Yes, I think too much

Archive for October 2010

Rewards, or the lack thereof

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There’s a British comedy series called “Black Adder” about generations of men (played by Rowan Atkinson in his pre-Mr. Bean years) who were complete and utter bastards. The first series takes place in the Middle Ages featuring a prince who attempts to usurp the throne. The second is in Elizabethan times and has the offspring of the prince as a conniving nobleman who schemes unsuccessfully to marry the queen. In the third, his progeny’s progeny is working as a lowly Butler for the prince regent in time of the French revolution. Finally, his descendent is a captain during World War I who attempts to avoid the fate of so many men in that war. In each series, he is a selfish, cynical, mean, and savagely funny.

There is one Christmas special episode though, that portrays one member of the Black Adder line as good-hearted, generous, and kind. During this episode, the lovable doormat Black Adder is given the option of viewing his ancestors and their lives in a reverse playing of “A Christmas Carol”. He sees each of the aforementioned men profiting by their schemes and nastiness, and starts to rethink the path of virtue he has taken. In the end, he is shown two possible futures for himself. If he continues to be good, he ends up a slave. If he follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, he can rule the universe. One can imagine which path he chooses. During the scene in which Robbie Coltrane’s Christmas ghost talks to him about what he learns from what he has seen, he says, “Namely…that the rewards of virtue are largely spiritual, but all the better for it.” Of course, Black Adder himself wonders if the message might actually be that “bad guys have all the fun.”

This episode comes to mind as a result of some choices I’ve made as of late, as well as circumstances that others of my acquaintance have mentioned. I think that part of growing up in a democracy that touts the idea that it is also a meritocracy and which is largely Christian leads one to believe that making the ” right” choice will be rewarded. If you eat your vegetables, you will grow up healthy and strong. If you work hard, you will prosper. If you are a good person, you will go to heaven. If you are generous and charitable, people will be grateful and treat you well.

It’s hard to talk about this without sounding cynical, and I do not mean to be cynical at all. That being said, we often are lead to believe that “right” behavior yields reward. Often it is the case that “right” behavior not only does not bring about a reward, but sometimes is actively punished, especially when that behavior is directed toward self-improvement or psychological or physical health. I do not mean to lapse into a treatise on how “no good deed goes unpunished,” because I’m not that negative (at least not most of the time). However, I do mean to talk about how we need to divorce ourselves of the notion that choices that are good do yield good results for us, particularly when those choices are about fairness and personal valuation.

Recently, I have been doing freelance work for a company that I used to work full-time for. As part of the job, I need to be sent certain information prior to dealing with clients. If the information is not in my hands before the appointed time, it is difficult to do the job. In the past month, the company which gives me these jobs has been dropping the ball. They not only haven’t given me the necessary information after I have specifically requested it multiple times, but the jobs have actually been cancelled twice and I was not informed. Since I am paid “by the piece” according to how much of the task I accomplish, a cancelled job results in wasted time and virtually no pay at all.

I have done the job paid by the piece for several years despite the fact that my hourly rate drops precipitously with one client’s cancellation, but this recent situation in which I not only was forced to plead repeatedly for necessary information (which is not a part of my job) but was also subjected to two cancellations after the job was scheduled to begin resulting in much wasted time and no money. I decided that I was being taken advantage of based on the conditions I accepted and said that, from now on, they pay for my time if they book it regardless of whether or not the clients cancel or fail to take advantage of the service. In essence, instead of paying per completed task, they pay by the hour or I won’t do the job at all.

This choice was one I made out of self-respect. I was being walked all over and my time treated as valueless. This was a “right” choice, but the likely consequence of it will be that I will end up losing this work and they will simply give it to someone else. It’s not because I’m going to be costing them so much more money, but almost certainly because my liaison who dropped the ball and pushed me to offer a changed working condition will want to hide his mistakes. If he presents my case to them, he’ll have to admit that he screwed up several times over the course of weeks such that I changed the working terms. My demands are perfectly reasonable, and not making them would mean I esteem myself quite lowly, but I will almost certainly not be rewarded for my actions.

My recent experience was not the first time I’ve asserted myself reasonably and “rightly” and found that doing so was punished. I was once nearly fired for refusing to work on a day off. The request came from a boss who consistently demanded too much, got much more out of me than anyone else, and who gave me pathetic raises when I got one at all each year. Instead of being rewarded for having a skill set far higher than anyone who might replace me, being an efficient, conscientious and better than competent worker, I was threatened with dismissal for not being a complete doormat.

The rewards of asserting yourself in a manner which preserves your psychological well-being, like those of virtue, are largely spiritual. I may feel less like I’m disempowered and more like I control my destiny, but there will be nothing more to gain from asserting what should be due to me by right of being treated with respect as a human being. In the end, the objective and measurable consequence will almost always be a tangible loss. People don’t respect you if you exercise self-respect. They will simply try to cut you loose for undermining their sense of power over you.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 20, 2010 at 5:27 am

It’s not real

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In the previous post, I mentioned that I used to be part of an on-line newsgroup community. I was heavily involved in this group for about 4 years, possible more, and developed a status and a “celebrity” of sorts. This sort of fame that one can derive from being a big fish in a little pond is gratifying, if your life is unsatisfying and something is missing which it fulfills. People knew my handle and tended to respond to any post I wrote whereas “newbies” or lesser-knowns often found no one replied to the threads they began. It was like being in a room full of people and having everyone listen to and acknowledge you when you spoke, while they didn’t attend to others so assiduously.

Since I live in a foreign culture which is sometimes hostile toward me for my alienness, I needed what this community gave me and that was being surrounded by people who shared my common interest and who related to me in the easily casual and familiar way that people of my own culture had related to me before I went abroad. It was a community that embraced me (such as I showed myself) and did not perceive me as an outsider.

In such groups, inevitably, there are character clashes among various parties and those who see you in a certain way or misread your intentions based on their interpretation of your message rather than your intent. This is the nature of communication. One must expect that something as inadequate as words on a screen will fail to carry intent accurately, and that the emotional status of the listener will color their outlook. The more mature parties would communicate outside of the newsgroup via e-mail about misunderstandings, clarify them in the group in the politest way possible, or simply shrug off their worst interpretation Such mature people choosing the best course of action were exceptionally rare.

The most common response to perceived slights or character clashes were personal digs, snide comments, sarcastic remarks, emotional outbursts, or outright accusations. One particular man was a lightning rod for dislike among some members of the group and he aggressively fought back when attacked. He was accused of lying about his wealth, his possessions, his experiences as a soldier, etc. The testimony of those who claimed to have met him in person did not dissuade his detractors from saying he made baseless assertions about his lifestyle. Once people harbored a grudge, they held onto it like a dog with a rag in its mouth.

I tended to be rather diplomatic most of the time, and tried to nurture new members so that they would feel comfortable posting and taking part. I went out of my way to respond to people who others ignored because then their threads would get responses as a result of my participation. However, this was a very active group and I didn’t have time to deal with every person’s post, and in particular I tended not to jump in and reply to the posts from “old timers” who already had friends who replied to them all of the time unless I definitely had something to say. My “neglect” of one of these old timers created an unexpected situation in which one of them grew increasingly hostile toward me for my lack of attention. In his mind, he had created a scenario in which I was willfully ignoring him and he imagined some sort of tense or antagonistic relationship existed. It was purely in his head. The person he imagined and the person I was, and the relationship he concocted were not real. Nonetheless, he eventually attacked me and asked me why I “ignored” him. The oddness of this was that he did not target anyone else in this entire large and active group for their lack of a response. He had created an imaginary bond with me, so only my attention was of interest to him.

During my involvement in this group, I had some times when I was so upset, angry, or involved that I would be brought to tears by the frustration or mistreatment I was dealt. I took it all quite personally because this group and the relationships I had in it were very important to filling a hole in my life. In the end, I left the group because I realized that this focusing of my energy in this place where the people were real, but the relationships largely imagined, was not good for me. In such internet-based groups, the reality is but a bare frame in which we paint a picture of a community that we concoct in our own minds. It has no substance though, and indeed the whole group eventually was “destroyed” by spammers a few years after I left, proving how ethereal and transient in nature the “community” was. The perceived bonds did not survive the loss of the fragile frame that formed it.

I mention this at this time because I am reminded of it after reading several posts by kind folks who followed my former blog about weight loss who have written lately that turmoil in the weight loss blogging sphere is causing people to back away from their blogs, and I think (but am not sure) some of them misunderstand my abandoning my weight loss blog as being a result of an attack by a certain hostile and aggressive blogger (who attacks many people so it’s hard to take it too personally). The truth is that that party’s actions were a catalyst for my realization that I was cured of my dysfunctional relationship with food and that it was time to move on. I left my former blog because I don’t want to spend every day of my life thinking about weight and food now that I no longer need to spend everyday thinking about weight and food. People likely don’t believe that is really true that I am “cured” since so many people lose weight, pronounce that they are “cured” and then later regain weight. It’s important to note that none of them have done what I have done (moderation, a focus on psychology and behavior modification), and that I am not yet at a healthy weight (but I continue to lose). Their criteria for “cure” was a number on a scale. Mine was a mindset and control around food. The number will eventually follow, and is of lesser consequence than the what I consider a true “cure” for me personally.

I walked away from that blog the same way I walked away from that newsgroup and for the same reason. There comes a point where you do more damage than good when you invest your energies in such pursuits. In the newsgroup, I realized that the imagined relationships others had with me were no different than the imagined ones I had about them. I didn’t need this fantasy supported by the bare bones of reality. I needed something real. Similarly, I don’t need to ruminate on food or weight anymore if I don’t want to be the person who loses weight by making it the centerpiece of her existence. I have to stop focusing on it if I don’t want to be that person. I need another life and another direction.

Because of my experiences with that newsgroup, and some other online activities and communities, I know that all of this isn’t real. The relationships, the drama, the perceptions of friendship and who other people are and are not are much more imagined than real. Yes, there are real people out there and the personas they offer online are facets of who they are, and they do care or hate or feel kindly toward you, but that is the “frame” and there is no picture in it. Until and unless you go a step further (meeting personally, for instance), it’s almost all imagination. It’s internet shadow playing.

The great beauty of the lack of reality of these dynamics is that they cannot touch you unless you let them touch you. You don’t have to fight with angry people because they want to fight. He’s not your neighbor next door who keeps trampling your flower beds because he doesn’t like your dog barking. You don’t have to take the imagined observations of your personality or character as a reflection of who you really are because people are inventing “you” in whatever image suits their purpose or needs. It can be hard not to take such things too seriously or to heart because sometimes the observations are so flattering and kind and the support so seductive and badly needed, but they are no more “real” than the negative ones. It’s still people connecting unnumbered dots to create the picture of you that they want to see and that they believe is true. Granted, some people are better at it and more accurate than others, but it’s dangerous to think that just anyone out there is your friend or enemy because of what they say to or about you online.

In the end, we’re all people sitting in our homes, offices, etc. typing on our keyboards. We are, essentially, alone. The connections we feel are real to us, but they are not true bonds of friendship or enmity. They cannot touch you, unless you imagine that they do.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 9, 2010 at 8:16 am

Posted in reality, relationships

The Partner You “Deserve”

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A long time ago, I made a comment in a newsgroup that I was a part of about how I felt people got the partner’s they “deserved”. I probably should have phrased that assertion differently as most people probably thought that was about moral dessert or about how fundamentally “good people” got “good partners”. That wasn’t what I meant. I meant that we got the partner we “earned” based on our values and choices. I think that on a spiritual level, we all “deserve” happiness, kindness, and love. We may not acquire it, either because of circumstances or our choices, but we all “deserve” these things.

I currently live in an Asian culture in which marriage is often viewed as a partnership that is more akin to a business than to an emotional bonding. While people prefer to love their spouse in this culture, they don’t tend to choose based solely on emotional considerations. For women in particular, the earning potential of their spouse is high on the list of priorities. I don’t judge women negatively for this because I know that it is a response to the lot in life that women are given. They have fewer career options, particularly if they want to have children, and they must choose between hitching their wagon to a man who is capable of providing for their future or fending for themselves in much more uncertain working conditions than the U.S. and remaining childless. Single motherhood is not common, and much more socially unacceptable here.

That being said, some women are fairly mercenary in their approach to marriage. They mainly choose a mate based on his company, education, and income. As they get a little older (over 30), they become more driven to form a partnership with someone based on the promise of social and economic stability rather than any true affection. The men, of course, are often motivated by pragmatic concerns such as the fact that being married brings them a raise, the approval of parents, a live-in mother, maid, and cook, and allows them to have children. Love can be in the equation, but it is seen as optional rather than integral. Overcoming one’s culture is difficult, though it is not impossible. There are couples who love each other who marry, but there is often recognition that love isn’t going to be enough to drive a successful marriage. The chances that a woman in this culture will marry a man she adores but who has poor or who offers limited economic security are relatively low.

It’s easy to adopt an ethnocentric stance and feel that this country’s approach to relationships is cold and calculating, but the truth is that all cultures choose spouses for reasons which are less than “noble” or deeply spiritual. Most Western cultures choose based on beauty, shared interests, or emotional needs. It’s easy to elevate our priorities over those in other cultures when it comes to choosing a spouse, but the bottom line is that each choice is very personal, and should not be judged as more or less morally valid or “enlightened” than another. Each person has the right to choose based on whatever criteria is of greatest value to him or her.

The point which I want to make is not about the criteria for partner choice, but rather about the consequences of a particular choice. Recently, my husband and I had a discussion about a situation which illustrated this point very well. He has an acquaintance who is native to the country we live in, and she has been having some issues with her marriage. One of the problems, and this is not the least bit uncommon in this culture, is that her husband is not interested in talking about things which concern her emotionally. She has been struggling with depression and emotional upheaval and feels unsupported by her husband. She chose her husband, as many people do in this culture, based on the aforementioned priorities of economic stability and the desire to have children before a certain age. She did not choose him based on his ability to communicate, share emotionally, or connect to her on a relationship level. While I believe there is nothing wrong with her choice, she is having regrets and paying an emotional price for her focus on traditional priorities. Her husband almost certainly did not change from initially being communicative and deeply interested in her life to being cold and indifferent.

This particular situation became a point of discussion for my husband and I not because we are busily discussing the concerns of our acquaintances, but rather because my husband wanted to get together with this acquaintance to comfort her about her situation on the one day that we both had time off in the coming three weeks. The conflict of interest came about  not only because this was going to be a precious uninterrupted chunk of shared time together, but because this woman was about to change her schedule and it would become very tricky to coordinate schedules and meet up with her for a talk over coffee at any time in the near future. Under other circumstances (that is, my not having weeks and weeks of work with no entire days off), I would have encouraged him to go ahead and meet her, but I needed to have a precious day with him before facing the weeks of work ahead. In the end, he didn’t meet up with her and we spent a lovely day together, but one of the things that came up in our discussion of this was the consequences of partner choice.

This woman is a lovely person, and she deserves comfort and support in her difficulties. That being said, she currently and for the foreseeable future will enjoy the fruits of her choice of husband. She is unlikely to have to worry about earning her own income. She will have a house that will be paid for and a portion of her husband’s retirement income. Her lifestyle is as assured as one can be. This was one of her priorities when choosing her mate, and she will reap the rewards of basing her choice on them.

When I chose my husband, my priorities were communication, valuing time spent together, physical affection, receiving attention, and intellectual discourse. For both of us, time spent together was a significant priority. My husband had broken up with a woman who had placed him as a secondary or tertiary priority in her life and it was very much on his mind that he didn’t want to end up with another partner who did not put him in first place in her life. We discussed this before we entered a relationship together and it was very clear. The thing that was not a priority for me was my husband’s economic potential or a secure future based on his career options. My husband is not a career-driven man. He works and earns money, but we don’t have the sort of stability that someone who chooses other paths might have. We don’t own a home and our retirement situation is far from secure.

Comparing my situation to my husband’s acquaintance, one can see that I chose to collect the fruits of my choice in a particular manner and that means that I get time, attention, emotional intimacy, and affection on an ongoing basis. She chose security in the present and future. We each “sacrificed” something based on our priorities because it is difficult or very rare to have a career-driven mate who also can spend a lot of time with you and pay attention to your needs on a very regular basis. Generally speaking, careers and commitment to a company take away from time with family and men who are driven by their jobs are less engaged with their wives. It’s simply a part of the balance of life that means that you can’t have it all.

In the end, the thing that I concluded was that my husband was endeavoring to take away the fruits of my choice (time and attention) and give them to someone who had made another choice. She would be getting her cake, and he would be offering her a slice of mine when I was hungry and wanted it because he felt sorry for her. It would have been unfair to me for him to deny me a precious day together to support someone else, even though she “deserves” support and I feel for her pain. I don’t mind if he is helpful toward people in need who are his friends, but not if that help takes something of value from me. I deserve the partner I chose and all of the benefits that came with that choice, just as that woman deserves the partner she chose and the benefits that came with her choice. We both have to live with how our present and futures are going to play out as a result of the choices we made. It’s not that I need every moment of my husband’s free time, but parceling out part of a precious day off in a long period of time when work schedules will divide our time is a significant loss to me. It may not be for other couples, but they didn’t choose their mate based on the same priorities as me.

Getting back to the comment I made in that newsgroup so long ago about getting the partner we deserve, two divorced men took issue with this. I think both of them felt that their partners had fundamentally changed on them after marriage, but the truth is that people rarely change greatly in terms of their character. What tends to happen is not that people turn into monsters after marriage, but rather that the focal point of any relationship through time tends to gravitate away from what you have and toward what you’re not getting. My husband’s acquaintance focused on what she was getting (security) before she married, but on what she wasn’t getting after (emotional support). When those men chose their wives, they prioritized something or other, but once they had it, they started to notice what they didn’t have or what they didn’t want which came along with the entire package. The women likely did as well and difficulties grew as a result. If they chose their wives based on beauty (and one of them certainly did as he told me in detail about how he came to be with her), then the value of having a beautiful wife became less once she was “secured” and all of the issues that go along with being married to someone who is recognized and valued for her appearance came into play. And make no mistake, beauty carries a psychological consequence as do all other physical attributes.

I have talked before about how every positive has a resulting flip-side which may not be quite so attractive. That applies to our own characters as well as our partners’. When you choose a mate based on your priorities or values, you get not only the good attributes which you want, but the less appealing ones which you may not be so thrilled with. When I say people get the partner they “deserve”, I mean that their values dictate the sort of package deal they end up with. They may not be happy with the fact that their choices carried some undesirable accompanying emotional baggage, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t end up with the type of person they deserve as a result of those choices. In the end, you can’t have absolutely everything you want in a partner because paragons do not exist, each person has only so much energy that they can focus in only so many places, and every plus has a minus.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 6, 2010 at 8:58 am

Changing your biology (through psychology)

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As someone who has pushed herself to change in a lot of ways psychologically, particularly in regards to food, but also in terms of my personality and temper, I strongly believe that psychology and behavior can reshape biology. It takes time, but I think the bodies various systems and cells adapt to changes through time. Changes that are initially difficult become close to effortless as you push your body to endure them longer. The extent to which you suffer as a result of such changes is determined by how radical they are as the leap between who you were biologically at the start and who you will be is a much larger one.

The idea that biology follows psychology and behavior is certainly not unknown. We know that people who meditate can lower their resting heart rate and improve their blood pressure. We also know that exercise improves the function of many bodily systems for the better. However, we can see and realize how behavior, particularly in regards to what we ingest, can alter biology quite profoundly when we consider drug use and abuse.

One of the reasons that many heroin or opiate users find it difficult to stop is that as they ingest or inject chemicals into their bodies to release endorphin-like responses their brain reduces the production of those chemicals in response. In essence, the more you give the body something, the more it adjusts by giving you less of whatever it stimulates. When you stop giving it what it has grown accustomed to, it takes awhile to adjust your biochemistry to compensate, and you suffer during the adjustment period.

Recently, I read a study which indicates that a similar effect may occur with people who habitually overeat. That is, the very act of overeating may cause your brain to react less pleasurably to food, so you need to eat more and more to achieve the same levels of pleasure from food. In turn, this will cause you to want to eat even more. In essence, abusing food, like abusing drugs, will lead to the desire for more and more.

This study was one that rang true to me because I have discovered that mindful eating, that is eating slowly, paying attention to the texture, smell, and taste of every bite, has changed my need for more food. Coupled with portion control, I have found that I no longer desire large quantities of any food in order to feel satisfied. This change took about 8 or so months to reach a state of relative completion in which I did not desire more than a small quantity of pleasurable foods to be satisfied, but it is quite real. It isn’t a psychological trick. It is a biological reality.

This study is compelling in what it indicates, not only in terms of overeating, but in all aspects of our lives. One possible indication is that we need to place a high value on novelty in order to extract the most pleasure from experiences. Another is that what feels like immutable nature can be retrained with effort. If you are a person who is easily upset, it could be that practicing psychological techniques each time you are upset to shorten the duration and diminish the intensity of your negative emotional response will eventually change your reaction. Conversely, being angry, aggressive, or combative on a regular basis may actually find you needing to be so more and more so in order to release the chemicals that are released when such behaviors are engaged in. In particular, adrenaline is released when angry. Frequent anger may tamp down adrenaline response (which brings about a sense of power and strength) and one may want to be more aggressive and hostile more often to get that same feeling on a regular basis.

The implications of this study, as well as what we know about the effect of various other behaviors on our neurochemistry, are encouraging. We can be better, healthier and less conflicted people, but we have to push long enough and steadily enough for our bodies to make the adjustments. If we make those changes consistently over a long enough period of time, eventually, it will get easier, not only psychologically, but biologically.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 2, 2010 at 6:21 am