Monday, February 25, 2013

On Approach-Avoidance and Feeling Like I'm in a Rut

I've had this strange feeling lately - one I've had before but thankfully not very often - where I feel really unmotivated to do anything but at the same time, feel intense guilt for not doing anything and try to motivate myself into doing something. Who knows exactly where this strange guilt/apathy comes from?

I think it has something to do with being Catholic. We always think we have to feel guilty about something.

Anyway, religious jokes aside, this feeling reminded me of a psychological concept I learned in my social psychology class many years ago but generally don't have any cause to apply to anything more than my own odd behavior.

In all fairness, though, that describes about 75% of the things I learned in my psychology classes.

This concept, referred to as the approach-avoidance conflict, originates from Kurt Lewin, who did a lot for the field of psychology and is like the godfather of modern social psychology. He also once said "There is nothing more practical than a good theory" which has become the opening quote for practically every theory class/presentation/paper I've been exposed to in my 13 years in the field.

A psychologist who doesn't spend time with a theory can never be a real psychologist.
Approach-avoidance conflict occurs when a goal has both positive or negative aspects. Like finishing grad school. Or renovating a house. Or a night of heavy drinking.

Okay, that last one may not qualify, because the other part of this conflict is that you feel both approach or avoidance at about the same time, or maybe you feel one (approach) but as you get closer to the intended behavior, you feel the other one (avoidance). This conflict keeps you from engaging in the behavior or makes you start and then stop before reaching the goal.

So I'm thinking of all the fun things I could/should/would be doing, like writing, but as I sit down to start doing that thing, feel suddenly unmotivated. But then, as I consider the alternative - doing nothing - I have the same sensation, where I kind of want to sit and do nothing but at the same time, kind of don't.

Don't want to do nothing. Yeah, nothing confusing about that double negative.

But at least now I feel better for having written something. Even if it's a short, kind of rant-y post with a Kurt Lewin picture and an altered Godfather quote. Now if only I could get out of this rut I've found myself in.

Thoughtfully (?) yours,

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My 30s and Being Comfortable in my own Skin

Lots of people dread turning thirty - they see it as leaving their youth (aka: their 20s) behind. In my case, I also was pretty emotional on my thirtieth birthday, but for a far different, more personal reason. When I was 22, my cousin committed suicide on his thirtieth birthday. It hit the whole family pretty hard. So when I turned 30, it hit me - I am older now than my cousin will ever be. That thought haunted me throughout my 30th year, and I was, for lack of a better word, relieved to turn 31 and be able to leave that thought behind.

But something else happened during my 30th year that I was quite happy about.

Since my teenage years, I have had strong body hatred issues. I was a stick as a child, but when I hit puberty, my body turned into an hourglass shape seemingly overnight. Whether it was from the boys in school who would comment on my 13-year-old but quite curvaceous figure, a product of media exposure, or my new involvement with the theatre world and all the evaluation and appearance issues that come with it, I don't know - probably it was a combination of all three.

These issues continued into my 20s. In the summer of my 22nd year, I was dealing with not only the loss of a family member but the ending of a 7-year relationship and my plans to move to a new city where I knew no one. I stopped eating - my family had to practically force me to eat. Even after I moved to Chicago, I would come home from grad school, and cry in my apartment. I would skip meals and obsessively go to the gym, wondering why I felt so faint after even a brief workout. And one day I shouted at myself in my head, "It's because you're not eating!" That helped to pull me out of the worst of it, but I still struggled with those issues. I was down to a size 6 - the smallest I've worn since I was a teenager - and I still looked at myself in the mirror and thought, "I'm so fat. I'm so hideous. No one will ever love me."

I met my husband and we spent lots of time going out on dates (usually involving food) and enjoying each other's company. That, combined with a back injury from a car accident, made my weight creep back up. I was a wreck. I dreaded trying on clothes. I would spend hours trying to figure out what to wear that would hide my body. I loved that I had found someone who loved me for who I was, but I just couldn't understand how he could look at me and call me beautiful.

When I turned 30, those feelings subsided. I suddenly felt comfortable in my own skin. I started wearing clothes that showed off my figure more. As I write this, I'm rocking a pair of skinny jeans, something I never would have worn, even 20 pounds ago. And I can look in the mirror and think, "Hey, I look good. I have great eyes. I have fantastic hair." I still see the problems, but I don't fret over them like I used to. I'm sure that finishing my PhD, getting married, and buying a house, also helped, and I'm not downplaying my career, intellectual, and social accomplishments. I know that life is not all about what one looks like. But I think that's also something that came with my 30s - a realization about what is really important (to me) in life.

I read a column once about a woman who, in her 20s, asked an older woman her favorite age, the age at which she felt most beautiful. Her answer - 35. This columnist, in her 20s, just couldn't fathom how she  could pick any age in her 30s. But the columnist, now in her 30s, said she finally got it. There's something about a woman's 30s that helps her to leave some of that baggage behind.

Maybe it is the fact that we leave our youth, and all of its hang-ups behind. Maybe it is because of the major life changes that occur around that age and help us to realize what's really important. Maybe it is the changes to our brains and bodies that help us to "grow into" what nature has given us. Whatever it is, I'm glad.

And I do love these skinny jeans.

Trivially yours,

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In the Quiet Calm of the Mind

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm painfully self-aware - either from my background in theatre, or my current career in psychology & research, who knows? - and tend to think about and analyze my thoughts, actions, and feelings. This could be a blessing or a curse, and which of the two often depends on what I do with the information.

But occasionally, I stumble across something that makes me think, "Hmm, that's an interesting psychological phenomenon. How can I study that?" I don't always come up with a good study idea right away, but it's something I tuck into my back pocket for later.

Recently, I was nearly in a car accident. There was probably nothing special about this near-miss, but something very interesting hit me - figuratively, of course. I was driving to pick something up at the store, going east, and a car coming from the west hung a left in front of me without looking. I slammed on my breaks, thinking, "Gotta stop, gotta stop." I hit a patch of ice and began to skid. In that moment, I felt a sudden sense of peace, as I very calmly thought, "I'm going to hit him. There's nothing I can do about it. My passenger front will hit his passenger back. This is going to happen."

It wasn't freaking out, it wasn't, "Oh God, my cheap, old car is going to be totaled." Or "I hope this guy has insurance." It was a peaceful acceptance that, "This is going to happen."

I wonder if that happens in other situations. After you've fought like hell to stop whatever from happening, when you realize that your actions are probably not going to make a difference, you quietly accept that "This is how it is." I realized after that this feeling happened to me in another car accident, when a man in front of me braked suddenly and I rear-ended him. I think that's one reason the thud of a car accident sounds so deafening - because it follows that quiet calm. Thankfully, there was no damage to either car - it was a pretty slow rear-ending - and we both thanked the Lord we were okay and went about our business. He even gave me a hug. Nice guy.

Sorry, getting off the subject. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the accident didn't happen. The other car began to slow down - which is bad, because it means he would have stopped right in front of me - but thankfully, sped up and got through the intersection. We missed by mere inches. Perhaps it's because this was a near-miss that I noticed this sensation. If we had collided, the calm would have been followed by, "Thud" and "Well, better call the cops".

It was of course, after the accident didn't happen that my heart began to pound, as I thought, "Crap, that was really close!" That's when the freak-out occurred. But it was short-lived, given nothing really happened.

So what is driving this sensation? (Man, I am full of unintentional puns this evening.) Is it the "death instinct" Freud insists we all have, that at some point, when faced with our unavoidable demise or something like it, we accept or perhaps even welcome it? Is it an evolutionary holdover from our hunter-gatherer days where struggling with the predator/whatever was more likely to get us killed? What could it be?

Pensively yours,