One of the biggest factors in having enjoyable relations
with other people is whether I am consciously reacting to them or not.
My family went on vacation for 10 days while I stayed home. This was by far the longest I’ve stayed home alone for (say what you will). I regarded this as a valuable opportunity to spend a good deal of time truly alone, to reflect on myself and see what I am like when the constant noise of living with other people winds down.
I found that I like having a house to myself quite a lot. More importantly, it became quite clear to me that most of my suffering related to other people comes when I am not actually around them. When I am running and just thinking for instance, I tend to think quite often about the people in my life. At those times my mind can go in 20 different directions, imagining all manner of scenarios that are unlikely to happen.
Truly, the bulk of my relationships with other people happen “in my head,” so to speak. And that’s not just because I’m introverted. I connect several “dots” of my experience, churn them together into a story, and my mind feasts upon that story. That story becomes, essentially, our relationship. And many a time I have used such stories to make the social world a living hell for myself.
This is a problem only to a much lesser extent, but I’ve noticed that my mind tends to ravish itself on the stories other people tell about their relationships as well. Then I deliberate over and analyze those stories, even if they don’t involve me at all. Yet, if I am thinking about the stories, they are inside me. Essentially, they become my own.
All in all, I’ve noticed that I’ve related to other people quite a lot on a basis of pain. This is much more the case with some relationships than with others. In some of the relationships in my life, this tendency is almost rampant. It’s as though every sentence that comes out of our mouths is meant to incite pain. It’s not that we don’t like each other. That’s not the case at all.
But there is going on here, when you stop and think about it, a rather strange dynamic. It seems we have built a friendship around talking about suffering. Not profound or noble suffering of any sort (if there is such a sort of suffering), but petty, nasty, ugly, angry things. The kinds of things you might hear about in a chick flick, except these are the things you wouldn’t want to hear about. These are the things that would make you stop and say, “Oh. Why are you doing that? Why are you subjecting yourself to this? Is this really necessary? I don’t think it has to be this way.”
I assure you there is nothing damaging going on here. No one getting hurt. No wounds being sliced open. Just a lot of cackling. Perhaps a lot of vamping. All appears fun and well, but at the end of the day it is quite draining.
To return to the beginning, things only unfold this way, it appears, if I merely react to other people. On the other hand, if I respond consciously, most, if not all suffering is avoided.
I react unconsciously to other people when I take an overly-analytical approach to the social world. This analysis is the part of me that throws a story into my mind and goes over it over and over and over and over again. It’s the part that thinks about every word I said during a conversation and wonders how I could have done things differently. It’s the part of me that distorts human relationships and twists them into a drama. Or worse, a war. Or even worse than that, a performance.
When you tell yourself a story about a relationship over and over, that story becomes the relationship. Then you can’t look in the other person’s eyes. You feel a wall of pain between yourself and the other every time you’re around each other. You’ve so saddled down this relationship with the baggage of analysis, you can’t act. You have effectively murdered your personality, your desires, your power—everything that fuels human relationships. And it’s just so horrible to watch your connection to someone you love go down in the flames of quiet desperation.
You start to ask yourself, I know I love this person. But why does that love seem to run off when I’m in their presence? Why does everything go to hell? Am I delusional? Is something wrong with me?
What’s going on here is that you’ve trapped yourself in a web of stories and logical deliberation. You pick out arbitrary dots from your observations and you connect them, over and over, every which way, until the connections between the dots form a web. Then the web traps you, and it swallows you whole. And then you wonder why you’re effectively useless when you try to interact with others. You’ve got yourself a case of analysis paralysis.
When you have been seized by analysis paralysis, you will feel disgusting. You will feel trapped, and you will not like it. Yet, it will be scary for you to escape from analysis paralysis. Letting go of your stories will feel like risking death.
You can unravel the stories. Take them one by one, tell them to yourself as usual, like you always do. But this time, stop the movie every now and then. Don’t just stop the story, but stop yourself telling the story. Reflect not merely on the you in the story, but the you telling the story as well. Ask that person why she has told the story this way, or whether she would like to continue telling the story. Remind her that she can stop telling the story at any time that she so chooses.
It’s just a story. It’s like a nighttime dream. You just wake up and it’s over. If it was a particularly powerful dream, it might leave you a little shaky for a while, but you’ll come to soon enough. It doesn’t have to have any major lasting effect on you—not if you don’t want it to. You can just do what you do every morning: wake up, and then carry on with life as usual.
Of course, when you’re in analysis paralysis, “life as usual” has been hijacked by the web. It has become your default state of mind to over-analyze social situations and to think about these stories. You’ve taken this way of being for granted. One day, you started to hide beyond the stories. You started to hide there for longer and longer periods of time, and before long, you decided to never come out.
But that, my friend, is a story in itself. That’s what you sound like when you’re telling yourself stories about the drama that is the social world. And you don’t have to sound like that. You can sound like that for dramatic effect, if you’d like. But know that it is for precisely that purpose, and no other.
Keep telling yourself stories, if you’d like. Don’t beat yourself over the head every time you start to think about one. But start to inject some play into them. Stop the movie every now and then, and see that there is not just a person in the story being watched, but a person telling the story as well. Be adamant about reminding that story teller that the story is just a story. Let the story teller say, “OK, I know—just let me tell it for a minute.” Give her some space to do so. And when you decide you will have no more of this, tell her to stop. This need not be a violent process. She will simply stop.
The challenge for me, right now, is remaining in the space of discomfort. It’s looking into the eyes of another person. Especially a person whose eyes I’m afraid to look into. Don’t run away just because it’s uncomfortable. Don’t try to fill the air with meaningless words. Don’t say things just because a person is there. You don’t have to do that.
I feel that having social goals is antithetical to relating to other people healthily. At least at this point, all that will do is keep me in analytical mode. And I don’t need to be in that mode anymore. Even after just a few days of continuously becoming aware of my story-telling thoughts and then stopping them, I’ve realized how gross it feels to think about my social life in that way. I can’t stand the thought of going back. I won’t. Not unless I choose to, anyway.
Basically, what I am trying to do right now involves 3 parts: 1) Release neediness, 2) Stop analyzing and telling stories, and 3) Interact with people proactively. I’ve made a good deal of progress on 1 in the last several months—number 2, in the last several weeks. And I’m just starting to work on number 3. This isn’t a perfectly linear process: 1 and 2 don’t just go away entirely. But I can see that I needed to make substantial progress on 1 before I got to 2, and then on 2 before I got to 3. At this point, this appears to be a fairly elegant protocol to completing the ultimate task at hand, which is to cultivate an overall vibe in my life of social abundance and intimacy.
Intimacy, I have considered, is the “hard problem” of human relationships. Casual conversation is easy. Tuning out others and acting on your own choices, no matter how different or “wrong” you seem in the act, is pretty easy after you’ve done it too many times to count. Sex is easy. But intimacy- raw, alive, brutally honest emotional intimacy-- that’s hard.
For me, what is hard is cultivating love without letting go of power. It’s being able to experience a close connection to another person while maintaining my integrity.
For a while I got used to the idea that if I wanted to be around people, I’d have to sacrifice a bit. I could be funny and have fun around others, and that was great, but more in-depth matters were the stuff of only the rare long conversation. For the most part, I would have to keep those things- the things I cared about most- to myself.
Of course, this is a stupid way to relate to other people. I’m not going to elaborate on it much, because truthfully, I have not done a whole lot on the other side of this idea yet. But it’s a process, my friend. It’s a process. I will cross that bridge.
Where I’m at right now, as I said, is just being in the presence of others consciously. Don’t react. Instead, choose. Choose to act only as you would desire to. Choose to act only as you would if you were thinking about it seriously. But, of course, don’t act as though you had planned it out in advance, or were deeply analyzing the situation. There is no place for that in human relations—not enjoyable ones, anyhow.
An important piece of this is removing attention from myself, and placing it on the situation at hand. Social interactions ask for presence. This means that attention goes on the person you are interacting with—not yourself. When I think about how my hair looks and how stupid I sound and yadda yadda yadda, I act really dumb. But when I place my attention on the bigger picture, of the unfolding interaction between me and the other person, things go much more smoothly, and I enjoy myself quite a bit more.
Similarly, I recently recognized that I have long approached social situations from the idea that I am vulnerable. I have imagined that people hearing information about me- whether I’m the one who communicates it to them or not- can hurt me somehow. It didn’t seem right that a person who doesn’t really care about me or the story being told should hear that story. They’ll give a fake smile in response to it, and then leave the situation with a likely-malformed idea about me in their head. These situations felt like a total violation of my privacy and dignity. I imagined that pieces of myself were being stolen from me, and without care or remorse.
I’ve decided that this viewpoint does not match my larger ideas about reality, which include the idea that the essence of who I am is fundamentally safe. I cannot be damaged or degraded by mere words. So what if a story is told about me that depicts me incorrectly, or I fall into old patterns and say something dumb? I’m still me. I’m not defined by other people’s ideas about me. I cannot know those ideas for certain anyhow. I can only know my own imagining of what those ideas might be.
So the challenge now, in addition to being present, is to remember that I don’t have anything to defend. If I have any sort of reputation, I don’t know what it is, nor do I need to know. I do not become the words spoken about me—especially if they are not my words. Nor can I become the thoughts conceived about me—definitely if they are not my thoughts, for those thoughts are imperceivable.
How consciously do you attend to your social life? Are you totally present with others when you talk to them? Have any of your relationships fallen prey to storytelling and analysis paralysis? Can you look people in the eye and remain in their presence without falling back on learned reactions?
When you get clear that it’s time for massive change in an area of your life, that is a special time. This is especially so in those areas that are underdeveloped. The potential there is immense.
Go forth with overwhelming force. Step back and watch just how much you can accomplish.
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