#95: Are you a baby? A litmus test
Usually I find the online discourse surrounding “being an adult” pretty embarrassing, but I’ve had a couple ideas about it floating around in my notes for a while, so today I’m giving in. I blame TikTok for continuing to serve me videos of therapists explaining the definition of boundaries (honestly they’ve been kind of helpful…lol). Hope you enjoy my charts.
Are you a baby? A litmus test
The other day some friends and I were reminiscing about an app idea we had years ago that would allow you to “blind cancel” on your friends. That is, flag if you were open to canceling a plan, which your friend would only see if they also flagged it. Basically, it was Tinder for bailing. This was our ultimate dream: an official, guilt-free conduit for the quiet hope that your friend wants to cancel, too.
It only recently occurred to me that what we actually needed was to grow up—get to know ourselves, learn to communicate. Trying to weasel out of all that with an app is, well, basically the entire value prop of Silicon Valley, but more importantly antithetical to growth. Managing your social life requires self-knowledge: Will you be in the mood next week? Will they be mad if you cancel? Will you have fun tonight even though you’re dragging your feet? The trick to answering these questions, I’m finding, is not technology or mind-reading or asking for surpluses of empathy. It’s to stop being a huge baby. Unfortunately I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to navigate social situations using a tawdry, homespun radar for what everyone’s thinking and feeling at a given time, and instead of transforming me into an intuitive genius, it’s made me (at times) a neurotic little freak. To be fair, I love the neurotic freaks in my life, but together we can make life more complicated than it needs to be. Learning to anticipate, gauge, and state your needs isn’t just irritating therapy-speak, it’s a relief for everyone involved.
This isn’t the most fashionable attitude. It makes me sound a little like a boot-strapping, we-can-do-hard-things motivational speaker who is secretly a psycho and also had it easy their whole life. Obviously those people are annoying. But I find the overly sensitive, we-don’t-have-to-do-hard-things counter-narrative grating in its own way. I think a lot of us do—I hear just as much self-care fatigue as I do resistance to the idea that we should always keep going, no matter how miserable we are. Both camps are right, both camps are wrong. In the logic-defying tradition of social media, everyone is both annoying and annoyed. Lately I’ve been wondering how to synthesize these views into a coherent idea of what it actually means to grow up: to take responsibility for ourselves and also the people around us. To be compassionate without infantilizing everyone.
In March, two things happened that pushed me toward an answer. The first involved a dinner party hosted by a couple I met through a friend. On the way there, I learned via text that everyone else was running 30 minutes late. I felt immediate dread. It was nothing against the hosts, I just didn’t know them as well, and the thought of being their sole guest for half an hour had me praying for train delays. Naturally there were none, so I found myself shivering outside their apartment building weighing two options: kill time until everyone arrived or toughen up and go in alone. I briefly tried to convince myself that if I did the former without fanfare—texted my friend that I’d be picking out wine at a nearby store until they arrived—it would be an unfussy act of self-care. But I knew I was being a baby. So I picked out a bottle (took me exactly three minutes) and went up by myself. This is not a surprise ending: It was no big deal whatsoever. Within seconds we were recounting our days, joking around, gossiping about Keith McNally. I was embarrassed for dreading it.
The second thing happened at the post-punk show I mentioned here. About two-thirds of the way through it, the people in front of my group started to mosh. These were big, sweaty men and they were throwing their bodies around with purposeful carelessness. More than once I jerked back, terrified a head-bang would break my nose. It only took a couple minutes for me to know they were ruining my experience. But my friends showed no signs of discomfort, so I was faced with two options: get over it and stick it out—I was at a punk show after all—or excuse myself. I didn’t love the idea of seeming like a wimp or disrupting my friends with my wimpishness, but ultimately I was (a wimp) and wouldn’t (be disrupting my friends), so I told them I was headed to the back, and that they should stay and have fun. They nodded and waved and I spent the rest of the show sitting by myself at the bar, pleasantly away from the crowd, wondering why most of my life I would have chosen to stay and make secret enemies out of everyone around me.
Had I not been thinking about this topic I doubt I would have retained either of these memories, but instead I mined them for clues. In both situations I felt instinctively like I’d done the right thing. But in the first case, I’d pushed myself to do something I didn’t want to do, and in the second I’d pushed myself to do the thing I did want to do. Why, then, did they both feel like the adult choice? The pair of scenarios didn’t seem to support any particular line of thought about boundaries or doing the hard thing or listening to myself—being a baby or not. They didn’t suggest a consistent rule for how to handle scenarios where my sense of responsibility pushed up against my desires. It wasn’t until I took a bunch of sloppy notes about it on a scrap piece of paper that a logic started to emerge.
Both moments presented me with the option to be passive or active, and selfish or agreeable, but not in the same combinations. I drew a graph like this:
For me, refusing to go to the dinner party alone would have been avoidant and selfish. But on the dance floor, the more avoidant choice was actually the more agreeable one: to stay with the group and not make a fuss. And so I populated the graph like this:
The options on the left side of the graph—the avoidant ones—are infantilizing. I baby myself by assuming I can’t go in alone; I baby my friends by assuming they can’t handle me asserting needs in opposition to theirs. The options on the right, meanwhile, allow all of us to be adults, like this:
Your own choices in these situations might go in different parts of the graph. I think it’s less about the specifics and more about understanding what it means to assert—but not baby—yourself, given who you are and what you need. Sorting that out, for me, is often the hardest part. I’ve spent years in therapy trying to rewire my brain to remember that the hard choice doesn’t necessarily equal the good choice, and sometimes I’m still not sure that’s true (sorry Lina). A lot of popular wisdom favors tidy aphorisms about giving yourself a break or giving yourself a push, when people moreso need a framework for when both sound kind of right. I’m starting to think avoidance is the key. As a litmus test, “Am I being avoidant?” tends to cut through a lot of ambiguity, leading me to an answer that sometimes is and sometimes isn’t what I want to hear. Unsurprisingly, an app that allows me to flag when I want to secretly cancel on a friend passes the test with flying colors (as in: Yes, that’s literally the definition of being avoidant).
Technology babies us all the time. “Never talk to a wage worker again!” the embarrassing Seamless ads promise in so many words. “Everything you could dream of without leaving your apartment! Community without communing with a single soul!” Putting aside the marginal good these apps do for people who rely on them, their ads are clearly focused on a capable, upper-middle class that’s learned to take its neuroticism a little too seriously. They exploit what probably started as compassion-driven conversation about burnout into a recursive push for comfort at all costs. When we stretch that ethic to its limits, we make simple things like taking a phone call or being honest with a friend into something much scarier than they actually are.
I’ve always been drawn to untangling and pathologizing complicated social dynamics. Most of my journal entries from high school were just pages-long screeds analyzing who was thinking what. For a long time, I saw this as a useful social skill. I used to believe that growing older and wiser would mean becoming increasingly attuned to the moods and thoughts of other people so that I could act accordingly. Only recently have I genuinely started seeing that way of being as a hindrance, or at least a complicating factor, to engaging in adult relationships. I still have to remind myself all the time that it’s not actually helpful to hypothesize about how other people feel, or base my decisions off a constellation of unspoken factors. It ratchets up the stakes of intimacy to an unnecessary degree. (More straightforward people have known this much longer than I have.)
What I’ve found in my attempts to quiet the guesswork is that it’s actually—obviously—much easier to state my needs and expect others to do the same. In fact, it frees up a humiliating amount of time and energy. I’m still learning how to do this. I have to repeatedly pester myself to stop running the calculations on what everyone else is thinking, as if reminding my body not to slouch. Like most life-long habits, it’s unmooring to part with, but also, naturally, liberating to break.
My favorite article I read last week was “How an Ivy League School Turned Against a Student,” by Rachel Aviv for The New Yorker. Last week’s 15 things also included a good pair of sweats, a neck device (lol), a book I just finished and loved, more articles, etc. The discussion of the week was all about dinner: how to approach it, how to split it with a roommate or partner, how to plan for it (or not). Basically I begged everyone to tell me how to fix my relationship with dinner. Lots of good comments!! I’m only mildly annoyed by how many of you love to cook.
Thanks for being here. Have a nice Sunday!