A: What the Civil Rights movement, personality psychology, and The Santa Clause movie have in common
The other day I had the great privilege of hearing Civil Rights activist Diane Nash speak at the Chicago History Museum. (I also had the equally great privilege of sitting among my thoughtful colleagues after the talk and discussing our reactions.) Of the many wise things Ms. Nash said, I want to highlight one that stuck out to me in the current context of my life, though it was far from what she defined as the most important component of social movements. One audience member asked how to create unity in a movement, and Ms. Nash said unity comes from movement and action; it does not precede those things. In other words, don’t wait around for other people to join your cause before you take action. People join a movement when they BELIEVE change is possible, precisely because you have shown them it is through your action. This statement is simultaneously obvious and profound, and, in practice, a lot harder to achieve than it sounds. At times, we are all beset by hopelessness - in the face of societal problems, personal problems, you name it - and it is a tall order to be asked to believe change is possible; to visualize and sacrifice for something you believe will happen but have no physical proof will come to pass. I suppose this is called faith.
The reason this concept resonates so strongly with me right now is because of the personality psychology research paper I’m working on. Part of the paper asks whether mental health services can lead to positive, long-term personality change. We didn’t find good evidence that they do, though previous studies have presented contradictory findings. But in the process of trying to explain our particular findings, I stumbled on a theory of self-regulated personality development in adulthood that posits certain requirements for personality change and may help explain why this change is so difficult. The theory states that a person must view the act of changing personality trait-related behaviors (i.e., showing up to work on time is related to the trait of conscientiousness) as desirable or necessary, and, on top of that, feasible. Only then can an individual change his or her behaviors, and it is only after these self-regulated behavior changes become habitual that personality trait change occurs. (For those who are curious, this is the paper that published the theory: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/per.1945)
The key word is feasible. According to this theory, a person has to BELIEVE that they can and will change their behavior in order to bring this change into being. You cannot wait for proof that you are changing; you have to believe that change is feasible, and only then will you see this change. This framework reminds me of one of my favorite childhood films, The Santa Clause. In the film, a young boy full of Christmas spirit, Charlie, ends up at the North Pole with his bah-humbug dad, Scott Calvin. Little Elf Judy says to Charlie, “Seeing isn’t believing. Believing is seeing.” To me, this explains why Charlie can see the beauty of the North Pole; he believes in Santa Claus, in elves, and in Christmas magic, and when he visits the North Pole, that’s what he sees. But Scott Calvin, who sees the same physical reality Charlie does, cannot believe that what he sees is real, and is therefore confused and grumpy when first arriving at the North Pole. Now, I’m not telling you to believe in Santa Claus, and I’m not telling you that non-believers (in social change, personality change, the North Pole, etc.) will not become believers upon seeing evidence to the contrary. But I am telling you that first letting yourself believe (in change, in human kindness, in anything) will make the process of seeing (a change in your life, evidence of human kindness around you, anything else) much easier. If you believe and, in the end, do not see what you visualized, yes, you will feel disappointed. But the consequence of not believing, in an understandable attempt to protect yourself, is even more dire. The world is so much more than just the physical reality around us, and a life without belief is a life half-lived.
This week, we tried something new: we came up with questions for A’s friend Matt, who just started a wellness blog called Make It Your Own Vegan (makeityourownvegan.com), and we’re posting the highlights of A’s conversation with him. We thought it would be great to interview him because he, like us, is in his early 20s and going through a life transition. We highly recommend you read the home page of his website for context before reading this post. (“The Make It Your Own Story and Philosophy” - https://www.makeityourownvegan.com/my-story/2018/4/9/the-make-it-your-own-story-and-philosophy)
Long story short: he worked in San Francisco at a content marketing job that was not a good fit for him for a year and a half and suffered from serious digestive issues, and then he quit and found greater emotional and physical health. He has really interesting perspectives on yoga, food, money, social media, freelancing, art, serving those experiencing homelessness, and other topics. Enjoy!
On how his previous job (content marketing) and life experiences shape his work with Make it Your Own Vegan:
It’s a lot of skills I already have, so I’m trying to do different things. Like social media, for example. I’m not very good at it yet, and I’m working on it, just because I never really was on social media. Now I’ve kind of come to terms with it. I just had to change my perspective on the whole thing. It’s a way to connect with people, reach your audience, interact with other people’s lives. It’s a way to share your story because your story matters. I feel like growing up, I didn’t think my story mattered that much. And a lot of what I was posting was kind of ego-driven. And so I was very insecure about the whole thing. And I still get that way now. But I try to hold myself back and say, you just gotta keep learning, learning how to adjust what you’re posting and how to better reach the people you’re meaning to reach.
And so in terms of my background in content marketing, I would say the most applicable skill I have from that is positioning towards my target audience. I write headlines for my posts that are kind of catchy... and in terms of actually writing the posts, most of the time I just do what I am passionate about in that moment. The people that do realize you’re passionate about a post, they feel it, and it doesn’t matter how many people there are. For example, when I did launch [my website], I had two of my two high school colleagues reach out to me. They said good things and were happy to hear I’m just being me, 110%, and exploring the parts of me I want to explore. Right now, for example, I want creative freedom. I have to do my own thing and be my own boss, otherwise I feel so stuck and I get really stressed.
On the conflict between freedom (especially creative freedom) and security (especially financial security), and how to make it work as a freelancer in San Francisco:
So right now I have a lot saved up, luckily. I wasn’t spending much money when I was working [at my previous job], just because I was so exhausted that I had a weird relationship with money. I thought if I had more money I’d have more energy, but it was the opposite. Now that I have a lot of energy, I find myself spending more money on the things on love, and the things that help me fully express myself. But other than that, I actually am freelancing a lot. So I’m writing blog posts for a local herb shop called Scarlet Sage Herb Co. And I will eventually be a content marketing advisor for them.
Yeah, so I’m using my past experience to work with the groups of people I love and help them out. Another thing that I probably will be working on is helping the San Francisco Buddhist Center. I’ve been working with them on creating an Instagram and reaching a younger audience, which is their goal... For me, I’m starting to realize that I need to probably invest in some sort of third party system for Instagram, so it’s easier for me, because it’s really exhausting posting every day. I have a lot of posts that I’ve done, like today I’m planning to post two things. But if I have one day where I’m very post-heavy, I can schedule it all in advance and not worry about it during the week. I try to do that.
But anyway, I also reached out to this one lady creating a healing center in San Francisco, it just randomly fell into my lap. I saw they were working on their Squarespace website and I knew I could help them with that. And I also tweeted this magazine, a new plant-based, leisure magazine - they post about vegan wine, vegan spirits, weed, and just how people use things to relax, which I totally support. I like food posts as well, so a lot of it would be restaurant reviews, places you can eat as a vegan in SF. So yeah, it’s all happening.
On helping others, especially artists and people experiencing homelessness:
I’m actually working on a product part of my website, which is to elevate artists. That’s my whole goal in general right now, to elevate other people doing good, and also to share my good, as well. So I have a friend who does pottery and ceramics, and I’m going to try really hard to sell her stuff so she can make some money from that. She has things that are just sitting on her shelf, and I was like, well, you deserve money for your hard work. And she’s a great artist, and I want to write about her just because her story is very similar to mine. A lot of people have experienced what she has experienced and what I have experienced, just kind of feeling burnt out, but then realizing you don’t have to be that way, you can change your life.
Anyway, that’s kind of what I’m working on, I know it’s a lot. I also have another idea, I’m not sure when it will manifest, but I really want to help the homeless in SF. So I’ve been tweeting Dominque Crenn [a San Francisco chef]. She’s super cool, she was on Chef’s Table [a Netflix documentary series], and she seems very responsive, so I might try to figure out a way to meet with her. My idea is actually using the leftover food from her restaurants, and just taking that - stale bread, day-old produce - and preparing the food in her kitchen, or in any nice kitchen that somebody will donate, and then taking the food that we make and either inviting guests into the restaurant or figuring out a way to kind of distribute it out around the city, [the latter of] which I think will probably be the best way. The girl who does ceramics, she told me about something like that in the South Bay now, cooking for homeless people, so I’m going to go there this next week and learn about that.
On conquering fear of failure and learning from his past sickness:
It’s about taking the risk and trusting the feeling in your gut, as I’m trying to do with this blog - just go for it. I might fall flat on my face, I might fail, all these things I’m talking about - some might not work, some might soar, but I’m okay with that at this point.
Me being sick really taught me that. At the time it was just constant pain, and it was hard to get out of bed - it wasn’t depression, it was just physical exhaustion; my body didn’t have what it needed. I was always tired, and that taught me to be resilient - to be more determined and to listen to my body more. In the end what happened - and this was the best thing ever - was I realized, oh, this isn’t right. I shouldn’t be feeling this way, I shouldn’t have to feel this way.
And since I haven’t been working [at my old job] my health has improved a ton, and I’ve learned even more about my health and I continue to learn more. And the things I do surround myself with - yoga and meditation - keep me going, because they keep me in the present. I know how cheesy that sounds, but I also I know I’m going to make money, whatever way I need to make money. I’ll figure it out. I don’t know if I’ll pick up a job at Whole Foods, if I’ll end up freelancing like crazy, or teaching flute for a day a week, or what have you. But what I do know is I want to stay true to myself, and I think that’s the most important thing for everybody. You can listen and find your inner voice. And things like yoga and meditation are what have helped me the most to listen to my body, to myself, to unlock that and keep unlocking it. Because right now, I have to keep working at it - it’s not like oh, I found it, I’m alive, I have my purpose and I am perfect! It’s like, oh, I hear it, and sometimes I don’t hear it as much - what my inner voice is telling me - and I have to bring myself back, just keep coming back to the things I love: using my tools and my community to elevate myself so I can help other people elevate themselves.
On how soon his physical and mental health improved after leaving the content marketing job:
This is gonna sound crazy, but immediately after I set foot outside of the door of that job, I was like, oh, my body is healing. I felt a weight lifted; I finally could breathe again, breathe fully. And the next morning I went to yoga - which is my routine, which I’ve been doing since I’ve been in the city - and at the beginning of class we sit down in a seated yoga posture called easy pose, and we come together and breathe and all chant “Om.” And before that even happened I was literally bawling, it was just a euphoric experience. I let go, I let go of the thing that was holding me back. I finally could relax and cry, and I felt overcome with positive emotions. That’s what made me realize I have to do yoga, I have to become an instructor. I don’t know in what form, but it’s gonna be something that’s a part of my life no matter what. Those things that are meaningful - which a lot of people say, oh, that’s just your hobby, meaningful things are hobbies - I don’t believe that. I believe that your job, in whatever way, has to have meaning. You have to be making your impact in a positive way on the world, and that will fulfill you.
But like - I was still sick, I have to say. I still have to work at it, work at listening to my body, I still have to make adjustments. Like after I finished [the job] I was so happy, I was so productive creatively, I was writing random thoughts that came into my head, I was waking up at 5 in the morning, I was doing a bunch of stuff and loving life. I felt so at peace, and then the real world came back in, and I was like oh, shit, I have to make money somehow. I need to make this website successful, I need to pay bills, I need to do all this. And then I started to feel sick again. And I was like, oh, okay, I have to bring it back, do my yoga, come back to the present. And then I started to feel better again. It’s about being mindful of the money, not being driven by the money. It’s respecting the fact that you need money to feel safe, to feel secure. And if you don’t feel secure around money, you need to figure something out to help you make money with the things you love. So for me, it was those freelancing things I’m working on.
On yoga and why he doesn’t need other forms of exercise:
So, I used to run. And then this yoga teacher in her sixties, I go to her classes and she’s more in shape than I am, and she said, “Running is for recreation, yoga is for your whole life.” So I kind of dropped running. I still might run here and there, but yoga has pretty much been my only form of exercise, and it’s really all I need, I think. A lot of people think yoga is lying on the ground, resting. No, it’s not! Some of it is really hard. You can break a huge sweat. And, for me, yoga is a form of therapy, just because it opens up parts of your body that need to be opened up, so you can breathe into them. It strengthens areas that are weaker. And the type of yoga that I do - the two types - are hatha, which is more about holding a pose and getting your alignment right so that your body can have strength in the best way it’s made to have it. And the other kind is kundalini yoga, which is a new discovery for me. I just started doing it after I quit my job. And honestly, the amount of healing and energy and self-learning that I get from just doing kundalini yoga is incredible.
For me, yoga is all I need. I take it with me throughout my day, trying to be meditative, for example, when washing and drying my face. That whole philosophy has worked for me and keeps working for me. I strongly believe that yoga coming to the West is the result of business and the result of sick human beings. Because we all need an escape, a place to release the negative energy, to loosen tight muscles.
On photography and how long he’s been working on it:
Not very long. But in some way my whole life, I guess you could say. I mean, I took pictures on my phone, I continue to take pictures on my phone. But I didn’t use the DSLR [digital single-lens reflex camera] a lot. I mean I did use it when I first got it, I put pictures on Facebook and that type of thing. But a lot of the photography I’ve done more recently is I’ve been looking at stuff, looking at people’s photos and going on Tumblr a lot, learning how people take pictures of nature and beautiful things. And so I have that in the back of my mind when I’m taking pictures. But honestly the thing that’s unlocked a lot of it is being very meditative about the whole thing, just seeing the world in a very instantaneous way when I’m looking through the lens. Like, look at that moment there! and I just take it. I don’t even look at the pictures then, and then later I’ll look at them and pull out the pictures that really sing to me. And I think also letting go, knowing not every picture you take is going to be perfect. A lot of the pictures you see on my blog are one of a hundred, or fifty, or however many. Some of them are pretty amateur-looking and I haven’t done much digging into learning how to make them better. Right now it’s about building up consistency, so when there is a perfect moment I can take it and not worry about missing it.
On the mission and future of Make It Your Own Vegan and whether he has thought about wellness coaching:
Right now - because I don’t have the certifications, the training, the background in certain forms of medicine - the point is to share parts of my life, my perspective, and to share beautiful things. To share art, the stuff that I already have a background in, photography, that type of thing. I think all of it, all of the tabs [on my website] are meant to be healing, to be a way for people to enjoy themselves a little more, to think a little differently, to listen to something new, to learn something about herbs and supplements. I’m going to start writing more about herbal medicine, so that will be something I add to the blog - just because I’m going to start working for that company [Scarlet Sage Herb Co.] - and this lady is very supportive of me. She’s given me books that I can look at to make my blog more research-based. But overall I definitely need to get certified. I’m pretty sure I’m going to go to school for kundalini yoga.
On the target audience of Make It Your Own Vegan:
Anyone who wants to find some better way to express themselves, anyone who is hurt, anyone who needs some help, anyone who wants to talk. Honestly, my target audience is whoever comes through the front door. Ideally I think the group I would like to hit most is the people that work in tech right now, just because I worked in tech. I understand that people are under such high stress, and the conditions are so terrible... And I feel like if they do what they love, and they don’t feel like they have to do anything [they don’t want to do], maybe the world would be a little bit brighter. I don’t know how many people I can affect, talk to, or speak to, but the hope is to elevate others. That’s the whole point. And if my audience ends up being people in their 60s, then, yay, I love people in their 60s. If it’s young people, just 18, that’s cool too. But I think just how I write and where I’m at in my life, I’m more in the 20-40 age demographic. That might be a bit wide, but just because of who I’m reaching right now, that’s who I’m trying to get to.
On his life philosophy, summarized in one core idea.
Love, listen, and live... Oh, and learn! Fit that in where it sounds best.
If you’re interested in learning more about Make It Your Own Vegan:
When I was brainstorming what to write about this week, I realized that everything weighing on me related to transition periods and (relatively) big life choices, which is part of what this blog was geared to address in the first place. So, I will write about what is weighing on me. But first, a life update (re: this post): I actually did get into a poetry MFA program, for which I am beyond excited, humbled, and grateful. In early April, I decided to defer for complicated reasons. And the question became, what will I do in the year ahead?
On April 15, I got an email from the NC State poetry MFA program saying that if the final person they had admitted into their program didn’t accept their offer by the end of the day, the spot would be mine if I wanted it. As I read the email, an entire alternative life path flashed before my eyes. During my two years at NC State, I could've lived in Cary with my parents, brother, sister-in-law, and baby nephew for the first year, and in Raleigh with my dear friend who’s getting her math PhD at NC State for the second year. I could’ve seen my baby nephew every day and been a huge force of love in his life. I could’ve eaten my father’s amazing Turkish cooking every weekend and gone to many of the volunteer events he coordinated. I could’ve taken walks with my mother and bought her Wake Zone coffee when she was reluctant to spend the money herself. I could’ve gone to lunches with my brother and sister-in-law, and with my many friends who still live in the area where I spent my middle and high school years. But I emailed NC State and said no. It’s crazy how your life - even a life that hasn’t happened yet - can change with a single decision.
The issue is not that I am bound to attend the program I deferred; I will have to go through the formality of re-submitting my application, and I could easily choose not to do that. The issue is that the program I deferred, which is in Boston, is my top choice, even accounting for NC State's perk of placing me near family and friends. For various reasons, the BU program is a much better fit for me. Many have to do with the program itself, but some have to do with a deep wanderlust - a love of new places, especially cities - that runs through me and overpowers almost every other desire. I feel called to Boston just as I felt called to Chicago six years ago for my undergraduate degree. But the question remains, what should I do in the year before Boston?
I could stay in Chicago (though I already told my boss I would leave my current job in July/August); I have many friends here from my undergrad years, and much of the city left to explore. I could move back home to NC and have all the aforementioned benefits of living with my family for a year. (In this case, though, I would probably just work in a coffee shop or in some other random job.) OR, I could move to the town in California where one of my best friends lives. Even though no one else I know lives there, I could get a job at a counseling center (relevant to my desire to get an Master's in Social Work if poetry doesn’t work out), and have a grand adventure in a rural mountain town, a place unlike any I’ve ever lived in before. (Sure, I love cities, but novelty wins the day, especially if it’s just for a year.)
In my heart, the choice is clear: move to California. But there is a big divide between where I feel pulled by my emotions (CA, adventure) and what makes sense according to my intellect (being near so many people I know and love, whether in Chicago or NC). But, if I go even deeper, doubt falls away and I feel that I just have to accept what my intuition is telling me. It always has and always will pull me to new places and experiences, and I have a high tolerance for the sacrifices I need to make to follow that call. I must accept that there are vastly different kinds of people in this world, many of whom would prefer to be near loved ones for a year, and it’s okay that I’m not one of them. It doesn’t mean that I love my friends and family any less. It doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have been perfectly happy choosing NC State, or that it would’ve been the “wrong” decision. It doesn’t mean that California will 100% deliver on the promises of novelty, adventure, and escape that I project onto it; nothing is ever exactly as you expect it wil be. It just means that I am trying to know and accept myself. I will not fight against what I want, imposing “shoulds," “coulds," and “what ifs.” I will choose my path and walk it, and if I make mistakes along the way, I will learn from them and re-calibrate. And I will remind myself, always, of one of my favorite dialectics (two seemingly competing statements that I hold to be simultaneously true): Life is short and you must not waste it; and life is long and forgiving of our mistakes. It does no good to believe that we’re not all going to be okay.
This week, we’ve decided to do something a bit different: post an email conversation we recently had, which spring-boarded off one of our phone conversations. A mentioned that she felt that her current job “exposed her flaws”, an experience that she had also had in a previous relationship. B had some thoughts about that, and the following chain ensued. Enjoy!
I've been thinking about what you said about how relationships and jobs can clarify your flaws. My boyfriend through college was a huge fan of that perspective. His idea was that one of the most loving things you could do for someone was be in love with their potential, see the best in them and help push them to be that best version of themselves. I found that outlook exhausting at the time... I still kind of do... but I don't know, I guess there is something important about leading someone to fulfilling their own highest goals for themselves. I guess really I'm struggling with it because I have so little ambition, and so I resist being told that I'm not fulfilling my potential. Even if reaching a little bit higher would be good for me. Anyway, just some thoughts.
Aw, thank you for your thoughts. Your perspective makes a lot of sense. Even though I said on the phone that being with my ex exposed my flaws and made me want to push to make myself better, I don't know if that second part is really true. It’s true in the sense that I tried to reach outside my own limited perspective and see the ways other people see the world. As in, not everyone has the same needs, wants, desires, and preferences I do, though mine obviously feel the most natural to me and it's easy to project them onto everyone else. Although almost everyone wants to be loved, feel useful, etc., we have differences too. An example with my ex is that when my feelings are hurt, I withdraw for a short while but then want to talk it out and have human nurturing. But he just withdraws, period.
BUT the sense in which the second part is not true is that I didn't feel like I had to change to be a better fit for my ex; I didn't have to constantly strive to be better in order earn his love, or earn a greater quantity or quality of it. I get what your college boyfriend believed, and his perspective is similar to the one that Eli Finkel takes in the book I just read, The All-or-Nothing Marriage. This perspective is that when we seek self-actualization through marriage - which many people now do, consciously or not, in the modern Western world - what we want is a spouse who supports us in many aspects of our growth: growth through our hobbies, our jobs, our interactions with loved ones, etc.
Ambition is a tricky word to bring into this, but useful for clarifying what we think of when we think of personal growth. From what I know of you, you strive to be a good person, meaning a person who pursues what you define as meaning and value in many aspects of life. You left a job you didn't like to take one where you feel like you're filling a need in your community that no one else can. You strive to treat everyone in your life with kindness, empathy, and consideration. You and your husband (C) got a dog, which is challenging and beautiful and exciting. You pursue hobbies that bring you joy because that has more meaning to you than sitting around at home all the time - but of course a balance between the two is good. :) Maybe you don't define that as ambition, but it sounds to me like you are not static in your personal growth. The things that bring you meaning and reflect your values naturally contribute to your personal growth, no matter what it looks like to outside folks. Now perhaps you don't define all that even as personal growth (let alone ambition), which is perfectly valid. But whether it is personal growth, ambition, both, or neither, it seems that C supports you in all of this. You are not pursuing these things to win his love, but they integrate naturally into your life partly because of C's support. I'm pretty sure you would be doing all this even if you weren't married to him. But maybe just being with C brings more perspective into your life and helps you understand how we all have similarities and differences that we navigate in our relationships. So maybe that is what I meant when I chose the (perhaps inaccurate) phrase "exposing flaws."
In terms of jobs exposing flaws in oneself, I think that for me, that was just another way of saying that OBVIOUSLY each of us is more suited to certain jobs than others. And I actually don't think anyone should change themselves or strive to be "better" to fit a job that isn't really a good fit. Maybe in small ways - for example, my current job shows me how I sometimes lose motivation when I'm not stimulated by a task, but I should push a little harder to work through that because we all can't be intellectually stimulated all the time. But in the big picture, no, I don’t think we should work to “improve” ourselves enough to learn to be happy (if that’s even possible) in a job that’s not suited to us. (Of course this assumes we have the privilege of choosing from multiple jobs, which is a huge assumption and an issue for another post.) While we’re making that assumption, though - I read Meghan Daum's essay collection The Unspeakables a while ago, and if I remember correctly, there was an entire essay where she argued against the concept of going outside your comfort zone. She said she’s succeeded in life by doing the one thing she was good at, loved to do, and felt comfortable doing: writing. That's not to say that being a good writer is always easy and comfortable; like all art, and all work in general, it requires blood, sweat, and tears. But she never tried to branch out, and I kind of agree with that approach. Though we may have more than one comfort zone, and we may try new hobbies and visit new places, maybe sticking in our comfort zone(s), especially when it comes to our careers, isn’t so bad after all.
I like the rewording of "exposing flaws". Maybe it's because I'm working in ~such~ a strengths-based workplace, but it seems to me that what you're really talking about is that a job/relationship can help clarify potential growth areas for a person - we aren’t really discussing flaws at all. I totally agree with what you said about personal growth being a value for me - I definitely think it is. But I also think I separate those things from my official career. I want to be a well-informed, well-rounded, and capable person, but I don't care at all about advancing career-wise or achieving other markers of success (such as buying a house, pursuing higher education, making 6 figures, etc.) Part of this is probably a function of my privilege - I don't have to worry about my personal growth in anything other than personally pleasing ways because I am already successful enough in the ways that society cares about. I have a job, I have a degree, I live in a pretty great place.
I'm wondering how Dr. Finkel feels about applying Maslow's hierarchy of needs to his theory that we reach actualization through our marriages. I know in a magazine I read recently, he talked about how marriages in the modern day can fulfill that actualization function precisely because they no longer have to serve basic survival functions. Tying that back to ambition/personal growth, maybe I am pursuing these things outside of my career because my career, such as it is, is stable enough that I don't feel like I have to.
Do you feel you have to reach a level of stability within the relationship/job before the thoughts of personal growth creep in? For example, is this "exposing potential areas of growth" something that you think happens in every relationship no matter length/depth, or is it something that requires a certain base criteria of "survival" needs to be met?
I guess what this is really all boiling down to is that the more I think about this idea of utilizing the different perspectives in a relationship or job as a springboard for one's own personal growth, the more I feel super lucky for being able to do it. And the more inspired I am to use my situations to keep that going. I hate it when I get on board with things like Personal Development Plans, but I guess they're ok if I co-opt them for my own purposes.
Haha, I agree with what you said about hating getting on board with things like Personal Development Plans (though we ironically run this advice blog). You well know that I have ranted several times about the modern-day cult of efficiency/productivity, and about how the separate but related cult of personal growth/wellness/spirituality, on top of being geared toward middle- and upper-class white people (white women especially), CAN be seen as a way that capitalism, in this crazy world that grinds us down so much, is telling us we should fix ourselves, NOT the system. But this is not a political blog, haha. So to answer your question - I honestly don’t know if I would or wouldn’t have thoughts of personal growth at a low level of stability because I’ve always been privileged enough to have my basic stability/security needs met. My best guess is that, in cases where a relationship or job is barely keeping those needs met, I would still have thoughts of personal growth. I would just be so grateful for having my basic needs met - i.e., I would hopefully not take it at all for granted - that I wouldn’t HOPE or EXPECT anything more, even though my thoughts might still stray that way. In sum, like you, I feel super lucky to be able to use my jobs and relationships as springboards for personal growth. :))
Hi A and B,
For the last 8 months I've been dating this truly fantastic girl I'll refer to as D. She's personable, witty, ambitious, and exceedingly smart. She's got a really neat career lined up for her future and has wife material written all over her. I've had so much fun spending time with her these past 8 months. We go to events together, tie our social plans in with some of our friends, and occasionally spend the night together.
Here's the problem: I wish D could just be my friend
I'm just not into her romantically. I think this stems from the fact that the way she presents femininity and the way I perceive femininity just don't match up (for what it's worth, cis-het guy here). That's nobody's fault, but it makes it hard for me to feel attracted to her and feel a burning passion for us to be together.
I'm extremely conflicted because I've been enjoying having this best friend/companion in my life, but I feel like I'm having to fabricate my romantic interest more and more in order to maintain it. The two of us have talked about this a bit and she's not of the same feeling; she both enjoys me as a companion and as a desired romantic partner. From our last conversation, it's now on me to figure out what I'm doing and I'm scared of all my choices. Which feel like:
a. Commit to it hard. People learn to love each other over time, right? She's been such a good companion that it's not worth risking losing that stability for either of us. Simultaneously, this option feels incredibly trapping.
b. Wait it out. Maybe we change up things in our relationship? I don't know. I'm not expecting her to change as a person, so maybe I just need to change how I perceive her? I fear the longer I wait to make a decision the more it's going to hurt and cause stress in the meantime.
c. Let her go. This is kind of where I'm at, but it feels incredibly selfish and stupid. As much as I'd like to, I'm not sure D would be comfortable transitioning much of our companionship to a platonic relationship. And I certainly have the friends and emotional resources to make it through a breakup/singleness, but I'm not sure she does.
I can't stress how much I care about her and want to hurt her as little as possible. I understand now why people lie and make excuses for breakups, but the two of us have been honest through difficult stuff so far, so whatever I choose, I have to own it.
As complicated/conflicting/confusing as your situation might feel - and we certainly want to validate those feelings - we agree with each other that your best option is to let her go. You yourself say “this [option] is where I’m at,” which helps us identify it as the choice that might be most genuine to your true emotions and needs. Other signals, for us, read almost as red flags; namely you say, “I’m having to fabricate my romantic interest more and more in order to maintain [the relationship];” and the option of committing to a long-term romantic relationship with D “feels incredibly trapping.” The fact that you’re having feelings of fabrication and entrapment - and that they’re growing over time (at least the feelings of fabrication) - cannot be rationalized or justified by some of the other things you say.
Two rationalizations include, “She’s been such a good companion that it’s not worth risking losing that stability for either of us;” and she “has wife material written all over her.”
For some people, it is acceptable and even preferable to choose a partner/spouse for stability, personality compatibility, etc., and not for any romantic compatibility. However, we would wager that those people, while they might vaguely miss feelings of passion, would not use words like “trapping” to describe the relationship with their significant other. At the same time, we want to acknowledge what you and our other readers already know: burning passion is impossible to sustain over decades of partnership. It may ebb and flow, but it is not consistent. That being said, you cannot work on bringing passion BACK into a relationship if it was never there in the first place.
Also, while 8 months does signal some stability, walking away now is as not as much of a sunk cost as walking away after years. And people separate after decades together! If it’s not right for one person, it’s not right; it takes two to tango. Even with the wonderful platonic aspects of your relationship that are still healthy and stable, it seems you are looking for more passion. If you stay with the wrong person and want something more - even if you tell yourself the friendship is amazing and worth the “something more” you’re sacrificing - we guarantee you will be more lonely than if you were truly single and romantically alone.
Another of your rationalizations is that you’re not sure she would want to stay friends with you and/or have the emotional resources to make it through a breakup/singleness. While you presumably know her well and we do not know her at all, we would caution you against assuming what she will or will not want, and what she will or will not be able to do. It sounds like you feel guilty that you’re not into her romantically - that the version of femininity she presents and the version of femininity you’re attracted to don’t match up. But remember, there’s a difference between refusing to accept someone as worthy of love and respect as a human being because of how they present femininity and not being personally romantically attracted to them. It’s totally awesome that you’re thinking about the nuances of gender and representation and presentation. It’s not as awesome that you’re staking yourself and your relationship on this hill.
It also sounds to us like your guilt is translating into a) a fear that she will fall apart if you leave, and b) a desire to save her from this fate and play the martyr. (If you didn’t have this fear and this desire, why else would you call letting her go “selfish”?) Our advice: don’t play the martyr. It’s not a great heroic act to stay with her and fight through your feelings of entrapment; you will not be “saving” her from some terrible future loneliness. She doesn’t need saving, and you both deserve better.
Also, we doubt you can “change how you’re feeling about her,” as you suggest you might be able to. We think this scenario would be (relatively) more likely in the context of a long friendship that eventually develops into mutual romantic attraction. But it is NOT likely when you two are already existing in the pressurized container/label of a romantic relationship. And since it sounds like D might want a romantic relationship or nothing, leaving no room for the less-pressurized context of friendship, we suggest you give up on the idea that one day your feelings for her might change.
One last piece of advice for you, and for any person in a relationship: in our opinion, it is never okay to cite physical traits as a reason for breaking up with someone, no matter how much that is your personal truth. It can be okay to say “I’m just not attracted to you (like that),” and leave it there. But we think people should never get more specific, never explicitly say, “oh, you weigh too much,” “you’re too short,” “I hate your voice,” “your style of femininity/masculinity/haircuts/shoe choice does not turn me on,” etc.
Obviously you value honesty, and we admire that very much. You say, “I’m having to fabricate my romantic interest more and more in order to maintain [our relationship]. The two of us have talked about this about... the two of us have been honest through difficult stuff so far.” So, we’re not sure if this means that you’ve told her you’re not attracted to her because of how she presents femininity, OR if you’ve told her you feel like your romantic interest isn’t genuine and you’re simply not attracted to her like that. There’s a BIG difference between the two. People cannot control many aspects of their physicality, but even the ones they can (e.g., haircuts) belong to them and them alone. When a romantic partner cites a specific physical trait as a turn-off, that is likely to stay with the jilted person for a long time, perhaps their entire life. There are few personality types that would be minimally affected by such an experience. We are NOT saying it is shallow to leave someone for physical reasons; we are saying it is unnecessarily damaging, or at the very least rude, to speak those physical reasons aloud.
But of course, it is up to you to decide what to say to D. As you wisely say, “whatever I choose, I have to own it.” Above all, we think you should choose to let her go.