7) Small positive reinforcements are ridiculously motivating

So I’ve been away for approximately a million years. I am not going to apologize because that’s not useful to me, you, or the continued existence of this blog. The amount of awesome I am for starting back up way outweighs any negatives from me forgetting about this stuff for a while. I would not always have felt this way, and I think this change is a really good thing.

I used to (and still do) have a lot of worries and insecurities. I have, at some points in my life, been reduced to a small ball of worries and insecurities and stayed in bed for days at a time spending all my energy trying not to cry. Those were particularly bad times, and I am very doing millions better lately, which is wonderful.

It’s been a long, incredibly difficult journey from there to here. Medicine and therapy have both been vital to my progress. [Side note: if you are struggling with depression, go talk to a professional. I know it’s scary and horrible (and a lot of doctors and therapists are pathologizing and horrible) but finding the right medication / strategies is so, so important. More on this in another post.]  My therapist in particular is amazing, and if I had to pick one thing I learned from her as the most generally relevant, it would definitely be positive reinforcements.

So the basic idea is, a lot of what people do on a day to day basis is based on immediate positive or negative reinforcements. It doesn’t have to be an actual reward – we’re talking things on the level of playing an inspiring sound, giving yourself a high five (or even a mental high five), or physically pulling your face muscles into a smile. Whatever makes you feel a tiny bit good, a tiny sense of accomplishment.

Ideally, have a different tiny reward for different tasks you’re trying to reinforce. Coming out of depression, there have been a lot of little life-upkeep things that I fell out of the habit of doing, and this technique has gotten me back on track for basically everything I’ve tried it for. I smile after I wash my hands. Brushing my teeth gets a “you did it!” and a mental high five. When I get out of bed and get dressed for the day, I get to choose one of my awesome colourful belts, and then I look in the mirror and go “yeah, I look awesome.” I’m thinking of starting saying “ding!” (in that tone that means you’ve levelled up) for every dish I wash.

At least equally important is not negatively reinforcing myself. The thing about being depressed is that for me, part of that took the form of thinking that absolutely everything was terrible:

“Oh look, I cleaned my room a bit. Too bad it’s still DISGUSTINGLY DIRTY and no one will ever like me because my room is a mess and my life is a mess and if I were a real person I would have cleaned everything MONTHS ago. Who am I even trying to kid even if my room were clean everyone would still see through it and nothing is worth doing anyway. Ever.”

I wish I could say I’m exaggerating for effect, and maybe I am a little, but if you read that thought pattern as true you won’t be far off the mark. This kind of thinking was effective in making me feel worse instead of better every time I managed a small accomplishment, and that was very, very effective in making me feel like there was no point to doing anything. Why clean up when the cleaning is more painful than staring at the mess? Of course, not doing anything came with its own set of “you’re terrible” negative thoughts.

The point of the positive reinforcements is to start to break that cycle. Taking pride in little things allowed me to start to see myself as competent, which allowed me to try bigger things. Learning to shut down negative thinking was a very long process, but I’d say it’s one of the most important things I did to get to a place where I can do many of the things I want to do and feel good about it.

Instead of looking at my long absence and thinking “why can’t I ever keep to projects I start?”, I’m going to look at this post and think “hey, this is one of my bests posts yet! I’m glad I took a break, and I’m glad I managed to come back to this. Maybe I can pick up another project that I’ve been neglecting, too.”

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3) Periodically check in with myself about my relationships

Just about anyone will tell you that you shouldn’t stay in a relationship where one partner is mean to the other, or hurting the other, and all that. This was clear to me from before I started dating. But no one ever really told me that there’s more to it than both sides not being jerks.  It took a few relationships that went on way, way longer than they should have for me to properly figure that out.

Over time, I’ve slowly added to that list of required attributes that make a romantic relationship worth continuing.  A lot of romantic advice focuses on avoiding red flags, but really, a lack of red flags should be a baseline standard for human contact.  If a (potential/) romantic partner treats me with courtesy, kindness and respect, that’s not so much a “points in their favour” kind of thing.  It’s a “the minimum required for me to willingly spend time with them as a person” kind of thing.  There have to be green flags too, for a relationship to be worthwhile.

I think the most important thing I’ve figured out about this has to do with timescales.  When I think about relationships (especially one I’m in), I think about it in terms of different times: right now, tomorrow, next week/month/year, foreseeable future, rest of my life.  I guess I’m not so focused on the past, except insofar as it affects or predicts the future.

What I realized is that the closest times are the most important ones.  In the past I’ve spent a long time looking at the far-off times, thinking “yeah, I can see myself making a life with this person”, without stopping to think “is this the best thing for me right now?”  I wanted so much to get through to that shiny future in my head.  There’s no point in planning a lifetime with someone who doesn’t make me feel brave and special and just so fucking excited every single time I think about being with them.  Just because I might be able to make everything all right again given x amount of time (and SPOILERS: I can’t), doesn’t mean it’s worth it.

Which isn’t to say that things have to be perfect.  But the times that I can pause, even during the rough patches, even in the middle of a fight so bad it seems like there’s no solution … when I can step back even then and say “This relationship, this person, is what I want right now.  This is awful and hard and still worth it right now.” … That’s something worth keeping.  It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course.  But it’s a damn good start.

2) Have a story ready for awkward life things

For some time, there were few sentences more terrifying to me than “So, what have you been doing lately?”

In the past few years, I’ve had a series of physical and mental medical issues that finally resulted in me dropping out of university last year.  I loved my program, I loved science and learning and thinking of myself as smart and academic and a good student.  Losing that was incredibly dispiriting, to the point where I had fairly major depression which I’m only now starting to climb back out of.  I spent months unable to leave the house, and still verge on a panic attack every time I try to think about getting a job or college training or basically doing anything with my life.  I’m trying different antidepressants, and seeing a fantastic therapist, but it’s been hard getting myself back together.

I cannot imagine how I could cause more awkwardness in casual conversation than by answering honestly when old acquaintances ask how I’ve been and what I’m up to now.  And lying is generally a pretty bad idea, especially about big things that might inspire follow-up questions.  The solution is to have a simple and true (but perhaps incomplete) story ready to go.  My story for this situation is “I had some medical issues that made it hard to be doing university, so I’m taking some time off to focus on my health.”

The extra advantage of this is that when I come up with a really good story, I can tell it to myself.  When I get to thinking about how I’m wasting my life and probably worthless, I can say to myself “No, I’m taking some time off to focus on my health.  That is not a waste of time.  That is LEGIT.”

I use this strategy most often for things relating to depression.  Mental health issues are often misunderstood and usually stigmatized, so it’s really handy having a plan ready to deflect conversation around having to say “I wasn’t able to ___, even though I tried really hard, because I’m depressed and sometimes accomplishing things is just not on,” and then having to deal with people’s confusing or pity or thinking I’m lazy because they don’t believe it’s a real problem.  There are a few people in my life who get to hear the whole story in those situations, but for people I don’t know as well, the conversation will just go so much better if I don’t disclose much.  Everyone wins.

1) Perfect is the enemy of good

Hello, internet.

I’ve decided to start a blog to try to capture moments when I figure out something useful or interesting in my life.  Maybe these things will be useful or interesting to others?

So, let’s get started.  I feel like I should start with something deep and brilliant that will make people who come here go “Ah, look at all the worthwhile things ze has to say!”  But sometimes inspiration doesn’t strike right away, and putting down something interesting but inane is better than nothing, even if that nothing might have been brilliant.

Which brings me to the first Things I Have Learned thing:

1) Perfect is the enemy of good.

I’ve tried to write this first sentence maybe 3 or 4 times, and been unsatisfied with it each time.  I’m still unsatisfied with it.  Fact is, I’m out of practice writing, so my first few posts are likely to be terrible relative to the rest of the blog, if I make it that far.  I have this idea in my head of what I want my writing to look like: witty, sophisticated, occasionally but not oppressively poetic.  I know I have the capacity to become that awesome writer.  But the only way to get there is practice.  If I give up every time I look at my work and am dissatisfied, I will never write anything.

Hence the “enemy of good” phrase up at the top there.  I have a limited amount of resources – time and patience, in this case – and it’s important to remember the choice I’m really making when I go over things again and again and then decide to put off finishing until I can do a better job.  My brain tries to tell me that the choice looks like this:

SUPERAMAZINGAWESOME product VS just okay, “good enough” product

which would maybe be true if my resources weren’t limited.  But since they are, the real choice is this:

non-existent superamazingawesome product VS actual real good enough product

And the fact is, no matter how great the first choice might have been, IT DOESN’T EXIST.  If I choose “good enough”, I end up with something good.  If I try to choose perfect, I end up with nothing.  Which means that in the real world, good is better than perfect.  And striving for perfect can destroy whatever chance I had for “good enough”.  Perfect is the enemy of good.

The best part, though, is that good enough can bring me closer to perfect.  Learning a skill tends to be iterative.  Every time I shut up my inner critic and write anyway, that practice might help me get a little closer to what I want my writing to look like.

I won’t get anywhere if I refuse to start until I know I’ve reached my destination.  I get somewhere by putting one foot in front of the other.  That’s all I can do, and that’s all I need to do.  It may not be the best way.  It may not be the most efficient, or effective, or any of that.  The important thing is that while I keep trying to make things better, for now, good enough is good enough.  And that’s awesome.