#82: What I'm telling myself
(And telling you)
Happy new year and welcome back to my Sunday newsletter. I had a nice month off but I’m glad to be back. Below is something I wrote (muddled through) last week after spending weeks with my own thoughts and finding some surprises.
At some point last year I started talking to myself. Not out loud in space, but out loud in my head, which is distinct from thinking. For instance, I can look in the mirror, think something vaguely critical about my face, and then say—in my head, but with the clarity and authority of an out-loud voice—“No.” Sometimes I’ll even shake my head, ridding myself of the thought like it’s water in my ear. Surprisingly, this works in a variety of styles and permutations: to stop an old thought pattern I know is incorrect or harmful (“wrong”), to prevent myself from employing a strategy I know will not work (“doesn’t work”), or most usefully, to get a song out of my head, in which case the chastisement functions like a pause button I’ve summoned out of thin air, interrupting the song mid-lyric. Mental silence follows. The song may come back, but I can pause it again and again, and through this process and those similar I’ve learned how to communicate with my brain like it’s a child.
It’s a stupidly simple strategy. Unlike the preciousness of journaling or the neuroticism of metacognition, rebuking myself this way is firm and definitive. A blunt instrument. I was shocked when I discovered how often it worked—that not going down a particular mental path could sometimes be as easy as swiftly redirecting my mind elsewhere. It reminds me of the popular meditation metaphor whereby your mind is a highway and the cars are your thoughts: to meditate isn’t to clear the highway of cars, it’s to let them go by without fixating on any particular one. You notice the thought and let it pass; you don’t have to get in. Of course, getting in every car, looking under the hood, and writing exhaustive essays on how and when the engine broke is basically my personality. But I’m learning some cars are just fucked by design. My challenge now is to stop standing in their fumes, shaming myself for taking another deep breath.
Here are some examples of my broken cars: I need more stuff; I need to be productive; lower weight equals more love; the internet reflects reality; I need to change people’s minds; I need to write a book; I need to be “successful”; I need to be understood, approved of, and admired by people I don’t know—those people also must think I’m beautiful; I need to play it cool; I can’t handle pressure; everyone’s judging me; I need to control myself, etc, etc.
I’m long past needing to explain why these lines of thought don’t serve me. Not only do I understand their flaws intellectually, my life has continually bore them out. This is one of the upsides of getting what you wished for and still feeling dread: You get to learn, in real-time, that what you wanted wasn’t what you needed, and that what you needed you already had; the vanilla ice cream of life lessons. These disappointments are ultimately gifts. They sink in much deeper than Hollywood morality tales and self-help adages about “worth.” At their most potent, they can liberate you from the delusion that your ideal self and life are as distant, inaccessible, and determined by other people’s perceptions as you once thought. What continues to surprise me (in the bad way) is the way their animating desires can still hang around, driving down my highway from time to time, as if following a societally ordained route. And that’s when I’ve found a firm refusal to engage works wonders.
I started thinking about all this more specifically in December, when I took a break from writing and podcasting. Stepping away from that constant whir of creative output clarified what was left—mostly my internal monologue. I observed not only the way I’d come to rely on firm self-talk, as if parenting myself, but also the way my goals had started to shift to things that felt slightly more grounded and (I guess the word might be) useful. I noticed I was less anxious than I’d been the previous December, when I took my last long break, despite very little about my (or the world’s) situation changing. I suspected this shift might be something people often chalk up to “getting older”—calming down a little, caring less what people think—but even if that’s all it was, I wanted to understand the mechanics.
The ideal self
The psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, was known for differentiating between the “real” self and the “ideal” self. The real self, he believed, represented our true and inherent nature. Only when that self is out of sync with others’ expectations of us—our parents when we’re young and eventually our peers—do we develop an “ideal” self, i.e. the person we want to be or wish we were. Rogers believed that our perception of the gap between our real selves and ideal selves can measure our general wellbeing. When the gap is big, we experience what he called “incongruence,” a distressing state that can lead to a false and unsatisfying life. When the gap is small we experience “congruence,” and can thus live authentically and genuinely. This is just a clinical way of explaining something we take for obvious, but we tend to place a lot of emphasis on closing the gap by inching closer to our ideal selves, rather than simply changing our ideals. But of course we can do that, either by lowering our standards or, more interestingly, swapping out our standards completely.
It occurred to me that I can do this through the practice of self-talk. To use the aforementioned example of looking in the mirror, by interrupting the self-critical thought with “no,” I changed the stakes of the interaction, and thus, the goal. If previously the goal was to look in the mirror and find myself beautiful, now the goal was to look in the mirror and not engage with my own criticism. In the first scenario, I close the gap by changing how I look (real self moves towards ideal self). In the second scenario, I close the gap by not being rude to myself (ideal self moves towards real self). Obviously in both scenarios I’m pursuing congruence, but I find the latter challenge more fun and sustainable. Most importantly, as a requirement for self-regard, it’s less conditional, more personal. But this isn’t about the specific futility of body-checking, insidious as it is. It’s about what it means to liberate yourself from pursuits you know won’t bring meaning to your life.
My evolving relationship with fame has been a cogent lesson on this front. I would never describe myself as fame-hungry, but for most of my life I liked the idea of being a public figure—of great numbers of people caring about me and generally thinking I’m grand. If you think about it, desire for fame is merely one of our most basic pursuits (love, belonging) blasted through a planet-sized prism. But it’s also irrational: No matter how much evidence we have that fame has steep costs and is actually quite a burden, many still believe it’s worth the trouble. I feel lucky, then, to have been disillusioned by my own taste of it. Yes, there are aspects of being admired by strangers that are extremely pleasant and even useful, but the costs, in my experience, have a greater psychological impact. And I’m not only talking about being critiqued or hated by people you don’t know, which feels worse than you might expect, I’m speaking more broadly about the soul-level split that occurs when a person is reformed in the public eye, even on a scale as small as I was (or am). The curse of fame as I understand it is that it only deepens your desire to be known, because the more strangers think they know you, the less known you feel.
In Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, one of her characters, an author named Alice, has experienced a similar rise to Rooney, who’s been publicly cynical about her own popularity. In an email to a friend, Alice writes: “People who intentionally become famous—I mean people who, after a little taste of fame, want more and more of it—are, and I honestly believe this, deeply psychologically ill. The fact that we are exposed to these people everywhere in our culture, as if they are not only normal but attractive and enviable, indicates the extent of our disfiguring social disease. There is something wrong with them, and when we look at them and learn from them, something goes wrong with us.”
I think about this line all the time. I don’t know about “deeply psychologically ill,” but even with the shade of celebrity I possess (very local, very niche), I know that pursuing more of it specifically would be me at my most lost. It took a few years for me to truly understand this, but public interest makes you feel known, loved, and accepted in only the most superficial ways. As an isolated ideal, separate from its implications of unparalleled talent, which are only marginally borne out, it is spiritually empty. A Faustian bargain. This is the true irony of fame: If you’re mentally well enough to handle its consequences, you don’t need its spoils. I’ve found similar paradoxes in all of the hollow status-markers I’ve managed to claim over the last five years. And slowly these disappointments are reconstructing my ambitions to far more pleasant, accessible, perhaps already-reached goals. Ideal self inches toward real self.
The public self
In reflecting on my headspace at the end of 2021 compared to the end of 2020, the other obvious difference was that I’d been less online. Or at least less plugged into Twitter and Instagram, which have a way of feeling like the entire internet. These social networks make it close to impossible to like yourself. Not only because they present an unlimited breadth and depth of ideals, thus widening the gap, but because the opportunity to perform your “ideal” self is practically baked into the premise. This is another version of the real/ideal split: the private versus public. Online, these binaries blur. With time to think before you type, pose before you’re seen, strategize before you’re perceived, our real/private selves are almost irrelevant to the digital realm, no matter how “casual” our approach. Like fame for the masses, public perception becomes reality. For many this is precisely the appeal, but if Rogers’ theory of incongruence is correct, it’s also why the internet makes us miserable.
While reading about Rogers last week, I found a 2009 study that set out to test whether it’s true that, per conventional (Western) wisdom, people are happier when they can exist authentically as their real/private selves. It probably won’t surprise you that researchers found a strong correlation between being your real self and experiencing a meaningful life. That remained the case even if that real self wasn’t particularly likeable, which was my favorite detail. Meanwhile, they found that although “liking” your public self could improve your self-esteem, it didn’t actually correlate to the experience of meaning. Again, these are semi-obvious revelations expressed clinically, but it’s helpful to be reminded why channeling all your energy into “nailing” your public image (or social status) leads to a hollow kind of life (full of hollow people), even if it affords the occasional mood-boost.
To say I was offline in 2021 would be a lie, lol. But I did post significantly less, get less worked up about all of it, and generally receive less feedback. And even though I sometimes missed the sense of import those things have afforded me, I think it was healthy for me to endure their absence and recognize how weightless they really were. This is the internet: It feels real until you back away, and then it feels kind of like nothing. And yet the identity split—real, ideal; private, public—that occurs when you emotionally invest in its social landscape leaves an indelible mark. In that way it shares a quality with fame: The spoils of digital attention can be overwhelming, but ultimately they’re superficial, temporary. Meanwhile and unfortunately, their consequences happen on the level of your fucking soul. No matter the scale of your online popularity or notoriety, it will always be for your public, unknowable self. It’s incongruence codified. It makes sense then that nihilism has become the default posture of the terminally online. Social media, soon to be the metaverse, was never really built to make meaning. It was built to make money.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my divestment from the infinite chatter of likes and comments last year coincided with a new habit of blunt self-talk. It’s almost like I ran out of patience to search for infinite patterns in the noise. Maybe that’s the most practical aspect of “getting older”; the weight of trying so hard accumulates. But I don’t really think of it as trying less, just wanting different things. It’s been a relief to feel myself craving, genuinely, the attainable: reality, things I can touch, affections that build to something, ambitions that occur organically, self-understandings that do not include other people’s understandings of me. Which isn’t to say my highway isn’t still a car crash sometimes, but it’s nice to pause and notice when the traffic shifts. Or at the very least, remember that there’s more than one way to get through it.
My favorite piece I read last week was “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” by Parul Sehgal for The New Yorker, about our culture’s mounting interest in trauma (in movies, books, and our own lives). My “15 things” last week also included my favorite movie I’ve seen in a while, a popular album I didn’t expect to love, and an app that gives you very convincing bangs.
Thanks for reading! I hope you have a nice Sunday.