Your socially awkward Edgar suit

If you’ve watched Men in Black you might remember the scene where the vicious alien kills a farmer and starts wearing his body like a suit (and if you haven’t watched Men in Black then I just spoiled part of the movie for you, sorry).

Anyway, the farmer’s name is (was) Edgar, and when Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) figures out what the alien’s done he says, “Imagine a giant cockroach, with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex, and a real short temper, is tear-assing around Manhattan Island in a brand-new Edgar suit.

Photo by Sarah Gordon of one of the Bloomington, Indiana brains

When you’re socially awkward and having a really bad time of it you can feel like your body is an Edgar suit. Your skin doesn’t fit right over your bones. Your smile is a grimace. Maybe your stomach’s coming out of your mouth. People might ask you if you’re ok, and you know they’re quietly wondering if you’re an alien. And you are an alien; that’s how you feel. You don’t have to be a vicious alien – you could be E.T. or Alf – but you’re still an alien, and you’ve landed among people you don’t get and who don’t get you. You try to speak to them but your voice comes out garbled.

That’s what you feel, anyway – that the Edgar suit is coming apart at the seams and sooner or later everyone’s going to see the giant sticky insect within.

You think that everyone else is like Agent J or K, down to the Rayban sunglasses and the fact that if they mess up at something people forget two minutes later. But when you mess up – say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing – stop the presses! The whole world watches and remembers for eternity.

But the reality is, many other people, more people than you think, are staggering around in their own Edgar suits.

Have some sympathy for their Edgar-suited predicaments. People are skin and bone and mortal flesh. Most of them don’t know what the heck is going on most of the time. If they’re loud and seem confident they could be making noise to mask a small panicked voice in their head. You never know. And even if they’re not, remember, they’re skin and bones. Like everyone else they’ll die some day, as will you. I don’t mean to be morbid, but it’s true – there are no gods among us. There are brilliant people, talented people, bright kind people who shine a light wherever they go, and we can admire them and love them, but let’s not worship them. Many of them wrestle daily with insecurity and doubt. (Those who don’t are suspect.)

Seriously, indifference towards what other people may think of you combined with sympathy for their alien humanness, so different from yours in some ways and so similar in others, is the way to go. Unless they’re a vicious sort of bug, to be avoided lest they eat you up like a plate of pierogi, don’t worry so much about them.

Easier said than done, I know. That’s where you have to start living the words. Show up, be one with your awkwardness, and do what you love. Slowly you’ll get the hang of it and not worry so much about the insect mandibles protruding from your mouth.

(The Edgar suit image links back to its source, Men in Black Wikia.)

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If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship…

I can’t speak for every situation, but at least some of these points will ring true to you if you’ve felt the effects of emotional abuse.

You aren’t meant to be your own person

In an emotionally abusive relationship, you become defined by how your abuser sees you and how you serve his or her needs. Your own hopes, dreams, hobbies, aspirations, needs, etc. are secondary or non-existent. The abuser knows what you need (knows you better than you know yourself). They know what you like and don’t like. They know what you are. Without them you won’t survive – that’s what they want you to believe. Without them you’re nothing. Who else would bother with you and look twice at you? Only them.

In various ways your life is subsumed by their behavior, moods, and demands. If they’re your parents for example they might want to make you entirely a reflection of themselves or their cherished ideals; your dreams are supplanted by theirs, and when you resist you meet with harsh consequences. Children become mere extensions of the parent, molded exactly to parental specifications, occasionally polished like a trophy when they succeed in pleasing but otherwise subjected to a barrage of negativity meant to fit them into a rigid mold, irrespective of who the child is as an individual.

Other times children become an item the parents have checked off on life’s to-do list. Great, we have a kid. Let’s give it some food, clothes, and video games to occupy itself with and turn our attention elsewhere. If it seems to need something more it’s just being a nuisance.

Or the kid becomes a punching bag for the parent. Parents see in the kid qualities they despise in themselves and go in for repeated attacks. It could also be that the parents need to feel powerful, or they feel threatened when something’s out of their control (other people’s independent minds are a source of potential upset and frightening variability); inside they may be hurt and angry and trying to defend their own wounded selves by lashing out. Maybe they’re imitating behaviors dished out to them by their own parents. Regardless of the reason, they don’t stop and think about the effect it’s having; they don’t stop and try to really see what’s going on with their own kids. Maybe they don’t care.

The abuse manifests in multiple ways and can stem from any number of reasons, but the bottom line is, you’re not treated as your own person, which means of course that you don’t receive the respect accorded to a human being. Emotional abuse cuts you down and undermines your sense of self and your feelings of worth as a person. You’re diminished, a lesser humanoid, a projection of the abuser’s mind, a means to an end, plaything, a servant, a yes-man, a pawn, a possession, an inconvenience, a convenient scapegoat, an enemy and threat, a stand-in for something or someone else, or an extra appendage or extension of the abuser (or all of these things, at various points). Whatever it is they want you to be, you’re not fully you.

You aren’t supposed to exist outside of the reality of the abuser – how they define you and what they’ve made of you in their own mind. Think of how they react when you try to break out of their reality…

Your perceptions of reality are by default invalid

Abusers are great at caging you in their version of reality. They’re adept at rewriting reality to suit themselves and protect themselves from accountability. When you say that something happened, they say it didn’t, and that’s that. When you remember that in the middle of an argument you were angry but in control, raising your voice a little but otherwise in possession of your temper, they’ll tell you you were harsh, screaming, over-the-top, rude, disrespectful, etc. etc. (they’ll rarely or never remember any such thing about themselves though).

If you’re feeling a certain way they’ll tell you that it can’t be true. You really aren’t angry. You really aren’t hurt. What you are is sensitive/ungrateful/irrational, etc. Nothing is ever as bad as you say it is. Things usually don’t happen the way you remember them. The abuser is the final authority on what’s real and what isn’t, including your innermost thoughts and emotions.

Another possibility is that they do acknowledge your emotions or thoughts, but then tell you exactly why you’re feeling or thinking that way – because of some personal defect, or because you’ve been brainwashed by someone (hanging out with the “wrong people” who’ve planted “wrong ideas” in your head) or it’s some other external cause, anything but the abuser. It doesn’t matter what you say the cause is. Your explanations are automatically dismissed.

It isn’t long before you’re lost in self-doubt. It didn’t really happen that way, did it? Maybe I really am exaggerating. It couldn’t have been so bad. I’m a bad person for feeling this way. Other people may seem to confirm what your abuser is telling you (they might not know the whole story or may be inclined to believe your abuser over you for whatever reason, or they might not want to ‘stir up trouble’ or ‘make an issue’ out of it).

Remember also that abusive people don’t have to behave badly all the time. In fact some of them are well-intentioned; in their own eyes they’re doing what’s right, and they sincerely believe that you’re making life more difficult for them and for yourself by not changing who you are and what you do. You can have really good times with an abusive person – fun times, laughter – and they may behave helpfully in some respects. They can tell you they love you, and maybe they really mean it, at least in their understanding of what love is; you might love them very much in return. You may perceive their insecurities and troubles and feel bad for them. There are definitely people who abuse with deliberate malice and evil, and one weapon in their arsenal may indeed be to gaslight you. But abusers don’t have to act with consistent, deliberate malice in order to abuse.

So maybe you think they have a point, and you’re the unreasonable one; or you feel that you can stand to be even more accommodating than you already are. If it’s a little odd that you’re usually or always wrong while they’re always in the right, well, it’s just another sign that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. You start to doubt your own judgment, perceptions, and emotions. Perhaps you question your sanity. You lose trust in yourself.

It also doesn’t help that you can’t fully account for what they do. They might blow up sometimes and remain calm on other occasions. They might threaten you or be cold or indifferent to you in the morning and in the evening behave in a warm and friendly way as if nothing had ever happened. No apologies or explanations. Maybe they tell you you’re forgiven. What a relief. The storm is over. It wasn’t as bad as you thought it was, right?

You’re entirely responsible for their emotions and behaviors

If they blow up in your face, criticize you relentlessly or lapse into an exaggeratedly dark and terrible mood, it’s all your fault. You shouldn’t have said or done XYZ, however minor it is; you shouldn’t be the way you are. If you’d only change and be perfect at all times, everything would be fine.

What happens if you internalize this attitude? In addition to the pain your abuser inflicts on you, you’ll also experience the pain you inflict on yourself as you put most or all of the blame on your own shoulders, second-guess what you did, wonder what you could have done differently, spend time wishing you could be better, and perhaps come to despise yourself for being such a deficient person. You’ll feel guilty. Nothing like a good strong dose of guilt to corrode your thoughts about yourself. In fact after a certain point you might live in a state of perpetual guilt. Why can’t I be as good and worthy as they want me to be?

You might make excuses for them: they work so hard or do so much/they must have a personality disorder/they’re hurting themselves too/they’re damaged inside/you know that there’s good in them and they’re trying, really, it’s not as if they’re like that all the time… and so forth and so on. The excuses keep you focused on them and what they might be thinking and how you can predict what they’ll do, while you ignore your own long-term well-being. If the relationship remains in its current abusive state, you’ll have to keep contorting yourself and tiptoeing around them so that you don’t make them do the bad things they’re prone to doing. Because it’s all your fault, isn’t it? If you feel drained, angry and stressed from having to deal with their behaviors, it’s your fault for not being a better person to begin with.

They refuse to acknowledge that they give you pain

Even as they tell you that you’re responsible for their every angry flare-up, critical attack, or low mood, they refuse to acknowledge that they have any negative impact on you whatsoever. If their speech or behavior hurts you – if in response you’re sad/angry/stressed out or wish to avoid them – it’s because you’re deficient in some way. They’ll tell you you’re too sensitive or have poor control over yourself. That you’re foolish or irrational and tend to overreact. The best is when they sincerely believe (or profess to believe) in their own good intentions and tell you that you lack the wisdom and maturity to see how beneficial their relentless criticism or other corrective measures are. Everything they do is GOOD and RIGHT. Why can’t you appreciate that? What is wrong with you? they say. Everything, you reply. Everything is wrong with me; haven’t you always told me so?

You’re manipulated and controlled

What you wear, how you look, what you do, who you hang out with, what you believe in, what you are in your entirety… everything is up for grabs.

The control they exercise can be violent and aggressive, but not necessarily in a physical way; for instance, an abuser could scream at you or relentlessly pick on you or humiliate you to get you to change or to keep you in line.

Abusers may also be passive-aggressive, giving you the cold shoulder or silent treatment, or becoming deeply despondent or emotionally volatile every time you do something they don’t want you to do. (Remember, you’re supposed to be in charge of their every emotion!) They convey to you that you’ve deeply deeply disappointed them. (Your response? GUILT. Lots and lots of guilt.) Even if you aren’t doing something they disapprove of, they may want to throw you off balance by behaving as if you’ve gravely wounded or offended them. (Remember, you’re supposed to be doubting yourself and your perceptions of reality!) Inconsistent behaviors, rules and expectations are also great for keeping you off-balance and keeping your mind on the abuser and how to anticipate what they’ll do next.

They might make threatening pronouncements: “You’d better not do that, or else!” The retribution they threaten might come from their own actions, or it could be the promise of some general disaster in your life (“if you do that, you’ll fail out of school and no one will love you and ten lightning bolts will hit you on the way home, mark my words!”) Fear is potent. Fear is the friend of an abuser. Anything to make you meek, nervous, jumpy and stressed. You might be unhappy with the abuser, but the wider world is so much more scary, right?

When it comes to parent-child relationships people say, “Aren’t parents supposed to control their kids?” Well, what do you mean by that? Ideally, parents want their kids to grow up to be good, non-abusive people. They want their kids to be well-functioning, able to take care of themselves and possessed of resources (including important emotional and mental resources) that will help them handle life’s challenges. They want their kids to be healthy, happy and fulfilled. Do parents sometimes need to discipline their kids? Sure. Do they have to set some boundaries? Of course. But that doesn’t necessarily make a parent controlling. What are some signs of controlling parents?

  • They might need their kids to be a certain way (to love the same things the parent loves, to be the parent’s best friend/confidant(e)/pawn, to be a good little scapegoat, etc.) or turn out a very specific way, regardless of what the children’s individual inclinations are (you’re going to be a business executive or die trying! You’re going to get married by the time you hit 25, or else!)
  • They don’t stop at setting some reasonable boundaries for behavior, but police the minutiae: exactly how the child spends their time, exactly what they wear to school every day, exactly who they spend time with… they do their best to deny their children any meaningful choices or respond negatively to any choices their children do make.
  • They infantilize the child. They do things like tie their child’s shoelaces, help them wash their hair, help them get dressed etc. past an age when a child would require such assistance. A nine year old is treated like a five year old. A sixteen year old is treated like a nine year old. No gradual increase of responsibilities, privileges and overall independence. Remember, the child isn’t supposed to really grow into a separate human being. They can also mess with the child’s head by treating them in an infantile fashion in some ways but making adult demands on them in other ways.
  • They try not to let the child get too close to other people, including other adults who might be parental surrogates or other children who are potential friends. Other people may introduce a different reality than the one the abuser is trying to cage the child inside. (You see this in adults who are abused too – their abuser may hate it if they get too close to others or have any other meaningful relationships at all in life.)

You regularly feel two inches tall

An emotionally abusive person doesn’t have to do all of the following things; even a couple of these tactics, used regularly over time, can wear you down:

  • Neglect and dismissal. They ignore your needs, and dismiss what’s important to you. They might not even notice you’re around. Your triumphs and disappointments mean little to them. You’re there only when they feel like noticing you or require something from you that will satisfy their own needs. Sometimes the attitude of neglect is more pronounced – a deliberate cold shoulder or silent treatment or pointedly turning away from you when you enter a room. They might regularly talk over you when you try to be heard.
  • Relentless put downs and criticism. There are so many kinds. Cutting remarks, insults, sarcastic glee, compliments delivered in a patently insincere or backhanded way, a running commentary about your deficiencies, regular use of hyperbole (e.g. various aspects of your appearance, behavior or overall self are deemed the “worst ever” or exaggeratedly horrible), heavy doses of “advice” that repeatedly highlight your shortcomings. The put-downs don’t have to be verbal: facial expressions and body language eloquent of disgust, distaste, disappointment, anger, or dismissal also do the trick.
  • Humiliation. Forget feeling two inches tall, why not feel like nothing? They exploit your vulnerabilities, push you towards tears and blind insensible pain, and subject you to degrading circumstances. When done in front of other people, one effect this has is to convince you that you’re small in everyone’s eyes. Everyone is a witness to your profound defects. Everyone is laughing at you or repelled by you.
  • Constant comparisons to others. Why can’t you be more like someone else: a sibling, your best friend, a work colleague, or an abuser’s former spouse or romantic partner? Look at how they do things; they never screw up or have a bad day or look less than stellar. If only you weren’t you. (This tactic is great by the way at fostering resentment between you and other people – between family members and friends and co-workers. The resentment can distance you from those other people, putting you more firmly in the abuser’s power or making you feel utterly and totally alone.)
  • Overreactions to your mistakes, however minor. If you forget your umbrella at the park, break a dish while washing up after dinner, pick up the wrong thing at the grocery store, get a lower grade than you expected on a quiz, overcook dinner or miss an exit on the highway, a federal case needs to be established against you. There might be interrogations and summary judgments. Over-the-top emotional reactions are typical: shouting, exaggerated irritation or despondency, nasty moods or iceberg coldness. Your past crimes might be aired and re-examined, to remind you that everything you do is wrong. Even if it’s something like coming down with a cold, you’ll be berated for not taking care of yourself; if only you’d taken some 100% effective preventative measure you wouldn’t be sitting there miserably sniffling. All the while you think to yourself, “If this is how they react to minor screw-ups or misfortunes, what will happen if I mess up big time?” Hello, anxiety!
  • Intimidation and threats. Maybe they use physical violence, but they don’t have to. Shouting and screaming may be sufficient to produce a cowed silence. Or they crowd you in and lean over you, threatening you with the possibility of imminent violence. They may threaten you in other ways, or threaten your loved ones, or tell you they’ll hurt your pet or damage a valued possession. Maybe they’ll act on some of those threats.
  • Cultivating unrealistic expectations that you’ll fall short of. When you do fall short, you’ll feel diminished, sad, unworthy, and angry. If you internalize these unrealistic expectations, even normal setbacks and errors will feel like the end of the world. These expectations are often framed with the words ‘should’ and ‘must’ – I must always do XYZ, my life should be a certain way, other people have to behave in a specific fashion…
  • Encouraging various cognitive distortions. These include all or nothing thinking (either you’re perfect or you’re worthless and hopeless), magnification of errors and minimization of achievements, focusing on negative details while ignoring the positives, blaming yourself for things outside of your control, and not being able to really believe or accept other people’s compliments, however sincere.
  • Lying. They lie outright about you, including to other people. Your protests are dismissed as delusional or dishonest. They may lie about what other people said or did to you, sowing dissension between you and others and fostering mistrust.

There’s probably more I can add to the list, but I’d like to move on…

What to do?


There isn’t one simple way of dealing with and recovering from emotional abuse.

I think it’s necessary to identify that there’s a problem and then to start establishing and fortifying your own perceptions of reality and your own sense of self, fighting your way out of the diminished and degraded definitions the abuser has boxed you into. You’re piecing yourself together again.

You can start getting a stronger sense of self by gaining support from people who treat you well (including a good therapist); they can give you different and more positive and realistic perspectives about yourself that run contrary to your abuser’s negative treatment and viewpoint. They can help you understand the tactics of your abuser, and possibly how to counter them or sidestep them, while also developing yourself into a mentally healthier person. Other perspectives are key, including from people who’ve gone through similar things and have dealt with it in positive ways.

Being able to recognize that there’s a problem, and stepping back and regarding the situation as if you were an outsider, can be helpful. Words and actions that had once seemed absolutely true or sane to you lose some of their power; regarding the abuser with clarity, as someone who behaves in deeply flawed and damaging ways – and not as god-like or kind enough to put up with you or deeply insightful about your nature (“the only one who understands you”) or whatever other inviolable position they occupy – can take away from their hold over you and their power in defining you. Achieving psychological distance (and ideally physical distance) from the abuser is key. (If the emotional abuse is accompanied by physical and/or sexual violence, it’s imperative that you remove yourself physically from the abuser, including calling on intervention from law enforcement.)

It can take years to work on unhealthy mental and emotional patterns/habits if you’ve been in an abusive relationship long-term, particularly parent-child (a child’s sense of the world and of themselves is so strongly shaped by parents), but it’s possible to have a good life. It takes a willingness to work on healing yourself. Sadly this willingness may be undercut by existing poor feelings of self-worth, negativity, and discouragement – “I’m a hopeless case” you might say, even though you’re not.

In some cases people who emotionally abuse others may be willing to undergo therapy and effect positive changes in their behavior, but don’t count on it. Regardless of whether they’re working on themselves or not, put yourself first and work on yourself; you’ll need to in order to rebuild and redefine yourself in healthy ways and regard yourself as a full human being. (Also be vigilant about your own behavior. You might be treating others abusively, diminishing them and yourself, as you perpetuate patterns of behavior and thought you’re familiar with. You’re not doomed to repeat what’s been done to you.)

Here’s an additional article to read on recovery from emotional abuse. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Things people do to get you to stop thinking

You love thinking about things. You love asking questions, analyzing information, crafting arguments and counter-arguments, and wondering about life and its mysteries.

Assuming you don’t always keep your thoughts to yourself, you’ll likely find yourself inconveniencing, troubling or angering people who don’t want to have to deal with the fact that you think about things. I’m not talking about people who get annoyed if you happen to be nosy and intrusive or tactless (e.g. starting a debate about the existence and/or nature of the afterlife at a funeral), or if you’re arguing in bad faith. I’m talking about people who want you to accept things, fit in, do as you’re told, and not make them uncomfortable by exploring alternate possibilities or additional complexities.

Here are some patterns of behavior they might adopt to get you to stop thinking (or at least, to stop inflicting your thoughts on them, which might also discourage you from considering them on your own):

Belittling you and your thoughts

When you’re being sincere and willing to discuss something and learn more, and people tell you things like:

“What kind of a stupid question is that?”
“Would you just shut up?”
“Who cares?”
“Who thinks about these things?”
“You’re just trying to cause trouble, aren’t you.”
“Only messed up people think about these things.”
“You shouldn’t think about those things. What’s wrong with you?”
“Seriously? You have no life.”

You’re meant to regard yourself as an idiot or a shameful deviant. You’re told these things so that you’ll think twice before sharing your thoughts in the future, and even deeper than that, doubt yourself as a thinking person.

It’s especially terrible to say these things to a child. Children are starting to explore the world, and the questions they ask that may seem silly to us are logical or reasonable from their point-of-view. And notice how I say “seem silly” because many times their questions make us confront day-to-day aspects of reality that we take for granted and haven’t given much thought to. We might not have the answers. We might never have considered these things. But they’re legitimate questions and deserve a response, even if the response is something like, “I don’t know… why not look it up?” Because even if we don’t know the answer, we can at least allow for the possibility of further exploration, rather than shutting down a child’s thought entirely.

Even in the face of a sincere thought that’s based on false or ridiculous assumptions, there are ways of addressing the mistake without belittling the person. Mistakes go hand in hand with learning and growth.

Responding with abrupt finality

Attempts to cut off a train of thought and effectively nip a budding discussion; none of these have to be said in an insulting way.

“It is what it is.”
“Stop thinking about it.”
“That’s how things are. They’ve always been that way. The subject’s closed.”
“Because.”
“I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
“There’s no use thinking about it.”
“Don’t worry about it.”

You can also be told flat-out that thinking itself is problematic.
“You think too much.”
“You have better things to do than think about these things.”

Consistently exhibiting impatience

In addition to cutting you off or possibly insulting you, people can show signs of impatience: looking at their watches, fidgeting, sighing, giving you a look like you’re sucking the life out of their day.

People don’t always have time to hear you out. But if you get this attitude consistently from certain people, every day and at all times of the day, then they very likely don’t want you to bother them with your thoughts.

I’m also thinking of harried parents who’ve got a three-year-old who’s just discovered the word ‘why’. I sympathize with them, I do, but there are ways of dealing with children’s natural curiosity about how the world works that doesn’t involve shutting them down or showing them through impatience and frustration that their questions are nothing but a source of annoyance. For instance, you could use their questions as an opportunity to teach them how to work through problems and find things out on their own. You could also tell them to hold on to a thought and revisit it at a future time (via a book, a movie, a trip to a museum, an outdoor walk, etc.). You could keep a little notebook where you write down unanswered questions that both of you will think about more and return to. Even if you don’t have time at every hour of the day to answer a question or you don’t know the answer, you could still create an atmosphere where thoughts are valued and addressed, if not immediately then at some point.

Ignoring you

You and your pesky questions do not exist. Your thoughts are beneath notice. They don’t enter into discussions, either personal or communal. Maybe then you’ll go away.

Denying you access to intellectual resources

You’re denied opportunities for education. You aren’t given the means to try to educate yourself, even if no one around you wants to teach you. You’re restricted in your exposure to various viewpoints, beliefs, and opinions.

Denying that your thoughts are your own

“Who told you to say that?”
“Someone brainwashed you.”
“All those books you read have messed with your head.”

Unlike the examples of belittling above, which can make you feel stupid or wrong and unable to think, this kind of response makes you doubt your agency as a human being and doubt whether anything you think of really is your own. Even if you did hear about an idea from someone else, the fact that you’re bringing it up shows that it matters to you personally. In response you’re getting treated like a passive sponge absorbing and secreting things, instead of a mentally active human being.

Denying that someone like you can think about certain things

“Why do you want to know about that? You’re a girl.”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head.”
“Boys don’t read that stuff.”

A powerful way to get you to shut up and stop thinking is to persuade you that your biological makeup prevents the formation and development of certain thoughts and the acquisition of certain kinds of knowledge.

Even if you demonstrate that you can think and learn about topics that are supposedly beyond your reach, you’ll be told that you shouldn’t learn about them. ‘Can’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’ – two cherished words of people who want to shut down thought and keep you in line.

Making you feel like a social pariah

“Neerrrrrrrrd!!”
(Frankly I see this as a compliment, but most people don’t share my enlightened opinion.)
“Loser!”
(Not a compliment. Not by a stretch.)
“Who’d want to marry/date/befriend/work with/tolerate someone who cares about these things?”
(There are almost definitely people who would, but unfortunately you might be surrounded by people who wouldn’t.)
“I’m going to fix a label on you so that I can oversimplify everything you think about, and based on that label I will decide whether I like you or despise you, ok? That’ll make life so much easier for me.”
(Granted, usually people aren’t as blunt as that.)

If you’re interested in exploring and thinking about topics that aren’t popular or given broad sanction by your culture (particularly for people of your sex, race, age, etc.), then there will be many who will delight in teasing, belittling, excluding, and/or tormenting you.

Even among circles of people who do care about similar things, you’ll find those who try to ostracize you for not holding the “correct” opinions and subscribing to the “correct” beliefs.

People who genuinely care about discussion and exploration (instead of needing to always be right and overpowering others who think differently) have always struck me as being in the minority.

Threatening you

“Nice brain you’ve got there. Shame if anything should happen to it.”

Threats are the second to last resort of people who’ve tried other things to get you to drop a line of questioning or stop verbalizing your thoughts, and now need to use real fear to keep you in line. Fear of being marginalized or ostracized can be a part of it, but there’s also fear of physical harm to you and others, and the loss of valued privileges or rights.

Punishing you

Why punish you? To hurt you, to drive home the point that you’re wrong, wrong, wrong, and they’re right and just. If you haven’t submitted yet, maybe now you will. It isn’t your place to think, and they’ll make sure you know it.

Enforcing and intensifying mental submission is gratifying to many people. It’s not enough to have control over another person’s body – to have control over the mind, now that’s something. To wrench it down well-trodden paths no matter how hard its trying to weave its way into the deep woods – that takes some persistence and ingenuity. Thoughts are dangerous. It’s best to drive them out, or barring that, keep a lid on them.

Claiming good intentions

In most cases people who do these things will tell you that it’s for your own good. They can be genuinely convinced of that. They tell themselves, and you, that they’re stopping you from wasting everyone’s time, including your own. They’re keeping you from alienating others. They might be convinced that they’re saving your soul or your social status or your happiness. They want you to be normal and keep quiet and be satisfied with what you know; if you must ask questions, ask only the right ones, whatever those might be for a person like you. Think only about the things they tell you you’re meant to think about. That way you fit in and no one is bothered.

If they hurt you, well, it’s for your own good. And for the greater good. For everyone’s good.

That’s what they say.

Do you believe them?

Getting the mind to pipe down

An article in More Intelligent Life called “Non Cogito, Ergo Sum” brings up the following point: thinking too much can make you mess up. Examples are given of tennis players who fumble when they think too much about their backhand, opera singers who falter if they start to think about whether their voice is at its best, and songwriters who can barely string together lyrics because their thoughts are interfering with their creative processes.

It’s not just any kind of thinking that messes you up, but badly timed self-conscious thinking, when you’re thinking about what you’re doing as you’re doing it (and on top of that, maybe thinking about how you appear to your audience). This cripples creativity and makes you second-guess yourself at the worst possible moment. What you may be hoping for instead during those moments of performance or creative functioning, is what the article calls “unthinking”:

Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation.

How do you best remove yourself from the equation? That’s definitely something I’d like to explore in future posts. I know what it’s like when I’m writing, and critical voices intrude during that first draft when everything should be coming out uninhibited. My mind is hamstringing itself.

In large part dealing with badly timed self-conscious thinking has to be a matter of mental flexibility and discipline. There are times when you want to evaluate your own thinking – revising your assumptions, checking yourself before you do or say something you’ll regret, evaluating your performance (after the fact, not during). It’s not good to always operate unselfconsciously. But you need to command the ability to switch between one mindset and another so that self-conscious thoughts don’t overtake your mind at exactly those moments when you should be acting with unthinking clarity and focus. Any advice on how to do this well? (There’s a topic for several future posts.)

Also it takes trust – the ability to let go and trust yourself. At the right moment you have to forget what you know and what you don’t know, what others think of you, what you think of yourself – you become a conduit for creativity, talent, ingenuity and unselfconscious thought. You have to trust that what you know and what you can do is enough, more than enough, and that for the moment at least you are sufficient and complete. All considerations of success and failure must disappear from your mind, because you’re entering a state of mind where the typical yardsticks measuring failure and success don’t exist anymore.

Easier said than done. How do you get to that state of mind when you most need to?