Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Guide to Self-Understanding

Making good decisions requires self-understanding. To help people make choices that are right for them, I have compiled a list of issues that relate to self-knowledge and decision-making. This post is a bit long, but it's meant to be like a crash-course. Here is my guide to self-understanding:


1. Social Influence Is Pervasive

Making your own decisions might seem easy enough. If you make a choice entirely on your own, without discussing it with anybody, then no one else has influenced you. Your choice must be what you really want deep down, right? Not exactly. In social psychology class, we learned that social influence is pervasive; we act like others are watching when they're really not. The influence that other people have on us is with us even when those people aren't there. That means that when you're writing down a list of priorities or things that you're looking for in a decision, outside influences may cause you to include things that don't matter to you or suppress things that do matter to you. With all the outside factors influencing you, it takes a conscious effort to use what really matters to you when making a decision. Try these exercises:

Priority List - Make a priority list based on what really matters to you, regardless of the order in which you actually do things. Maybe you've always been told that school came first, but you know in your heart that basketball is more important to you. Your parents and authority figures may tell you what to do (which is not okay, but that's another blog post), but only YOU can decide what you like, what you care about, and the order of your priorities. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Qualities - Close your eyes and pretend that you're not at a an interview. You're not trying to talk your way into something or convince anyone of anything. Now list the top qualities that really describe you. If everything on the list is socially acceptable, go back and add things that are not socially acceptable. There should be qualities on the list that you would never share with a potential employer (unless you're just extremely honest all the time). Knowing what you're really like will help you to make better decisions. Ignoring non-socially-acceptable traits will give you an inaccurate perception of what you would be okay with.

What Matters - If you're making a life-changing decision, make a list of all the things that matter to you. Don't just think about what you want out of the new situation - also write down everything that you already have in your current situation and would not be willing to lose. After you've made your list, think really hard about what you may not have included. Think of the least socially acceptable thoughts in your mind, the things that you would never tell anyone about. These could include:
- Being the center of attention.
- Feeling special, even if it means being a big fish in a small pond.
- Being in an ethnically diverse environment, or not being the only person of your race.
- Being able to express negative feelings the way you want to.
- Being surrounded only by people who are accepting of your sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Not being criticized for your size or encouraged to lose weight.
- Always having a lot to do.
- Always having a lot of free time.
- Not having to spend too much time alone.
- Not having to spend too much time with other people.
- Having complete control of your own living environment (noise, light, temperature)
- Getting to continue playing your video games, watching your TV shows, reading your books or fanfiction, writing your blog, etc.
These are just some examples, but you get the idea. When you're making a life-changing decision, you can't address requirements or desires if you don't acknowledge them.

Know Your Conditions - When I list out my own top qualities, the first trait on my list is contingent. That's because most of the positive qualities that I would normally list are contingent upon certain needs being met, and when those needs aren't met, I don't have those good qualities anymore. If you're going to present yourself in a certain way in order to get something, make sure you know the conditions under which you are actually going to be that way.

2. Tune in to Yourself

So you're making a decision, going forward with it and telling yourself that everything's going to be alright, but something doesn't feel right. Something inside you doesn't quite trust the choice you're making, but you push that voice aside and do what you think you need to do. Sound familiar?

Desire has to come from within.  Maybe you've been raised to think that you're going to marry someone of the opposite sex and have children. Maybe all your friends can't wait to go away to college. Maybe deep down inside, you don't have these desires, but you suppress what you know about yourself because of what you're told you're supposed to want. (This has happened to me). No matter what other people tell you you're supposed to do, no matter how you've seen something portrayed in the media, and no matter how much your culture values an experience, the desire to do anything has to come from within you. Listen to that nagging feeling that tells you that it's not such a good idea. If you're confused about what you want, sit down and list the sources of your desires.  Ex: Do you have a personal desire to get away from home, or are you assuming it will be fun because everyone else is looking forward to it? If your friends weren't so excited about it, how would you feel? If all of your desire for something is based on other people, you don't really want it. Desire has to come from within.

Widening Your Range - If you're looking at different choices, people will often tell you to keep all your options open. This is perfectly fine if you want to keep all your options open. But you know yourself. If you know that you won't be happy with choices that don't meet certain criteria or our outside of a certain range, then don't feel obligated to consider those choices. There is nothing wrong with having a smaller range of possibilities. It might be harder to find what you're looking for, but expanding your range when you don't want to opens you up to things that you know you won't be happy with. The next thing you know, you're picking a "close-to-home" college that's actually 4 hours away. How wide a range of possibilities you consider should be based on how open you really are to all the choices, not an external pressure to widen your range.

Fear/Comfort Zones - When our 7th grade class took a field trip and got to go zip-lining and rappelling down a mountain, I was very, very scared. But somewhere inside, I knew that I wanted to try, and I am glad that I did. But when I was worried about going to college, it was a different kind of worried. It was an I really don't think I want to do this kind of worried. People will tell you to do things that you're afraid to try and get out of your comfort zone, but you know in your heart and your mind that there is a big difference between wanting to do something and being afraid, and not wanting to do the thing at all. Don't let people push you into something just to get out of your comfort zone. You know the difference, so trust yourself.

Getting Used To It - Getting used to something does not always make it okay. If you're late to class because you keep getting lost in the building, getting used to the school building will fix the problem. If the kids in your class make fun of you and call you names every day, getting used to your school isn't going to fix the problem. Lots of people will tell you that becoming accustomed to something will make the problem go away. But you know the difference. Somewhere inside, you know whether or not a problem is just going to disappear over time. If you need to get out of a situation because the problem isn't going away, trust yourself. Don't let people convince you otherwise.

3. Your Subconscious Doesn't Always Get It

Cognitive dissonance is the disagreement between two pieces of information in your mind, which causes you to think differently. Example: You like to do something that you know is dangerous or harmful, but you also know that you don't want the negative effects. These two pieces of information - your behavior, and your desire to not have the negative effects - do not make sense together and create negative psychological tension. The easiest way to relieve this tension is for your mind to decide that the behavior must not really be that bad after all.

In a study on cognitive dissonance, people were asked to complete a tedious task and rate how much they enjoyed it. They were then asked to tell another participant that the task they did was really fun and engaging. Half of the participants were paid $1 to do this, and the other half were paid $20. Then they were asked to rate how enjoyable the task was again, after they had told someone else that it was fun. People who received $20 maintained that it was boring, but people who received $1 rated the task as more fun. This is because the people experienced cognitive dissonance: the fact that they were bored during the task was inconsistent with the fact that they had told someone else that it was fun. The people who received $20 had a strong enough reason to say that the task was fun when it wasn't, which is why they maintained their opinion. But getting paid only $1 wasn't a strong enough reason, which caused the people to change their mind and think that the task must have actually been fun after all.

The very act of doing something reinforces the fact that we like it. The act of not doing something reinforces the fact that we don't want to do it.  As the study reveals, your subconscious can only process major reasons. If you're required to take a class you don't like in order to graduate high school, that's a major reason, and you can easily maintain the fact that you don't like it. But if something is recommended but not required? If something is non-socially acceptable, but not prohibited? If you do something because of peer pressure? Your subconscious doesn't get it. Even if you know that you did something out of peer pressure, your subconscious will automatically correct the dissonance by saying that you must have liked what you did.
(Click here to read more about cognitive dissonance)

While it is essential to listen to that gut feeling that tells you something is wrong, it is also important to understand how your mind can play tricks on you. The exercises in the Social Influence Is Pervasive section will help you to reduce cognitive dissonance.  Here is another suggestion:

The Reason Behind It - make a list of all the things you do, and explain the real reasons that you do them. Remember, you're not trying to make any kind of impression. No one is seeing this list but you. Don't be afraid to list reasons like:
- Because all my friends are doing it, and I'd feel left out of the conversations if I weren't doing it too.
- Because I want to get closer to a person I like.
- Because my friend pressured me and I didn't feel comfortable saying no.
- Because it makes my parents or guardians happy.
- Because it makes me more popular.
Do not avoid listing reasons like these because they make you feel embarrassed. The purpose of this exercise is to understand what you really like and don't like. You may not admit to anyone that you're only taking AP chemistry to be lab partners with the person of your dreams, but this is very good information for you to keep in mind before you try to major in chemistry at college.

It is also helpful to make a list of things that you do only once in a while, and explain why you don't do them more often. Are you just not that interested in hiking, or would you go hiking more often if you lived closer to a trail and had people to go with?  You know these things on a logical level, but your subconscious may not.

4. Involving Others

Making the choice that's right for you doesn't mean you can't consider anyone else's opinion. People can be a great resource of information, if you know what to do with the suggestions they offer.

People Who Know You Well - If you have people in your life who know you really well, almost as well as (or better than) you know yourself, they can give you good advice in your decisions. Since they are not in the middle of the situation, they may spot issues that you didn't notice because you're more focused on other things.

Get the Facts - It's great to talk to someone who has experience, like someone who lives in the city you're thinking of moving to or goes to the college where you're thinking of applying. But it's important to separate facts from opinions. Let's say you're thinking about joining the volleyball team, and you ask someone on the team about the time commitment. A good response would be "Practices are two hours a day." A bad answer would be "I do this and ten other clubs." (Yes, I've actually heard this answer a lot). This second response is not helpful because this person could just enjoy being busy, they could find the activity easier than you do and therefore spend less time on it (in some cases), and you don't know how much time they really spend on those other clubs. The fact that this person is in ten other clubs may have nothing to do with you and your situation. Don't base your decision on a response that is this subjective. Insist on getting all the facts.

People Are Promotional - What runs through your mind when you're watching commercials? Maybe someone tells you that you must have a particular product, when you know you're just fine without it. Maybe you do like that brand of cereal, but not enough to get up and start dancing. Sometimes when people have had a great experience, they start trying to sell their experience to you, kind of like a commercial. You can tell your friend how glad you are that they had a great time, but don't automatically take their emotional reaction into your decision unless you know that you and your friend are the same on this.

Understand Cultural Biases - Every culture values certain things more than others, and these values enter into people's opinions on what you should do. We tend to push people towards what we think is good and away from what we think is bad, before we even listen to what the person actually wants. If you ask around about whether you should join the school debate team, accept an internship, take a farther-away job that pays more, or apply to a summer abroad program instead of going home, most people are going to say yes. That doesn't mean that any of these things are right for you - it means that "yes" is the answer you will get because of our cultural biases. Be aware of this when you take opinions into account.

5. Your Past, Present, and Future

Lots of times, people older than you will tell you that they know more about your future than you do because they are older than you. But here's the catch: they're not you. I'm not talking about mentors who advise you on what you need to do to achieve your goals - people who are where you want to be can be very helpful. I'm talking about unsolicited advice from people who don't know anything about you or where you want to be - people who think they know these things simply because they're older than you. If someone has experienced being a certain age and you haven't, that person knows about their own experience of being that age. It doesn't mean that they know what your experience of that age will like. You know yourself better than anyone else - past, present, and yes, even future.

Try this exercise: Make a list of things you've done in the past that you're glad you did, and explain why you're glad that you did them. Then make a list of things you've done in the past that you regret, and explain why you regret those things. These can be things that still affect your life now, or things that only mattered at the time. Now look over your reasons and see if you notice any similarities among the kinds of things you're glad you did and the kinds of things you regret. These patterns are likely to be true in the future.

I've found that I'm glad about things that made me happy at the time, and I regret things that made me miserable at the time. If something was miserable at the time but benefited me in the future, I still regret it because it was miserable at the time, and I dislike the fact that I am benefiting from something that I didn't want to do. Whenever adults talked about the future, they always told me that I would be happy that I did things I didn't want to do and regret doing things that I did want to do. But it has been just the opposite, and I knew at the time that it would be. If you know you what matters to you and if you know how you feel about your past, you can safely predict how you'll feel in the future about what you're doing now.  No one else's experience will be exactly like yours; trust what you know about yourself.

Conclusion

Understanding yourself does not mean that every decision you make will be right for you any more than being good at math means you'll always answer every problem correctly. The way to develop self-understanding is to learn from your mistakes. To ask yourself, "Why did I think that this would be good for me, when it wasn't?" "Was this a total surprise, or did I ignore warning signs that this was a bad idea?" "Did I learn anything new about myself that I should take into account in future decisions?" One of my goals on this blog is to help people make the decisions that are really right for them. Self-understanding may take time, but it will help lead you to where you want to be.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Telling the Truth

When I was in high school, I didn't understand why people reacted so strangely when I said that I wasn't going to do something, like go to an event. They seemed to be waiting for an explanation other than the fact that I didn't want to do it.  My mom told me that I should say that I'm busy or something instead of saying that I don't want to go. Now, I've always been against making fake excuses not just because it's dishonest, but because you can get yourself trapped that way. Like, if you tell someone you're not hungry because you don't want the food they've offered you, then what happens when a few seconds later, someone offers you food that you do want? Now you have to miss out on eating something you like because you had to lie about why you didn't eat the food that you didn't like? I saw fictional characters fall into these kinds of traps all the time, and I always thought that they were silly to make up excuses in the first place. 

And then it happened to me. A high school friend invited me to a jewelry party, where a salesperson would give a presentation and then everyone would get to look through the jewelry and buy things. I was not going to go because this didn't sound like fun. My mom said that I couldn't just tell my friend that I didn't want to go - I needed an excuse. I lied and said that I had a family event that day. Then some time later, a closer friend invited me to a just-for-fun party on the same day as the jewelry party - a party that I was definitely going to attend. But now I was in a mess. My two friends having the parties were part of the same group of friends, so my first friend would probably find out that I was at the other party and know that I lied about the family event. I really lucked out in this case - when my second friend realized that her party was on the same date as the jewelry party, she decided not to have it that day. But I felt really stupid for getting into the mess because I always knew that this could happen. I should have just told my first friend that I'm not into product-selling parties. 

But a couple years later, my desire to just say no grew numb. I threw excuses around left and right without thinking twice.  In college, a lot of people would not leave me alone about things until I lied to them with some fake excuse (or even signed up for something with no intention of going), knowing full-well that I would pass by them on campus and they would know that I wasn't telling the truth. People used to complain a lot about other people's stupid excuses for not joining clubs or going to events, but excuses were never the problem. The problem was that our high-pressure, borderline relational bullying college culture forced people to need excuses in order to not do the things that they didn't want to do. If someone says, "I'm going to follow you around and keep poking you until you tell me that you're feeling sick," most of us would say, "I'm feeling sick," to get the other person to leave us alone. If they see later on that you're not sick, they will point out that you lied to them. You did lie, but is that really the problem? Or is the problem that they basically gave you an ultimatum? That they wouldn't leave you alone if you just asked them to?

I don't have a problem with it if my friends aren't interested in the things that I like, if they don't want to join a club that I'm in, or they don't like the type of event that I'm hosting. I wouldn't want my friends to lie to me, or feel like they have to lie. To get back to the original story, the reason I shouldn't have lied about the demo party isn't because it got me into trouble. It's because to me, telling the truth - and being able to tell the truth -is part of being friends.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Realistic Fantasy

Whenever I'm watching reruns of my favorite Nickelodeon and Disney Channel TV shows online, the comment section is full of messages about how these channels have gone way downhill, how shows nowadays are all unrealistic (e.g. involving fame and stardom, rather than real life), and everyone really misses the shows that we grew up with. I do agree with most of these people - I love the shows that I grew up with and I don't really like the current shows on these stations.  But in terms of the plot lines being unrealistic, I understand the appeal.

There is a Disney Channel movie I've always liked called Read It and Weep, based on the book, How my Private and Personal Journal Became a Bestseller. As the title suggests, this movie is about a girl, Jamie, who gets her journal published and ends up on the bestseller list.  Jamie's journal consists of her own life as a fantasy story a (ex: bullies are evil witches and ogres, she is a hero with magical powers). She keeps her 13th journal on this special laptop computer, which she can type on one minute, then swing around and draw on the next. (I'm sure you can do this on a tablet now, but when the movie came out in 2006, I had never seen anything like it.) Jamie accidentally emails her journal into a school essay contest instead of her essay, she wins the contest, and a publishing company asks her to make it into a book. She hands over her other 12 journals, and pretty soon she's a bestselling author. She worries about her classmates finding out that they're the villains in her book, and she gets caught up in the fame and fortune and neglects her friends. The hero in her story also comes to life and becomes her alter ego, who encourages her to continue ditching her friends and hang out with the popular kids. The story ends with her apologizing to her friends for ditching them and to her whole school for writing mean things about them.

Jamie's Journal
I like this movie, but it has a lot of issues. For starters, the fact that Jamie's journals are ready to be published with no editing is very, very unlikely. It's also unlikely that no one would have noticed how good her writing was before - her friends say she's the best writer in the class, but she would have had to be a real prodigy for the story to work, and that's never indicated. I also didn't like that the main focus was on her getting caught up in the fame and fortune, and ditching the people who have been there for her all along to hang out with the cool kids who were mean enough to be the villains in her book. I know that this can happen, but I feel like this is the lesson behind almost every teen movie, and it's annoying to have that still be the main issue in a story about this exceptional writer. I think the conflict of her classmates finding out that she wrote about them would have been a better focus, because it's more unique to this story. It also didn't make sense that her alter-ego started pushing her away from her friends and telling her to hang out with the mean popular kids, when in the journal story, she fought against the kids who were mean. I didn't like that Jamie apologized for writing what she did, saying that she should have written positive things instead. She has every right to write what she wants in her journal, and even publish what she wants. It's not bullying to fictionalize people and say bad things about them, as long as you don't identify them. Trying to hurt someone and make other people think bad things about them is not the same as telling your own story in which some people happen to play a negative role. With a little editing, Jamie could have made sure that her classmates' identities would be hidden. She should have apologized for not making those edits, not for writing what she wanted in her private journal!

Jamie and her Alter-Ego
So why do I still like this movie even though I've found so many problems with it? Because it's my fantasy. I bonded with Jamie right away because she wrote so much in her journals. She was on her 13th and I was on my 11th when I first saw the movie. And that concept of writing a fantasy story about the people in your own  life was something I had always thought about doing, but never did. I would have loved to have a hero version of myself following me around all the time, who would do what I only dream of doing to some people. The computer she wrote her journal on was so cool, and the way she updated the story every day and illustrated it like a book - it was what I wished my own journals could look like.  Getting the story discovered and published would have been my wildest fantasy.

I think there are two types of fantasy: there's regular fantasy/sci-fi with witches, wizards, aliens, time travel, and things that can't actually happen. Then there's what I like to call "realistic fantasy," which includes things that are unlikely to happen. The same way it's fun to imagine having superpowers or casting magic spells, it's also fun to imagine real-life fantasies, like being an undercover pop star, landing a role on a TV show, or getting your journal turned into a bestselling book. I wanted to be an actress and singer in high school, and I'm pretty sure that if shows like Hannah Montana and Sonny with a Chance had been on back then, I would have liked them. Maybe not loved them, but liked them, the way I like Read It and Weep. I think that a lot of us enjoy living out our fantasies, whether they're actual fantasy or not. So I understand why these realistic fantasies are popular.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Feelings and Functionality

Assume the following facts:

Person A loves to play computer games. They spend all their free time playing games, which means less social time, no after-school activities, less time studying, and lower grades, but none of these things bother the person because they're just happy doing what they're passionate about.

Person B  lost someone they love.  They feel bad almost all the time. They still get good grades in school, keep up with their activities, and are nice to everyone, but inside, they feel empty and broken.

If you had to pick which person has a problem, who would you choose? Person B is the obvious answer, but an external screening of these two people will actually say that Person A has a problem and Person B is okay. Why? Because the psychological definition of something being a problem is that it affects someone's ability to function, not that it makes them feel bad. You can see from the example above that how someone is "functioning" (in this case, doing well in school) does not always relate to whether or not something is wrong. 

A person's grades could drop because they are depressed or are going through a difficult time. A person's grades could also drop because they joined the gymnastics team and are having the time of their life. It's hard to use external changes to judge whether someone has a problem.

Personally, I want to feel good just for the sake of feeling good, not because it helps me to accomplish anything. Feeling bad is a problem in and of itself for me - not because it prevents me from functioning. I went to a school where people talked about how little sleep they were able to function on, but I was never interested in functioning. My only interest was to sleep enough to feel good, regardless of what I was going to do.  For some people, feeling good is a means to being able to function, but that's not true for everyone and certainly not for me.

The best way to figure out whether or not something is a problem for someone is to just ask, "Do you feel bad?" or "Is this causing a problem for you?" Don't ignore someone's problem because they're still functioning fine, and don't diagnose someone with a problem just because they're not adhering to expectations. It goes back to understanding that Person B has a problem and Person A doesn't. 

Secrets

This is a post that I just uploaded and backdated to the time that I originally wrote it, for anyone who is following my current updates.

Colby College Secrets

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Don't Judge People for Being Bored

Common quote I've seen: "If you're bored here, it's your own fault."

What it's supposed to mean: "This place has lots of fun things to do."
What it means to me: "People here are judgmental against people who do not enjoy what there is to do here, or desire something that they can't do here"

I know you're saying I shouldn't judge the whole place based on one quote, but they're expecting everyone to judge how fun they are based on one person's opinion, so what's the difference?

Monday, March 18, 2013

When to Kill the Pain

I once went to the doctor because of a headache that had lasted a long time. When the nurse asked if I had taken anything to relieve the pain and I said no, she looked at me like I was stupid. I didn't take any painkillers because I figured that a pain in my head could be serious and I didn't want to lose track of it. It's the same reason that I didn't take any medicine for my sprained ankle until after I got it examined - I needed to be able to tell the nurse where it was hurting in order to get it treated properly. My head turned out to be fine, but it got me thinking about pain, and how we try to stop it.  Pain serves an important function - it tells us to stop doing what we're doing so that we don't damage our bodies further. It tells us to fix what hurts.

In Happiness and Individual Needs, I explained how the standard advice on feeling better - exercise, go outside, meditate, etc. - didn't work for me in college. The reason these things didn't work was that they didn't solve my problems. I understand that exercising and being outside make people feel better. I can understand recommending these activities to someone who is just feeling down or dragging for no apparent reason, if you know that they will enjoy these activities. But in my case, there was an apparent reason. I missed my parents, my home, having time to myself - and a rush of endorphin can't fix those problems any more than cough syrup can cure strep throat. People got annoyed that when I felt better temporarily, I always ended up back where I started. But that was because all the suggested remedies - even those coming from counselors - were just painkillers. Obviously when a painkiller runs out, the pain is going to come back.

All the temporary relief I got in college made me numb to how big the problem was.  I was a senior by the time I realized that I was right along - I should have left the school after my first semester. Most injuries - both physical and emotional - are going to require some kind of painkiller, but just make sure that while the wound is numb, it is actually healing.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lemonade, Chocolate Cake, and Connections

I've already discussed both of these topics on this blog, but I thought that by putting them together, I could explain something that my classmates have questioned. The whole time that I was in college and hating it, I was told that there were lots of other students who didn't like our school and who had the same issues that I did, and that there was no reason to feel alone.

First, I must say to all counselors out there that just because something is "normal" doesn't make it okay. The fact that lots of students have a particular problem does not make it just part of the college experience. If we tell you that something is a problem, then it is.

But getting back to being alone, the fact that there were other people who had issues with my school does not mean that I wasn't alone. I will explain these differences using lemonade and chocolate cake.

Lemonade: Let's say that the school serves a particular kind of lemonade that most students love. There is a subculture of students who don't like the lemonade because they think it's too sweet. I take a sip of the lemonade and find that it's not sweet enough. It would need a lot more sugar before I would even consider drinking it. The whole time I was in school, I was told to go and bond with the subculture of students who don't like the lemonade either. But does that make any sense? Doesn't the reason that we don't like the lemonade make any difference? That's how it was at college - most of the students who had problems with the school had the opposite problems that I had, and the changes that they were working for would have made my own experience even worse.

Chocolate cake: When I was younger, I didn't like chocolate cake. Many times, when people would get into a conversation about what they liked and didn't like, other kids said that they didn't like chocolate cake either. But no matter how many kids said this, whenever we were at a birthday party and the chocolate cake was cut, I was the only one to not eat my slice. When other kids said that they didn't like chocolate, they meant that chocolate wasn't their favorite, that they would prefer something else, but I was the only one who actually didn't like it at all. I've had lots of conversations with students who didn't have the best time at my college, but they speak about it more like the kids who have a preference for vanilla cake but will still eat chocolate if it's the only choice. They had issues, but they were ultimately okay with it. They didn't hate or regret their experience the way that I did.

I know I've mentioned the lemonade and chocolate cake examples before, but I wanted to finally put them together, in the context of what I was actually talking about. I didn't know how to explain it at the time.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The "Colby" Tag

My former college - Colby College - just turned 200 this year, and everyone is wishing it a happy birthday. I've been trying to ignore it, but everyone's talking about it, so I thought I would do something to celebrate. Colby, this is your birthday present:

For years, I've referred to "college" on this blog without mentioning the school name. I didn't do this for you. I did it for me. For privacy reasons, I don't include my last name or any info about my physical location on this blog. I used to have icon instead of a real picture of myself. The idea was that only people who knew me in real life would know that this was my blog. Saying that I went to Colby was an identifying factor, allowing someone who stumbled upon my blog to figure out who I am. But now that I upload pictures, there's no reason to hide where I went to school. Anyone who knows who I am will recognize me in the pictures anyway.

I also didn't want to be contradicted. Colby is ranked one of the top schools for student happiness, so I don't exactly have other people on my side. I was afraid of getting invalidating messages from former Colby students, saying that it wasn't that bad and it's my own problem. As long as I  didn't reveal where I went to college, then no one could say much against me. But in the process of protecting myself, I was also protecting you. I prevented prospective students from reading what I had to say and using it to make their decision about Colby or about other schools like it. I gave away my own power of influence - my power only goes so far when my readers don't know the full story.

You and your fans have informed me many times that you turn 200 this year. You've asked me to send you a birthday card, a donation, or something to acknowledge that it's your birthday. So I'm doing it: your birthday gift is a "Colby" tag on this blog. It won't show up on the sidebar, but it will be linked to all the posts that I want linked to you.  Now, when people search for you, they can find me. This is your present. Happy Birthday.

College Interview Questions

Applying to college is very different than applying for a job. If you're going to work and coming home at the end of the day, much of your life is irrelevant to your job. But if you're applying to a college you'll live at, everything about you matters because you're there all the time. It's more important than ever to present yourself honestly and ask the questions you really have, regardless of how it will make you look.  If your interviewer is a current student or alum, they can be a great resource for finding out what you need to know.
Note: Some of these questions don't have right or wrong answers - just right or wrong answers for you.


Interview Questions:

- Ask your interviewer to describe a typical student from the college. Ask how homogeneous the student body is, e.i. how far the population deviates from the typical student they described.

- Ask point-blank how students treat people of your race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, weight, economic background, political beliefs, or anything else that you think may be an issue.

- Ask what the college is doing to prevent sexual assault and harassment. Are they going after the people doing the assaulting, or are they blaming you if you walk alone at night?

- Ask what support is available for any physical, mental, or personal issues that you already have.

-Ask about the dorm culture. Will people treat your dorm room like your home, knocking on the door and respecting your personal space and alone time? Will they treat the dorm experience like a non-stop party, expecting you to leave your door open and socialize all the time? Can you really live in your room like a home, or is it just a place to sleep?

- If your living situation is important to you, ask how the housing procedure works. How easy is it to get single room? To room with a friend? To get into a particular dorm? To change dorms in the middle of the year if you're not happy?

- Ask how easily you'll be able to do things that you want to do.  Can you assume that you'll get to act in plays, join the ultimate Frisbee team, or write for the school paper, or is it competitive to get into these things?

- Ask about the emotional support of other students. Will you have someone to talk to when something is wrong, or do people expect you to suck it up?

- If you like hugs, ask if other students are touchy-feely. Make sure you'll get the physical affection that you desire.

- If you're not into drinking, ask how much of the fun centers around drinking. If you don't drink, will you get to have the same kind of fun?

- Ask about the cost of fun. Do most students go to the free events on campus, or do they go into town and do expensive things that you won't be able to do?

- If you can't or don't plan to go home for school vacations, ask about other options. Does your school offer spring break trips that you're interested in? Will there be anything to do if you stay on campus?

- Ask how easy it is to go places off campus. If you don't have a car, how reliable is the bus or jitney service?

- Ask about phone service and internet on campus.  Make sure you're able to do what you plan to do from your dorm room.

- Ask about the cliques on campus, and where you might fall.

- If it matters to you, ask about the dating culture.

- Ask how easy it is to have alone time or how easily you can find someone to hang out or go out with.

- Ask how busy students typically are and how much downtime you can expect to have. Make sure it's what you want.

- Ask if the college has a competitive feel once you're enrolled.

- Ask how much other people will be involved in your business. Will students push you to join clubs, go to events, and whatever else they're doing, or will they leave you alone? Will other people tell you what to care about?

- Ask about social pressures. Will you be pressured to play a sport? Go to events? Get drunk? Go to the gym? Have sex? Can you eat what you want in front of other people? Dress the way you like? Is there an image you're expected to uphold?

- Ask how people change from freshman to senior year. Do most students leave college the same person they were before, or do they go through a transformation? Do they become more like typical student from that school? Is the college accepting you as you are, or are they accepting the potential of who you could be if you wanted to change?

These are just some examples, but you get the idea. Don't be afraid to ask what you really need to know.

Oversharing Is Fine

I don't have a problem with oversharing or TMI (too much information). People have the right to share whatever they want. If you don't want to share, you don't have to. If you don't want to hear that much information, then you can choose friends who share less.

I'm not into social boundaries. I respect the boundaries that people set for themselves, and I have my own boundaries, but I don't accept social boundaries as a given. I choose not to think about work or school outside of work or school, but I also choose to share whatever I want about my personal life with my classmates and co-workers. In fact, I wish I had the guts to share more personal info at job interviews because I want to make sure that I'll be accepted if I do end up working there. When people didn't accept me for who I was in college, my mom said that I shouldn't share so much about myself.  I'm not willing to do that. I like to talk about everything, and if I don't have my parents or my boyfriend or a close friend to do that with, I will share with everyone around me. Additionally, I'm not interested in being friends with someone if I can't share things with them.

The only time I ever question whether or not someone should share something with me is if the information involves someone else. For example: if someone starts talking to me about their sex life, I feel a little uncomfortable because I wonder if their partner wants me to know. But if I knew that their partner didn't care, then it wouldn't bother me. I don't think that any personal topics are off-limits unless they involve information that is not yours to share or they hurt the person you're talking to.

If I were hiring someone for a job or accepting someone into something, I assume that I'm getting the whole person, baggage and all. I come with baggage, and I assume that other people do as well. If someone chooses to compartmentalize their life or not share everything about themself, that's their choice, but I would never assume that I'm only accepting part of someone. People are a package deal.

Worst Four Years

These are the lyrics to the Avenue Q song, "I Wish I Could go Back to College," in blue, with my own commentary in black.

I wish I could go back to college. Life was so simple back then.
Actually, college was the most complicated time of my life. Life is much simpler now.
What would I give to go back and live in a dorm with a meal plan again.
Living in a dorm was one of my worst experiences.
I wish I could go back to college. In college you know who you are.
I knew who I was in high school. College took away my identity.
You sit in the quad, and think, "Oh my god, I am totally gonna go far!"
That's how I felt in high school - like a superstar. College made me feel like nothing.
How do I go back to college? I don't know who I am anymore.
Yeah, it took a while to remember who I was again after leaving college - I had to erase those four years and think back to high school.
I wanna go back to my room and find a message in dry-erase pen on the door.
Why does this song assume I got messages in college just because I had a dry-erase board?
I wish I could just drop a class.
I wished this too. Unfortunately I couldn't just drop a class I didn't like because I needed credits to graduate. I would either need AP credits entering college, or I'd have to take an over-loaded schedule later on.
Or get into a play.
Ha! I went to college for the purpose of being in plays and only got into 1 play in 4 years. Why does this song make it sound so easy?
Or change my major.
Or fuck my T.A.
I wish! Romance did not exist at my school unless you wanted to get drunk.
I need an academic advisor to point the way.
I never discussed anything with my academic advisors except what classes I needed to take to graduate. I once tried to talk to one about a personal problem and he gave me a "Why are you telling me this?" kind of response.
We could be sitting in the computer lab, 4 A.M. before the final paper is due
Cursing the world 'cause I didn't start sooner, and seeing the rest of the class there, too.
That is not a place I would ever want to be again. And for the record, the rest of my class was never there.

I'm not against this song because it is just part of the Avenue Q story, but it's an example of the "best four years" mentality that's pushed on us. One of the worst parts of college was being told every day that these were the best years of my life and that everything was only going to get harder and worse. Not one single person believed me when I said that I'd be happier if I'd never gone to college. How would you like it if someone told you that something you hated was the best that you would ever have?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writing, Distance, and 100 Secrets

My writing professors always said that I needed to gain distance from the true stories that I was writing about before I could write them well. I never liked the idea of gaining distance, because I thought the idea was that things would matter less to me, like when someone tells you that something won't matter 10 years from now (which is condescending). But I realize now that the problem isn't being too close to the story - it's being too far away from the reader.

Here's a real-life problem: Person 1 has been very hurtful to Person 2 in the past. When Person 3 comes along and sees how Person 2 interacts with Person 1, they accuse Person 2 of over-thinking, overreacting, or misunderstanding Person 1, who seems innocent to someone who doesn't know the history. If I were writing a fictional story in which Person 2 acts hostile towards Person 1 when Person 1 appears to be friendly, I would have to make sure that the reader understood the conflict between them, so that they wouldn't think Person 2 is just being rude.  This would not slip my mind because I would have invented that conflict for the story. But if I were writing a true story in which I was Person 2, I may forget to explain the conflict because I'm so used to interacting with Person 1 in a certain way that I forget that it's not how I normally interact, that there is a reason for it. As a result, the reader wouldn't understand what the problem was.

When you edit your own work right away, you may overlook mistakes that would jump out if you were reading someone else's work. Since you know what you mean to say, it's easy to read right over typos and omitted words. I find it easier to catch mistakes when I've gotten away from the story for a while, so that it's no longer fresh in my mind. The same is true for editing a true story - the more time passes since the real event, the easier it is to view the story as an outside reader and to figure out the best way to communicate the story to someone who doesn't know what happened.

Three months after I graduated college, I posted a list of 100 secrets that I wanted to share about my college experience. These secrets totaled 16,000 words, or 50 double-spaced pages. This is a classic example of something that people say you're going to look back on and laugh about, which I knew that I would not. I reviewed the list a few years later, and I understand everything. There is not one single secret that make me wonder, "Why was I upset over that?" The only thing that makes my writing "better" now than it was in college is that I've come up with better ways of conveying the same information, like when you draw a blank at what to say in the heat of the moment, but come up with a great comeback afterwards.

Two years after I began this blog, the "how to say it" just clicked with me. I was coming up with clearer metaphors to say what I really meant, and I knew how to be brief and get to the point.  It takes care and confidence to get right to the point. Time doesn't diminish importance - time helps you understand how to convey that importance to the reader.

Why my Grades Are Private

I have always felt that my grades were private, whether they were good or bad, but I never really knew why. Obviously I wouldn't go around announcing that I had failed a test, but what about good grades? Why was I so secretive about them? I always claimed that I didn't want to brag if my grades were good, but I knew that wasn't it. I talk freely about other accomplishments. There was just something about sharing my grades that I never liked.

I don't tell anyone my grades for the same reason that I wouldn't tell anyone my weight: even if I'm fine with them, I just don't want to be judged for them.

1. When I write a story or act in a play, these activities are reflections of who I am because I chose to do them. I never chose to go to school and get graded, so I don't want to be judged that way.

2. Grades are judgmental by nature. If someone compliments me on performing well in the play, I know that the person would not think less of me if I hadn't been in the play since our society acknowledges that being in a play is optional. Since our society treats grades as an expectation, I know that some people would think less of me for my grades, and I'm not okay with that at all.   I only want friends who don't care what my grades are.

3. No matter how serious I am about writing or acting, most people view those as just-for-fun activities. People say "good job" just because I wrote a story or performed in a play, and I'm the one who's thinking about how I want to improve. But when it comes to grades, people can be more imposing about their views because getting good grades is what we're "expected" to do.  There are many times that I'm satisfied with my grades, but I want to keep them private because I know that my friends wouldn't consider my grades good. What I've observed: if someone is really satisfied with, say, their performance in the talent show, most people will just be happy because they're happy. But if someone is happy about getting all B's, people won't hesitate to tell them that that's nothing to be excited about. I don't share my grades because I don't want someone else's standards imposed on me.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Fiction Writing: Acting and Reacting

When I'm writing a story, I always have a hard time figuring out how my characters should react to things. In my college fiction-writing classes, I went through a temporary phase of writing stories based on truth. Even if the story had nothing to do with me, the lead character's emotions matched how I felt at the time. When did this, people said that my characters were overreacting. I've been told that real people don't cry or get upset as often as my characters do, even though I'm a real person and my characters behaved the way that I would in the same situation. When I began writing my first novel, I was very aware of not having my character react as strongly as I would. I tried to guess at how the average person would feel about various situations, since I couldn't use my own reality as a basis. As a result, I swung too far in the opposite direction. I created a lead character, Melissa, who goes along with dangerous things in order to please someone she barely knows, who doesn't voice her opinion even when things are very wrong, whose deepest, darkest secret is that she once said something rude to someone she doesn't like.  Any time she does voice her opinion, she explains that "it slipped out," even if she's just suggesting that setting the house on fire may not be a smart idea.

This change wasn't completely accidental.  In some ways, I did it on purpose because I didn't want my character's conflict or feelings invalidated.  When someone says, "I can't believe all this happened to Melissa and she never said anything," it makes me feel good because it acknowledges that the conflict is a real conflict and that Melissa had every right to be upset. I made sure the reader could have nothing bad to say about Melissa, that the reader would think everything she did or felt was more than justified.

Part of the problem is that I think too much about the people who will see my story first, rather than the general population. I personally love stories with a lot of angst. The fifth Harry Potter book is my favorite because of all the emotion that, in my mind, fits the situation. I would rather read a story with a little too much angst than a story where people don't show emotional reactions to anything. I'm more annoyed by what I perceive as underreactions than overreactions.  My parents don't like angst stories, and several of my classmates didn't like stories that were too whiny. I've been trying to construct a story with lessened reactions that will appeal to my inner circle. But I'm not the only person who likes angst stories.  Look at the popularity of Catcher in the RyeThe Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the Twilight series, among others. Lots of people relate to angst, and if I want to write an angst story, I shouldn't limit myself just because it's not my family or friends' favorite genre.

After reviewing my first book a year later, I think Melissa's main flaw is that she isn't flawed enough, that no one has a reason to not like her. Because most of us do have stronger or weaker reactions to certain things than the average person does. Most of us do sometimes hurt other people or create more conflict when there is a more constructive solution. Most of us have traits that make people not like us. All these things can make a character more relatable. I'm working on my second book now, and I'm still holding back a little by making sure the situation is just one step above the reaction. I'm not going for a perfect character - I'm trying for a relatable one. I'm letting my new lead character run free because I trust her. Someday, I won't hold back the reactions at all.

Validation and Invalidation Example

This link provides an example of validating and invalidating environments, and the difference between validation and praise:

Environmental Causes of Borderline Personality Disorder