This is Your Brain on
I’ve changed a lot of things about myself in the past year, but the changes in my mental landscape dwarf all the others.
I’ve always been a believer in improving myself, but my concept of what that meant was constrained to the “work harder, do more, get smarter stronger faster better” brand of personal growth. I thought that if I tried hard enough to succeed according to the usual metrics, I’d find the confidence, happiness, and security I was looking for. And don’t get me wrong: I still believe in working hard to improve on those traditional metrics, and reaping the rewards of that work. I just think there’s more to the picture.
By nature I look at the world through a lens of logic and reasoning, and until recently I had little interest in looking through any other lens. Sure, I liked yoga, but I dismissed all the spiritually loaded things the instructor said as woo-woo bullshit to be filtered out so that I could enjoy the exercise. I tried meditation several times because I heard so many business gurus recommend it—sometimes practicing daily for a month or more—but it just made me more sad and stuck in my own head, so I wrote that off too.
But last spring, some of these less logical, more feelings-based concepts started to trickle into my head. Once I acknowledged that there was some truth to them, I was more confused than ever, because I had (and still have) two competing factions in my mind: the logical side that thought my feelings were dumb, meaningless, and should be controlled, and the semi-spiritual side that was beginning to come out of forced hibernation.
So I stayed in a somewhat sad, lonely funk, but now I was intensely aware of it. I’ve spent a lot of time alone and in unknown places, so I was no stranger to loneliness, but I thought of that as the price I paid for my hyper-mobile existence that allowed me to travel to so many cool places. Suddenly, that justification wasn’t cutting it. I wanted to make friends where I lived (in Colorado), but that felt really hard, and it was so easy to get on a plane and fly to the friends I already knew and loved. Most of the time that I “lived” in CO, I was actually in LA or New York or Mexico or wherever else my friends were, trying to avoid the loneliness that would creep in whenever I stopped to take a deep breath.
During the summer I went to stay with some friends in Brooklyn, and that’s when the changes really started coming. I spent a week at their apartment, and didn’t do much―every day and night we talked and played music until it got light out, and then went to bed and started the whole thing over again. And I had The. Best. Fucking. Time. Ever. I experienced a level of happiness I didn’t think was possible without drugs, just from spending time with these people. They were so open and caring and vulnerable and accepting, and I didn’t feel like I had to filter myself, or be self-conscious about anything I did. Straight from my journal:
The people here just make me feel so damn free and alive and myself. There’s never any worry of judgment, or of someone thinking I’m weird, or anything like that…it’s just love, 24/7/365.
When I left for the airport at the end of the week, I was beyond bummed. I almost never cry, but I cried the whole flight back to Colorado, and much of the next day. My life was optimized for cool places and experiences, but I had just discovered that I could be bizarrely happy without needing to do much of anything—it was all about the people, and it always had been. Shit.
Three days later, I decided to move to Brooklyn. Instead of flying to my friends, I wanted to be with them by default and travel away from them by choice.
Shifting the Goalposts
In the following months, I changed my priorities, and my mental state transformed completely. I had always imagined some improved future version of myself who was better at fulfilling my existing values, but instead I got a whole new basket of values to puzzle through. Some of the changes I noticed:
- Cool experiences/places ➞ good people
- Focus on work ➞ focus on relationships
- Self-criticism ➞ self-compassion
- Trust logic ➞ trust feelings
- Withhold information to look strong ➞ be vulnerable to feel strong
Of course, we all exist somewhere on a spectrum between these extremes. I didn’t shift from one end to the other overnight; rather, I realized that these spectrums exist, and that with effort I could change my position on them.
Places ➞ People
Objectively speaking, I have been to a lot of places and had a lot of unusual experiences for someone my age. In addition to a super-sized serving of privilege, I was able to do many of those things because I prioritized them over nearly everything else. For example: I rode my ancient motorcycle across the country by myself, twice. Let’s skip past the part where I say how incredible an experience it was and how much I learned (both true), because that’s not my point here. The unpleasant and slightly embarrassing reality is that I was super fucking lonely, both times, nearly the whole time. Over and over again, I would find myself in some incredibly gorgeous spot, wondering why I couldn’t enjoy the beauty instead of stewing in misery.
This dynamic repeated itself dozens of times, until I ended up in the bleak mindset I described in the first section. Only by depriving myself of human contact was I able to see just how important it was to me.
Work ➞ Relationships
Work has always come very naturally. I believed that all good things came through hard work. The more difficult or painful or all-consuming the work, the better the result must be, right? My life experience to that point bore this out: schoolwork, programming, wrestling…I did a lot of work, checked a lot of boxes, and opened some doors for myself. I wasn’t wrong, per se. I was zoomed in on one little piece of the picture—traditional physical, academic, and financial achievement—and I didn’t realize there was more to life than that.
With the help of good friends, lots of journaling, and some mind-expanding experiences with Substances That Shall Not Be Named, I began to zoom out and see a more multifaceted version of life. It started off as a vague confusion, cognitive dissonance between my long-standing beliefs and my current feelings. That dissonance grew until it came to a head this summer, when I had no choice but to acknowledge that work is not the primary source of meaning in my life. I had to change my habits and goals to reflect my new reality. That was scary and uncomfortable, and continues to be both of those things, but I think I’m on the right track.
Self-Criticism ➞ Self-Compassion
I began to notice when I was cruel to myself for offenses that would have aroused nothing but compassion had someone else committed them. First came rationalization: I must get a lot done because I’m able to beat myself into productivity. But when has that ever worked? “Beatings will continue until morale improves” is hardly an effective strategy, especially when you’re on both ends of the whip. With that realization, I found an argument for self-compassion that my rational, achievement-oriented brain couldn’t ignore.
Logic ➞ Feeling
As my last sentence makes obvious, I have a hard time trusting something that I can’t find cold, hard evidence for. I tried to approach everything (including my own mental health) in the most logical way possible, in hopes of getting the best outcome in the least amount of time. Intuition was not in my vocabulary. If there wasn’t empirical research on it, I didn’t believe in it.
The sense of intense acceptance I felt that week in Brooklyn unlocked some door inside me that I didn’t know existed. Suddenly, I was in tune with my body in a way I had never experienced. When I went for a walk, I didn’t want to listen to a podcast—I just wanted to look around, experience the beauty that was all around me, and feel myself moving through the world. For the first time since I was 16, eating the right amount wasn’t an all-consuming ordeal based on a cycle of overeating, shame, and deprivation. It still requires a little effort to get my eating right, but food no longer occupies a quarter of my brain all the time. I mostly just eat when I’m hungry, and don’t eat when I’m not. What a concept.
Withholding ➞ Vulnerability
Outward toughness was deeply ingrained in my psyche from years of being bullied in elementary school, and years of wrestling in middle and high school. If I showed that I was struggling, that meant I was weak. I thought people would take advantage of me if I told them what was really going on, because that was my experience for 12 years of school: as soon as I showed any cracks in the armor, someone would exploit them…so I got really, really good at not having any cracks. The only problem is, armor keeps things in, too, not just out. Every difficult thought pattern or self-critical fixation I had bounced around inside me until it felt like I was in a self-made echo chamber where the volume only ever went up. I occasionally exploded and punched a wall, or got hammered, or sprinted through the woods and yelled.
But! I eventually trusted a couple people enough to open up to them, and their response blew my mind: they were accepting and sympathetic and comforting! They didn’t judge me, or laugh at me, but instead validated the experiences I’ve had and made me feel seen and welcome.
So…where do all these realizations leave me? Honestly, I feel like I know less than I did a year ago. Some unknown unknowns blossomed into known unknowns, and left me more confused than when I started. I think I’m on the first chapter of a journey into a very different life: one with more emotion and trust and acceptance. I won’t bother predicting what that life might look like, because I have absolutely no idea. I just know that it’ll be a richer and more fulfilling one, and I’m excited to be along for the ride.