“I Didn’t Know It Was A Problem” and other problems

I’ve been thinking a lot about Aziz Ansari, and the undercurrent of social training that enables men (and sometimes women) to sail past social cues and into the territory of violating another person’s space, or their bodies. Emma Gray writes, “I believe that Ansari didn’t realize in the moment that he was ignoring Grace’s cues, nonverbal or otherwise.” And it’s true – many men I’ve worked with, been friends with, or encountered in social spaces, have no idea they’re ignoring my cues to reject their advances. Many of them ignored straightforward rejections of their advances, and believed they had a right to say and do whatever they wanted to get my attention and achieve their goal of getting sex (either from me, an available target, or another woman).

There is a dynamic at play here, where many woman – most women, I think – are told that they have to care about other people’s feelings, that they are responsible for ensuring other people are happy and comfortable. They’re taught to be pleasers, to not say No, to be agreeable. It was certainly ingrained in my own upbringing, not just by parents, but also by teachers, religious leaders, other parents, coaches. Many women have a problem outright rejecting someone, and when they do they’re met with complaints that they’re bitchy, or catty, that they’re assholes. “Why can’t you be nice? Why are you so mean? I’m just trying to be nice!”

To be fair, Aziz Ansari apologized sincerely, and claimed he misread the situation. That’s all well and good, but the problem is that he didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong, that he was violating this woman’s space, that he should have stopped. Most men I know aren’t cued in to nonverbal cues to begin with, so when I read about this encounter all I could think was, “Well of course. Men just don’t know how to work around nonverbal cues, and some verbal cues are just confusing.” And that’s about when I stopped myself and asked, sincerely, “Why shouldn’t they? Why should men ignore nonverbal cues, much less verbal ones, because they’re too hard to work with? And why is this so generalized, as though men are just dumb about this kind of thing?” (It’s like those stupid laundry detergent commercials that indicate men are just helpless about housework and somehow the entire house would explode if they tried to do laundry without their wives stepping in.)

Gray’s article points to research that indicates men and women can and do understand verbal and non-verbal cues (Just say No?; If a Girl Doesn’t Say ‘no’…; Mythcommunication). It’s not impossible, and it’s not “a guy thing” that men don’t understand it if women say, “I guess I’m not into it,” or “I’m not ready for this,” or some other form of indirect verbal cues. It’s a cop-out, and claiming that men are somehow intellectually incapable of understanding such indirectness does them a disservice. It says that men are too dumb to understand their environments, and that women are incapable of communicating. Some women are afraid of making people mad at them, or they’re genuinely afraid for their lives in some cases, and they indicate their discomfort in indirect ways, in nonverbal ways. I’ve done so several times, and had male friends “rescue” me from people that ran the gamut from merely annoying customers to scary stalkers and ex-boyfriends.

To say that “men just don’t get it” is not just asinine, it’s dangerous. It gives predators a pass to say, “I just didn’t understand what she was saying. She wasn’t clear.” It does a disservice to boys who grow up thinking they don’t have to understand their social environments. Men can and should learn how to interpret indirect and nonverbal communication, just as much as women should learn the confidence to be forthright and direct. Many women will tell stories of men who were violent in their rejection, who beat, raped, or killed a woman who said, “No.”  Those encounters are extremely important, and they should be told, and we should be aware of them and work to stop them. But encounters like “Grace” and Ansari need to be told as well, because the non-violent violations are no less damaging than the violent ones.

On Regret

I’ve been thinking about regret lately, and how much regret I have and how it stems from deep-set shame over all kinds of things. I’ve managed to rack up regrets over every aspect of my life – how I walk, how I talk, how I eat, smile, laugh; everything I do is up for scrutiny and a certain sense of shame. At this point in my life, I’m not sure WHY I’m hanging on to so much shame and regret, but I doggedly cling to it like a bizarre life raft thinking that it will somehow keep me afloat.

Shame and regret can be useful tools. Humans and other animals learn from doing things wrong – if you never make mistakes, learning how to cope with challenges, and learning new skills will be difficult. (I have a pair of socks that say, “Screwing Up Is Part Of The Protocol” to remind me that making mistakes is part of the normal course of business of being human.) Being ashamed of or regretting something can be a useful reminder that what we’ve done is wrong, but shame and regret can also go too far and consume us.

On any given day, I probably think about a dozen or more things that I regret and I wish I had done differently or that had never happened. If I’m having a bad anxiety day, those thoughts might consume my thinking for most of the day, and my productivity and well-being. In the past (before I decided to seek help from a psychiatrist), I had severe panic attacks from thinking about something that happened 10 or 20 years ago and being consumed by the shame of my actions. It was a sense of regret that spiraled down into debilitating feelings of unworthiness, guilt, inferiority. Why? I took it for granted in the past, assumed I was supposed to feel that way, that the sense of shame and regret I felt was good and natural and that I SHOULD feel that way. But what does that actually do for me?

When I get consumed by those feelings, I don’t feel like I’m actually learning anything new, that I’m growing as a person. I realized in the last year or so that what I’m doing is beating myself down, that these self-conscious feelings are destructive. I don’t think I realized how negatively these exercises in regret impacted my life until recently, when I connected my internal “fantasy” life (mainly the fantasy of being able to navigate personal and professional situations without saying or doing the wrong thing, without being goofy or weird) with the feelings of shame and regret. Normally, an episode of being consumed by regret would be followed by episodes of escapism – here’s how this would have turned out if I was better at social situations, or if I wasn’t as awkward, or if I was more self-assured.

I still can’t answer why I regret so much, and I know logically it serves no purpose other than to further fuel my anxiety and give it something to latch onto. I started (re-started, really) meditating with the Headspace app and I noticed that even during meditation my mind naturally gravitates to something I did wrong and starts to focus on that. The meditation does help me push those thoughts away (the method is called “noting,” whereby you acknowledge the thought or feeling and move on), but I can’t answer why I should keep clinging to this consumption, other than that it’s a habit and I’ve lived so long like this that I don’t know how to live any other way.

I’m not one for resolutions, but I started thinking at the end of the year that I wanted to change this about myself. I want to stop pre-shaming myself and worrying about what I might do wrong or how I might fuck things up. I want to stop shaming myself during and after an event and picking apart everything I do. But mostly, I want to let go of all the regrets I have in my life. The burden of shame is great, and it can lead to a host of other negative behaviors (rage, anger, fear), and that it can be contagious in those around you. So this year, instead of having a resolution that I’ll forget about in a few weeks, I’m committing to letting go of this destructive shame and regret, to breaking a habit that’s become self-destructive.

Tiny Buddha has an article that provides a good starting point. But as with any project, breaking a bad habit requires a support system, not just will and determination, so the second part of this exercise is going to be remembering that I have a support system and actually using it. No one walks through life entirely alone.

No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.  – John Donne, Meditation XVII

The alternative is continuing a destructive cycle, which will undermine all the other aspects of my life. I don’t want my life to be consumed by something so worthless as regret over things I can no longer control or change, when I could be working on literally anything else of value in my life.