Are You Bored by Your Own Bullshit?

“Life, friends, is boring.” -John Berryman, “Dream Songs 14

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I urge you to watch Berryman recite his poem, linked above and here [Screengrab via YouTube]
My psychiatrist and I have a “joke” that goes something like this:

I tell her how, for me, our 45-minute sessions fly by. How I relish our conversations, and  feel engaged for the first time all week. Then I laugh and tell her not to worry — I get how bored she is. I know she’s just sitting there, forced to listen, probably looking at the clock, thinking, Really? This bullshit again? 

My therapist insists my assessment is inaccurate. She loves her work. She finds it deeply rewarding to help patients get to the bottom of things keeping them stuck, no matter how repetitive. I shouldn’t worry about being interesting. That’s not why I go to therapy. 

She’s right. I go to therapy to feel happier and less consumed by my most stubborn demons. Still, I can’t help but find this joke (which is really my joke, not ours) darkly funny. If I were my therapist, I’d certainly be bored by me. Bored by the fact that I continue to engage in the same destructive thought patterns, habits, and behaviors, despite knowing how bad they make me feel, that I could be making better choices. Bored by my relentless appetite for self-blame, even though I’ve learned — both experientially and through extensive research — just how unproductive it is. Each week, my session is somewhat of a carbon copy of the last. After 19 years of therapy (and counting), I still have to remind myself that self-awareness alone doesn’t change behavior. Here we are.

As I’ve thought about and worked on this blog post, it’s dawned on me that what I seem to find funny about this “joke” is the irony — namely, that I find the repetitive, incessant nature of my suffering (and the active role I play in perpetuating it) boring. The joke is the fact of my projection. I am the one who is bored by my own bullshit. 

This realization is bizarrely comforting, in part because it makes my bullshit (for lack of a better word) feel a little less … heavy, solid, real. By creating a bit of space around the habits I find painful, my boredom functions as a shock absorber. It lets me take a step back, so I can see myself and say, Ah, cleaning on your hands-and-knees again. It’s 1am and you’re exhausted. Perhaps this is not the best idea.

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Compulsive cleaning is probably my most repetitive therapy topic

The comfort of boredom

There’s certainly a degree to which I could perceive such a distressed image of myself with self-blame and condescension: “You freak, what’s with the OCD again?But I don’t — and it’s as if I am unable to in the midst of boredom. I can’t judge the pain as much if I am bored of it. Bored of my habitual decisions that keep me in pain. Bored of my self-awareness. The only reason I am able to see these painful behaviors with such clarity and focus is because I am so damn bored of them.

Boredom encourages me to witness my emotional pain with more distance than I’m used to. In a state of boredom, I cannot help but yearn for something more interesting on which to focus my energy. I furrow my brow. I get curious. And with that curiosity, I can be more compassionate. Instead of playing victim — what’s wrong with me? — I step into the role of explorer. Now what? 

Ultimately, that sensation of curiosity feels good, or at least better than the boredom preceding it. There’s an element of humor in it, too: it feels a funny to separate yourself from your behaviors in order to see the patterns as merely uninteresting, rather than pathetic, stupid, or frustrating. That’s because draining value judgment from how we perceive our actions certainly isn’t automatic. After all, we have all evolved to possess what psychologists call negativity bias, the instinct that makes negative experiences seem more important than they actually are. Although negativity bias is originally a survival instinct meant to help us readily identify danger and predators, most of us know it best as the inner critic — that voice that always gives more weight to our mistakes and flaws than successes. We often regard ourselves, our own minds, as the predator from which we are trying to flee. 

We’re all mammals

Now knowing the evolutionary roots of self-criticism, it’s easier to understand how and why so-called “bad habits” (which I’ve also been calling “bullshit”) self-perpetuate. When we act against our best interests, we tend to meet ourselves with criticism, guilt, and blame.  Our brains make us feel bad about the “mistaken” action so that we recognize it as a threat we should stay away from. But since the “threat” in this case is within us, we end up simply making an enemy out of ourselves. We feel unsafe in our own midst. We rebel against our interests again, because who cares, we are the enemy anyway. We do the bad thing again, we feel bad again. The behavior continues. Soon enough, it’s a habit. A bad habit on its way to becoming bullshit.

Recognizing that you are actually bored of feeling this way is what can interrupt the cycle. Staying with my survival-metaphors, boredom signals “safety” to the brain. Think about it: if you are able to feel bored by something, that situation is not requiring you to be on “high alert” (e.g. you cannot bored in the presence of a tiger).  No, you won’t suddenly manufacture the feeling of “safety.” But your brain, which does not know it is 2019 and that your inner critic is probably among your greatest threats, will feel calmer. And with that calm is opportunity — for something different. 

Boredom is not a gut reaction to pain (it certainly is not mine). But it’s a framework to consider. A perspective shift to explore when you find yourself deep in the ditch of victimhood and self-blame. This is all an experiment. A pendulum swinging between habit and exploration, again and again. 

Best of all, none of this involves any forced optimism. The glass may not be half full, and that’s okay. But rather than humoring your survival instinct to fixate on and overthink recurrent missteps, you can choose to see doing so as uninteresting. You can look at the image of yourself with investigative eyes, because curiosity is the natural antidote to boredom. Remarkably, this shift from boredom to curiosity doesn’t require that much effort. It just unfurls, like petals of a flower beginning to open in spring.

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The “glass” may even be a half-drunken bottle of Heineken, abandoned on the street. SO GET CURIOUS ABOUT IT!

Experimentation, not solution

This perspective shift is a lot easier to try than a lot of the self-help “hacks” out there. (I am not a fan of “hacks” nor of “self-help,” really, despite my tendency to write in a kind of self-help-y way). If you’re sitting there thinking, “I am so hard on myself, there is no way I could feel better,” take a step back from how miserable you are (I’m right there with you) and ask: Are you bored of feeling this way? My guess is you can probably find part of you that genuinely can answer “yes.” It’s actually quite easy to convince yourself that you’re bored of feeling like shit. And it is remarkably empowering.

A bored brain won’t blame you for your dysfunctional habit of cleaning on hands and knees at 1am. And by mitigating that blame, the well-rehearsed choreography of the inner critic, there is space for something new, something far more interesting. 

Can Ambition and Happiness Coexist?

Canva - Shakespeare, King Lear, Ancient, Classic, Romeo

In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the root of betrayal, dishonesty, conspiracy — what makes these narratives tragic, in other words — is ambition.

In the first scene of King Lear, the elderly, semi-senile king decides it is time to divide his realm up among his three young daughters, declaring that he’ll offer the largest share of land to the daughter who loves him most. Lear’s biggest tragic flaw is his blindness to others’ flaws: it doesn’t occur to him that any of his children might be driven by greed or power — that they might have ambitions of their own. He can’t imagine that Goneril and Regan would deceive him with flattery for personal gain — that they might love power and money more than their own father. Lear banishes Cordelia, his stubborn but only loyal daughter, and the tragedy is set in motion.

In Julius Caesar, Cassius, one of the central conspirators planning to assassinate Caesar, convinces Brutus to betray Caesar by manipulating his perception of ambition. First, Cassius describes Caesar’s thirst for power as despotic, suggesting that it has Romans “groaning under this age’s yoke.” Immediately, though, Cassius invites Brutus to consider his own ambition for the first time, tempting him with the image of power: “I have heard,” Cassius says, “Where many of the best respect in Rome/ … speaking of Brutus.” Who wouldn’t be flattered by such a remark? 

Moments after Caesar is slain, Brutus stands over his friend’s dead body and announces, “ambition’s debt is paid.” In other words, acting according to ambition always involves paying a price. In this case, Caesar’s death is a consequence of ambition — Brutus’ own, as well as a cost of it — Caesar’s.

I could bore you with more examples but I’ll be nice. Consider the above an epigraph for the following question that I’ve been noodling on recently: is it possible to focus on ambition and support your happiness at the same time? 

I’ll start by unpacking my own relationship to the word AMBITION. Obviously the way we understand and define it is different today than in Shakespeare’s context. But I started with these dramatic examples for a reason: they show how blind we can become when ambition takes center stage, and how quickly.

I began thinking of myself as an ambitious person in high school. At that time, ambition meant achievement, though I wasn’t yet mature enough to know what it was I wanted to achieve (or why). I was, however, self-aware enough to know that I was obsessed with school (grades, yes, but if I’m trying to be less cynical, I was genuinely focused on academics). But yeah sure, I also wanted to study my ass off for the SATs and do too many extracurriculars like playing guitar and painting and writing for the school newspaper so that I seemed interesting on paper. As an anxious child, I’d begun the habit of compulsively cleaning my family’s home by the time I was only 10, and I guess my penchant for control stuck around. Color-coding my closet, making to-do-lists, studying — these were all activities that soothed me, like a child clutching a blankie or watching cartoons with a string-cheese in hand. I could input effort and see output rendered. I equated ambition and control.

In my teenage years, I learned quickly that the “ambition” I brought to my school work could be applied to my body. If I restricted my calorie intake, that was ambitious, right? To me, dieting felt like an exercise in virtue — doing the same amount as everyone around me, but with less fuel. Pleasure was inefficient. Hunger felt morally upstanding — a constant reminder of my self-control, composure, even pragmatism.

This mythology — my conflation of ambition, control, and self-denial — only got more extreme when I went to Harvard for college. For better or for worse, Harvard tends to be a petri dish for students just old enough to identify their ambitions, but not mature enough to ask “why?” It was at Harvard that I became obsessed with G-cal and developed a toxic, hyper-compartmentalized relationship to time, one that continues to plague me today. Just as J. Alfred Prufrock laments “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” I often fear that I literally measure out my life in G-cal “events” — most of which are personal lists and reminders rather than actual appointments or plans.

In my junior year in college, I developed a terrifying addiction to the amphetamine-based stimulant Adderall after realizing that it sharpened the edges of my self-discipline in ways that felt supernatural. I could go days without eating or talking to other people, but I could still write papers for graduate seminars (I wanted to be an academic at the time) and clean my room until my floor was clean enough to eat off of. Fortunately, I got off Adderall before my senior year started. 

Also fortunately, I abandoned my fantasy of a career in academia quickly after graduating college. And yet, for the past 6+ years, I’ve still held tightly onto similar narratives about what it means to be an “ambitious” or “successful” person. Conditioning is powerful, no? (And it’s not just my own neuroses — our culture does not make this easy for anyone. I’ll say more on that in a second). It wasn’t until I was sitting in therapy just this year that I realized just how much I rely on self-judgment as a source of motivation. The word “should” has long existed at the center of my vocabulary, and anything I “want” to do quickly, almost automatically, becomes a chore. At times, I don’t know what it feels like to live inside of my body — to want to do something (and to do it!) because I am in the mood. To eat something because I am craving it. To experience time as anything but a vehicle for getting something done.

Thanks to the work I’ve done on myself (in therapy, through journaling, by reading or practicing yoga and meditation, among other forms of healing), I’ve learned to identify and nurture other desires, emotions and needs — beyond “ambition” — all of which I’ve ignored for most of my life.

For example, I want to feel a greater sense of freedom and expansion in my writing work — but I’ve become so well-practiced at repressing that desire in order to devote myself to infinite to-do-lists disguised as G-cal events. I love cooking and baking and eating adventurously — but often feel scared of indulging these desires, having rehearsed self-denial for long enough to judge them as unworthy or frivolous. I want to create time and space in my life for painting, an activity I adored during my childhood (and a bit in college) — but have been facing some resistance as I try to carve away time for something that I have no “future” in.

In this last case, please consider the irony. My self-defined concept of “ambition” is not an engine for taking action, but nothing more than a major wet blanket weighing on my creativity, curiosity, and motivation. With each revelation, I am beginning to thaw, to see more and more that self-hatred is not that heroic after all.

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A painting I made this winter upon realizing that I could let myself paint simply because it brought me joy. RADICAL!

Currently, our culture encourages notions of ambition like the one I’ve been seeking to redefine in my own life. That is, ambition as an external, measurable achievement. An idea, a concept (I want to be a writer so I can be famous) — rather than an embodied feeling (I want to be a writer because I love writing). Ambition as number of Likes or followers, clicks and views. 

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I mean, really?

Social media has “empowered” us (or perhaps imprisoned us, depending on your opinion — you can probably sense mine) to turn what once may have been fun, spontaneous hobbies into opportunities for “influencing,” entrepreneurship, elements of public identity. (This opinion piece in The New York Times, “In Praise of Mediocrity,” really resonated with my thoughts on this matter). It’s not enough just to care about something — you have to show you care about it, and get the validation to confirm that you care enough. What a great culture in which to find inspiration! Amirite? 

Let me stop for a second to remind us all that the word “inspire” is etymologically derived from the Latin inspirare, to breathe into. You can literally think of creative inspiration as a respiratory action, one that is often involuntary just like breathing. We tend to think of ourselves in a state of being “inspired” or of others as “inspiring” — adjectives — rather than the action, “to inspire.” But with the proper sense of space and safety and freedom, we can inspire all of our experiences — people, poems, paintings, foods. We can allow ourselves to daydream. We can see a color we like and decide to draw with colored pencils for an hour. We may even find that with a little exploration, we unlock a well of motivation for hard work. We can take action — lots of action! — from a place of joy.

I don’t mean to suggest that everything we do in life should be born from desire or instinct, nor do I think that’s even possible. Obviously we live in a fast-paced capitalist society and sitting around strumming “Kumbaya” on your guitar isn’t going to get you a book deal. While I’m trying to move away from a crack-the-whip mentality about my own goals, sure, I know hard work is still necessary, and that sometimes hard work requires you to make a to-do-list or G-cal event.

But what I am trying to suggest that ambition and happiness can not only coexist, but hopefully can even encourage each other — if and only if your idea of ambition doesn’t threaten your sense of safety. The core feelings and desires that you may be inclined to ignore  — where are they? Are you accounting for them? What about the needs of your inner 5-year-old? How does he/she/they feel about whatever goal it is that you’re after? 

The idea of safety might seem a little out of left-field, but let me explain.

In a recent article I wrote for The New York Times, I examined the psychological underpinnings of procrastination and explained how, at its core, procrastinating is about managing our emotions, not our time. Quick synopsis: we procrastinate because of difficult feelings that come up for us around a given task — insecurity or dread, self-doubt, boredom, you get the gist. Evolutionarily, our brains are wired to perceive these feelings as dangerous — threats to our safety, in other words — so we avoid the cause of these feelings in order to “survive.” Yes, procrastination is a survival mechanism gone awry.

Similarly, if our personal definition of “ambition” requires us to deprive ourselves of adequate sleep, food, social interaction, or whatever the needs/feelings/etc. are, we will likely feel a sense of danger or unease at our core. This doesn’t mean that we won’t still be wildly successfully — plenty of entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, writers, etc. have been known to work very hard, and very successfully, at the expense of their well-being. But most of them have not been able to boast of happiness, which is up to each and every one of us to define for ourselves.

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I have been reading this and find Julia Cameron’s insights about “the inner artist child” and the importance of play ESSENTIAL.

By “happiness,” at least for myself, I don’t mean to conjure images of glittery, buoyant blonde women doing yoga poses in front of waterfalls on Instagram. Frankly, I am often put off by much of the self-help-slash-wellness rhetoric around questions like “How to be happy” or “What does happiness mean, anyway?” Much of this content doesn’t address the difficulty of the journey toward feeling good — the anxiety of developing new habits and facing fear about change; doubt about whether new habits will even make a difference; whether it’s even possible not to judge self-destructive behaviors when they become so frustratingly repetitive.

What I do mean is something resembling contentment, groundedness, a sense of I-am-OK. Safety, really. 

Finding the pathway to contentment isn’t easy. Acceptance of “what is” is at the core, and we all know that is easier said than done. But being able to take a breath in (inspire!) and feel our feet beneath us is a good starting place, and most of us can get there. From there, we can practice what it feels like to trust ourselves. Ask, What do I need in this moment to feel safe? Do this on your way to work, at the start of a big project, in the shower each morning as you consider the day ahead — wherever, really.

I know the notion of the “inner child” is abundant in the self-help world, but I prefer the image of my “inner children” — multiple! — as I definitely felt anxious and wasn’t able to “parent” myself at various stages of childhood. When I ask this question — What do I need in this moment to feel safe? — I consider my vulnerable inner 5-year-old, my rambunctious inner 8-year-old, my bratty inner 12-year old, and so on. I show them, and myself, that I can trust myself. I am accounting for their safety, our safety.

From this foundation of greater trust, we can experiment with taking action in a new way. We continue to strengthen the muscle of self-trust. We can be ambitious — we can achieve things, great things — without paying our happiness as the price.

Is Self-Hatred Really That Heroic?

A couple of months ago, I went to see a Functional Medicine doctor, whose practice brings together Western medicine and more holistic modalities like nutrition and herbal medicine. I was ostensibly there for a “check in,” but the appointment quickly devolved into me crying (heaving) for 30 minutes about how anxious I feel on a daily basis. How much I struggle to quiet my mind. How life tends to feel like a never-ending stream of things to do, including that which I consider a positive influence (e.g. seeing friends, meditating, doing exercise). Along the way, I also mentioned my skin problems, and the fact that my menstrual cycle provides me with trauma on a monthly basis.

“I think you have abnormal fermentation in your gut,” my doctor said.

I don’t relay his prognosis to mock him, #wellness, or Functional Medicine. He is a rigorous scientist, and effectively invented the term “the microbiome.” But I will say that I definitely didn’t want to hear about my gut and what was wrong with it. I didn’t want to add “healing” to another list of things to do.

Ultimately, this doctor also prescribed me a 3-day elimination diet, wherein I was supposed to feed myself exclusively plant-based soups and smoothies—a fast, really. As a formerly anorexic control-freak, I was of two minds: on the one hand, the idea of mild starvation seemed appealing. Since I no longer feel like torturing myself through starvation, I was uplifted by the idea of having an external force to motivate me.

But ultimately, it didn’t. The idea of opening the door to food issues—a door I thought I’d shut, for better or for worse—made my crying spin further out of control. As a compromise, I told my doctor I’d try the elimination diet in January. That is, until I saw my shrink. “You are psychologically unfit for this diet,” she told me. I was relieved. Not fasting for three days didn’t mean that I was a lazy slob. It meant I was following the doctor’s orders! And I guess taking care of myself?

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My morning routine helps me stay calm and present. #ZOLOFT

January is such a bleak time. However annoying “the holiday season” is, this cultural pressure to switch gears from FUN all the time to VIRTUE-24-7 is terribly disconcerting, and, quite frankly, unproductive. As I said to a coworker this week, you would never want to wake up from a long nap and immediately be asked to run a marathon.

And yet…!

This pendulum-like model for change is what we’re culturally conditioned to practice. Somehow, we continue to believe it works—however consciously—despite the fact that 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions and only 8% stick to them. Why wouldn’t we? We’ve all been fed the same cultural mythology—that making extreme commitments to self-improvement, usually via deprivation of some kind, is heroic. And typically, such commitments are born from a place of self-hatred.

I should stop here to qualify that I am not very good at the art of being kind to myself, despite my fluency with the vocabulary. Part of the reason why I cried in response to my doctor’s recommendation is because I know no other model for change beyond self-abuse. To embark on any program related to self-care, to me, immediately signified torture. Implicitly, I also knew that if I found myself unable to torture myself adequately, the self-abuse would only persist.

When I think about making any kind of change in my life, no matter how positive, I instinctively worry about this cycle unfolding: 1. A desire to change leads to self-abusive behavior. 2. A realization that said self-abusive behavior is not enough to “cure” me. 3. More self-abuse for not being good enough at abusing myself. It’s a cycle after all, and it’s one that almost seems driven by irony. There’s a certain humor in self-sabotage if you are looking at it in the right mood.

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WORD.

Sometimes, you’re not in the right mood. Take yesterday: I started off the day right. A cup and a half of organic black tea. Oatmeal. A session with my new life coach. Gratitude journaling AND 10 minutes of intentional breath and meditation. Like, I am a fucking parody. I should be the most self-accepting person on earth. Ironically (but not surprisingly) however, these practices often make me feel like I have more homework that I’ve been doing poorly, giving me more reasons to see myself as a let-down. The mind is really tiresome, no?

Fast forward mere moments when I got to work, all ready to #heal and live according to my #truth, and I totally lost sight of everything else beyond my self-loathing. Like every piece of wisdom I’ve been rehearsing for YEARS in therapy, meditation retreats, yoga, craniosacral healing, tarot, life coaching, uh… EVERYWHERE vanished, and there I was, crying under the fluorescent lights (not PMS), craving nicotine, eating snacks too fast when I wasn’t hungry, biting my cuticles—like, all the unglamorous stuff of life that no one ever admits to. Today, when I woke up feeling better, my obvious response was to ask, “Why did this happen? WHAT DID YOU DO WRONG TO AVOID PRACTICING SELF-ACCEPTANCE?”

This is what I mean by the dark humor—the tried and true irony—of what it means to be human. I should say that as I write this, I am on my first day of a MODIFIED elimination diet—thanks, doc!—meaning mostly that I’m just avoiding sugar, coffee, alcohol, and dairy (rather than the full fasting thing…in case you cared). The idea of modifying such a regimen for self-improvement (er, healing, I guess?) initially struck me as horrifying—like, why would I only torture myself a little bit if I could go full force? But I suppose I am practicing what I am preaching here, even if it feels annoying and uncomfortable and all I want to do is binge eat pizza and cream-filled coffee donuts with Bailey’s in them. That is: self-acceptance kind of, well, just is.

A final-ish note that I actually have no idea what that means, because I am not sure I have ever felt self-acceptance. But I have felt the exhaustion of self-abuse, arbitrary and couched in some vague mythology about heroism. I’ve also realized, experientially, that self-loathing tends to behave a lot like a splinter: the more you try to pry it out of you, the more it gets stuck. More often than not, splinters extract themselves when you let them be, rather than when you stab yourself with a tweezer to make your body swollen and inflamed. You know?

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It seems many of us struggle with this question.

So whatever happens this year, let it be known that I am done making myself feel like total garbage about myself on a regular basis, no matter how tied up it is with my feelings of worth and competence. On some days (like yesterday), I will probably do a bad job and bite my nails and smoke a cigarette and ask myself unproductive, self-critical questions about my past actions. But at the end of the day, I can probably try my best to take a big breath, and see that alone as a gesture of a self-acceptance. Just one breath! We can all do…at least try to do…that.

So. WHO ELSE IS WITH ME?!?!?!?!?

Dealing with Anxiety + Embodiment

Can I eat
what you give me. I
have not earned it. Must
I think of everything 

as earned.

            –Robert Creeley

The speaker of Robert Creeley’s poem “For Love” stutters these sharply enjambed lines just after gaining momentum at the beginning of the staccato, recursive poem.  Desperately, the speaker (Creeley himself) asks his lover, the poem’s addressee (whose name is Bobbie, as we learn from the dedication)  if he is capable of eating what she gives him. Of course, he is also asking himself, rhetorically, performatively—is he capable of receptivity? Can he really accept love? Pleasure. Acceptance. Being seen.

Immediately, Creeley decides to answer for himself: “I have not earned it.” His insecure, questioning mind then chirps in with an additional, new question—no question mark: “Must / I think of everything // as earned.” In characteristic fashion, Creeley’s question is a statement, likening his interrogations even further to the circular, often contracting ruminations of the mind.

I’ve always read these lines in a somewhat symbolic way: in the often-sheltered universe of one’s romantic relationship, love itself becomes objectified, something to be earned, deserved, returned—a commodity. We “invest” in others, and wonder if it is “worth” it. Love—something we feel with our bodies and ultimately do with our bodies—becomes an idea. A thing. And our vocabulary adjusts accordingly. This poem gets that, and has been my favorite poem for many years. I even have one line from it tattooed on the back of my right thigh!

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DAT INK.

I love this poem for many reasons, but I am especially fascinated by how strangely the body figures into it. Take the act of eating, which is presented as a symbol of the “give and take” of love, of what the speaker earns (or doesn’t) from his lover. In the world of the poem, Creeley’s body is not hungry; he simply wonders whether it is deserving of love’s nourishment. “What have you become to ask,” Creeley immediately then asks (characteristically without a question mark), “what have I made you into,” he says again, growing desperate with each question. His potential answers include: “companion, good company, / crossed legs with skirt, or / soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s lover is an idea— “companion, good company,” a compartmentalized fragment, “crossed legs with skirt,” or a surreal composition, “soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s recursion is his defense—from himself, from the body. And from his need for defense, we know of his vulnerability. We see the absence of his being, his loving, in the poem, and in the absence we feel his anxiety, which is basically the poem’s subject.

Throughout “For Love,” the speaker and the lover’s bodies both are no longer bodies, but rather the ideas of bodies. And love, perhaps, too, becomes an idea as the speaker’s experience becomes circumscribed by the circularity of the poem’s language. The poem talks about itself, creating distance from the thing it seeks to describe (love), and defends itself against its own admission: a desire for presence, connection, expression—being, in other words.

This dynamic—defensively thinking about something in abstractions such that it becomes disembodied—was central to my 11 on-and-off years with anorexia, and even my current struggles with anxiety and OCD (not unrelated to the anorexia, but I’ll save that for another time). Food was everything I thought about. It was the object of my focus, of my craving at all times—intellectually, but of course, physiologically, too. I kept food at a distance from myself, situating it as a constant other, an object of craving that I always knew was there—separate from me, something I thought I could control. Being hungry all the time made my body feel like something else, an idea, an object. It kept me from actually feeling, being, alive.

Looking back on that time as the person I am now—someone who not only eats enough but also wants to grow and be happy—I can see that my biggest fear during those years was embodiment. The stuff of life that makes us human—in the bodies we inhabit. Connection, compassion, love, loss.

Our culture makes it hard not to fear embodiment, especially for women, I’d argue. We are told to eat this, not that. Wear this, not that. Move our bodies this way, but not that way. As film critic Laura Mulvey wrote in her iconic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “[W]omen are simultaneously looked at and displayed… they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” In a traditional framework—the one Mulvey is using—women’s bodies are typically regarded as objects, as ideas, as vessels for what she calls to-be-looked-at-ness. This leaves many of us clinging to our bodies, trying to follow the rules about our bodies that we’re given by the outside, so that our bodies can be legible to the outside. So that we can be beautiful, worthy of being looked at. For many of us, this narrative was rarely critiqued; or, even if it was, how easy is it to internalize a belief that resists everything you were ever taught?

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“The Male Gaze” causes women to possess “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Hi Ryan Gosling!

Learning to meditate has been my life’s greatest healing practice thus far—for my anxiety, OCD, insomnia and more—but it has also shown me just how much I fear embodiment. Sitting with myself brings up terror. Each day during my practice, as I try (an infinite number of times) to focus on my breath, my mind panics, and I feel it clinging to thoughts that try to jostle me out of my body. Experiencing that anxiety—the push-pull between my body and mind—is almost always unpleasant, but it reminds me to see my thoughts (particularly my anxious ones!) as separate from my body, as fleeting, flexible. My body, too, of course, is fleeting. And OBVI mortality is my #1 anxiety (I freak out about death on a daily basis probably). But the practice of actually SITTING WITH THAT ANXIETY, and feeling it, is meditation, despite the belief that meditating necessarily = inner peace. Meditation creates a space within which being a body can’t be rendered into an idea. 

BODY ≠ IDEA

I should admit: I often hate it when I meditate—the act of doing it. I hate sitting with my body, being with it, of it. I feel uncomfortable—physically, emotionally, intellectually. But that doesn’t mean I buy into the thoughts that challenge me to step outside of myself. I receive whatever it is my mind gives me, and go onto “accept” the thought if the invitation appeals. The scariest thought of all, perhaps, is that we always have the choice to either receive—or gently turn away from—everything we are given. But we all certainly have the power “to eat” what we are given, and not to think of everything as earned.

The Myth of the Authentic Self

“Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented—which is what fear and anxiety do to a person—into something whole.” -Louise Bourgeois 

Upon meeting me, most people wouldn’t assume I was anxious—and I’m not talking about anxiety-the-feeling, I’m talking about anxiety-the-disorder. I’ve been told again and again that I am “chill,” “laid back,” “uninhibited,” “authentic.” Maybe these things are true—but strangely, it seems they fill the space where my deepest anxiety lives,  a space I keep so well-protected so that it may never be perceptible.

Growing up, I didn’t talk about my anxiety—nor did I really have a vocabulary for it in my own head. I knew I was ashamed of it—whatever it was—and thought for sure that everyone else was just living life, hanging out, not overthinking everything. Feeling pleasure. I remember many sleepless nights on my Little Mermaid sheets, which depicted underwater scenes featuring lots of bubbles, coral, Ariel, Flounder, and Sebastian. I was afraid of swimming at the time and worried that if I fell asleep I would drown. I didn’t tell my parents, or my sister, and I kept quiet, growing increasingly tired with each night I lay awake, waiting for it to get light again. At the time, I was sort of applauded within the family unit for being resilient, easy-going, notably unflappable.

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Me as a kid. Don’t I look repressed? :D 

When I was 9-years-old, I found what I thought was a remarkable solution to the pain of my rumination and anxiety about disorder in my world. I began measuring everything in our apartment with a ruler (I preferred the metric system), and organizing all household objects (from medicine cabinet bottles to magazine stacks to kitchen implements) according to size and color order. When I would do these rituals, I would feel calm—at least momentarily; I had access to a sense of pleasure, a sense of meaning, belonging. My mind had an anchor, and that anchor was something whose position I could control.

My parents thought otherwise. My mom brought me to a behavioral therapist, where I was diagnosed with OCD (I didn’t really think anything of it), and got to play each week with a farm animal themed sandbox. The therapist took pictures of my creations each week. It seemed that I liked to keep the animals in cages. The farm could be a place of structural hygiene, one that would rinse me of my worries. Looking back, I wonder if the idea was for me to get comfortable getting messy in the context of play—where I could see the beauty of exploring my imagination and its imperfect edges.

It didn’t work, and I don’t remember when I stopped going. Now, I am not sure I would encage the farm animals (if I were to engage in this exercise again), but I am confident that I would organize the animals in a way that had an irrational message, decipherable only to me. Much like the patterns of 4 and its multiples that I count in my head on days when I feel particularly anxious. The symptoms of OCD are unsurprisingly exacerbated by anxiety-producing circumstances or triggers.

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It’s cool to objectify your anxiety. #dialecticalmaterialism

I don’t mean to express judgment around the fact that I would encode my obsessive-compulsive structures with meaning. In fact, I have come to use my anxiety—my paranoia, my tendency to repeat things in my head, my predilection for organizing the number 4 in various mathematical ways—in my poetry, and my writing more generally. It sounds so cheesy and lame, but I have learned to alchemize my control issues in my creative work—and the process emerged organically. A poetry professor I had once told me my poems made her feel like the speaker was trapped, repeating herself until she figured out how to grasp reality with a proper sense of language and experience. In the context of poetry, my ferocious thirst for control (and my allergy to disorder) is something that makes my voice strong. In my life outside writing, I try to tell myself—and believe myself—that my shitty parts can give me strength, and that there can be a kind of dynamic and ongoing dialogue between my more-evolved and less-evolved selves.

It was only recently that I began telling the world, telling myself really, about the things going on in my brain. Sure, I had been in therapy since age 9 (with a bit of on and off between ages 9 and 12), but I was repressed and ashamed of my deeply-rooted patterns of paranoia and obsessive-compulsive rituals. When I got to college, an environment of newness and “hope,” it was as if I had made a deliberate choice to manipulate the world around me—and myself—into thinking I was honest, open, always willing to say what was on my mind. Now, I think I really am these things, but so much of that began from a successful performance. I stepped into the shoes of someone who wouldn’t be so stifled by my own mechanism of denial that I then became that person.

Giving myself that freedom was a profound gesture of control—actual control, not medicine-cabinet-organizing control, but one that has gotten me into trouble over the past ten or so years—ever since I began “owning” who I was a little more. I think because I struggle with anxiety and overthink literally everything, I try so, so hard to identify with others, to anticipate what they might be feeling, what kinds of jokes might resonate with them, what vocabulary will be legible to them. In a place of being shut down with anxiety and its accompanying denial, this part of me doesn’t have adverse effects. I simply stew in my own ruminations.

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Zoloft is the shit. But this Instagram is an example of my readily revealing a lot, which sometimes I feel keeps me guarded in other ways.

Now, as someone who has simply decided to SPEAK MY MIND ALL THE TIME (and I like to keep decisions), this pattern makes me guard myself with the prickly armor of irony. I open myself up in ways that will resonate with people, and then hide the parts of myself that I don’t want to reveal. Being myself can become a matter of convenience and validation—people see me the way that I have always wanted to feel, and I can still get away with shrouding my self-loathing.

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This photo = what lit critic Wayne Booth would call “irony with teeth in it.” 

I am not writing all of this in an attempt to broadcast a navel-gazing journal entry about why I’m such a fucked up person, or why I’m so evolved because I recognize that I’m a fucked up person, but to talk about the necessarily non-linear journey of personal growth. The movement of my march toward mental health and well-being has not been one of steady cadence, nor has it been a victorious ascent. There are wonderful things about the sense of self I have created, a person whose value system is grounded in honesty. But it also means that I put pressure on myself to be that person, and that pressure creates an echo chamber sometimes that actively invites me to keep a lot inside.

Perhaps I don’t need to share those hidden parts—maybe that wouldn’t even be productive. The bottom line is that authenticity is not something we can really achieve. We can engage with it, critique it, use it as a reference point to understand who we are in reference to our self-perception, others, our experiences and so on. Yet the Platonic form of each of our authentic selves is a myth, and letting go of that is where the real freedom emerges.