Acknowledge Your Shit (+ Say No Thanks)

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Week after week, day after day, I wonder about the origins of my self-loathing. When did it begin? And why? The answers remain unclear, hence asking all the time.

When I refer to “my self-loathing” in everyday conversations—with random people at parties, friends of friends, colleagues, etcetera—I’m always amazed to find that so many people seem to really hear it, and express some kind of relief—as in: You hate yourself on a regular basis? You mean you feel the thing I thought no one else felt?

It’s like a more positive version of the feeling I have when I read WebMD message boards about hypochondriacal scenarios I’ve conjured for myself and see that everyone is bugging the fuck out. Like, oh yeah, we’re all crazy and typing in our bizarre psychosomatic symptoms into Google on a Saturday night. NBD.

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Story of my life.

Anxiety is one of those feelings that is addictive because it’s recursive. It’s cyclical. First there’s the rumination— on habits (or habits of mind), rhetorical questions, obsessions, behaviors, other self-referential objects. Then comes a “bad” feeling. Anxiety, of course, then wants to solve the feeling, because we’re wired to survive. And then more unanswerable questions pile on. Then more feelings. Usually “bad” ones.

(FYI: I don’t mean “bad” or “shitty” with self-blame. I get that any feeling is “just a feeling” but I’m trying to bevel the edges of my Buddhist ideologies by writing with more raw and colloquial language.)

In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, there is a word—papancha—that refers to this recursive, addictive, cyclical process. Sharon Salzberg, who is my meditation teacher and friend and colleague (and the amazing author of a new book, Real Love), once defined papancha as “the imperialistic quality of the mind towards negativity.” Anxiety, to me, is imperialistic. It somehow always feels like it conquers you. To add insult to injury, you always seem to want to fight back.

Exhausted by this pattern,  I’ve spent the past month or so experimenting with seeing my various judgments and obsessive thoughts differently—and deliberately. For sake of contrast, below is the “before” part of my work-in-progress “before and after”:

Usually, my thought patterns look something like this.

  1. I feel thirsty.
  2. I must not have had enough water today.
  3. I should’ve had more to drink earlier.
  4. Well, just go fill your water bottle, it’s not that hard.
  5. Why do you buy water bottles if you don’t use them?
  6. If you weren’t thinking so much about this, you would just drink water.

It could go on and on.

The irony here is obvious. Anxiety tends to preclude me (you, anyone) from taking a proactive approach to dealing with the very object of the anxiety. It’s often self-sabotaging. For instance, if I’m so anxious about thirst, the best and most pragmatic choice would be to drink. But over the years, I have gotten so used to my habit of rumination as a response to anxiety that I typically lose sense of what I am actually wanting, what my body feels, and what’s best for me in a given moment.

What I have referred to as the “after” stage is a process. But the shorthand is that I am trying to practice welcoming “bad” thoughts, checking in with how they make me feel, and then choosing to say “no thank you!” to them, if that seems self-caring.

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This was a to do list of mine for a recent Saturday. I obsessively make lists, as they keep me feeling bad about my productivity. #dysfunctional

Let me give some context.

A couple of years ago, I was in one of those bad, donation-based yoga class where the teacher kept encouraging us to “not think about our fear.” I remember thinking, “That’s not rly that yogic.” Shouldn’t you acknowledge and accept your fear? The same way you should acknowledge anything that happens in the present moment—even if it’s realizing that you are spending 10 minutes berating yourself about why you don’t drink enough water? Because by acknowledging it, then you can at least be like, OK, now I’m going to release that. If you don’t pay attention, the feeling (and its effects on you) have to go somewhere.

Meditation is the first and only tool I’ve encountered that has enabled me to begin developing a more productive relationship to anxiety. I no longer want to eradicate it, but want to kindly let it know that it’s not welcome as much as it has been in the past. I don’t ignore it (“I don’t hear you knocking on my door!) but rather say something to it like a, “Hi. I see you’re here, but I’m busy at the moment. Sorry!”

I think meditation seems to be so uncomfortable because people (myself included) don’t want to watch what their minds do, and where they go, if without significant distraction. It’s unpleasant to be honest about what we’re capable of making ourselves feel. We’re confronted with watching our mind do things as unproductive as my thirst and water bottle dialogue—and constantly. But it’s only when you notice these things that you can pull yourself out of them. The process REQUIRES that you first acknowledge what’s happening—and that is courageous and useful in and of itself. Even if it feels shitty and seems like it’s showing a part of yourself you don’t want to see. Bottom line? You can’t not think about your fear. It will be there no matter what you call it, or don’t.

Fear is just one emotion in the camp of feelings most of us hate, and that often encourage us to act in ways we don’t like—acting out “our shit.” Maybe you’re feeling loss or are going through a life transition, and, like me, spend 954,334,549 hours on your phone for no reason and then hate yourself for it. Or maybe you drink too much alcohol or have gained weight or sleep too much or are a compulsive online shopper. You get my point.

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Sometimes, I like to drink Campari but I don’t think it’s destructive.

Somehow, I’ve found that calling “my shit” what it is—my shit—has given me both some emotional distance and a sense of relief. In many self-help slash wellness contexts before, I’ve heard that you should “treat yourself like a child” or to “pay attention to your inner child”—that being nurtured like that is self-love. But I’ve never wanted to create that dynamic with myself; it just doesn’t appeal to me, and I think that’s OK (though I’m sure it works for many, and that’s great). In my case, a mix of cynicism and kindness is mesmerizingly comforting: I notice that there are elements of me that can simply be shitty (to others, to myself, etc.), but also that they can probably change. To start that process, I make the observations I need to make, and then experiment with saying no thanks! to some patterns. The notion of this being an “experiment” has also lowered the stakes for me. I feel less pressure to “succeed” in being less self-critical.

#innerchild

No thanks is kind but clear, direct but open-ended. I’m not saying I shouldn’t be having the thought, or denouncing its existence through avoidance. It’s not shutting it down. It’s strangely a technique to objectify the thought as something Other, so that you re-situate yourself in an empowered position. Like, do you want to feel horrible now? the aftertaste of self-criticism may intimate. And your answer can sure as fuck be no thanks! 

I wish more self-help books said fuck and shit and didn’t pretend like change was actually something that feels tenable when you’re urgently seeking it. It will never feel that way! At least I don’t think so.

BUT if you treat your thoughts like little offerings you can take or gently say, “No thanks!” to, the project becomes far more relatable—like politely turning down an offering for fresh ground pepper at a restaurant. You’re neither rationalizing nor criticizing your behaviors. It’s a conversation, and during it, it’s possible to feel change happening, just with one decision.

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Offerings in my bedroom. OBJECTIFY YR THOUGHTS.

On the Yoga Teacher who Complains for Validation & the Woke Bro Who Wants to Talk Judith Butler

Yesterday I went to a yoga class that was, hands down, the worst yoga class I’ve ever been to in my life. Cue the violins for this TRAGEDY.

But hang on, let me finish.

The teacher walked into class and immediately, in a very shrill voice, started complaining about how cold it was outside. She wasn’t wrong. It was 33ish degrees outside. I was also freezing and the studio was drafty. I had just been standing outside Stonewall for an hour with one of my best friends and their cohort from grad school—at the Pride rally against Trump. But the event was filled with energy, good vibes, tons of different folks from all walks of life—including Hari Nef and Lin-Manuel Miranda. I KNOW.

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How amazing is “Alt-fact Kelly?” This was at the Pride Rally.

Yes, we were all freezing. But we were having a great time and I know that I felt more energetic and positive than I have felt in a while. Ironically, I had actually woken up in a bad mood and was thinking of not going to the protest because it was so cold. But finding the motivation to go anyway, and to feel the jolt of solidarity, ultimately made me realize that sometimes I’m deeply wrong about what I need to make me feel better. Standing up in the 33 degree whether with a stomach ache, lower back pain and a shitty mood was exactly what I needed to push me out of a funk. I love it when my experiences push back against my neurotic tendency to equate self-isolation with restoration.

Needless to say, this yoga teacher’s complaining really didn’t #resonate with me. It’s like, 1. you live in New York, and it’s winter, and 2. you’re trying to offer people a practice that enables them to exist more peacefully amidst discomfort, and you’re coming in here and talking about how freezing it is outside before we’ve even begun practicing. Like rly?

Anyway, she proceeded to ask the rhetorical question, “You know what’s so weird?”, to which no one responded. Quickly, she answered herself: the fact that the people who work in nail salons always whisper. Before she spoke, I kind of just knew something problematic was going to come out of her mouth. But I remembered the “homework” my therapist had given me: to note “ahimsa,” the principle of non-violence, every time I was making a judgment. Ahimsa, I said to myself as I noticed how vitriolically I already felt about the culturally insensitive yoga teacher. I tried to send her compassion, and told myself that she was just insecure.

The class sucked, mostly because it involved like 543,964,789,456 “knee to nose” cues, and was basically a HIIT bootcamp class couched in the vocabulary of asana. I’m used to the genre of biddie-workout-yoga here in NYC, but was particularly struck by this teacher’s vibes. She kept emphasizing the importance of maintaining an open heart and cultivating peace throughout class, and clearly had memorized the important buzzwords of self-acceptance and openness that are all the rage “these days.” And yet her class was making me feel the opposite. My resistance to the class reached its climax when, in Navasana (boat pose), the teacher asked us to hold hands with the person next to us. My mat was adjacent to that of this “hot” finance bro, who was practicing next to his girlfriend. She immediately struck me as The Skinny, Tan, Tall girl from summer camp who had a really symmetrical face and a sparkling Limited Too wardrobe. That is, she was not a specific girl I knew from camp, but that archetype—hot summer camp girl—I think you know what I am talking about. (Her hair always smells like Herbal Essences and is unimaginably soft and not frizzy. She is probably not Jewish.) In any case, the hot camp couple clearly pitied me when the teacher asked us to partner with our neighbors for hand-holding Navasana, and they invited me to join them in a “threeway.” It was at this moment that I really wanted to be a screenwriter so I could document the Navasana-threeway with camp girl and her hot finance bro boyfriend for a TV show about the dystopian zeitgeist.

Of course, I am kind of a hypocrite as I am using the language of “vibes,” “energy,” and “resonance” to try and make a compelling argument that this person’s pedagogy was inauthentic and deserving of public disdain. Clearly I am not deploying the rigor that I am yearning to see. But what I can say is that this isn’t the first time I have noticed people use the rhetoric of an established community only to defy that rhetoric in their own lives.

As someone who is deeply familiar with “the wellness world” (I cannot even believe I am saying this), I have noticed this time and time again. Food bloggers who don’t eat enough or who eat only rabbit food (read: leaves) and clearly demonstrate an unhealthy obsession with “clean eating” talk about their lifestyle all in terms of health, balance, and moderation. And you’re like, uhhhhhh that “indulgent” chickpea brownie is actually chocolate-flavored falafel. People at your mindfulness meditation retreat who take your sister’s shoes outside the meditation room because they were too unmindful to notice. (Then, when you ask if the couple in the car can drive you to your dorm because you are shoeless in the -5 below cold and snow, they say that they have a massage booked and it would be out of their way.) Life coaches who work with clients on communication emotionally abuse you over email when you copy-edit their blog posts to be grammatically correct. Meditation retreat founders who are too obsessed with the Soho House and “who wore it best” at the last meditation talk to even know how or why meditation is a worthwhile practice.

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These brownies contain chickpeas. They actually look p. good tho.

It’s not surprising to me that wellness people can often be narcissistic. After all, what is wellness? It’s self-improvement to some; self-indulgence, self-control, self-inquiry to others. But in almost all cases of description, the self is involved. But wellness can be understood in a more nuanced, mutlifaceted way, or it can merely be seen as a part of one’s life, in addition to political engagement, creative work, relationships, etcetera. That is why I am always skeptical of people who seem, so uncritically, to self-identify as healthy, mindful, balanced, etcetera. Like, if you are so mindful, then you are probably aware of the fact of the times you are, inevitably, not mindful. Or if you have such an open-heart, you a) probably don’t need to say it and b) are resilient enough to recognize that you often judge yourself and others, and that part of having an open heart is about being able to bounce back from mistakes, judgments, assumptions, and  so forth. Staunch commitment to any singular rhetoric—REGARDLESS of context—is a red flag to me. (Caveat: This isn’t true across the board, and I also recognize the insecurity often makes people act in off-putting ways. I don’t think the yoga teacher whose class I took was a bad person at all—maybe just a bit grating; but mostly, I just wanted to use that anecdote as a jumping off point for this discussion of “speaking” a particular “language.)

This theme reminds me of a guy I dated once who was obsessed with talking about gender theory as a part of our courtship. He knew I was into radical feminism, and that my friends were too, and so he used his admittedly adroit vocabulary on continental philosophy and critical theory to flirt with me via Judith Butler references. At first, I fetishized the shit out of said references, and was like, “OMG, this dood wants to talk about gender perfomativity rn” but I slowly started to see that there was a kind of power play at work in his commitment to bringing up stuff about feminism to me in such a confident and uncritical way. He was devoted to being seen as a feminist, and to seeing himself as a feminist, and didn’t really want or need to interrogate his politics. Or at least not at the time. At least in our dynamic, rhetoric about feminism became a way for him to wield a certain power over me intellectually, and to make me feel, at times, like I couldn’t challenge him on issues related to gender. He was as woke as could be—and he knew it. There wasn’t really anything I could do to rouse him further.

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Judith Butler looking fierce AF.

There was another guy I dated later who, off the bat, was interested in talking about his pseudo-queerness constantly, and would rant often about the “construct” of monogamy, his corresponding interest in polyamory, and how much he wished it was culturally acceptable to talk about kink on first dates. He was totally A Woke Bro, though he was more interested in foregrounding his queer sexual politics and denigration of patriarchy more than intellectually one-uping me re: gender theory, a la Judith Butler BF. But still, there was a commonality here: using the rhetoric of feminism, of equality, of being ALTERNATIVE in X, Y or Z ways to hegemonic straight white cis masculinity. In a way, these guys were using their rhetorics as mechanisms of seduction (I love me a straight white cis dude with self-professed queer sexual politics, what can I say?). But more than that, they were, as my friend says, “denying their white cis male privilege rather than expressing their true identity”—and the questions that their identity brings up in relation to questions around privilege.

The relationship between the archetypal disingenuous yoga teacher and the problematic woke bro may seem tenuous, but I am interested in exploring something larger here: the fact that a steadfast commitment to a specific “vocabulary” of any kind can be a red flag that there are insecurities around the ideology of said vocabulary.

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Aristotle is famous for his definition of rhetoric. How’s that for hegemonic masculinity? :D

I think it’s for that reason that I rely on self-deprecation as a paradoxical foundation for expertise when doling out life advice on here. It is my insurance policy in trying to communicate that really, I know nothing. But I think that self-deprecation—and the fact that it introduces the destabilizing forces of self-awareness, humor, irony, and acceptance—shows a degree of questioning. In a state of questioning, there is dynamism. And there is, to me, a POSITIVE value judgment in constant, dynamic questioning of one’s ideology. AHIMSA, I know. But a positive judgment seems better than a negative one.

Do I check my privilege always? Absolutely not. Do I try? Yes. Does it mean I’m always woke? NOT AT ALL. Does it mean I will keep asking rhetorical questions like this until I am blue in the face? “Abso-fuckin-lutely,” to quote Mr. Big, a totem of hegemonic cis white straight masculinity from the early aughts. TBT to SATC. Over and out.

A Valediction Forbidding New Year’s Resolutions

As someone who struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I admittedly adore the times when external structures in the world validate my itch to find and secure order.

Let me give you an example.

I find the morning to be, categorically, the best time of day. In the morning, the day is clean. It is new. It is discrete, and in its discreteness, it is full of potential—the potential for order.

The morning says, “Get the fuck up. Start fresh,” even when my brain chemistry wants to drag me back to laze indolently in the dust of yesterday. There is discipline in the voice of morning, but it is looking out for me. That kind of discipline is radical.

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Yet despite my arguably dysfunctional love of compartmentalization, I have always thought the notion of setting New Year’s Resolutions is a load of shit.

WAIT: I’ll revise that to me an “I-statement”: I have always felt that setting New Year’s Resolutions is a load of shit for me. 

While my OCD-brain tells me to be fucking cray about cleanliness and list-making and other things I don’t even want to admit (e.g. organizing my anxious thoughts into imaginary Punnet-square-like grids), I also am deeply committed to trying to be a happier and less anxious person. Sometimes, my impulse towards happiness pushes me to rebel against my OCD, and it’s awesome.

Today, I am realizing that one such enduring act of rebellion has been to resist New Year’s Resolutions.

According to several reports, approximately 50% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions; and according to another, only 8% of folks report successfully achieving their resolutions. We live in a culture that loves to slather capitalistic values onto holidays, and those values include extremism and, often, the supremacy of self-improvement trends. If and when there is an opportunity to tell ourselves that we are not enough (or that we don’t work enough, that we don’t make enough, etcetera), it seems the patriarchy / capitalism tells us, “You’re right!”

I should stop here to clarify that self-improvement is a noble practice—one I am after, and think others should be, too. I am also ambitious, and I believe that no one should feel shame in claiming ambition as a personal value. Especially not women. Seeking greatness in whatever form does not make you a Machiavellian biatch. At the same time, wanting to be happier is not LITE or less important than having a million bylines or being on Forbes’ 30 Under 30.

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But recently, my sister and I listened to a podcast about goal-setting (#LOL), one that I found particularly inspiring. The lesson was about setting goals from a place of abundance, rather than scarcity. In other words: what if we set goals by FIRST considering that which we have already created for ourselves and brought into our lives, celebrating those achievements, and articulating further goals that support us in building on our positive change?

It’s a crazy way to rewire the emotional underpinnings of goal-setting. Instead of being like, “I am a fat, lazy, idiot and my goal is to be a skinny, motivated pubic intellectual,” you can be like, “I started a blog this year, and my goal is to continue writing content and building my audience.” I don’t have to call this “abundance,” make a dumb hashtag, or write a love letter to myself and my blog for my gratitude jar. But it feels so good to recognize that I started this blog even when, last week, I felt like a depressed and bloated slob. Already! There is so much power in that word.

It all sounds abhorrently cheesy, and I assure you that I detest New Age platitudes about “abundance” and “gratitude” much as the next “guy.” But I think there is power in the age old adage of “faking it till you make it”—OR: stopping to consider AND directly articulate the stuff you’ve already done, and seeing it as evidence of your in-progress goals.

With that, my M.O. this year is to CONTINUE all of the sustainable shifts I’ve already brought into my life so that I can avoid slipping into the ideology that everything from 2016 is over and shitty, and that I will achieve enlightenment in 2017 simply because January 1st marks a new calendar year. That is fucking stupid.

*~*Life is always ebbing and flowing*~* (a quote by me if you want to gram it or something).

Or, as Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant.”

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Here are a few of the self-caring changes I have already begun making, and that I will continue in the New Year:

  • I have already learned to drive, and I will continue practicing when I have the chance so that I can feel more empowered and independent!
  • I have already begun a regular free-writing practice to help me feel more joy around my work, and I will continue to do this so that I can let go of the idea that published work is the only work worth writing.
  • I have already gotten better about noticing the times when I am abusive to myself in my head, and I will continue to catch myself when I do it, and to try to be kinder.
  • I have written many poems in the years I’ve been alive, and I will continue to find a place for poetry in my life  even if it is different or less prominent than it used to be.

I have already, and I will continue … POWERFUL SHIT, n’est-ce pas?

I will close with the virtuous final stanza of John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” because I am a terrifying dork, because the image of the circle seems apropos for the message of this post—and because I played on the title of this poem here, and I am self-satisfied about it.

“Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

  Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

  And makes me end where I begun.”