Can Quarantine Boost Your Creativity?

One of the most frequent questions I see on Quora is how to be more creative, or how to have more ideas, or how authors and artists generate their ideas.

My stock advice has always been to get bored. My famous ten-step creative process begins with it.

I recommend it because it works for me. My brain-monkey absolutely cannot sit still for more than a few minutes before it starts screeching and flinging the stinky, sticky poop of boredom to fertilize my idea garden.

Quarantine is an Aegean stable of boredom. Boredom is stacked to the ceiling. You’d need two rivers to clear out all the boredom. If there were ever a time grow some first-class ideas from a pile of boredom manure, now is that time.

But just because I think something is a good idea – and even recommend it on Quora! – is no proof it’s actually a good idea. I can’t be trusted for advice on what to do in quarantine. I cut my own bangs last week.

So I did a little Googling. Here’s what to know about boredom and creativity.

quarantine creativity

The human brain needs boredom to function optimally.

Boredom may not feel pleasant, but it’s essential for proper brain function. Engaging with external stimuli, without a break, can result in cognitive overload, which has a negative effect on memory, mood, and executive function (the ability to plan, predict, and execute your own daily tasks), say Erin Walsh and David Walsh in an article for Psychology Today.

Many people think that creativity is their personal dump stat, only to surprise themselves with their ability to generate ideas under the right conditions. A lack of creativity may actually be a lack of available brain power – because it’s all being spent on staying busy.

You can be “productive” while you’re bored.

One of the reasons boredom has fallen by the wayside in so many lives is that, culturally, we in the US prize being busy. We’re skeptical of anyone who has the time to get bored. We associate happiness with productivity, so we strive to be productive, or at least occupied. Staying busy has even become an American status symbol, according to one study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The drive to stay busy – whether for status, to make ends meet, to avoid dealing with other psychological issues, or as an end in itself – can become so overwhelming that it causes serious health problems. It can also be an extremely difficult habit to break.

Even if you’re not in a workaholic frame of mind, you may find it difficult to sit alone with your thoughts. If so, you’re not alone. In one 2014 study, researchers gave participants the choice of sitting alone with their thoughts for six to 15 minutes, or enduring a mild electric shock. Many of the participants chose the electric shock.

“Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative,” the researchers wrote.

Fortunately, you don’t have to flip the switch from “constantly busy” to “doing nothing.”

In a 2014 study in the Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman asked participants to generate possible uses for a pair of plastic cups. Participants were divided into three groups. One group was simply asked to think about the cups question. The second group was first asked to copy numbers from the telephone book, then asked about the cups. The third group was asked to read the phone book, then asked about the cups.

The participants in the third group – reading the phone book – outperformed those in the second group, who in turn outperformed the first group. By experiencing boredom, the participants’ minds seemed to become more eager for a way out, generating ideas more readily as a result.

Undemanding tasks like taking a shower or going for a walk can help incubate more creative solutions to problems. These tasks can convince your inner critic that you’re “doing something productive,” allowing your mind to wander more freely and creatively.

You are doing something productive when you embrace idleness. Your brain may just take a little convincing.

Too much boredom, however, is a bad thing.

Some boredom – enough to give your brain the “elbow room” it needs to daydream – can boost creativity. Chronic, unrelieved boredom, however, is linked to a number of health problems, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, as well as to a propensity to crave high-fat, high-sugar foods. It may even be linked to an increased risk of premature death, particularly when combined with other factors like a sedentary lifestyle.

Often, this type of boredom isn’t linked to a lack of things to do, but the feeling that what needs to be done lacks meaning or purpose. Unlike the “approach” state boredom that engenders creative thinking, chronic boredom becomes an “avoidance” state that has a negative impact on innovation.

What boredom does for you might depend on who you are.

While many studies have found that boredom has a creativity-boosting effect generally, not everyone appears to respond in the same way to boredom.

In a 2019 study in the Academy of Management Discoveries, researchers Guihyun Park, Beng-Chong Lim and Hui Si Oh studied the effects of boredom in the workplace.

The researchers found that “boredom did not universally increase creativity for a product development task.” That is, not all the participants saw creativity-boosting benefits from being placed in a state of boredom.

Rather, the participants whose creativity benefited most from boredom all shared a set of common traits. They were more likely than their peers to have a high learning goal orientation, a high need for cognition, high openness to experience, and a high internal locus of control.

In other words, people may be more likely to find that boredom helps them generate ideas if they’re already active learners, curious about the world, and inclined to seek solutions within themselves.

Boredom isn’t the only emotional state that boosts creativity.

While some boredom can be productive, boredom isn’t the only emotional state that can help you generate ideas.

In a May 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers Karen Gasper and Brianna L. Middlewood found that when people felt either bored or elated, they produced more creative mental associations than when they were distressed or relaxed.

What’s interesting about these results is that both elation and boredom are classified as “approach” states, or states in which the person is ready to engage with something. By contrast, distress and relaxation are “avoidance” states, or states in which the person retreats from engagement. It appears that we’re more likely to think of something new when we’re already in the mood to engage.

If there seems to be no room in your head for anything except the concerns of the day, it may be time to take ten minutes and let your mind wander. If even the concerns of the day can’t seem to concern you, however, the problem may be too much boredom – or your brain telling you that you’re on the wrong path.


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What It’s Like to Have Auditory Processing Disorder, As Illustrated By Auto-Generated YouTube Captions

Like a lot of people with ADHD, I also have central auditory processing disorder.

CAPD manifests as a problem understanding speech and other sounds. It isn’t a hearing problem per se: The structures of the ear work just fine to capture sound waves and transmit them as electrical impulses to the brain. The brain, however, struggles to interpret these electrical impulses effectively.

People with CAPD frequently have trouble understanding what’s being said to them, especially if the sound of the speaker is in any way distorted (phone lines, VoIP), interrupted (conversations in noisy restaurants), or intruding upon a preexisting focus (someone trying to talk to you while you’re concentrating).

Most folks with CAPD identify heavily with this exchange:

Them: Can you hand me the remote?
You: What?
Them: Can you hand m-
You: Oh, sure. *passes remote*

It’s not that we didn’t hear the first “can you hand me the remote?”, per se. It’s that our brains lag translate it into a comprehensible statement. We know we were asked something (hence “What?”), but it takes extra time for us to realize what the something was.

And we very often get it wrong. “Can you hand me the remote?” could just as easily be interpreted by our brains as “Canoe slappy boat,” or as sounds that don’t register as language at all. (“Canoe slappy boat” is very likely because our brains will try to make sense of the sound input we just got, and “canoe” and “boat” are related words.)

capd

When Captions Fail

Like a lot of people with CAPD, I watch television with the captions on. Captions help my brain keep up with what’s being said by giving me an insta-check on what I thought I heard.

Usually.

Auto-generated captions, created by algorithm, are increasingly popular – particularly on sites like YouTube, where captioning everything uploaded in one minute would take over 300 years if done by humans.

The accuracy of YouTube’s auto-generated caption algorithm appears to depend on many of the same factors that affect the accuracy of comprehension in CAPD. For instance, auto-generated captions over a single speaker enunciating clearly into a microphone in an otherwise silent space are generally accurate. Auto-generated captions over a musical track or with significant background noise are often not.

Sometimes, however, the speech seems clear but the auto-generated captions really fail. And in one particular instance, the failures looked almost exactly like what my brain “hears” through the filter of CAPD.

Strength of the Algorithm: Auto-Captioning Fails in BraveStarr

BraveStarr ran for one season, in 1987-88. The show was Filmation’s last animated series (He-Man and She-Ra having both been pulled the year before). It has a lot of the hallmarkes of a Filmation piece – especially the presence of nearly-incomprehensible characters and the use of the same five voice actors for nearly every character.

Here’s what it’s like to hear through CAPD. (The first two examples are from the episode “Unsung Hero.” The rest are from “An Older Hand.”)

Unsung Hero

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YouTube/My Brain: “…interested in in mining carrion no one wants to be a pot farmer imprudent….”

The Actual Line: “…interested in mining Keriam. No one wants to be a pod farmer, including [my son].”

This was the first screenshot I grabbed. At the time, I was merely amused at the “pot farmer” part of the joke.

Then things got even more inappropriate:

screenshot_20200115-215703_youtube2395065167572382185.jpg

YouTube/My Brain: “you all right I think so oh but your whoreson stolen”

The Actual Line: “You all right? I think so. Oh, but your horse was stolen!”

CAPD makes my brain translate ordinary sentences into potentially offensive ones all the time. I don’t even comment on it anymore.

(Given that the brain tries to fit sound into a pattern with which it’s already familiar, this might say more about the frequency with which I hear and use profanity than it does about CAPD.)

Typically, YouTube’s auto-caption generator doesn’t trip much on human characters’ lines. The humans characters’ voice actors tend to deliver these lines straight; they save accents, funny voices, etc. for non-human characters. The algorithms’ ability to handle non-human characters’ lines ranges from “bad” to “nonexistent.”

An Older Hand

All of these examples contain lines delivered by various Prairie People.

Normally, YouTube’s auto-generated captions don’t interpret the Prairie People’s voices as speech at all. Captions simply aren’t generated when Prairie People are speaking.

In this episode, however, the algorithm recognized when Prairie People characters were speaking most of the time. But it struggled with what they were saying – in a way very similar to my own brain’s struggles.

screenshot_20200115-213055_youtube591877493960048963.jpg

My Brain/YouTube: “bigger you might be you maybe not Maggie what’s your work being a good screen”

The Actual Line: “Whoa. Maybe not magic, but still work pretty good.” [scene change] “BraveStarr….”

Like a lot of things I hear with CAPD, this caption makes no literal sense. Those are words, but they cannot possibly be the words the speaker actually said – can they?

This caption also carries over lines from a previous character/scene into the new one, where it mashes them together with the start of a line delivered by a character in this scene. It’s not unlike having to listen to someone speak in a noisy restaurant or bar: My brain doesn’t always distinguish between “what this person is saying” and “what someone else in the room said.”

screenshot_20200115-213348_youtube968039243187263188.jpg

YouTube/My Brain: “real that really be young bad guy a riot you’ll never did stop believin”

The Actual Line: “Well, that’s where it belong, by golly wollies.” “You never did stop believing….”

I didn’t expect YouTube to get “by golly wollies” on the first try (or ever). But idiolectic details like “by golly wollies” can make the comprehension process even harder. Until I’m aware that the person will frequently do things like interject “by golly wollies” or pronounce “washing” with an “r,” my brain won’t account for them in processing – so I’ll struggle even more to understand the speaker.

screenshot_20200115-213354_youtube7713170984081040639.jpg

YouTube/My Brain: “you know you lose your hoop boys always believing you but it more potent”

The Actual Line: “No sir, Fuzz always believe in you. But it more important….”

This line almost made me wish YouTube had not started picking up on the Prairie People’s speech as speech. I’ve watched enough Fuzz episodes to understand him (on a 2-3 second delay), but the captions here actually made matters a lot worse.

This is also a good example of how non-spoken sounds will get interpreted by a CAPD brain as speech. “No sir, Fuzz” became “you know you lose your hoop boys” due to background non-speech noises in the actual scene.

It’s not that people with CAPD aren’t listening to you. It’s that what you said + all the sounds around it = “you know you lose your hoop boys.” You’d say “What?!” too.

screenshot_20200115-213146_youtube2397116761729934517.jpg

YouTube/My Brain: “karyam I’m as powerful as she wore brave stars under stick”

The Actual Line: “…Keriam. I’m as powerful as you are, BraveStarr! ThunderStick….”

YouTube’s lack of punctuation in auto-generated captions illustrates another common pitfall for those of us with CAPD: We don’t always “hear” where punctuation fits into spoken language.

For instance, this joke is typically presented in written form:

Let’s eat grandma!

Let’s eat, grandma!

Commas save lives.

When spoken, there’s typically a change in pace and pitch that indicates the relationship between “eat” and “grandma” that the comma encodes in writing. Here’s a bad attempt to draw it:

lets eat grandma

People without CAPD can hear the change in pace and pitch that indicates whether “let’s eat” is a comment made to grandma (let’s eat, grandma!) or if grandma is the object to be eaten (let’s eat grandma).

With CAPD, the brain doesn’t always process pace and pitch, either. So even if we understand the words “let’s,” “eat,” and “grandma,” we may not know whether the speaker is proposing to grandma that we eat… or proposing we eat grandma.

This auto-generated caption mistake crams together parts of three separate sentences, each of which include one name (“Keriam,” “BraveStarr,” “ThunderStick”). The combination of proper names and lack of punctuation further confuses the meaning, both in the caption and in hearing with CAPD.

What’s the Point of All This?

I started collecting auto-caption BraveStarr mishaps because they were funny. I still giggle at “no one wants to be a pot farmer.”

But they also turn out to be great examples of how my brain mishears things.

Living with CAPD can be tough, especially when you go undiagnosed for decades (as I did). With CAPD, people assuming you’re deaf or hard of hearing is the good outcome. They’re more likely to assume you’re rude or lazy, especially if they know you well enough to know you can hear.

To complicate matters, CAPD often rides along with neurodivergences that make people more sensitive to sound, like autism and ADHD. It’s not uncommon for children with CAPD to get hearing tests that report their hearing is, if anything, too good. It’s not enough to test hearing – you also need to test processing, or what happens once the sound gets from the ear into the brain.

Normally, I’m not a fan of disability simulations. These auto-generated captions, however, failed in a way so completely similar to what I hear, and for so many of the same reasons, that they offer the closest thing I’ve yet found to actually having CAPD.

So the next time someone who seems to hear perfectly well asks “What?”, just assume they heard you say “you know you lose your hoop boys” – and that they respect you enough not to write you off as really spouting gibberish.


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How to Recover From Burnout

I’ve seen several tweets this past month about the lack of resources on recovering from burnout.

“Everyone talks about how to avoid it,” one Twitterer noted, “but nobody talks about what to do once you’re already there.”

This strikes me as an unforgivable gap in available knowledge. In the interests of doing what I can to fix that, here’s what I’ve done to recover after I went down in flames in the fall of 2009.

How to Recover From Burnout

Prologue: Some Background

I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any sort of mental health professional. I strongly recommend finding one or more people in this field whom you trust and working with them as part of the recovery process if you possibly can.

I am, however, a person who was hospitalized for burnout three times before the age of 30 and once more at age 33. I’ve been told by several doctors that if I did not slow down, I would die. I am addicted to work.

So here’s what worked for me. It may not work for everyone.

First: Know Thyself

A lot of people get into the burnout zone because we don’t see what’s happening to us until we’re burned out.

I don’t say that to assign blame. There are a lot of real and compelling reasons we don’t see it. We have bills to pay. We have families to support. We really believe that if we just work hard enough, we’ll reach the state of Successful Adulting(TM). Often, we want to believe that we can fix problems in our lives by working harder, because working harder is a thing we can actually control.

So we don’t look too hard at whether the work we’re doing is sustainable. That’s not a fault, but it becomes a responsibility.

The first step to reversing the burnout course is to see it for what it is.

Do This:

  • Make a list of all the stuff you actually do in a day. All of it. If you’re so fried you spent five hours lying in bed listening to Spotify, write that down. This is not the time to judge whether something was sufficiently “productive” to “count”; this is the time to note where it is you actually are.
  • Make a list of all the stuff you’re not doing, but is worrying you. That bill you haven’t paid in three months. The mystery Tupperware in the fridge that has learned seven languages and is currently the mayor of South Bend. Your chronically disorganized laundry pile. The fact that you missed your best friend’s birthday – again. Again, this is not the time to judge; it’s the time to get all that stuff out of your head.

This is often an uncomfortable experience. You might start feeling angry or panicky. You may blame yourself for having “wasted” a bunch of time or feel the need to get up and do one or more of the things on the list. Strong negative reactions are normal and okay (although they, by definition, do not feel okay at the time).

As much as you can, be present with those feelings. Breathing exercises can help you manage the load (there are guided tutorials on YouTube and in apps like Headspace), too. If you need to walk away from the list and come back later, do that.

Remember, you are in a tough situation that is not your fault but is your responsibility. That might feel unfair as fuck. It is. But you don’t have to let it stay that way.

Second: Increase Friction

I recently wrote a piece (which I will link here once it’s live) on the negative effects of frictionless UX online. The instant and often passive way we can fill our brains with inputs by scrolling Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, or by letting YouTube or Netflix autoplay whatever’s next, means that we’re filling our brains in a way that we as a species have never really been able to do.

For example: My husband rolls out of bed at about 6:30 am in order to be out the door at 7:00 am and fully awake and engaged with teenagers by 7:20 am.

The first thing he does when he gets up is to grab his phone and stagger to the toilet, where he scrolls through his email and messages and starts to plan his day. In the first five minutes, he reads and deals with as many as fifty different bits of information.

We’re both old enough to remember the days of yore before ubiquitous Internet and social media, in which that kind of information load wouldn’t have been possible. Now it’s not only possible, it’s expected: My husband says there’s no way he could possibly be ready for his job if he didn’t do it each morning. He’s expected to walk into work knowing all the stuff people sent him after he left the evening before.

This is a “frictionless” world for information. And I’m convinced it is a major factor in our burnout.

Do This:

  • Pay attention to where your information inputs have gotten frictionless. Are you zoning out after dinner and scrolling Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr for hours on end (whether or not you “should” be doing something else?) How often does Netflix stop to ask you if you’re still alive?
  • Make it harder for other people’s content to reach you. Delete one or more social media apps, or turn off push notifications, or bury them somewhere in your phone. Mute or unfollow contacts you don’t interact with much or that you see often enough in real life that you don’t need to keep up with them online as well. Do this in stages, starting with the ones you use/need to see least. The goal is to give yourself greater control over what information actually reaches your brain.
  • Replace with content you really want to consume. Instead of scrolling Twitter in the morning, read one or two blogs you love. Subscribe to a fiction magazine or journal: it’s a great way to get short, entertaining reads in your favorite genre, especially if your brain isn’t handling full-length stories yet. Or just consume the “content” of less damn noise in your life.

The goal is to carve out space for your brain. It’s not always easy, especially if (like me) you developed the habit of scrolling endlessly through Pinterest in order to avoid both doing what you needed to do and realizing how burned out you are.

There are good reasons for doing this, though. Even Facebook has admitted that too much passive scrolling causes worse moods. And at least one study found that limiting social media reduced loneliness and depression, at least in undergrads.

But That’s My Social Circle!

For a lot of folks, especially disabled folks, social media is a lifeline to the rest of the world. Even if you still spend a lot of time on social media, fight to increase friction where you can. Curate your lists, and spend more time engaging (the Facebook study claims that moods improve when people like and comment instead of just scrolling).

The goal is to put yourself in control of the information that is currently overloading your brain. To do that, you’ll need to change your relationship with your sources of information.

Third: Commit to Existence

Increasing information friction in your life helps carve out space and free time. Space and free time are absolutely necessary to resolving burnout.

Let me repeat that, because it’s that important: Space and free time are absolutely necessary to resolving burnout. 

Burnout occurs because the pace at which we attempt to do things isn’t sustainable. We don’t restore the energy we use day after day. Instead, we eat into our reserves – until we don’t have reserves anymore.

Do This:

  • Get a blank calendar. Or play on hardcore mode and delete everything in your existing calendar.
  • Schedule the following four priorities: sleep, meals, movement, and relaxation. The last category can include play, fun hobbies, religious/spiritual pursuits, or anything else that has helped you feel more like yourself in the past. Schedule all four separately. “Sleep” and “relaxation” are not the same category. Don’t assume you can both eat and go for a walk at the same time.
  • Schedule everything else around these four priorities. Sleep, meals, movement and relaxation are non-negotiable if you want to continue living.
  • Reevaluate those lists. If there are things on your “things I should be doing” list that you can’t fit in the schedule, ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t do them. Not if they didn’t get done – if you didn’t do them. Delegate or let them go as necessary.

I’ll repeat this too, because it’s important: Sleep, meals, movement and relaxation are non-negotiable if you want to continue living. 

Fourth: Fuck You, Pay Me

In the process of reevaluating those lists, notice how many things you’ve agreed to do, or have been handed to you, or that you think you should do, that you aren’t getting paid to do.

I don’t just mean pay in terms of cold hard cash, although that’s certainly important in order to afford things like food and a safe place to sleep. I also mean “pay” in terms of mental and emotional energy and support.

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: Your mental and emotional energies work in some ways like a bank account. If you loan out too much of them without getting reapid or receiving interest, eventually the bank goes bust. And if you’re burned out, your bank is going bust.

One of the keys to reversing burnout and avoiding relapse is to resolutely refuse to do things for which you do not get paid.

Do This:

Look at your lists from the first step. For each item on the list, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What do I get out of doing this? For work, the answer might be “a paycheck.” For cooking, “a hot meal.” For doing laundry, “clean underwear.” For picking up the yard, “So that Mrs. Nosy next door doesn’t call the ordinance guy on me again.” And so on.
  2. Does what I get from doing this adequately compensate me for the energies I expend in doing it? Only you can answer this question for yourself, because only you can decide how much energy it takes you to do something and whether you’re happy with what you get in return.

Use these two questions to evaluate things you do with your time. If you’re not satisfied with the answers to both questions, reconsider whether you need to do the thing. Maybe you can just stop doing it altogether. Maybe there’s an alternative way to do it, or to get it done, that makes you feel more satisfied with the return on your investment.

The goal is never to invest physical, mental, emotional or spiritual energy in anything that does not adequately compensate you for doing so. I call this the “fuck you, pay me” attitude. If it doesn’t pay you, don’t do it.

In some cases, you may need to take a few steps to see where the payment is. For instance, driving your kids to sports practice may not seem to compensate you at all; but having happy, healthy kids who feel supported may be extremely valuable. (Of course, if you’re driving kids to practices they don’t even want to attend, it may be time to ask them whether they’re happy with what they get from this activity.)

Take Note: If the answer to the first question is “nothing” or “nothing that actually matters to me,” don’t even bother with the second question. Strike the thing off your list. It’s a vampire. Revoke its invitation into your physical or mental space and never invite it in again.

When in doubt, ask yourself, “What if I just never had to deal with this ever again?” If your feeling is one of overwhelming relief, it’s time to eliminate the thing or find another way to do it.

Fifth: Forget Quick Fixes

If you’re hoping you can do the above four steps and fix your burnout overnight, I have bad news.

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t resolve overnight. Burnout is the result of a longstanding pattern of non-sustainable behavior. While these steps can help you redirect yourself onto a more sustainable path, you still have two major factors to contend with:

  1. You’re going to need time to recover what you’ve already lost, and
  2. You’re going to have to guard against relapse – probably for the rest of your life.

I had my last hospital stay in 2015. While I was there, my psychologist and I worked hard on creating a plan to prevent relapse. I’ve adhered to that plan, but it takes conscious effort every day. And I’m still finding ways to improve it; for instance, I recently deleted every social media app I have except for Twitter, which I buried in a folder on my phone so that accessing it has to be a deliberate decision.

A Note on Selfishness

It’s very hard to maintain recovery from burnout if you’re a naturally giving type. Finding a sustainable way to live your life can feel very much like devolving to a state of utter selfishness.

In fact, the opposite is true. Burn out for long enough, and you’ll end up permanently disabled, if not dead. I’m considerably more disabled than I would have been if I had started dealing with my burnout symptoms in 2004, when I first noticed them.

By focusing on my sustainability first, however, I’ve become much more able to keep the commitments I do make. I’m more reliable, because I make sure I have the energy to do things before I agree to do them. And while I’m more disabled than I was in 2004, I am far less disabled than I was in 2009 or 2014.

Burnout is one of those situations in which selfishness is a necessity and a good. If you do not protect your basic needs, you will have nothing left to give anyone – ever.


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Why I Hate the Words “Should” and “Just”

I hate the word “should.”

I also hate the word “just” (as an adverb).

In my book, these two words are profane. They’re worse than any number of slang terms to describe the reproductive or execretory organs or their outputs. They’re shamey, they’re harmful, and they have no place in the vocabulary of anyone who cares about their own or anyone else’s mental health.

I would like to punt them both directly into the sun.

But here: Let me tell you how I really feel.

why i hate should and just

“Should”

“Should” is the Borg Queen of unhelpful words when it comes to mental or emotional health. It’s worthless because it describes a place you are not at. It describes a state of being that you do not have. By definition.

“You should get out more.”

“You should quit worrying so much.”

“You should quit drinking.”

…No, see, that solution is for a different problem than the one I have.

Think of “should” in terms of a map. “Should” isn’t where you are. It’s a different place than the place you are. Maybe that place is awesome! Maybe everyone wants to be there! But you are not there.

“You should get out more” in response to depression, or my all-time favorite “you should get more sleep” in response to insomnia, are exactly as helpful as if you were standing on Woodward Ave. in Detroit and someone said to you, “You should be in Chicago.”

Okay. Maybe Chicago is great. Maybe Chicago has everything you could possibly want or need. But right now, you are in Detroit.

Telling people about Chicago while they are in Detroit isn’t helpful. Here’s what would be:

  • Asking about their satisfaction with their current location. (“Do you like it here in Detroit? Would you rather be in Chicago?”)
  • Helping them identify the steps needed to get to Chicago. (“You’re headed east, and Chicago is west of here.”)
  • Working out a strategy to get to Chicago. (“You can get on I-94 and go straight there, or Amtrak also has trains that go that way.”)
  • Providing resources to help them get to Chicago. (“Do you have a car? Can you afford a train ticket?”)

The same is true when talking to someone who is struggling with their mental or emotional well-being. Saying “you should….” doesn’t help. If they were already where your “should” is trying to send them, they wouldn’t be struggling in the first place.

Instead, find out where they want to go, and see if they want your help to find ways to get there.

“Just”

“Just,” the adverb, often rides along with “should.” Whether it’s together or alone, though, it’s crap.

“You should just get out more.”

“Just stop worrying.”

“You just need to get more sleep.”

If a mental or emotional health hurdle has gotten big enough to negatively affect someone’s ability to function – and I guarantee you aren’t hearing about it unless it’s distressing them in some way – they’re already past “just.” “Just” is somewhere on the other side of the horizon.

If fixing it were “just” that easy, they’d have fixed it already.

To return to the previous analogy, if I’m standing in front of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on Woodward Ave. in Detroit, and I’m distressed by how badly I want to eat some Church’s Chicken, I can “just” walk two blocks and solve my problem. Walking two blocks is not a problem for me, so chances are good that by the time you’re done saying “you can just walk down there,” I’m already in line ordering my lunch.

But if I’m standing in front of the cathedral and nothing will satisfy me except a giant bowl of ice cream from Margie’s Candies in Chicago, telling me to “just walk down there” is not helpful. That’s a 273-mile walk, or about 90 hours, assuming I don’t get hit by a car on M-60.

Instead of “just”:

  • Ask how they’re doing. (“Are you hungry? Do you need lunch?”)
  • Find out what might help. (“Does chicken sound good, or are you in an ice cream mood?”)
  • Offer ways to get it. (“We can drive there, but it’ll take a few hours. Are you up for the trip?”)

I’ve been dealing with mental illness literally as long as I can remember, and one of the hardest parts of recovery for me has been eliminating the words “should” and “just” from my internal and external vocabularies.

They’re tempting to reach for in tough times, because they’re easy. They feel like helping without actually doing the work required to be present in the moment, to understand the problem, and to find and implement adaptive responses.

That’s also precisely why they suck.

 

 

 

Study: 1 in 40 Autistic People Surprised You’re Surprised That 1 in 40 People are Autistic

A study announcing that the autism rate among children has risen to 1 in 40, higher than the 1 in 58 previously estimated by the CDC, is making headlines. Despite the fact that the study authors themselves admitted they were not surprised (a South Korean study put the number at 1 in 38), we’re seeing the usual uptick in “crisis” rhetoric, along with the usual new spate of bizarre woo-based memes.

fancy-chicken-close-up

Chicken Little.

Since leaving activism several months ago, I’ve scarcely kept up with autism news and I’ve commented on autism-related subjects even less. This one, however, stands out to me because of its parallels with a Quora A2A I received a few days ago: “Have you ever shared a bathroom with a transwoman [sic] and what happened?”

The answer to this question is, of course, “I have been in a public bathroom with a trans person before and so have you, and neither of us probably realized it at the time.” Trans people make up 0.6 to 1 percent of the U.S. population, after all. That’s about two million people. Evenly divided by state (which the population overall is not, so neither are trans people), that’s 40,000 trans people per state, or an entire Big Ten university.

The response to the Chicken Littles scurrying in response to the study results is the same: “Autistic people have always made up about 2.5 percent of the population, you just didn’t realize it before now.” That’s about 8 million autistic people, or about 160,000 per state – a midsize metropolitan area.

Natural redheads, incidentally, also make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population. Have you met more than one natural redhead in your life? Statistically, you’ve met that many autistic people as well.

Of course, this answer seems to placate no one. In fact, it most often appears to entrench the speaker further in their anxiety that Things Are Getting Worse All The Time.

Granted, “things have actually been as bad as you think for a while now” isn’t exactly comfort food. For someone whose anxiety is driven by a sense of lost control, “it’s been out of control” doesn’t help and can actually make the anxiety worse.

And questions like “why are all the kids turning autistic?!” or “are there trans people in our bathrooms?!” are very much about a sense of lost control. Autistic people and trans people are seen as threats because of their status as Other. When more of those scary Others start to pop up, many people experience a sense of disturbance to their internal order, their sense of how things should be: Men are men, women are women, everyone communicates in a certain way, and all is right with the world.

Reminders that the world has never actually been that way aren’t great. In fact, they’re kinda horrible.

Of course, not everyone reacts to new information in this fashion. Research indicates that our brains can be structured in ways that correlate with our willingness to embrace difference (and with our political views). The concept of fixed vs. growth mindset explores similar differences from another angle.

For the less-fixed types, “Autistic/trans folks have always been in your life” actually can be comforting. Oh, the world isn’t changing at all; it’s always been like this, and I’ve done just fine so far. For those more comfortable with embracing ambiguity and difference, this statement may even be delivered with an edge of annoyance: We’re here, we’re (neuro)queer, please get used to it so we can stop teaching 101-level classes about how we do in fact exist.

But how do we get past the Chickens Little, for whom “hey, we’ve always been here” is a reason to avoid the 101 classroom instead of entering it? I don’t know. I just know that a lot of our modern anxieties aren’t as diverse as we think.

 

I Want to Believe (In Myself): The X-Files, Star Trek, and (More Than) Autistic Special Interests

There’s a post at Chavisory’s Notebook today that I recommend you read before reading this, because context.  Also so I don’t have to repeat it.  Picture it cut and pasted in this space (except with more citing and less plagiarism).

I was obsessed with The X-Files as a teenager.  Obsessed enough that, unlike any of my prior so-called “special interests,” my family actually knew about this one* and, to a certain extent, supported it.**  Enough that I actually made a couple friends, the first friends my own age I’d had since elementary school, based on our shared interest in the show.

But even to my friends and family, I concealed the depth of my absorption.  I didn’t really understand it myself.  It lasted from a few weeks after the series’ premiere (“Ice,” actually) until just after the first movie- the second-longest-running special interest I’d had until that time.  The first one was Star Trek.

Watching the new episodes has been hard for me.  For one thing, they’re intensely triggering.  It took me three and a half weeks after they began running to convince myself to watch them at all – merely thinking about The X-Files was stirring up all kinds of amorphous emotional crap I thought I had resolved in my teen years but had in fact simply left behind.  Watching the new episodes themselves stirred up more amorphous emotional crap.

I almost didn’t watch “Home Again” at all.  I’m tired, tired of having spent the entire past week in a PTSD fog, tired of trying to figure out how it is that I’ve rewatched all of The Next Generation and Voyager since my teen years without my PTSD making a peep, tired of carrying, always carrying, this trauma.  I can forget about it at times but I cannot put it down.

But of course, the scariest questions are the ones that most need an answer.  And the answer to this one – why Star Trek still excites me to the point that I literally taught a class about the Borg in Voyager last year but why The X-Files is an emotional minefield – is becoming a way in for me to start to unravel the trauma of my teenage years.

I didn’t have the word “trauma” when I started watching The X-Files.  In fact, I didn’t have any words at all for what was happening to me – for what it’s like to go through puberty, without friends, with a mother who insists you pull a perfect Elsa, while autistic but without the word “autistic.”  If I’d had words like “trauma” or “autistic,” I don’t think I could have accepted them.  Not on my own; not without help.  And the help I would have needed to accept them would itself have greatly reduced the trauma.

The words I had were words like weird.  Wrong.  Secretly insane – literally; I believed for a long time that I had what my parents’ 1970s psych textbooks called “childhood schizophrenia”***.  Crazy.  And, yes, spooky.

Both Star Trek and The X-Files stick with me because each of them gave me a vocabulary for who and what I was, at a time in my life when I desperately needed a vocabulary.  They are two very different shows; they generated two very different vocabularies.

Star Trek was (as it has always been) an aspirational vocabulary.  It gave me hope for a world run by and for the benefit of humans in which I, markedly “other,” could be accepted and valued nevertheless – valued for my otherness, even.  This, I think, is why I don’t find rewatching Star Trek triggering.  The Star Trek universe in general, and Deep Space Nine and Voyager in particular, are about places I could belong.  I don’t identify with Barclay but I get Barclay.

The vocabulary The X-Files gave me was more realistic.  The X-Files was, for me, a show about the dangers of being different and the impossibility of being anything else.  It was a show about my reality: about the obliviousness with which most people go through their lives until you scratch the surface of that life, and about the incredible risks that boil out when you do.

As a Facebook friend of mine recently pointed out, autism is not an invisible disability.  It shows in our movement, our behavior, our use of language in various ways.  Difference frightens the human brain, especially when it is close enough to be “just like us” but…not quite.  Freud’s word for it was “unheimlich,” or uncanny.  Star Trek made aliens just like us; The X-Files made them….not quite.

To be uncanny is dangerous.  And we know it.  This is why parents of autistic kids spend tens of thousands on therapies whose only goal is to make the kid appear less uncanny.  Those parents are terrified.  That terror is a survival mechanism.  It arises pre-conscious thought, and so its presence, itself, is not cause for judgment.  It’s what people do once that terror becomes conscious that is a cause for judgment.

Star Trek presumed that humans would “grow out” of that pre-conscious terror of the uncanny, essentially rendering it canny.  The X-Files disagrees.  It does not have a particularly optimistic view of how people will react when faced with the uncanny – or, indeed, how they will react when faced with the idea of the uncanny.  Sure, there are moments, like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” or Season 10’s “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” that can be remarkably accepting.  But this is largely a show about danger.

It’s also a show about the importance of being right – even when you are wrong.

The X-Files was my anti-ABA.  It taught me that one could get away with being weird or crazy or spooky, as long as one was, at least, not wrong for being so.  It taught me that “weird and crazy and spooky” and “wrong” are not synonyms – that there is a way to be right even while being uncanny.  It taught me that pursuing that sense of being right, even when it made me uncanny as hell, was good.  And it taught me that it was okay to believe that I was maybe not wrong even when the whole world was telling me I was.

That was my fascination with The X-Files, and with Mulder in particular.  I could sound completely crazy but maybe I was not wrong.  

It took over twenty years and four new episodes for that message to sink in.  Like Mulder, I wanted to believe.  But it was not the same thing as believing.

And maybe there would be someone – someone who wasn’t uncanny, who spoke the language that in my wrongness I didn’t speak, someone ordinarily human – who would back me up on this.

*(and still gives me shit about it, as if it were nothing but a garden-variety crush which of course had to have been on David Duchovny and could not possibly have been on Gillian Anderson – but I digress)

**By which I mean “they let me commandeer the VCR to tape episodes and rewatch them until the tapes wore out, and also bought me the show guides, several of the novels, and both “Songs in the Key of X” and the Mark Snow soundtrack,” and also “they did not actively try to stop me being interested.”  They would have said “Oh, The X-Files is her favorite TV show,” as if “favorite” could begin to adequately encompass what that show did for me.

***Turns out I was right: “childhood schizophrenia” was the diagnosis given to a great many people in the mid-twentieth century who actually had – you guessed it – autism.

Emotional Labor, Gender, and the Erasure of Autistic Women

This post was originally published at Autistic Academic.

Yesterday, I stumbled across a listicle at My Aspergers Child, titled “Married to an Aspie: 25 Tips for Spouses.”  As you might expect from a title containing the word “Aspie” and the improbable number “25,” this list was terrible (and did not, in fact, contain 25 tips).  Emma and I unpacked several of its varied problematic assumptions here; I spoofed it on Field Notes on Allistics here, and The Digital Hyperlexic did some more unpacking here.

What I’d like to do now is to discuss the intersection of gender, assumptions about emotional labor, and the erasure or overlooking of autistic women that results.  This is a topic I’ve discussed more than once on this blog in various ways, although I’ve never quite gotten to the heart of the emotional labor question.

What is emotional labor?

Emotional labor is the work done to organize, remember, prioritize, sort, and structure daily lives and relationships.  In short, it’s the effort put into giving a fuck about other people’s thoughts, needs, and desires.  There’s an excellent introduction to emotional labor and the ways it manifests (as well as ways to do it) at Brute Reason here.

The problem with emotional labor, of course, is that generally speaking it is not considered “work” at all.  Rather, women in particular are expected to provide it “out of the goodness of our hearts.”  Emotional labor is actively cast as not-work by being cast instead as a natural urge women simply have – as if, rather than calling on women to generate effort, we’re actually doing them a favor by foisting the world’s give-a-fuck duties onto them.

In cishet relationships in particular, women are raised to, are generally expected to, and frequently end up doing a disproportionate amount of the emotional labor, as this massive MetaFilter thread on the topic attests.  (The days – literal days – it will take you to read the entire thread are wholly worthwhile.)  We cast emotional labor not only as “women’s work,” but as not even work.  Women who fail to put up with “affirmation, forbearance, consultation, pacifying, guidance, tutorial, weathering abuse,” as Jess Zimmerman sums up emotional labor (at the link in the above paragraph), are not only punished for it socially but are in a sense not considered women at all – and the enforcers of this, as N.I. Nicholson also points out (at the Digital Hyperlexic), are frequently other women.  Certainly, as Nicholson also points out, failing to do the emotional labor “correctly” is cast as social and romantic suicide: “no man will ever want you.”

What does this have to do with autism?

Consider, first, how autism in general and Asperger syndrome in particular are portrayed as deficits in emotional labor, specifically.  The DSM-IV criteria for Asperger Syndrome (which differ from the criteria for autism only in their willingness to allow for a broader range of features in speech development) specifically target certain differences, difficulties, or absences in expected displays of emotional labor:

  • marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction,
  • failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level,
  • a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interest or achievements with other people (e.g. by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
  • lack of social or emotional reciprocity.

The last criteria in this section, “lack of social or emotional reciprocity,” is a demand for emotional labor, full stop.  Emotional reciprocity is the one thing all forms of emotional labor have in common.  The other three are more specific examples of emotional labor: using nonverbals that make the other person feel noticed and attended to, energy invested in “appropriate” relationships, and “sharing” (the ambiguous construction “of interest to other people” in the list of examples, implying “of interest to the patient, pointed out to other people” and “of interest to the other person”, is particularly telling).

It is the lack of “appropriately” displayed emotional labor that leads researchers like Simon Baron-Cohen to cling to the notion of a “theory of mind” deficit in autism and similar developmental disorders.  In In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, authors Donvan and Zucker accuse ASAN founder Ari Ne’eman of “unmistakably” having autism and of possessing no Theory of Mind because, in a conversation with “autism parent” Liz Bell, Ne’eman expressed disagreement with Bell’s position on autism, but did not do the emotional labor of making that disagreement palatable to Bell.

And, of course, “25 Tips for Spouses,” many of which boil down to assumptions that the “Aspie” half of an Aspie-NT marriage is failing to do his (always his, according to “25 Tips”) fair share of the emotional labor, and that this is somehow autism’s fault:

3. Although he genuinely loves his spouse, the Aspie does not know how to show this in a practical way sometimes.
12. Because the Aspie does not have the same relational needs as the NT partner, he may be unable to recognize instinctively or to meet the emotional needs of his partner. Marriages can thus form some dysfunctional relationship patterns.
13. For NTs who had normal expectations of the mutuality of marriage, there may be a sense of betrayal and a feeling of being used and trapped while in a relationship with an Aspie.
15. In the privacy of their relationship, the NT partner may become physically and emotionally drained, working overtime to keep life on track for both of them.

18. NT partners may begin to feel that they are entirely defined by the role they fill for their Aspie partner. There can be a sense that there is little mutuality, equality and justice.
19. NT partners may feel that they are daily sacrificing their own sense of self to help fulfill the priorities of the Aspie partner.
20. NT partners may resent the reality of living on terms dictated by the needs and priorities of the Aspie partner.

Insofar as Asperger syndrome is understood as a deficit of emotional labor, these statements make a certain amount of sense.  But notice how “Aspie” and “man” are perpetually conflated – not only here, but in most dating guides for people with Asperger syndrome (as Emma and I have discussed in previous posts), and in the literature on so-called “Cassandra Syndrome.”  The overwhelming majority of people who claim “Cassandra Syndrome” are non-autistic women married to autistic men, and the fundamental claim is that the man in question has so terribly neglected the emotional labor of the marriage that it has caused actual trauma to the woman.

How Autistic Women Get Lost

Emotional labor is a demand we place primarily on women.  We expect men to do far less emotional labor than women; socially, we tend to punish men who do “too much” emotional labor as excessively “effeminate.”  We expect autistic people to do even less emotional labor – to the point of doing none at all – and we pathologize this lack of emotional labor-doing as both a tragedy and a fault.  Meanwhile, autistic girls and women get lost, both before and after diagnosis.

We know that girls and women don’t get diagnosed with autism as frequently as men and boys.  There have been a spate of articles in recent years on why this might be happening and how to address it.

One answer that has been floated in several circles is that we “miss” autistic girls and women in diagnosis because girls are taught and socialized, from birth, to perform emotional labor.  When the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder still emphasize deficits in emotional labor, clinicians are looking for lack – not for difference, which is more likely to appear in girls who have been socialized to perform emotional-labor rituals without being given any insight as to their meaning or purpose.

(This, by the way, has nothing to do with whether girls are “innately better” at emotional labor than boys.  It has everything to do with how both girls and boys are raised.  Girls are expected to at least make the effort; boys are not.  Girls, therefore, show up in clinicians’ offices making the effort; boys do not.  While no studies exist yet, I suspect that a study of boys who are raised in households that demand more emotional labor from them also “fly under the radar” of diagnosis more easily than boys who are raised without such demands.)

What of the girls and women who are diagnosed – who are, as I was, probed by clinicans until our difference in emotional labor’s performance becomes apparent?  Well, if you ask the authors of “25 Steps,” we don’t exist – or we don’t marry NTs, or our marriages are never affected by our autism.

(If this last one were true, one would expect a crusade to demand equal emotional labor from boys and men.  Emotional labor “cures” autism!  Except, of course, it does not.)

I’ve written about this question before.  Long story short, autistic girls and women are subjected to the continued demand, attached to our (actual or perceived) gender, to do the emotional labor, no matter what it is, and certainly no matter whether or not we have a developmental disability that specifically lists deficits in emotional labor ability in its diagnostic criteria.  What becomes a convenient scapegoat for men in emotional-labor-lopsided marriages (it’s not him, it’s his autism!) becomes a whiny excuse for women.

This is also why creepy male behavior is excusable with the reasoning “but he might be autistic!,” while curt female behavior is not.  His autism is a reason to pity and excuse his lack of emotional labor; our autism is no excuse to skip out on our expected over-share of the emotional labor.

And this is why there are no “25 Tips” for autistic women married to non-autistic men (like me).  I’m presumed not to need them.  As a woman, I’m presumed to have the (innate or trained) ability to do a disproportionately large share of the emotional labor, to absorb my husband’s disproportionately small share.  (It is also assumed that the shares are lopsided in exactly that way; no one asks how my husband and I have negotiated the emotional labor in our own marriage.)  It is presumed that he will never feel “betrayed,” “used,” or “trapped” by me and my autism, or that he will never need to turn to an Internet listicle for help if he does.  Because I’m a woman, and disproportionate unpaid emotional labor is my birthright.

Thus autistic girls and women get overlooked before diagnosis and erased after it.  Our cultural presumptions about who is able and equipped to do emotional labor make it easy to both diagnose and dismiss autistic men as “just like that,” while blaming and burdening autistic women with “doing it anyway.”  When autistic women don’t “do it anyway,” they’re de-feminized in countless ways.  It’s a lose-lose game.  Crone Island beckons.