The Funny Thing About Productivity

The summer break has passed and so too has most of my free time. Normally, this would upset me but this summer was a bit different than the last three or four.

I have never taken any courses over the summer break, initially because my college had made cuts and consequently did not offer any of the courses I need over the summer semester, and I have kept to this rule even after I transferred to a four-year university. I took the summer breaks, and the free time they afforded me, as an opportunity to focus on personal projects, such as reading books, writing for my blog or other things, and social engagements.

I typically get a lot done over the summer but last summer was a different matter. I wasn’t nearly as productive as I usually am during the summer break and I failed to  complete, or even begin, some of the projects I wanted to work on. I felt very disappointed in myself but, on the other hand, I got plenty of rest and saw friends and family frequently. Sometimes the simple things are enough.

Productivity is a funny thing. I know a lot of it comes down to commitment and perseverance. You can’t just wait for inspiration to motivate you. You have to motivate yourself. I often find this to be a problem for me and a especially difficult problem during the long summer break. The other problem is the illusion of time. Whenever I have lot of time on my hands to do things I tend to put them off, thinking I can always do it later because I have so much time, but in actually, this lends itself to perpetual delay.

Oddly enough, I often feel like I can get more done during the semester, when I have more work to do and much less time for anything else, and I believe this comes done to how I perceive time. Because time is strictly limited and I want to work on personal projects, it is easier to motivated myself because I can’t really procrastinate, and when I need ti put off my personal projects it is typically for very sound reasons. I can be productive even when I’m not working on my personal projects because I have also important work to do for school but during the summer I don’t have this to fall back on.

Next summer may be  a different story. One of the courses required for my major includes a internship, which I suspect (but have as yet not confirmed) may be off-campus, and rather than take it during the Fall or Spring semesters, where the demands on my time and energy are strong, I may take it during the Summer semester. I don’t know whether it will help to improve my productivity but I intend to make it so.

Strange Encounters of the Absurd Kind (or, Die Entfremdung des Individuums in der Gesellschaft)

If a friend is, as I am led to believe, a person whose company
one longs for,
then it is perhaps fair to say that I have few …
few who ask if I have some time to spend with them,
few whose thoughts I’d like to know,
few whose absence from my life would bring discontent.
Many of the people I have met I have never missed,
those I long to know I rarely see,
and the few I have loved rarely, if ever, loved me.
A tragedy unfolds each time I dare to compare my life
to another whose company is so widely desired.
Often now it seems to me that others are more needed than I;
and this, as far as I can tell,
is evidenced by the number of people they call their “friends.”

Once it was a habit, all too common to my disposition,
to wait in hopeful anticipation of someone reaching out to me,
but so seldom do such invitations come
that I have become motivated to seek out the company I desire
of my own accord,
yet the messages I send rarely receive the reaction I require.

Some will respond only to confirm their indefinite unavailability
and some do not respond at all,
which leads me to feel like any solicitation is an importunity;
and when those who I like most, counted up, come only to a few,
the loss is even more devastating and sad.
When the life I live is centered only on introverted purpose,
involving little else than the fulfillment of my own needs,
I find myself lacking a great deal more.
When I cannot merge my life, my needs, with those of others
I feel truly alone.

At parties, or other social gatherings, where every other person
is well engaged in conversation with another
and I am left on the peripheries,
silently observing the spectacle,
the fullest extent of my participation is a simple sequence
of response,
of nodding, smiling, and laughing
only at the appropriate moment;
and if I remain thus employed for too long
I begin to feel less involved
and less enthused by what others experience directly.
My “self” demands explanation and quickly resolves
to find the reason for its problems
but the expostulations of fear are suppositious at best.

My mind shifts through various emotions as fluidly
as the dialogues I listen to.
I can enjoy being silent for a while but I want to actively engage
in other people’s lives.
I’m afraid that if I don’t I will quickly lose favor
among my friends,
to be forgotten and surpassed by others.

When their company consistently includes less of mine
I fear they are intentionally excluding me,
the thought of which fills me with dread.
When I cannot cut through the conversation and speak,
I feel disconnected from them
and truly alone.

The savage image of lacerated flesh flashes before my eyes
and I instantly recall the quick rush of warm blood
that once, but briefly, flowed freely from my left arm.
Instantaneously I fear making the same mistakes
I made before and the inevitable setback they entail.
I don’t want to lose my grasp on the world
and all that I hold dear …
to alienate those I love most with peculiar, minor defects
or frighten potential friends with embarrassing improprieties,
but with the faltering of my senses,
by the crippling force of insecurity,
I am thrust into a labyrinthine world of feeling
inhabited only by monstrous thoughts
and where the only sanctuary
from the frightening things outside is a dreadful oubliette.

Sitting alone in my room, leisurely attending to the same
solitary activities that occupy most of my time
I wonder why it is that I, unlike others,
receive so few solicitations while they entertain so often.
In the absence of company, I speak aloud
and pace about my room,
delivering to no one but myself lectures on topics
of any sort or kind and discussing them at length
until I tire my voice and mind.
Dusk brings delight, for at last the day is done,
and whatever thoughts that may be troubling me
are removed from consciousness … one by one.

What I fear most when I’m alone and longing
is not necessarily being wholly worthless
but the possibility that I will be disqualified by necessity,
regardless of any actual personal value,
and declared … superfluous.
When others make new friends easily while I struggle to feel
anything more than a minute interest in my peers,
I worry about my capacity to relate.
What does it take for me to make friends?!

The action of the drama rises yet again and the labyrinth
in which it is staged is growing even darker.
All passages take me in the same direction as before,
towards the wrongful vindication of my worst fears.
I do not trust my senses here;
what they tell me may well be a lie,
but even this (I know) cannot last.
Every journey to this void ends
with the serendipitous discovery of a subterranean river,
from which I drink the liquid of Lethe
and recover with renewed resolve,
feeling as though nothing has ever troubled me;
I am strangely optimistic about what paths
I may take to positively impact my future state
and confidant of the methods at my disposal.

Among the many relational possibilities come a variety of types,
each differing in form, function, and orientation;
but despite their shared effect of fulfilling
the fundamental need for love, each serves an individual role.
The designation of “friend” is a most misleading
vernacular trend
and if I fail to recall what I now know about the unique qualities
that determine the appropriate nature of any given relationship
I will once again be left to the mercy
of fearful misapprehensions.

There are those I like more than most and many
I could easily live without
but all in all I do not need too many people demanding my time
to feel that I am needed, appreciated, and loved.
In times of doubt I remind myself of the potential
my past never had
and how much I have grown;
I think of the moments when friends were glad to see me,
and the one man who, unique among all others,
fills my life with the greatest love I know.

We Need to Talk About Modesty

Modesty is an incredibility important quality. It allows us to regulate our self-perception and maintain self-esteem. However, while it is a while known and appreciated quality, I suspect that it is also widely misunderstood. People often confuse modesty with how we dress, rather than with how we regard ourselves, and tend to associate it with sexual promiscuity. In addition, this belief tend to negatively effect women far more often than it ever effects men. Modesty is definitely a problem in society but problem lies instead in our confused understanding of it and the unequal way in which it is applied.

For many, modesty comes down to how we dress. The more we cover up, the more modest we become; conversely, the more of our body we expose, the more immodest we become. It is understandable why provocative forms of dress are commonly thought of as immodest, since fashion as we know it is predicated on attracting attention from others, but I am strongly disinclined to regard clothing as the final or only manifestation of modesty. Modesty is hardly the only concern we consider when we choose our outfits. We dress to fit in, express personal aesthetic sense, and, or, to protect ourselves from harsh weather. With this in mind, we cannot conclude from a person’s appearance alone whether they are, in actuality, modest or not. Therefore, we must consider modesty for what it is—an attitude.

In Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, modesty is defined a “nondefensive willingness to see the self accurately, including both strengths and weaknesses (Peterson and Seligman, 2004, p. 463).” Modesty is fundamentally about attitude and not, as it is widely believed, about how we dress. It involves an unreasonable belief that one is better than others and deserves to be admired for it. The immodest person is one who boasts, exaggerating their skills and accomplishments, and is eager to put others down if it means making themselves look better by comparison.

In contrast, a modest person is someone who can knowledge their “mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge and limitations” but without utterly putting themselves down. Furthermore, they place less importance on their ideas, opinions, and moral perspective; and can appreciate “the value of all things, as well as the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world (Peterson and Seligman, pg 462).” They are neither prone to boast about themselves nor reject praise when it is appropriate, and because they are comfortable with their strength and weakness, they feel little need to prove themselves at the expense of others.

This brings me to an important aspect of modesty and it regards gender differences. Whether you like it or not, acknowledge or deny it, modesty is a double standard. Women are expected to be modest, while men generally are not, and when women fail to meet these standards, they are punished very harshly. In the minds of many, modesty is more than what a woman wears. Wearing revealing clothing becomes a sign of promiscuity and the women bearing it are denigrated, regardless of their actual character or lifestyle. When it comes to the way women are perceived and judged, modesty is not really about unreasonable pride but about sexual control. However, contrary to the popular perception that women are immodest, research has consistently shown that men tend to score higher on measures of narcissism than women (Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T., 2015). If anyone is more likely to be immodest, it’s men and not women.

Modesty is not what we wear but how we wear it. Ultimately, our material possessions do not make us immodest but the fallacious belief that they make us better than anyone else and the desire to prove ourselves at the expense of others. The way we shame others, and especially women, is the true testament to the problem of modesty, not whether women wear a little or a lot of clothing. If we cannot understand this, we cannot understand modesty or even remotely achieve it.

References

Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 141(2), 261-310.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

HA! (Book Review)

18210746Like a good joke, I will keep this review brief.

In Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why, Scott Weems explores the mechanisms of and motivations behind humor. His prose is concise, accessible, and at times quite amusing. The research he discusses is wide ranging and often fascinating. With a topic as elusive as humor, it is impressive how much Weems is able explain.

However, I felt he gave short shrift to he destructive potential of humor. Although he does discuss research regarding the relationship between prejudice and stereotype-based humor, he explains these jokes as representing conflicted feelings and not as an expression of prejudice. To bolster his claim, he refers the reader to the popularity of Polish jokes. According to him, these jokes cannot be expressions of prejudice because Polish people are not longer perceived as a cultural threat in the United States. Assuming that Polish jokes are indeed innocent (though I am inclined to think they are not), it would not explain the popularity of prejudice-based humor targeting groups people currently perceived as cultural threats.

Despite this one shortcoming, I think the book is well worth reading. Since this is the first book I have read on the subject, I cannot speak to whether it compares favorably or not to other books on humor. Weems’ arguments have definitely expanded my understanding of the subject and I am glad I had a chance to read it.

The Worm at the Core (Book Review)

41LMKElQ5yL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Death is an unpleasant thing. Sure, we may make jokes about it and wish it upon our enemies but when we actually begin to contemplate our own mortality we tremble in fear of what our existence, and lack thereof, might mean in the grand scheme of things. This might seem like a common sense—after all it has been a subject of serious contemplation by philosophers, theologians, and thinkers for centuries—but within the last thirty years or so psychologists around the world have been studying the role that the awareness we have of our own mortality has over how behavior and beliefs. In The Worm at the Core, psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski discuss the implications of a large body of research on what they have called “terror management” theory.

Terror management theory is largely derived from the 1973 book, The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker but addresses a problem that has vexed humankind for as long as anyone can recall. According to terror management theory, we rely on culturally relevant belief systems to buffer ourselves against existential anxiety. Our psychological defense can be both conscious and non-conscious but tend to be largely the latter. In addition, our reactions to death threat can varying in meaningful ways depending on whether or not death related thoughts are fully conscious or not.

When we consciously think about death we use proximal defenses. We use proximal defenses to remove conscious thoughts about our mortality from our minds. Once our awareness becomes non-conscious, we distal defenses. These defenses are only indirectly related to our mortality and lean instead towards fulfilling symbolic immorality. This is where our beliefs come into play. Ideals such as beauty, wealth, status, and good health can serve as buffers against existential anxiety. When participants are primed with a mortality reminder, their interest in these ideals increase compared to those in the neutral conditions.

However, for these ideals to have an impact, they must also be relevant to the individual. When people respond immediately to conscious death threats, they interests can radically change but participants are made to wait they tend to revert to which ever beliefs they held before. Awareness of death can make people express an increased desire to exercise but only those for whom exercise is meaningful part of their beliefs will actually increase the time they spend exercising.

Culture provides us with the defenses we use to buffer against existential anxiety but this does not mean that life is meaningless. Rather, it means just the opposite—that life is infinitely meaningful. However, the range of humanly relevant meaning is possibly quite limited. The beliefs we choose, whether consciously or not, are also hugely consequential. Our beliefs have the power to change the world and can quite literally be a life and death matter.

Prejudice is a type of culturally relevant belief, one that aggrandizes one group at the expense of others, and has been for a long time. In one experiments, researchers examined participants attitudes towards racial stereotypes. They found that those who were exposed to the death primer were more likely to favor people who fulfilled racial stereotypes, while those were were exposed to the neutral primer favored those who did not conform to racial stereotypes. In normal circumstances people tend to prefer those who do not fit racial stereotypes but when they are fearful of their own mortality they favor these stereotypes because they confirm a worldview that places them in a position of greater significance and value.

Terror management theory may seem rather grim but we are not mere puppets. In the concluding chapter, the authors point to potential solutions that may ameliorate the destructive potential our of defense mechanism. Accepting the finality of human life and becoming more aware of how the fear of death motivates us are necessary and vital components of our future survival and happiness.

The Worm at the Core is an incredibly insightful and well-written book. It sheds a scientific light on a problem that has plagued human consciousness for thousands of years. The experiments they discuss are wide ranging and touch upon many important social problems, such as judicial bias and prejudice. It well worth reading, not only those studying psychology or philosophy, but for anyone with an inquiring mind.

A (Most) Dangerous Method (Book/Film Review)

41h3GLZ1EHL._SX940_When I first saw the trailer for A Dangerous Method, I was both excited and worried. I was excited because I had read about the professional relationship between Freud and Jung in The Denial of Death and was thrilled to see it portrayed dramatically. However, I was worried because the trailer gave me the impression that the plot would focus overwhelmingly on the sexual relationship between Jung and Spielrein. As it happens to be, the film focuses on the relationship, both professional and romantic, between Freud, Jung, and Spielrein and how each contributed to the development of psychoanalytic theory.

I saw the film for the first time in a small theater in Los Angeles. Whenever I tell people about the film, my husband reminds me that I was as giddy as a child on Christmas morning when I saw Freud experience his first fainting spell. Though I am far from a Freudian or a Jungian, it nevertheless was a great moment for me as a student of psychology to see this on the silver screen.

Actually, I may have enjoyed the film a little too much. Not long after viewing it, I had an erotic dream in which I merged my husband, Freud, and Viggo Mortensen into one. Also, I was physically female. Moments like these make me glad dream analysis is no longer a primary mode of psychotherapeutic inquiry.

Anyway, I digress.

AMDMSeeing the film inspired me to learn more about the film and what went into its making. A Dangerous Method was based on a stage play of the same name, which was based on an history by John Kerr called A Most Dangerous Method. (The title comes from a letter penned by William James, wherein he described psychoanalysis as a “most dangerous method.”) When I watch historical films, I frequently wonder how accurate they are and how much was creatively filled in. While the film and play leave many details out, it captures the essence of the book very well. Aspects of the sexual relationship between Jung and Spielrein were filled in. Existing letters don’t make any explicit reference to sexual intimacy but the content clearly suggest that their relationship was romantic and likely sexual. Whether they ever engaged in BDSM is not known and probably a dramatic interpretation of their relationship and its relevance to the life and death instinct theory.

Some have questioned the manner in which Jung’s personality was characterised, as shy and rather prudish, Kerr’s history is fairly consistent with the film in this respect–even down to Jung rather greedy consumption of food at Freud’s family home. This does not mean that it is entirely fair or accurate but, unfortunately, my knowledge of Jung begins and ends with Kerr’s work.

The book is considerably more detailed than the film and is roughly 512 pages long. Kerr’s narrative follows not only the careers of Spielrein, Jung, and Freud but the development of psychoanalytic theory within the psychological community at the time. Kerr paints a vivid portrait of the early twentieth century, a time at which psychologists were beginning to abandon nineteenth century materialism for a psychology informed by more subjective concerns. The “talking cure,” the forerunner to what is now known simply as psychotherapy, emerged as a solution to an ever growing awareness that the aggressive curative techniques of the previous century weren’t working as well as they were supposed to. People may malign Freud and psychoanalysis now but it was an important step towards contemporary theories and techniques. It was the first time psychiatrists used conversation as a curative method. Prior to this, psychiatrists would talk to their clients primarily as a means of understanding the symptoms and for giving directions.

Kerr’s book also does something else. It verifies the important role Spielrein played in shaping the life and death instinct. At the time, women weren’t easily welcomed into the sciences and those who were have been largely forgotten. Spielrein might have been entirely forgotten if it had not been for the the discovery of her private correspondence in the 1970’s and now, with the help of historians like Kerr, we can confirm her place in the history of psychology.

A (Most) Dangerous Method is both an excellent film and book. For those who are not familiar with psychoanalytic theory, Kerr’s book might be difficult to follow, He goes into detail regarding how psychoanalytic theory developed in its early years and this could be daunting to some. In addition, the details he includes about the state of psychiatry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries might come off dull but I found these details both interesting and highly rewarding overall. It is a relatively long book but one that pays the reader back in the end. For those who are not keen on reading detailed histories, I would highly recommend the film as an alternative. Otherwise, I would highly recommend both.

Mistaken Identity: Reconciling my Gender

Every now and then, a stranger asks me why I wear womens clothing. If I were biologically female, there would be no curiosity, but because I am male my appearance is perceived rather differently. Some people are surprisingly understanding and accept my answer. Whether I am being addressed by a child or an adult, I respond with the same answer: “Because I like to.” It is the simplest but not necessarily the most comprehensive or accurate way to describe what is for me a complex matter. Over the last eight years I have been on a journey of self-discovery, fraught with much pain and confusion; what follows is the result of my journey and is the best answer I can formulate at this point in time.

Well, they say confession is good for the soul. Let’s see if it’s good for one’s gender identity.

Like many transgender and gender-nonconforming people, I can trace aspects of my current gender identity back into childhood. Though I was raised as a boy, my parents allowed me a lot more freedom than many of my peers did, though I had several childhood friends who never made my effeminacy a problem. I have vivid memories of playing dress-up at an early age, perhaps before I entered kindergarten. I also remember my mother talking to me about what I was doing, telling me I had to stop because other people wouldn’t understand. I did as she asked but I secretly despair over the this demand. At the time I did not understand that my parents were trying to protect me. Despite this prohibition, they still allowed me some slack. I could wear anything I could pass off as boys clothing and I was allowed to play with whatever toys I wanted. (Later on, when I came out, both of my parents were very supportive. My mother even said I was the daughter she never haid. Of course, my sister wasn’t too happy to hear it.) Barbie dolls became a means for living out my repressed desires. Through them I lived a second life; they wore everything I wanted to wear, and for much of my childhood this worked. When I became comfortable with my homosexuality and came out during my senior year of high school, these desires resurfaced.

By that time I was already aware of some aspects of gender non-conformity but my knowledge was limited to transsexuals, transvestites, and drag queens. None of these categories, as I knew them then, represented how I felt about myself. It wasn’t until I discovered androgyny, though singer Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive, that I found a category that fit. His androgynous appearance quickly became my own ideal and still represents represents, to a great extent, what I find so beautiful about androgyny. To see what I mean, watch this.

Though I tend to use masculine pronouns and have chosen a masculine name, I am comfortable being addressed as either ‘he‘ or ‘she.’ My self-perception shifts between ‘he‘ and ‘she.’ They are the two halves that comprise ‘me.’ Even so, I tend to think of myself in feminine terminology (pretty rather than handsome, etc.) and generally feel more feminine than masculine. How I dress often coincides with my femininity and yet, even when I feel masculine, I still wear womens clothing. It can sometimes feel like a matter of taste in clothing, not entirely different from how women can choose to wear pants, but more frequently it feels like an integral party of my being. I must dress as I do; otherwise, I cannot bear to look at myself. Pronouns present a peculiar problem for me, for I am just as unsatisfied with feminine pronouns as I am with masculine pronouns. (I’m even more unsatisfied with the various neutral terms.) I feel impelled by society to be consistent, so I have chosen the masculine pronouns, but I would be happier never having to make this chose definitely. (Perhaps I don’t. I don’t even correct most people who refer to me as a woman.) Alas, it just doesn’t seem that simple.

It was initially very difficult for me to reconcile desire with the traditional values I knew would be used to throw an ugly light upon my appearance. As such, I perceived myself as fundamentally incongruent, as a “coal miner in a dress,” but as I have gotten older I have grown increasingly more comfortable in my skin. Still, I periodically experience the same dypshoria I felt when I was a teenager. I purposefully wear clothing that accentuates my hips to offset the broad shape of my shoulders and I go to great effort to keep my face free of stubble. These insecurities are as much a social problem as they are personal. My self perception is shaped not only through my own peculiar valuations but through those I attribute to society. Whether it is due to the inconsistency of self-perception and the values through which we evaluate ourselves or something more fundamental in my being is difficult for me to determine. However, it is certainly true that the demands of others increases my dysphoria but I am reluctant to say that it is the sole determinant. On the other hand, having a meaningful context within which I can be myself, makes a great difference in how happy I feel about myself.

Warning! Those who might not want to know about my sexual fantasies are advised to skip the next paragraph.

For longer than I can recall, I have had fantasies of experiencing sex as a female. Though I do not regard my penis with any ill feeling, I have never been able to resolve this fantasy. I can’t explain why it exists or what it means in relation to my gender identity. This problem surfaces every once in a while but it doesn’t feel like a major motivating force. It may just be a peripheral problem, born of the wish to be found desirable by the heterosexual men I once loved, but whatever the cause or substance might be, I cannot doubt just how painful this has been for me. Even the memory of these moments bring me to tears. Such was the case when I first heard the Sopor Aeturnus song Cornflowers. It was the first time another person articulated perfectly my own desires.

Despite it all, I feel fairly confident about the security of my future happiness. I not only have my own personal strength and fortitude but the companionship of many sympathetic people who accept my gender identity; I have a loving husband who appreciates my androgynous appearance, even to those aspects I am not always comfortable with (I’m looking at you, facial hair!); and most of the people I meet treat me with kindness and respect. These conditions give me reason to be hopeful. They also help to relieve the dysphoria I have felt throughout much of my life.