Dealing With Envy: a Flowchart

Sometimes you come across a person who seems to have exactly what you’re missing (e.g. shiny hair, shiny GPA, shiny job offer, shiny boyfriend, etc.)–that (non-gender-specific) bitch!

If you’re like most people, your default reaction is to A) Hate that person, B) Hate yourself, or C) Pretend to do A while actually doing B. But there are probably more productive (or less destructive) ways to deal. Here’s a flowchart of suggestions (click to see full-sized):

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“All or Nothing” is Usually Just an Excuse to do Nothing

“I miss dance, but I quit once I realized I wasn’t going to do it professionally. I’m not the type to do anything halfway.” 

“What’s the point of eating a a salad with a burger? It’s already unhealthy anyway.” 

“I would donate to your Kickstarter, but I can’t donate to all the Kickstarters.”

“Why are you spending so much effort on [activist cause] when there are bigger unsolved issues in the world?” 

Whatever the context, you’ll probably hear statements like these coming from self-proclaimed “all or nothing people,” or people who otherwise hold a binary view of success or progress.

In itself, this type of thinking is easy to fall into, especially for the perfectionistic-ly inclined. Under a logic of toxic perfectionism–with such high standards that any realistic effort seems pointlessly trivial in comparison–if you’re not going to do something perfectly, you might as well give up. 

But what’s especially concerning about this mindset is the way it’s glorified, as if being an “all or nothing person” is somehow heroically intense or extreme. In it’s worst form, the phrase “I’m an all or nothing person” is used to imply a superiority in standards over people who are merely doing something.

In reality, however, is doing something incompletely or imperfectly really the worst outcome? There are a few exceptions here: cakes don’t taste good half-baked, and  if you’re wondering “should I buy that pair of pants,” I don’t recommend half-assing it. In most other cases, though something is better than nothing. And lets face it: when you treat progress as a binary decision, you usually end up choosing nothing.

Maybe there are some people whose declarations that they “don’t do anything halfway” are immediately followed by them running a marathon, writing a novel, becoming fluent in Italian, obtaining a PhD in physics, and starting a charity which decisively ends global poverty. (If you’re one of those people, stop reading this blog and go back to doing you.)

But for most people, most days, in most areas, the realization that you can’t or don’t want to do it “all the way” ends up with you giving up and watching Netflix instead of going on a jog, writing a blog post, keeping up with your online beginner Italian practice, signing up for Physics 101, or making a donation to a food bank–any of which would have been way more impressive and productive than nothing.

In theory, an “all or nothing person” is an intense, extreme person who settles for nothing but the best. In practice, it’s more often someone currently sitting around in their bedroom, who also has a catchy self-description. (And there’s nothing wrong with sitting around in your bedroom whenever you need or want to–but please don’t feel obligated to justify it as a of sign of badassery.)

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Aside from the rarely attained “all,” “all or nothing” is basically just an excuse to do nothing. My preferred replacement catchphrase: “Just do something.*”

*(Unless you really truly want to do nothing, and in that case, go for it–no excuses needed.) 

Choice

Nothing evokes my decision-making anxiety quite like the paper towel aisle of Target. Not over the importance of the decision, obviously, but just the sheer quantity–of options, factors, and unsolicited contradictory advice on every label.

1-Ply? 2-Ply? Quilted? Do I want maximum absorption or fastest absorption? Or the best wet-strength? Who’s doing this “scientific testing” anyway? I could get the extra-soft ones, but they’re not made from recycled material. Should I just pick the cheapest ones–by square-footage? By volume? By absorption capacity?

The more options, the more inevitable disappointment. It’s referred to as the paradox of choice: the fact that an overabundance of choice has actually increased anxiety and unhappiness in postindustrial society.  No matter what you pick, the list of what you didn’t get will always stack higher than what you did.

Sometimes it makes me want to buy nothing at all.

So what do you do to avoid standing there forever, paralyzed by the consumer’s dilemma? The recommended strategy is satisficing–just picking something good enough so you can get on with life. And it works. As long as no one questions your paper towel choices. And as long as you don’t find yourself in a mess that really has you wishing for 3-Ply.

Just satisfice and get on with it. After all, it’s just a stupid stupid paper towel roll.

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Unless it’s not.

In a choice-saturated culture, it’s no wonder that the language of choice is at the center of our politics.

“My body, my choice!”

Take Liberal feminism, with it’s spotlight on autonomy as the key women’s right. Putting aside the daunting task of assessing the social causes and implications of each choice–along with the insufferable personal scrutiny involved in doing so–choice feminism instead celebrates the act of choosing itself as inherently empowering.

Bikinis, hijabs, lipstick, nose jobs, leg hair, sex, abortion, careers, babies, marriage, divorce. They can all be celebrated as feminist choices–but especially if  you can profess with unwavering confidence how you made the absolute best decision with your completely independent will.

The main point is spot on: personal choices surrounding one’s body and life path should be made available and respected. But assumption often implicit in the tone–that such choices automatically carry superwoman-type sense of “empowerment”–is another issue.

What if choice doesn’t always feel so powerful, free, and…super? Maybe it’s because no matter which way you turn, you’re still surrounded by flashy signs and crowds cheering for the paths you didn’t choose and against the one you did. Or maybe because you have no “right” decision that you can make proudly and loudly, only a closet full of varying shades of wrong-ish.

Can there be space in the language of empowered choice to talk about uncertainty, doubt, regret? And loss: choice always means loss, big or small, of what might have been.

Almost makes you want to opt out of the whole choice thing all together.

“It’s not a choice!”

It’s also no wonder that not choosing  has become a political mantra and legal defense for the modern gay rights movement.

Denying choice is the quickest and safest way out when when you’re accused of making all the wrong choices. “I couldn’t” needs less explanation than “I didn’t,” and “I had to” carries less moral baggage than “I decided to.” With choice out of the equation, you don’t have to directly handle and detangle those claims of wrongness and rightness thrown at you.

And of course it’s not incorrect. As long as you’re talking about attraction, and not identity or behavior, its basically involuntary by definition. There’s a reason we call it “falling in love” and not “jumping in love” (or lust or whatever).

But we jump into other things–relationships, sex, visibility, politics, communities, futures.  Making “not a choice” the central message of a movement is a decision to treat inevitability of falling as more defining than the courage of jumping.

But what if we need to deal with both? Can we deal with the fact that we all can jump, but not without falling back to earth? Jumping not into the infinite sky like superwoman, but back onto our human legs. Jumping as high as we can, but with the risk of broken bones in the landing.

Jumping without knowing if we’ll be caught. Jumping over the obstacles in front of us, but only when our power exceeds the size. Jumping over dirty puddles, or landing right in them, making messes too messy for even 3-ply to fix. Leaping forward down the best path we can see to get where we can get from where we are.

Choosing to jump, because the only thing scarier is standing still.

Sparks

You’re probably not wondering where I’ve been for the last week or so, but the great thing about blogging is that I’m going tell you anyway. Or at least the SparkNotes version:

    • Gave a lecture for the Intro Psych class I TA (Or half a lecture, anyway).
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We’re in it for the citations.

    • Wrote a thing about sarcasm:

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      I dedicate a disproportionate amount of my paper-writing energies toward making bad puns.

    • Wrote a thing involving the Polar Express, high-fashion prosthetics, and point-light displays of yoga. School is weird.
    • Stopped sleeping, fell apart, and started sleeping again.
    • Danced in a show and another show.
    • Ripped most of my toenail off onstage while dancing in a show.
    • Taped it togther and danced again.
    • Danced with a dinosaur:

15 Things I Learned in 2015

Well, since I made lists for 2013 and 2014, I guess I should make another one for this year (or at least everything since my last semester-ly list).

  1. A one-month trial of Microsoft Office can last forever if you never restart your computer.
  2. Cooking sounds a lot more appealing at the beginning of the semester.
  3. Don’t underestimate how much people can change (in all the best and worst ways).
  4. Don’t underestimate how much the world can change (in all the best and worst ways).
  5. Professional success is sometimes more about making friends than being the “best.” I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse.
  6. You don’t have to be everything that you admire in other people.
  7. I need prioritize taking care of my body or this “young and invincible” thing is gonna run out fast (i.e. sleep and adequate warm-ups are not optional).
  8. Yoga is awesome.
  9. Perceiving things categorically (starting with sounds and colors) is neurologically efficient, but that doesn’t mean it reflects reality.
  10. Those who don’t learn history are destined to make up their own version of it.
  11. The person grading your paper actually does want you to do well–it’s so much easier and less of a downer to grade.
  12. Things which may actually be a contest to see who avoids quitting the longest: dance, blogging.
  13. If you can make five-year-olds learn something, adults are a breeze.
  14. If you want to see our society’s sexist and racist assumptions spelled out without the usual coding or denial, listen to kids. And sometimes presidential candidates.
  15. Comedy is really a nuanced, powerful, and generally underrated art. No joke.

Happy New Year y’all! Have fun and don’t make too many resolutions!

“STRAIGHT WOMEN DON’T EXIST!!!” and Other Terrible Science Reporting

Recently, the internet erupted a bit over the scientific “discovery” that women are “bisexual or gay, but never straight.” The statement is based on a study at the University of Essex which measured pupil dilation and genital arousal of women looking at porn. (Yeah, sometimes academics take ideas like “sexual experimentation” very literally.)

Straight women protested. Straight men got a little too excited. Queer women wondered why they were still single. Bisexual men found it mildly refreshing that heterosexuality was being questioned for a change.

But did anyone actually read the study?

Some people have rightly expressed skepticism about the conflation of arousal patterns and sexual orientation. Obviously, there is a lot more to sexuality than pupils and genitals. Arousal non-concordance–a discrepancy between genital response and the subjective state of arousal–is known to be particularly common in women. Besides, many people would attest that what you like to look at is not necessarily what you like to do.

But, beyond that, the actual study never even suggested that physical arousal in response to men and women indicates bisexuality. In fact, the hypothesis of the study wasn’t about that at all.

Let’s take a look:

The study merely mentioned that arousal in response men and women had been previously established as the “female-typical” pattern (yup, this is old news), and the new results fit this trend. The main hypothesis was that arousal patterns are related to measures of masculinity/femininity–which, by the way, was not supported by the results at all.

But I guess “STRAIGHT WOMEN DON’T EXIST!!!” makes for a flashier headline than “Researchers Fail to Relate Gender Expression and Arousal.”

Sure, there is plenty reason to be skeptical of the research itself (after all, these are some of the same people who published that much-publicized–and discredited--study denying male bisexuality).

  • I question the assumption that porn viewing somehow reveals the fundamental essence of human sexual nature.
  • I wonder the whether the people who sign up for sexual arousal studies are representative of the general population.
  • I look with suspicion toward a line of research which too-often assumes that people–especially women–“don’t know what they really want” sexually.
  • I take issue with the values of a field which invests more resources in questions like “Why does [X orientation] exist?” than “Why do [people of X orientation] suffer disproportionately from mental health problems?”
  • I reject the recurring mindset which places the existence of fluid sexualities in opposition to the existence of other orientations.

But bad journalism takes questionable science and bumps it up to dangerously exaggerated pop-pseudoscience. This is particularly true in cases in which the terrible media representation of science overlaps with terrible media representations of gender and sexuality. (All it takes is a serious-looking fMRI image to convince people that men are “hard-wired” to cheat.)

This time, the “bisexual or gay” line first appeared in a press release from the university itself, then circulated (and inflated–“rarely” straight became “almost never” and “never”) through sources ranging from the Daily Mail to respected science blogs.

In this case, I don’t think that the social acceptance of female heterosexuality is in serious danger. But it is evident that a reporter’s words can have a much bigger impact than a researcher’s words, regardless of how much expertise or truth is behind them. And I believe that this great power needs to come with some greater responsibility, particularly when making claims about people’s identities and desires.

Open Ballet Classes and Impostor Syndrome (aka It Doesn’t Get Better)

As I’ve been realizing lately, adult open ballet classes can do a lot to knock out feelings of illegitimacy. And not in the ways you might expect.

You know that pesky impostor syndrome which is always reminding you that you don’t deserve to be where you are or doing what you’re doing? As if that there is some line that divides the legitimate from the illegitimate, and you can’t feel comfortable or confident with yourself until you cross it. What and where that line is can be shifting and uncertain: would perfect turnout make you legit? A spot in a conservatory? A company contract? Still, you remain convinced that this line exists and that the end to your insecurities, the point where it all gets better, lies somewhere above your head.

Impostor syndrome definitely isn’t unique to dancers, but in such an uncertain profession, it can be particularly hard to shake. That’s where open classes come in.

Open classes bring together a wide assortment of people ranging in age, background, ability, and relationship to dance. The class probably has a level specified (beginner, intermediate advanced), but that doesn’t stop people outside that range from showing up (this is particularly the case in smaller cities with fewer classes and therefore less stratification between professional and recreational classes). There are current professionals, tech employees who danced as kids, 70-year-olds who took up ballet at 65, teenage bunheads, 50-year-old retired principal dancers, college students, and oftentimes someone pregnant. There’s people with their legs by their ears and people with their legs barely off the floor.

And what’s beautiful is seeing all these people not just dancing together, but also all working their butts off, struggling, and messing up at times. Not necessarily struggling with the same issues–one person might be figuring out how to squeeze out that fourth pirouette while another is working on a single–but nonetheless working through issues related to their respective points in their dance journeys with the same focus and energy.

There’s something about seeing a gorgeous professional falling out of turns or a beginner standing in the center with unwavering presence that will crush your lingering impostor syndrome. Your weaknesses and and challenges don’t mean that you don’t belong there–they mean that you very much belong there and you can be comfortable and confident about your place in the struggle.

Because no matter how good or bad you are, there is no line of legitimacy that will fix everything: the struggle never ends! And that’s a good thing, I promise.

See, most popular depictions of ballet focus on the “obsession with perfection” aspect. But in reality, while perfectionistic ideals are a thing, dancers learn that actually being perfect is clearly not.

This never happens. Really.

So you have to get pretty comfortable with perpetual imperfection. That’s not always easy, but it can be pretty awesome if you approach it the right way.

There’s a certain sense of liberation in knowing that anything you do will fail in some form or another: then you can toss out that annoying fear of failure and just focus on failing better, failing the way you want to.

And once you realize that you’ll never “arrive”–that really no one will–you can stop freaking out about not being “there” yet and just immerse yourself in the journey: the plies, the tendus, the sweat, the studio full of warm stinky bodies, the music, the mistakes, the tiny adjustments, the joy of movement, and that glorious daily grind.