Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gaining Ground

I've been gaining ground psychologically for the last two months. I had a severe panic attack about that long ago that seems to have shocked me out of my depression. I still suffer from obsessively negative thinking, but I now have the ability to short circuit these thoughts with cognitive techniques, and it has become less and less troublesome. As my mind has cleared, I've started seeing some obvious roadblocks that obsessive thinking leads me to put in my way.

One aspect of this is obsessive perfectionism. For example, before 2009, I found it impossible to write songs. I could write tunes, and sometimes some verse, but I could never allow myself to compromise one for the other, and one or the other was never good enough. That changed in 2009, after my surgery. I think that the limitations that I had to deal with then made compromise essential in many areas of my life. One manifestation of this was that I was able to write a song. I wrote a little verse with a particular meter. I pulled an old tune out of a dusty inner bookshelf and tried to squeeze the two together. They didn't fit so well. So I modified the tune to match the new meter, but the words still didn't fit. So I tweaked the words a bit. Going back and forth I was successful in writing a complete song. And compromising on the meter, melody and syntax allowed me to hold on to what I really found important: the meaning of the whole ensemble. That was a minor triumph for me. But the general pattern of refusing to compromise on details to achieve of an overall goal still stops me from completing stuff I really want to do. Lately, my awareness of this problem has allowed me to avoid it several times. That feels good.

A second way my obsessive thinking bites me is in the matter of details. A friend on Second Life is working in a start up company. Yesterday, he complained about being interrupted by some corporate trivia while he was 5000 levels deep in some complicated code. It reminded me of when I used to do that sort of thing. Systems design, engineering and coding all demand a huge amount of concentration, and the ability to track one or more chains of details down to great depth. In my case, obsessive tendencies really helped me do that kind of work. I can't do it so well anymore, but I still tend to chase stuff "down a rabbit hole." (Or a "rat hole," depending.) When I was working, I had colleagues that helped pull me back up to the surface when I was in danger of drowning in minutiae. I now find that heading for the depths in isolation is a really effective barrier to progress.

Reducing the impact of just those two obsessive patterns has yielded good results. My frustration level is way down, not only because I beat my head against problems less, but because I get results! Second, the results become springboards for further progress. One example of this is an insight I had regarding loneliness.

I've isolated myself for many years, and I tend to lump the angst from that under the single heading of "loneliness." But demanding less of myself, and especially of others, has let me see things differently. I had a brainstorm the other day that the cure for loneliness was to help other lonely people. This is a simple idea, not at all novel, but one that had immediate utility for me. In the past, I would have spun dreams around how to do this simple thing. I'd keep that up until rat hole diving or unwillingness to compromise, or some other roadblock stopped me. But this time, I started thinking in a more practical way. In order to help someone with loneliness, I needed to think about loneliness actually meant to me. I discovered that, in my case, it has at least four components. I decided that I am
  1. Lonely. I narrowed this term down to lacking human contact.
  2. Bored. Relying solely on my own resources for stimulation and entertainment has strict limits.
  3. Lovelorn. I haven't had a loving relationship for 13 years
  4. Sex starved. I haven't had a good hug and kiss, let alone any sex in the same length of time.
Taken altogether, with an obsessive focus on myself, these three components merge into a big, impenetrable ball of wax. But since I was thinking of them in the context of helping someone else, I could view them separately, and somewhat more dispassionately. This led to the immediate realization that number 1 isn't actually a problem for me! I talk to friends on a daily basis, on the phone, via SL or Facebook. That my contacts aren't face to face doesn't actually matter from the standpoint of loneliness. This also helps a lot with boredom, though I could always use more interesting things to do. So thinking about how to help other lonely people led me to an immediate cure of my own loneliness, via the realization that I was a lot less lonely than I thought.

Regarding the last two, I got some clarity on the commonplace notion that sex and love aren't the same thing. They are separate problems that I insist on treating as one. It's possible to solve one without the other, though they can work together. I think my monolithic thinking has been a roadblock. I want fall in love with anyone I have sex with. A woman interested in one or the other might be put off by my presenting an insistence on both. Also, my long self imposed deprivation leads me to put a huge spin on that ball when meeting women. Third, isolation does make it harder to make either sort of contact. I haven't solved these problems, but I feel I've made some progress in my thinking about them.

I always liked the old AA slogan "progress, not perfection," because it was so apt for me. I'm not satisfied with my current situation regarding any of these problems. The big difference is that I'm not getting sidetracked or stopped by my thinking about them. I'm making real progress.

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