A sensitive male: loner, or necessary solitude?

A few months back I visited a friend of mine in Prague. He’s an amazing guy, bursting with positivity – I have more time for him than a solar-powered Rolex left in the Sahara. I guess you could say that if my friendships were wrist-watches, he’d be a Rolex. Let’s call him Rolex, which is ironic because like a lot of things in life this is quite the paradox: he’s the kind of guy that couldn’t care less about owning a Rolex. I think this is why I like this description.

I’d rented an AirBnB room in Prague. A very simple studio thing, one bedroom and a bathroom. Prior to this, I’d been travelling for a month with another friend of mine, and had been staying mainly in hostels – shared accommodations with snoring humans that make you question whether you’re sleeping next to a human or an idling motorbike. After staying in such close proximity to some pretty heavy engines, I desperately needed some quiet time; some time to decompress.

Rolex and I went for dinner my first night in Prague: burritos! Mmm…actually I got nachos… still mmm tho! After dinner, we went back to my one bedroom place and made… a cup of tea (fuck me, how old am I getting!?).

Rolex and I sat drinking our tea and, as two friends who haven’t seen each other for a while tend to do, we conversed about the experiences we’d both had since we last saw each other – in particular, the new knowledge these experiences had afforded us. We discussed the meaning of life and the tastiness of the burrito and nachos we’d just eaten for dinner… wait, isn’t that the same thing?

Old friends are an oddity: I hadn’t seen Rolex for maybe three years, yet it was as if we’d never been apart. I was thoroughly enjoying catching up with him. However, Rolex decided to leave my studio-room earlier than I would’ve liked. I didn’t ask him why he wanted to leave, but I respected the decision. I chalked it up to Rolex perhaps being tired after a day of work, or wanting to be home with his girlfriend, or something of the sort… however, as I said, I didn’t ask.

Fast-forward two months. Rolex is still living in Prague. And I’m in New Zealand.

Rolex just finished a trip with some mates to Amsterdam. We jumped into a facebook chat about the standard stuff: how Amsterdam was, whether he’d come any closer to discovering the meaning of life yet, or had tried the nachos from that joint we ate at together… wait, that’s the same thing, right?

One thing led to another and we got to talking, as is usual between us, about some heavy burrito-and-nacho type shit. He sent me this message:

We were all hanging in my hotel room [in Amsterdam] and talking about how some people’s rooms are always more inviting than others, we’d often hang in our rooms in flats during parties for example.

Then discussed how you wouldn’t hang out in Mark’s room much and how you like your space, which got me to thinking about how people try and read the situation themselves rather than be told and how I left your place that night in Prague assuming you wanted your space. Not sure why I’m sharing this but thought it was interesting and curious as to why you emit that energy sometimes and if it’s accurately perceived by the rest of us.

Here’s my response:

Interesting point – I’d say I definitely emit that energy and do like my space / have learnt I need more solitude than most (this became a real issue while living with my ex).

Prague – your read was a little off, but not much really… I wasn’t emitting that energy at that particular time and in fact was quite enjoying hanging out and was a little disappointed you left, but chalked it up to something on your side (I probably should’ve said something!). However, your detection of that energy in the room makes sense – it’s possible the energy was lingering around the room itself as I was desiring solitude in a general sense after spending a lot of time with [my other friend] travelling in shared accommodation (hostels etc).

The reason I need it… honestly, that’s difficult to say. I get quite overwhelmed in group situations, and struggle to relate a lot of the time to the conversations had… I’m typically one to only say something if I’ve got something to say, whereas many others aren’t this way – this can be tiring for me – and possibly why I enjoy hanging out by myself a lot lol… that’s the best guess I’ve got really.

 

Here are some of the things I experience:

  • Difficulty participating in, and relating to, conversations on what I’d call surface-level topics, such as sport, politics, favourite colours, the Kardashians. I prefer to talk about burritos and nachos.
  • I struggle mightily with small talk.
  • I can feel trapped if I find myself in a situation where I’m unable to independently leave (i.e. if I don’t have my own vehicle with me for example).
  • If given the option between attending a networking party, or a quiet dinner with a friend, I’ll take dinner with a friend every single time.

These things lend themselves to needing quite a lot of time alone. The exact reasons why I experience the above are difficult to pin point. A theory, which was recently brought to my attention by an ex-colleague of mine, is that it’s because I’m a sensitive soul.

What does being a ‘sensitive soul’ mean exactly?

Well, the best I can explain it, is to use someone else’s (who has much more experience) explanation… I guess that’s not me explaining it at all, but I digress.

Dr Judith Orloff, a physician who specialises in treating highly sensitive people, wrote a book called the “The Empath’s Survival Guide”, which includes this nugget:

“Though there is a spectrum of sensitivity that exists in human beings, empaths are emotional sponges who absorb both the stress and joy of the world. We feel everything, often to an extreme and have little guard up between others and ourselves. As a result, we are often overwhelmed by excessive stimulation and are prone to exhaustion and sensory overload

Empaths are the most sensitive among us. They’re able to pick up others’ energies with alarming accuracy, and will even absorb these as their own. Rolex, at a guess, is an empath.

I don’t know where I fit on the sensitivity spectrum exactly, but I’m for sure extremely sensitive. I feel the stress and joy of others as if it were my own, and often experience sensory overload because of this. Being around people for too long is only one way in which this overload can occur (I’m not even going to get started on how difficult it can be to be a sensitive male in a culture which tells me to suppress my sensitivity in favour of beating my chest like a gorilla…).

In the past, I’ve self-medicated my sensitivities – I’ve turned to drugs and alcohol to numb myself into more active participation at parties, group situations, and chest beating. This obviously is not a healthy long-term solution.

And so, the question is, how do I better service my sensitivities in respect of social interactions?

It’s a tough one because I enjoy other people’s company, just in smaller doses than most it would seem…

Being a cave-troll is not a healthy long-term solution either.

Rolex pointing out that he was able to pick up on the solitudinal (not a word, but use your imagination) energy I emit, made me think: if others are able to pick up on this energy anyways, why don’t I just tell them I’d like some alone time?

Unfortunately, easier said than done…

Why?

Well, for starters, Rolex is an incredibly perceptive human being. He is able to read the energies of others with alarming accuracy. He is an empath in my books. This is a gift, not shared by many. The fact he can read my energy is not indicative of the ability of others to read my energy with similar astuteness.

Another reason is this: other people have feelings too!

The desire for solitude is difficult to communicate to someone without offending them. For example, how would you take it if we were hanging out one day, and then I turned to you and said:

“I’m going to go hang out in my room by myself now. It’s got nothing to do with you, I just need some time alone. It’s me, not you.”

Ahh, the old it’s not you, it’s me trick. That’s a difficult one for someone to reconcile when, (a) I’m currently hanging out with them; and (b) I decide to go to my room and hang out alone… the inference from this is obvious: “he’d rather hang out by himself than with me”.

It’s hard for the person I’m with not to take my decision to hang out by myself as a personal insult.

I totally understand this, and if in their shoes, I’d likely feel the same way. And the truth is, on some level, it is about them. BUT, and this is a Kim-Kardashian-butt (in the sense that it’s massive), it’s not a personal insult… the fact I become exhausted if I spend too much time with people or in group situations is about me – it doesn’t matter who the fuck you are, or what the fuck we’re talking about/doing, I (that’s ME, MYSELF) am still going to need to be alone at some point to decompress. That’s nothing personal.

It’s FAR more about me and my needs.

It does beg the question: I wonder what it is I can do to better handle my need for solitude? How can I communicate this without it being taken as a personal insult?

That’s one doozy of a pickle of a nacho-burrito. I think the tools provided in Dr Judith Orloff’s book may be a great place to start.

The Science of Happiness: Read with Skepticism?

Three months ago, I bought a special edition Time magazine, ‘The Science of Happiness – new discoveries for a more joyful life’.

Time.jpg

I bought it because I’m into this stuff. I believe there’s a reason why more and more people are talking about, and practicing, things like meditation and mindfulness. I don’t think it’s because we’re all undercover spiritual gurus (although, maybe we are?)… Instead, it seems a case of simple economics. Happiness (or more generally, well-being) is in demand, and meditation and mindfulness practices are a couple of the key suppliers.

I began writing this post with the intention it be about the positive effects of another happiness supplier: practicing gratitude. This idea stemmed from a piece written in the magazine. Here’s an extract of said piece:

“In a series of studies, psychologists Robert Emmons of the University of Chicago, Davis, and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami found that those who did exercises to cultivate feelings of gratitude, such as keeping weekly journals, ended up feeling happier, healthier, more energetic and more optimistic than those who didn’t.”

As with most things I set out to do, it hasn’t really panned out the way I thought it would. This blog post, although guided by my interest in the positive effects of practicing gratitude, isn’t about the positive effects of gratitude at all. Instead its morphed into a post regarding The Science of Happiness.

So, what is The Science of Happiness? This article from the Huffington Post explains it much better than I ever could:

“The phrase “the science of happiness” refers to a new field of social science called positive psychology positive psychology functions constructively in helping us get more of what we do want, and making ourselves better, happier people.”

Sounds legit, right?

Before we get into that, I’ll go back to the gratitude thing for a second… my interest in the positive effects of practicing gratitude led me to seek out more information on the topic. In doing so, I stumbled upon a blog post ‘The 31 benefits of gratitude you didn’t know about’ on the blog ‘Happier Human’ (it’s a relatively short and worthwhile read).

Whenever I stumble upon something interesting, whether it be a piece of work, music, art, whatever, one of the first things I do is channel my inner Scooby-Doo to find out who done it? The Happier Human blog is run by a man named Amit Amin. According to the blog’s home page, Amit, after being unhappy for a period of time became thoroughly interested in The Science of Happiness/positive psychology (I use these terms interchangeably). It seems the blog serves as his outlet for the work he’s done studying positive psychology.

Fantastic I thought! What an amazing resource! However, the title on the home page of his site ominously states: Read with Skepticism, and includes this passage:

Five years ago, I was unhappy. Positive psychology, the ‘science’ of happiness, offered hope that traditional psychology did not. So I started this blog. I would research a topic and write up my findings, hoping to help both myself and others. Three years ago, I stopped. Not because no one was reading what I wrote. Fifteen to thirty thousand people visit each month. I stopped because I had realized that in the ways that matters, positive psychology was just like traditional psychology – it was a scientific mess.

This was disheartening to read. I’ve been so interested in The Science of Happiness – specifically for the potential its research and studies have to guide me to make positive changes in my life. I believe in it! I’d even been thinking about doing something similar to Amit with this blog space… If a guy like Amit, who poured countless hours of his life into research and writing on positive psychology, ultimately became disillusioned with it all, it made me question whether my belief was misguided.

Amit goes on to write about the problems inherent in The Science of Happiness:

Science is a process of truth seeking. Make a prediction, run an experiment, observe the results. The opacity of the brain turns the results of most experiments into unreliable nonsense.

Translation (I think): the brain has a really hard time examining itself.

Decades of work on complex statistical methods meant to overcome this problem have mostly failed…Because the incentives that guide research in the social sciences mostly lead to the production of garbage studies that fail to replicate.

Translation (in full-blown layman’s terminology): studies need money; money comes from somewhere; that somewhere wants the study to prove their shit, not fuck with it. That is, studies can be prone to bias for a number of reasons.

Doom and gloom!

Sure… if you choose to look at things that way…

I don’t.

The reality is everything in this world is biased to a certain extent (…just look at the News). Science is not excepted from this bias. Fact is, we aren’t impartial observers. We are humans; flawed as fuck and beautiful because of it.

Because we’re flawed, there’ll always be contradictory information out there – objectivity is kind of an impossibility.

For example, maybe scientific studies exist claiming to have proven yogurt is good for cats. So you feed your cat Greek yogurt because, you know, only the best for Foo Foo (and yes I realise no one actually names their cat Foo Foo). Then you find out the market leading seller of cat-yogurt paid a scientist a ga-gillion dollars to do these studies. I’m no scientist, but if I was, I’m sure that for a cool ga-gillion I could find a way to prove to you yogurt was good for Foo Foo too… The point of all this? I don’t care who you are, a ga-gillion is a lot…

…Or maybe a surveys been done to prove something that proves nothing…

 

You don’t have to believe every new thing you read, or the latest study. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. Amit’s advice to Read with Skepticism seems like good advice to me. It’s also true you don’t have to believe in every old belief you might be clinging to either…

Believe in what then? Nothing?? No… Believe in whatever you choose to believe in! But don’t be afraid to let it go if evidence begins to mount against your chosen belief. This is where I think we all struggle, myself certainly being no exception.

The work Amit has done is clearly of value – as evidenced by the thousands of people who still visit his site daily – and he obviously believed in it for a time, until maybe this belief shifted. That’s totally fine.

Personally I think The Science of Happiness/positive psychology is a valuable new (relatively) scientific field.

With a focus on “constructively…helping us get more of what we…want, and making ourselves better, happier people” the potential exists, I believe, for The Science of Happiness to contribute greatly to humanity’s overall well-being by challenging the way we view the world.

Sometimes we’ll get it wrong, so sure Read with Skepticism… but how can having a focus like that possibly be a bad thing?

I’m an ‘Obliger’: What personality type are you?

This is fascinating. All my soul searching over the past two years and I’ve stumbled upon something that makes sense. I finally feel like I’ve gained some clarity into why I’ve done what I done did in the past… It was all part of a textbook Obliger-rebellion! I’ll explain what this means a little later. First, I’ll introduce you to the lady who has helped me find answers: her name is Gretchen Rubin.

‘Obliger’ is a reference to one of four personality tendencies that Gretchen Rubin has identified every person fits under. She wrote a book about it, The Four Tendencies (which I must read). Here is an overview, taken directly from Gretchen’s website, of her “four tendencies framework”:

[Gretchen] sorts everyone into four categories, which describe how people tend to respond to expectationsouter expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

More information is available on her website here. 

There is also a test you can take to help you determine which type you are (it’s free and takes less than 10 minutes to complete).

I took the test: I’m an Obliger. Initially, before taking the test, I thought I might be a Rebel given the decisions I made in my life two years ago – namely, quitting my job and quitting my relationship. Given my decision to hit the detonate button on the life I’d built, I thought perhaps I had some Rebel tendencies… but then I read this:

“If you think you’re an Obliger/Rebel: There’s a very strong affinity between Rebels and Obligers. It’s very common for Obligers to experience “Obliger-rebellion,” a striking pattern in which every once in a while, they abruptly refuse to meet an expectation. As one Obliger explained, “Sometimes I ‘snap’ because I get tired of people making assumptions that I’ll always do things as expected. It’s sort of a rebellious way of asserting myself.” Another added, “I work very hard to keep my commitments to other people, but I’ll be darned if I can keep a promise to myself . . . Though every once in a while I will absolutely refuse to please.

Obligers may also rebel in symbolic ways, with their hair, clothes, car, and the like. For instance, Andre Agassi is an Obliger, and in his memoir Open, he describes ways in which he would Obliger-rebel (though he doesn’t use that term, of course).”

Ahh yep. Hammer. Nail. On the head. That also explains why I recommend Andre Agassi’s book to anyone who will listen (I vibe with his struggle!)… I quit everything not because I’m a Rebel, but because I’m an Obliger. I felt like my needs were being neglected in my job and in my relationship. I got sick of meeting everyone else’s expectations at the expense of my own and I went full-Chernobyl. A total meltdown. The pot boiled over so to speak, and a textbook Obliger-rebellion ensued: I quit my job, I quit my relationship, I quit my external obligations out of rebellion!

Being an Obliger makes sense to me as I’ve always put others before myself, and I struggle mightily to meet inner expectations (whether it be regularly exercising, reading, or setting aside time to write).

This knowledge can’t help me to right the wrongs of my past decisions. The decisions I’ve made are the decisions I’ve made! They’re history. They’re mine to own. And if I hadn’t made them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Although my decisions have caused me to suffer quite immensely, I believe there is a silver lining. I now feel like I understand the reasons why I made the decisions I made, and it’s given me some pretty potent ammunition for dealing with my future.

So, what does this mean from a practical perspective? Well, it’s quite simple really. As I’m an Obliger, I need to find ways to set up systems of external accountability to help me to achieve the things I want to achieve in my life.

  • If I want to write, then I need to join a writing class.
  • If I want to go to the gym, I need to find a gym-buddy to go with, or hire a personal trainer.
  • If I want to earn money, I need to get a job. I believe I have entrepreneurial talent, however without external accountability I simply won’t have the perseverance required to succeed.
  • If I want to meditate, I need to join a meditation group, or find a friend to meditate with, or take up yoga.
  • If I want to date more… err, I’m not exactly sure how to go about this one yet…

If I don’t set up these systems, I simply won’t do these things. And that means I won’t achieve the things I want to achieve in my life. That knowledge alone is so very powerful.

The next challenge for me is obvious: figuring out how I translate this knowledge into tangible action (i.e. job applications, joining a writing class etc).

Obligers are, unsurprisingly to me, the biggest group within the framework. Here’s a video of Gretchen explaining Obligers.

Based on the above, which type do you think you are? I challenge you to take the test to help you find out!

 

Internal Gratification vs External Gratification

Gratification means: the act of pleasing.

Recently I have begun to explore the importance of internal gratification relative to external gratification, using happiness as a measure. Before getting into this, let me explain first what I mean by internal and external gratification.

Gratification is the act of pleasing.

  • External gratification is the act of pleasing others. Relating this to happiness as a measure, external gratification refers to the happiness that we achieve as a result of pleasing others.
  • Internal gratification is the act of pleasing ourselves. Relating this to happiness as a measure, internal gratification refers to the happiness that we achieve as a result of pleasing ourselves.

The difference between the two is so unbelievably subtle that, like a (good) thief in the night, it can slink by totally unnoticed. The reason it is so subtle is because the outcome of internal and external gratification is the same – happiness. The only way I can think of to demonstrate the difference is to give you a personal example:

Recently I made a new year’s resolution. My new year’s resolution was not to work so hard. This resolution came about as a result of my time working at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) – an office job. At PwC I would often work fairly long hours, day after day. After three and a half years I became tired of doing this. You might think “well that’s just being lazy”. However, there is far more to it than that. Working at PwC was never a dream of mine. I’ll pause here to make it clear I’m not having a dig at PwC in any way – I learnt a lot in this job and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today. 

While studying at University I didn’t know PwC existed. When I finished University I still barely knew PwC existed. Yet, somehow, four years down the road I found myself working long hours in a PwC office day after day. So how did that happen? It happened, I believe, because I thought other people knew what they were talking about when they told me things like “that is a really great company” and “you must be really smart to work there”. These things validated the job for me in some weird way. The job was, from other people’s perspectives, a good one and it made me happy to be pleasing others by working in it. Mmhmm, external gratification at its finest. However, as Yoda would say: “it did not, internal gratification, achieve”.

After a few years working the job I felt like something was missing. The people telling me it was a great company and a great job yada yada weren’t convincing me anymore. I thought I’d applied for the job because it was what I wanted, however upon reflection I do not believe that was the case. Instead, I was seeking out external gratification.

So, this brings me back to my new year’s resolution: not to work so hard. So what is that all about? Here’s a little secret for you: this resolution actually has nothing to do with working hard (I enjoy working hard). This new year’s resolution is all about not wanting to work hard for the wrong reasons. This new year’s resolution is all about switching my focus to the things I find internally gratifying (which is obviously not PwC at this time) and to work hard on these.

It all sounds a bit self-centred doesn’t it? It’s not. Following a path of internal gratification does not mean following a selfish route. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. For example, some of the things I find internally gratifying have nothing to do with me. These include: saying hello to, and smiling at, strangers; offering; being kind; writing; saying thank you (this is a big one); asking people about them, who they are, what they do, where they have been. These are simple things.

The difficulty with internal gratification is these types of things can often go unnoticed to the outside world, and therefore it is up to my inner self to identify them, and in turn, find happiness. This can be hard to do. It’s highly unlikely someone will tell us ‘good job’ for saying hello to, and smiling at, that stranger that we just walked past. But should that stop you from doing it? Hell no! Seriously, who doesn’t like to be smiled at?

You may also say it doesn’t matter whether you seek external gratification or internal gratification as both lead to happiness. While it is true that both can lead to happiness, at this point in time I believe there is one key difference between the two: external gratification is temporary, internal is not. Internal gratification is always there within you, as long as you take the time to find it. External gratification may not be – you could be unemployed, you could be feeling lonely, you could be homeless etc. In these moments people are less likely to tell you how awesome and successful and hot and fabulous you are…. But that doesn’t make you any less awesome, successful, hot and fabulous.

There is always going to be more out there, and this is why I believe following a path seeking out only external gratification will be unfulfilling. That is not to say external gratification is worthless, in fact I think it’s very important. It’s necessary to have both.

Let me put it this way… if happiness were a house, internal gratification would be the foundation, and external gratification would be everything else – the fixtures, furniture, fittings etc. Trying to build a house beginning with the fixtures, furniture and fittings before the foundation is a difficult ask… equally so, think about trying to live in a house without fixtures, furniture and fittings…

Here is a quick summary:

  • Your external gratification is sourced from the outside world (i.e. external to your being). Put simply, external gratification is happiness derived by you from others.
  • Your internal gratification is sourced by you from within. Put simply, internal gratification is happiness derived by you from you.

Perhaps this is all just a bunch of nonsense… I don’t know… I’m still (and always) learning.