#143: When self-awareness eats its own tail
+ “aging gracefully” & loving annoying people
Today I’ll be responding to three reader prompts, all solicited the other day on Instagram. They cover dealing with annoying friends (whom you love), the expression “aging gracefully,” and the point at which self-awareness becomes detrimental. I got so many great prompts, it was hard to choose! Thanks for the influx of ideas, which I very much needed.
Two things before I start: 1) Last Tuesday I wrote a little retrospective on my recent massive closet purge, including strategies and takeaways. A few people asked me to do that when I advertised my closet sale, so wanted to point you there in case you missed it. And more importantly 2) I’m going to take a week off from Maybe Baby (possibly longer) to be with family and deal with some personal stuff I have going on. I’m sorry to pause, but I’ll be back ASAP!
Prompt 1: “Friends’ behavior patterns that frustrate you but do not warrant a discussion or confrontation.”
This is a classic conundrum, and one of the many situations to which I apply “Newton’s third law” in a scientifically inaccurate way. If you recall, Newton’s third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Here are some examples of times I apply it: sad feelings after fun trips, anti-social feelings following busyness, bursts of energy following lazy days, humbling moments after ego trips. I guess you could think of this as standard-issue duality, but I appreciate the Newton framing for how it implies direct causation. Sometimes you simply can’t enjoy something without enduring a contrasting experience soon after. And luckily, vice versa.
When it comes to friends’ annoying but seemingly unchangeable traits, I try to challenge myself to think how this trait “causes” something I love about them. A friend who’s always late but has a calming way of not taking life too seriously. A friend who’s really bad at planning ahead but is always down for a spontaneous hang. A friend who’s bad at answering texts but is unusually present with you in person. A friend who’s a little messy and chaotic but magical and addicting to be around. Almost every annoying behavior pattern has an equal and opposite upside. This isn’t just a consolation prize, it’s a necessity: very often if you were to fix the annoying thing, you’d lose the special thing on the other side. This can be helpful in your own self-assessments too. No one can be everything good without occasionally being everything bad.
Prompt 2: “Ageism, especially towards women, and the problem with ‘aging gracefully.’”
I think there is a version of the phrase “aging gracefully” that’s genuinely complimentary—the idea that a person might move through the later years of their life with grace sounds lovely. But I get what you’re saying. The common usage is more back-handed than that: A woman who ages gracefully is one who, whether through ruthless dedication to self-care, just-subtle-enough cosmetic work, or “good genes,” manages to avoid becoming frumpy and unattractive in old age, and instead becomes a more elegant version of her younger self, with signs of wisdom in all the right places (and none in the wrong). Aside from the obvious problem that this version of grace exclusively concerns appearance—and also happens to be purchasable—it’s also prescriptive. It suggests there is a correct way to age, and it has less to do with grace than maintaining beauty capital.
I’ve been thinking about a common refrain among people who get work done to stop their face from changing, rather than to fix supposed flaws. “I just want to look like myself.” It’s very strange to not recognize yourself in the mirror as time passes, and unfair to feel vital but be treated differently, so this attempt to arrest time makes sense to me. But I’m always inspired when I see someone doing the opposite—when they seem to embrace their own evolution even when it means losing a perceived advantage they had when they were young. To me this feels more in step with nature, which demands constant change, and impels us to re-meet ourselves throughout life, in new contexts and with new details. Learning to flow with time strikes me as one way to age gracefully. But I don’t think that defines grace exclusively, nor do I think everyone who gets work done can’t find that ease in their own way. There are infinite ways to age gracefully, even if the beauty industry insists otherwise.
Prompt 3: “The point at which self-awareness is no longer helpful, and is even detrimental.”
I love this prompt because if you pride yourself on self-awareness, it’s easy to forget there are diminishing returns. This becomes clearer over time, as you watch less introspective peers stumble into great situations or benefit from what may seem to you like prosaic wisdom. Sometimes when I’m watching Love Island and someone deals with rejection by saying “it is what it is,” I’m kind of like, fair enough. Obviously there’s a more philosophical way to acceptance, but sometimes “it is what it is” gets you there faster. I value the long way, to be clear, but in terms of direct outcome, it may not always make as much of an impact as more introspective people would like to believe.
The outcome matters. The point at which self-awareness becomes less helpful, in my opinion, is when it ceases to concern what you actually do. In the same way thinking can spiral into rumination, self-awareness can spiral into self-destructive neuroticism. For me, the earliest sign that I’m going there is a lack of movement. When I’m stuck in a thought pattern, or focused on it to the point of immobility, I know my only choice is to make a move. If you’re a careful or thoughtful person, this can feel totally alien. But sometimes confidence in a decision has to come after you make one (right or wrong), and not the other way around. The same goes for knowing yourself: Often we know ourselves only after spending time not knowing ourselves, or only after paying more attention to other people. When it comes to being wise to the world around you, excessive rumination and self-focus can be just as deadening as their opposites.
As my bosses, I’d like to thank you for giving me some time off. Naturally I plan to return as a completely different person.
Have a nice Sunday/week/weekend!