it’s good to talk about the things that I want when I’m feeling frustrated and overwhelmed or lonely or both and the things that I want are maybe childish but they’re still there and the only thing I can do in the moment is give them expression.

Jotting Down A Few Miscellaneous Proto-Posts

Lately, I’ve had several things I wanted to write about, but nothing I had the energy to write a complete post about. In lieu of writing full posts, I’ve decided I’m just going to empty the backlog with some short summaries of some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately.

I just had a conversation with a friend of mine about a partner of hers. A few weeks ago we had a lot of conversations about this partner, and she had expressed to me a few times that she was nervous about not being very attracted to this partner physically. I noted to her, today, that she hadn’t mentioned that issue in a while, and asked if that was because it had changed or not. She responded that, yes, it had changed, and that she was now finding this partner incredibly attractive all the time. It was really cool being witness to a change like this as it happened.

I’ve been wanting to write something just to remind myself that this happened: the woman I have most recently started dating gave me a very distinct first impression over about 30 seconds of conversation at the beginning of our date. Over the course of the rest of that date, I got a stronger and distinctly different impression — one that was much more compatible with me than the first impression had been. Then, over the course of the following date, my impression changed again (not to a negative impression, but to one that was markedly different from the second impression). It’s not a particularly interesting story except that I tend to have a very high opinion of my ability to develop highly accurate snap impressions of people I meet in person, and this particular dating experience has somewhat flown in the face of that. Data about my brain I wanted to write down so I remember it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy recently. At some point, I want to write a full-length post about this, but for now just a short summary: I’ve been mulling over this idea that empathy is, like all those other things I wrote about in the brain skepticism post (pain, depression, etc.), a model. Roughly: that empathy is a mental model of the state of another person’s brain that can cause us to experience emotions. That is, when someone else is sad, and you recognize the visual cues that signify sadness, you form a mental model of them as a person experiencing sadness, and whatever process creates that mental model also produces a corresponding emotional experience in you.

I find this idea intriguing because it presents an interesting perspective on why certain groups of people have so much trouble empathizing with other certain groups. For example: why are so many religious people convinced that atheists are just angry at their god? I think this model for empathy implies a fascinating explanation: if someone lives in a world where, in all of their experience, the existence of a deity is self-evident, then maybe their system has no idea how to simulate the mind of an atheist. Maybe the best it can do is to posit things like “angry at God”, and, as a result, not only is that the explanation that seems plausible to them, they might even experience an emotional reinforcement in the form of an “empathetic” emotional experience of being angry at God produced by their inaccurate model.

In a nutshell, what I find interesting about this is that it reframes my concept of the idea of “failing at empathy”. When people assume completely inaccurate things about other people, by this model, it’s not that they aren’t experiencing empathy — the very same process is happening as when empathy works — it’s just that their empathy engine isn’t producing accurate results.

This is obviously a hypothesis formed out of purely anecdotal speculation. It’s the worst kind of just so story. I just think it’s fascinating as a hypothesis, and I would be curious to learn about reasons it might or might not hold any actual evidential water.

Thoughts About My Weird Double Standards With Respect to Tough Conversations

Interesting fact about me: a lot of the time, I enjoy when people tell me “no”, or tell me that they’re frustrated with me in some way. It makes me feel more secure in my relationships with people when I know they’re able to tell me what they want and don’t want. It makes me feel like I’m more likely to know if I’m doing something they don’t like, and it makes me feel like they think their relationship with me is important enough that they’re willing to do the work to communicate with me about things.

I know this about myself, and yet in spite of it, I still find it difficult a lot of the time to tell people “no” about things or to tell them that I’m frustrated or angry with them about something. Recently, I had a long conversation with a friend about my preferences in terms of reliability and communication. It was a scary conversation to have, for me, but it went very well, and I was proud of myself at the end of it for having managed to get myself to communicate the things that were important to me.

About a week or two later, I ended up very frustrated with this friend, and realized I needed to have a conversation with them about it. As far as I could tell, that first conversation hadn’t been an annoying or in any way negative experience for this friend of mine — it had been a generally positive conversation, and she had thanked me for communicating about the things I talked about. Even so, my brain’s instinctive reaction to needing to have this second conversation with her was “Shit! I just had this one Serious Conversation, now if I have to have this other one so soon after it, she’s just going to feel like our friendship is too much work!”.

Much of the time when people have these conversations with me, I think it’s great, but when I have to initiate these conversations with other people, I assume it must just be annoying and exhausting for them. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe I just need to ask people the deliberate question more often and confirm that they find the initiation of such conversations as valuable and affirming as I often do. I don’t know. But it’s definitely a double standard I plan to do more thinking about.

After all, when I had the second conversation, it went fine.

Thoughts on Conferences, Friendships, and Introversion

Skepticon this year was a roller coaster. I was dealing with some pretty heavy stuff in my personal life that week, and cons are always a bit of a risky proposition for an introvert. I’m not sure I’ve ever had quite so pronounced an experience of the nature of my introversion than I got this year at con.

What I like about cons is that it’s a chance to be surrounded by people who are like me. People who are thoughtful critical thinkers, and interested in science and the world’s big questions and who are able to keep up with my own thoughts about such things. Being surrounded by people like that can be its own special type of intoxicating.

The biggest problem with cons for me is that they are designed around group interactions, which is something that I can only do in small doses. I very much enjoy talking to most of the people that I meet at conferences, but what I really enjoy are the one-on-one interactions. Group interactions with more than three or four people tend to paralyze my brain. You could predict my mood at any given time at the conference pretty reliably by looking at the amount of group versus one-on-one conversation I had had in the previous hour. A lot of group interaction and my mood would be pretty low. A lot of one-on-one conversation, and my mood would be pretty fucking good.

I’m not sure what this means for me for future conferences. I do love the people at conferences, but conferences aren’t designed for the types of interaction that I really enjoy having with people, and I would imagine that most people who go to conferences are better suited to group interaction than I am, and may be actively looking for more of that type of interaction.

Sometimes I think of the distinction between one-on-one versus group interaction in terms of operating serially or in parallel. I don’t much like parallel social interaction most of the time, but I do serial social interaction very well.

This reality leaves me in a position of not having a lot of control over whether or not I have a good time at conferences — either a lot of group interaction happens and I end up anxious, on edge, and at risk for a period of increased symptoms of depression, or I chance upon enough interesting, person-to-person conversations that things are awesome.

I don’t know if there’s any good way to control which of those possibilities actually happens, which means conference experiences in general are a coin flip, and at times a coin flip that is potentially dangerous for my mental health.

This is a broader problem for my life in general. Most group interactions feel, to me, like a period of waiting to get to the good part. The good part is the part where you have the chance to stop operating in parallel. The good part is plugging your brain into someone else’s brain and watching your ideas refract through the media of their ideas, and their ideas through yours, and seeing things entirely new come out the other end.

The difficulty, in my experience, in strongly preferring one-on-one interaction, is that it is much harder to find ways to have it happen passively. If I want to interact with someone one-on-one, generally, it happens by chance or it happens by intention – e.g. I call someone up. If I want to interact with or meet people in a group setting, I can go somewhere where there are groups of people. I can go to a party or a conference or a meetup and be interacting with a group of people just like that. All I need to do is be in a place where there is a group of people and those interactions, by default, start to happen. And I hope that at some point we’ll get to the good part.

Dance is the best way I’ve found to operate in serial for a while, but, for the moment, it’s a risky proposition for me, physically. I’m becoming more and more aware, though, that I very much need to find some better ways to have one-on-one interactions with people that can happen relatively passively. I don’t think most people have quite as strong a preference for it as I do, and it gets frustrating quickly when I feel like I have to put an enormous amount of energy into making it happen whenever I want to make it happen.

I think it creates a certain amount of frustration for me in my friendships as well. To an extent, my brain doesn’t interpret group interaction with friends as “real” time spent with friends. It doesn’t feel, to me, like the type of time spent with people that builds a sense of interpersonal intimacy — which is generally what I like to do in friendships — so some of my friendships end up feeling very different from my side versus the other person’s side, because the other person may be able to experience a sense of building history and intimacy from group interactions that I will not experience. This may lead to my feeling like people are less interested in my time and friendship than they actually are, because to me the expression of that interest is in large part defined by the amount of time they try to find with me one-on-one, and for others it may not be defined that way.

At this point I’m just throwing out hypotheses. This whole thing is a complicated issue for me, and I feel like I need to understand it better before I’ll be able to come up with good, actionable solutions to the problems.

So, the questions are:

How do I find a way to have a good time at conferences in spite of my issues with group interaction, or how do I find a different way to interact meaningfully with the kinds of people that I love to interact with conferences?

How do I find a way to feel valued and balanced in friendships with people who may express and experience friendship in ways that don’t line up very well with the ways I do?

How do I find less effortful means to experience the types of interactions that make me happy?

Is there a way to manage to get less anxiety and more satisfaction out of interacting with people in groups?

Here’s hoping I stumble upon some solutions.

“You Knew This Would Happen”, And Other Jerkbrain Lies

This is one of those things that I write down in my blog because I’m not sure where else to put it. In the hopes that I will remember.

When I’m starting a relationship, any relationship, I often worry about the things that might go wrong. If it’s a casual relationship, I may be nervous that I will end up with inappropriately serious feelings. If I’m attracted to someone in a way I haven’t experienced before, I may be worried that it won’t line up with the ways they want to be found attractive. If I want to spend a lot of time with someone, I may be worried it will overwhelm them. If I want to spend a limited amount of time with someone, I may be worried that it will be too little.

Sometimes the things that I worry about come to pass, and sometimes they don’t. Either way, I can generally be relied on to blame myself when they do come to pass.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? You KNEW this would happen!”

Then I blame myself for whatever negative consequences resulted from the initial decision, particularly any negative consequences to the other person involved. Because I should have known. Because I “did know”.

But, of course, I didn’t. I only saw the possibility.

A while back, I hooked up with a friend of mine, and was nervous that a relationship intended to be casual would become inappropriately serious in my head. However, when I decided to go ahead anyway, when I actually ran the experiment, I found exactly the opposite. I found that more than any other casual thing I had ever done, this one felt like it perfectly, naturally fit into a casual space in my head.

If that hadn’t been the case – if I had found myself feeling uncomfortably serious about the whole thing — I would have blamed myself for that going wrong. I would have told myself that I knew that that was going to happen, and that therefore I shouldn’t have let anything happen in the first place.

And, as the experience showed, I would’ve been dead wrong. As more than one of my recent experiences have shown, sometimes the things I worry about don’t happen. Sometimes they don’t even come close to happening. The part of my brain dedicated to shrieking, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN!!” is completely and utterly wrong. Now, finally, I have some blatant, about-as-close-to-irrefutable-as-possible counterexamples from my own personal experience, and I intend to remember them the next time my brain pulls this bullshit.

The Weirdness of the Manifestations of My Insecurities

Do you ever notice how strange insecure feelings are sometimes?

I have a friend who has been doing a lot of working out recently, and getting progressively stronger, but who deals with some pretty serious depression and body image issues. I find myself envious of them in spite of the fact that I value happiness and self-esteem more than I value physical strength.

I have another friend who is very happy most of the time, but who I don’t think of as particularly conventionally physically attractive. I find I often experience less envy with respect to them than with respect to people who I see as more conventionally physically attractive but far less happy with life, in spite of the fact that I value happiness far more than physical attractiveness.

The girl from the recent mini-breakup has told me in no uncertain terms that she thinks I’m attractive, cute, a good kisser, and good in bed. She has told me explicitly that the reason she isn’t interested in continuing hooking up is personal uncomfortable feelings about the casualness of what we were doing. Yet, I still find my disappointment about that whole situation often manifests in the form of wishing I were more attractive, or similar, in spite of the fact that this was not the problem in the first place.

I am amazed by the frequency with which I find myself insecure about things in ways that make no sense. I’m not really going anywhere with this. I’ve just been noticing it lately, and it’s weird.

Confronting and Processing Some Issues with Envy

I had a long conversation with a friend yesterday that has left me thinking about many things.

It has been a long time since I have had such intense issues with envy as I have had recently with respect to this friend. He is in relationships of various types with three different people, all of whom I am interested in, and all of whom I am not in relationships with for different reasons — lack of time, with one, lack of interest, with another, and prohibitive distance that I cannot afford to traverse regularly, with the third. He also works in tech, full-time, which is something I would very much like to be physically capable of doing, but can’t.

I am not actually in any relationships of any sort with people who are local to me at the moment, and while I have been doing better than I was a few weeks ago, the stress and frustration associated with not being able to work any more than I am at the moment is with me most of the time. As such, there are times when spending time around this friend feels a lot like watching a movie about all of the things that I don’t have right now. It’s a good recipe for complicated feelings.

Yesterday, I decided it was time to have a face-to-face conversation about this with him to, hopefully, keep my complicated feelings from spiraling into friendship-damaging-level feelings. It went very well. The envy is still going to be an issue with me, I think, but the conversation itself was very positive, and I feel much better for having had it. I think I managed to express how I was feeling without coming off as accusatory, and he managed to show me, once again, that I tend to surround myself with very good people, him included.

I’ve been mulling over one particular part of the conversation that we had, and trying to decide how to think about it. As much as I appreciated that he was able to have this conversation with me about my feeling complicatedly negative around him, and as much as the conversation that we had about what to do about it was reassuring, the thing that had the most immediate positive effect on my mood yesterday was when he told me that one of the three women mentioned above is significantly more into me than him.

I suppose I should take what I can get, in terms of allowing myself to feel good about things that make me feel good, but I feel very… complicated… about the idea of feeling better about the situation in a way that implies a zero-sum framing of it. All things being equal, I would prefer to feel better about the situation in a way that didn’t depend on my “doing better” by comparison with someone else. Partially I don’t like the zero sum framing because it means that my feeling better depends on circumstances which are, to a significant extent, outside of my control. Partially, I don’t like it because I don’t like the idea of feeling better about myself in a way that is specifically at the expense of someone else.

I expressed this, in so many words, to him, and he didn’t seem at all bothered by it, himself. I hope to have more conversations about it in the future in order to flesh out my feelings about the whole thing.

For the moment, I think I’m doing reasonably well at not beating myself up for the superficial reasoning of my brain, but I would still like to get a better fix on everything. And I would like to have a better way of assuaging envy than having to find a way that I’m doing better than the subject of the envy is.

Anyone else have advice on dealing with this  envy thing?

Mistrusting My Brain

The last couple of days haven’t been too bad tendonitis-wise. I’ve been choosing which particular aspects of my work project to work on a little bit more intelligently, and I think that may be making a difference. Yesterday and today I’ve been feeling rather blah, and attributing it to feeling stagnant in general. I’ve been feeling like my life isn’t really going anywhere, and have been experiencing a certain amount of existential angst over it. I’m starting to be a little bit suspicious of this existential angst, though.

A while ago, I wrote about how depression makes you look for causes. I wrote about how, when you feel depressed, your brain becomes very good at finding reasons why you’re feeling depressed, even though those reasons may or may not have anything to do with why you actually feel depressed. It strikes me that this existential angst thing, while not wholly unfounded, doesn’t seem very causative. That is, my suspicion is that the angst largely follows the depression, rather than the depression following the angst. I may not so much be depressed because of the existential angst so much as I’m experiencing existential angst because I’m depressed.

A little less stagnancy would certainly help with both the angst and the depression, overall, but also at the end of the day, the existential angst tends to go away when I end up cheered up by things that in no way solve the root of the angst. For example, making out with cute people. Very little existential angst happens around that. In fact I can focus on the same existential questions around something like being affectionate with people I like, and they just don’t bother me at those times. The issues are still the same, but my perspective is different, and from all appearances for reasons that have nothing to do with anything really being solved.

This is why I’m giving the angst a certain amount of side-eye. I’ve learned over the years that my brain is a lot less honest with me than I used to think, and this is one of those times where I’m starting to suspect that its insistence that I focus on existentially troubling stagnancy may not have a very significant relationship to what I ought to be focusing on in order to genuinely get out of this funk. Working toward a life that feels less stagnant is certainly a goal that I will keep in mind, but I’m also going to be trying to keep in mind that it’s far from the only thing I can do to feel better, and that in the grand scheme of things, it may not be a sufficient, or even necessary fix for how I’m feeling.

Depression and Extrapolating From Too Little Data

One of the things I’ve noticed about dealing with depression and chronic pain is that my brain is incredibly talented at extrapolating from tiny amounts of data (“By the third trimester, there will be hundreds of babies inside you!”). When I feel really depressed, I feel like I will always be really depressed. When my pain symptoms are getting worse, I feel like they’re going to keep getting worse until I can’t handle it anymore. When they’re getting better, I often feel like they’re going to keep getting better. I realized recently what the common thread is in these cases.

I tend to extrapolate my present experience out to the future when I don’t know how to change how I’m feeling right now. If I’m depressed and I can’t snap myself out of it, I assume because I can’t change it now that it’s not going to change. If I’m experiencing pain symptoms and they’re getting worse and I can’t get them to stop getting worse, I assume they’re going to continue along the same trajectory. This is in spite of the fact that both depression and pain symptoms, by their nature, tend to fluctuate both up and down. They do this all the time in my own experience, and yet I still have trouble remembering that when things start to go bad.

Maybe it’s because I’m catastrophizing, and the worst-case scenario when depression or pain is ramping up is that it will keep ramping up, so that’s what my catastrophizing brain focuses on. Maybe it’s just that my brain is bad at statistics in general (this hypothesis is easily reinforced by the ways that I know my brain tends to extrapolate about other things, e.g. “This feels terrible, and it will always feel terrible, and I will never date again!” after my first relationship ended). Either way, I find that identifying a mental habit problem and talking about it explicitly tends to be a very useful step in changing the habit, so here is a blog post.

Problem identified: When things, like depression, or chronic pain symptoms, feel like they’re going to last forever, it’s usually just because there isn’t something you can do immediately to make them stop, and your brain is being bad at prediction again.