Monday, January 27, 2020

Text Anxiety: Why I Overuse LOL, Punctuation, and Emojis (And Secretly Wish Everyone Else Would, Too)

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about texting with anxiety. It felt really good to get it out there, to give some insight into what goes on in the depths of my anxious mind and maybe reach some people, perhaps even people who have experienced text anxiety themselves. If it went over well, I was even going to submit it to The Mighty; maybe I can help heal the world, one post at a time!

It got 4 views.

Eh, better than nothing, right? Nevertheless, here I am, writing another post about my anxiety and texting. Because reaching 4 people is still something.

The last post was largely about sending and receiving texts, which is obviously step one. By no means does the anxiety stop there, though. There's the anxiety of crafting a good message. And the anxiety of waiting for a response. And, for me, the effects of anxiety on my interpretation of a response. This post is going to be about the latter.

As an empath, I'm usually pretty good at reading people in person. There are times when I struggle; if my own emotions are particularly strong in a given moment, they can sometimes taint the 'signal' I'm getting from someone else. For example, if I'm feeling particularly low/sad, and someone I'm with delivers a dry, sarcastic remark (which I'm usually all about), I might mistake their tone as hostile or annoyed instead of joking. Many times, all it takes is a moment to look at them, to absorb facial cues and body language, as well as remind myself that most people are not inherently mean and my mind loves to play tricks on me, and I can usually reassess and figure out that they're kidding. Phew!

The issue with texting then, as you likely already guessed, is that I'm missing all of those clues: tone, expression, body language... all out the window. Imagine an entire conversation in which the person you're speaking to has a blank face, doesn't move, and remains monotone throughout. Would you have any idea what they were feeling? Probably not. So what do you do?

If you're like me, you project. I think of it like watching black and white TV. At a certain point, my brain just kind of fills the color in for me. Not in a conscious way necessarily. I mean, I don't literally start seeing colors in place of grayscale. But my imagination makes suggestions, and if push came to shove, I could tell you what I think the colors are or should be.

Reading texts can be similar - without being able to hear the actual tone intended for a statement, my brain comes up with a tone in order to assign additional context and meaning. And often, I imagine it's dead wrong, but short of asking things like "How did you mean that?" or "That was a joke, right?" after every text, there has to be at least a little bit of guesswork on behalf of the recipient.

Likewise, I fear that whoever is reading a text from me is going through the same struggle. What if I don't properly convey my emotional response in this brief interaction? What if they think I'm being a raging bitch-monster when I'm just trying to be my lovable, snarky AF self?! It legitimately makes me anxious just thinking about it.

And I know I'm not alone here. Think about the 'evolution' of LOL. Remember what that actually stands for? Laughing OUT LOUD. Unless we're all a bunch of hysterical hyenas, we are NOT reserving it for just those times. These days its use is, more or less, intended to convey some kind of tone. Sometimes it suggests, "I'm gonna say this thing, but I don't want you to take it too seriously." Or maybe, "I'm just responding positively to your humorous statement/gif/whatever; I don't actually have anything to say but I don't want you to feel ignored." Or my personal favorite, "I don't want shit to get awkward if we're not on the same page here, so I'm using these three letters as my own personal safety net."

It doesn't stop at LOL either; I, personally, have several ways of trying to inject tone or emotion into messages. Punctuation and capitalization are probably the most obvious (which is why I overuse the hell out of exclamation marks), but there are others. Extra letters, for example. If someone tells/shows me something and I like it or am impressed, 'nice' becomes 'niiiiiiiiice.' The more disappointed or displeased I am, the more Os get added to the word 'boo' or 'no.' And when I'm excited, the number of Ss that get tagged onto the end of a 'yes' or an occasional 'yas' can vary from a few extra to "Did her finger get stuck?"

The most polarizing way to establish mood/tone/whatever, though, has to be emojis (or emoticons; yes, I know there's a difference, but shut up). As we all know, some people love the little dudes to the point of overuse. Some people aren't fans of using them at all, except in extreme circumstances. Others find them downright obnoxious. Personally, I think they're pretty helpful, not to mention kind of fun to use.I'm 99% sure that my friends think I'm just an emoji whore, but it's more than just a cute little image to me. Emojis help me express the sentiment of a statement, and they REALLY help me interpret the tone of someone else's, especially when the text is a one-word response. 'Okay' is not a particularly warm word. We know it represents an affirmative response, but that doesn't mean it's always a POSITIVE response. The same goes for words like 'sure' and 'fine' (which many argue almost always means the exact opposite). Check it out.

Person 1: Hey, you wanna catch a movie tonight?
Person 2: Sure

Obviously, the response is affirmative, but the individual doesn't sound super excited. As Person 1, I'd be reading into that WAY too much (because it's what I do). Do they REALLY want to go to the movie, or are they just saying yes for the sake of saying yes? Am I bugging them by asking? Should I back out of it to let them off the hook? The mind races, and inevitably I'm assuming the absolute worst when all they really meant was 'sure.' BUT, add a smile in there, and...

Person 1: Hey, you wanna catch a movie tonight?
Person 2: Sure 😀

As stupid as it might sound, that little yellow dude grinning like an idiot makes me feel immeasurably better about Person 2's response. Like, aha! They're happy to be asked and happy to say yes. This is good and fills me with much happiness of my own. Huzzah!

I'm working on trying NOT to read so much into simple messages, but it can be pretty rough sometimes. If I just used a plethora of smiley faces and exclamation marks but your response ends in a period (dun dun DUN!!), it's hard to redirect my brain from immediately thinking you clearly hate my guts and never want to talk to me again. Or, at the very least, that you're obviously not as jazzed about the topic at hand as I am and probably think I'm kind of a goober.

So, if you don't worry about this kind of stuff, you've probably determined that I am all kinds of certifiable. I'm not saying you're wrong. Maybe I am crazy. But maybe you like me anyway. And maybe you know OTHER people who think/feel similarly (perish the thought!) and want some insight to help you communicate better. On the other hand, if you DO worry about this kind of stuff,  now you can cue up 'You Are Not Alone' and bask in the knowledge that someone else is your brand of crazy! 😊

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Myth of the Rational Empath

I've written before about being an empath. Not of the supernatural variety, but of the highly sensitive, deep feeling, empathetic to a fault variety. It may be why I startle easily. It probably contributes to my over-apologizing. It absolutely causes me to feel things differently than others. And, like anything in life, it has its good parts and its bad parts. 

This is a subject I have a hard time with because I fear judgment. I want others to think that I'm strong and capable and sane, and I worry that my empathicness (is that a word? It is now!) is more likely to be seen as a weakness, something that makes me somehow less capable and less rational than others. 

And so I've put this off. I've started it again and again. Drafts have been deleted or rewritten to no avail (pretty sure I started drafting this iteration at least 3-4 weeks ago). Then I was reminded of this: 
With my semi-recent #sorrynotsorry challenge (which went well, for the record!) and the looming thoughts surrounding my own insecurities about being an empath and HSP (highly sensitive person), this tweet opened the floodgates. I still didn't write it all at once, because I'm easily distracted this time of year, but here we are getting it done (finally).

The big thing to know is that I feel things deeply. Sometimes unnecessarily so, or to my own detriment, but it's just how I've always processed emotions. And it's not always a bad thing!

It's why I enjoy putting thought and energy into giving gifts to people (even strangers - I loved being a part of Reddit's Secret Santa this season!) in hopes that it'll bring them a smile. It's why I don't really like cooking or baking for just myself because the real joy I find in it is when someone else enjoys what I've made. It's why I get weirdly attached to characters in shows, movies, and books (like when I cried because Weebo "died" in Flubber) and go through a brief mourning period when I end a particularly good series and why I like to rewatch and reread those series so I can visit those characters over and over. Whether we're lifelong friends or new acquaintances, if I feel like we've connected, then you're part of my circle - that means you have my friendship, my respect, and my loyalty (even if I don't have yours).

On the other hand, it's why when my depression starts spiraling, it often happens so quickly that I can't even recognize what's going on until it's too late. It's why the thought of my friends or family in pain makes me hurt - sometimes physically - especially when there's nothing I can do to help them or nothing I can say that will ease that pain. It's why things that may cause small amounts of anxiety in some people result in me having panic attacks (or damn near) out of the blue. When my heart breaks, it takes a long time for me to pick up the pieces, and I've probably even lost a few bits along the way. 

I wear my heart on my sleeve for all to see and, in doing so, it gets scratched, snagged, and scarred along the way. My heart is easily bruised and sometimes that can be really hard. But I believe that having my heart at the ready also means that I can more easily find great love and appreciation for even the smallest things. It often means that I don't have to dig deep to find my compassion. And though I'm not always happy about it, one rarely has to guess how I'm feeling - it's all out there to be seen, whether I like it or not. 

And I'm not sorry for any of it. I would rather feel things too severely than not at all. Numbness may seem easier, especially when things get bad; trust me, I've been there. But to experience positive emotions as strongly as I do? It's worth every sob session, every soul ache, every piece of my heart I've left behind on my path through life. 

What I AM sorry for is the lack of understanding others seem to have regarding empaths and HSPs. It's easy for people to just see that part of someone and make assumptions. People frequently have this notion that the higher one's emotions run, the less rationally they think and act. And for some empaths, maybe even the majority, it does work that way. But as with any group of people, assuming we're 'all the same' is useless at best. Being sensitive and feeling things intensely does NOT mean I am an inherently irrational person. 

Are there times I act largely based on what I feel? Of course. Are there times that my emotions - or the emotions of others - hit me so hard that I get overwhelmed? Yep, that happens, too. Nonetheless, strong feelings and a tender heart don't mean I'm incapable of thinking rationally and reasonably. Logic and emotion are not mutually exclusive, nor are they inverses of one another.  

Maybe we need to stop seeing everything as one thing or another. Maybe we can challenge the ways in which we think of people - including ourselves - so that we stop believing in limitations that don't have to exist. Maybe we can stop judging those we barely know and instead focus on learning more about them and finding who they really are.

Or, maybe I'm the exception to the rule. Maybe I'm a mythical being: The Rational Empath, she who is the veritable "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." The elusive creature of great beauty and wisdom, who will bring you good luck if you catch her!

But probably not. I'm pretty easy to catch...

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

*Tevye Voice* Tradition, Tradition!

I am a huge fan of tradition. Actually, that might be an understatement. Let's try again.

I am whore for tradition. Nope, a little too much. One more go.

I am a Tradition Nazi. Non-PC, but doesn't imply the exchange of sexual favors for tradition. Perfect. 

According to my dad, I should logically be a Republican; I dislike change and will do anything to uphold traditions. It doesn't quite work that way, but I get what he meant. Traditions are part of my DNA, and my love of them helps make me who I am. Mess with that and... well, we'll just say the outcome is undesirable. 

Christmas, of course, is a time chock-full of tradition. It's not my favorite holiday (Halloween FTW, obviously), but the parts of it that I love, I really love. And those parts all consist of traditions. Like, my favorite meal of the year is Christmas Eve dinner. My mom always makes prime rib and I always eat too much of it. (Seriously, even the 5 years I was a vegetarian, I still ate prime rib on Christmas Eve. My body HATED it, but it was so worth the pain.) A tangential "tradition" is my dad making some joke about how Mom's making filets or turkey or something this year, and would that be alright with me? It doesn't phase me anymore, but as a kid, I would legitimately get upset thinking my traditional meal was being mucked up.

I grew up with a plethora of traditions surrounding Christmas. Like decorating the tree the day after Thanksgiving with my 'sister' and playing the ornament game. Picking out our family tree from the lot. Baking cookies with my mom, singing along with John Denver & The Muppets. Playing games with my family on Christmas day. Going to the Jewish deli the day after Christmas to exchange gifts with my sister. So many traditions, so many memories.

As often happens in life, though, circumstances change and, as a result, traditions change. Or end. I don't live next door to my sister anymore. And I don't live with my parents. And the deli is closed now. 

So new traditions are created! Especially when one starts her own family. And that's what we were - a family. Me, my husband, and the dog(s). We picked out our own Christmas tree at the same lot every year. I decorated during the day and hid certain ornaments for my husband to find. There were 3 Christmases - one with his mom's family, one with his dad's family, and one with my family. Those became my new traditions, the things I came to associate with my holiday season.

Two years ago, those traditions came to a pretty abrupt stop. I had no tree. Decorations largely stayed boxed up. I only had one Christmas. It was difficult, but I still held on to hope and that got me through (along with the support of my friends and family). Last year, there was renewed hope and a few traditions tried to make a comeback. I decorated a bit, and I was invited to, but didn't attend, a second Christmas. But the possibilities for even more to be restored in the future sustained me. 

This year, it's just me and the dogs. The only decorating I've done is re-doing my Halloween tree with Nightmare Before Christmas ornaments. While I'm looking forward to the traditions to be shared with my family (I can't WAIT for prime rib!), I don't really have any that are just for me. My traditions tend to be based around other people because I like doing things for those that I love and hold dear. 

And that hope for a future to reestablish my traditions, the hope that propped me up through the last two holiday seasons... doesn't exist anymore. I don't mean that to sound despondent, it's just a matter of fact. As happened with others along the way, the traditions I was holding onto, that I was hoping to resurrect, are now over.

Now... now it's once again time for new traditions. I need traditions to uphold for myself, regardless of who or what comes or goes from my life. That sense of tradition, of some kind of routine or constant, is important in helping me realize the holiday spirit. It doesn't have to be big or flashy. Maybe I'll start a tradition of wrapping presents while listening to my offbeat Christmas playlist. Maybe I'll spend the weekend before Christmas having a movie marathon of some sort while cuddling with the dogs. Or maybe I'll get myself something off of one of my wishlists, just for the hell of it!

Why? Because I like doing things for those I love... and I love myself. 💚

Saturday, November 16, 2019

My #SorryNotSorry Challenge

I have spent far too much of my life feeling like I'm in the way or like I'm a bother. I wrote about it in the context of calls and texts yesterday, but it goes beyond that. And it's time to really admit that I have a problem.

My name is Erika, and I am a serial apologizer.

For example: Many "empaths" have a strong startle response, and I'm definitely one of them. (And by empath, I mean someone who is highly sensitive and empathetic, rather than the paranormal kind. I'm not discounting their existence as a possibility, there's just nothing paranormal about me.) Just last week, I opened the door to go into my apartment building and someone was on their way out. It startled me. I jumped a little and gasped, and before I knew it, "Sorry!" had already escaped my lips. Yes, I apologized because I was startled. Wasn't the first time, probably won't be the last.

If I almost run into someone at the store? Apology. If someone almost runs into ME at the store? Apology. If I think I've caused any kind of upset or annoyance? Apology. If I think you're mad at me, even if there's no reason for you to be? Apology. If I step on my dog because she's walking underneath me? Apology. If I think I've made an assumption or too bold a claim? Apology. FFS, I've been known to apologize for sneezing. "Sorry" might be the word I use the most in everyday life.

It's not all about saying sorry, though. It comes in many forms. Backpedaling from a confident-sounding statement because now I'm suddenly unsure how true it is or whether I'm putting words in someone else's mouth. Backing down from an argument because I never meant to upset anyone in the first place.

I used to write a lot of it off as politeness (after all, I am just trying to make everyone happy and be the least inconvenient I possibly can be), but the unfortunate truth is that it more often comes from a place of deep-rooted insecurity and self-esteem issues. My ex was the first to point out to me that when I pass someone in an aisle at the grocery store, I don't just say 'excuse me' (which, BTW, there's nothing wrong with), but I also drop my head, physically lowering myself as if my presence is what I'm excusing (which, BTW, there definitely is something wrong with). So that's fun!

I shouldn't be apologizing for being... well, me. And the rational part of me is well aware of that. But a lifetime of anxiety, depression, and low self-image takes its toll; when your internal narrative has been negatively focused for so long, you can't just change it at will. It's not like some switch you flip from "pessimistic self-loathing" to "confident self-assuredness." It takes time and effort. It takes practice. It takes strength. And it is a challenge.

Tell 'em, Demi!
So, here I am, challenging myself. I'm calling this my #sorrynotsorry challenge. For the next week, I am going to focus on identifying those times when I'm being unnecessarily apologetic or insecure, and I'm going to try to ask myself if I'm truly sorry, or if that was a knee-jerk reaction from a lifetime of conditioning. I'm betting that a LOT of the time, it's the latter. Thus sorry, not sorry.

This week, I'm going to really try (keyword, folks - TRY) to be unapologetically me. And it might be a lot for some people to handle. You think I post a lot on social media now? Imagine what I'll share if I'm not worrying whether it's too much or if anyone cares. Think I'm too emotional? Phew, I got news for y'all... most of you ain't seen nothin' yet.

I am goofy. I am passionate. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I find humor and happiness in strange things. I love to share with people. I am nerdy. I am sweet. I am fierce. I am cute AF. I am fun. I love to be lazy. I have strength even I didn't know I had. I am weird by some's standards and too normal by others'. I am easily excited. I care deeply. And I love even more deeply. Basically, I'm pretty awesome.

And for this week, I'm not going to be sorry for any of it. Starting... now.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Unfortunate Double Standard of Texting With Anxiety

Right off the bat, I want to start by pointing out that I can only speak to MY experiences. Not everyone with an anxiety disorder or who fights with anxiety has the same thoughts or feelings. Someone may read this and think, "Yeah, some of that kinda sounds like me!" Someone else might read it and go, "Damn, that's messed up. I have anxiety and I've never felt like that!" It should go without saying, but not everyone with anxiety is identical in how their anxiety manifests, how they handle it, how they think about it...  But I digress.

We won't even get into rotary phones...
I've never been huge on phone calls. Sure, I did some of the teenage girl thing where I'd be on the phone for hours at a time talking about nothing at all, but it was never comfortable or natural. I paced a lot, which is a lot harder when you have a corded phone. (If you're too young to have experienced this, just imagine that your cell phone had to be plugged into the wall charger ALL THE TIME - the horror!). Once I got a cordless phone, I would wander outside and hop on the swingset or just wander around the house. Sitting still wasn't really an option if I was on a call that lasted more than about five minutes.

It's also worth pointing out that the vast majority of these calls were made TO me, not BY me. I'll get to why this is important later, but very rarely have I ever gone, "Man, I should just call up what's-her-bucket and chat for a while!" Odds were also good that one of my parents answered the phone first and handed it off to me; the only time I answered the phone of my own volition was when no one else was home and I was worried it might be a call about my parents, which is another part of my childhood anxiety we don't have time for in this post.

("Why not let the machine get it?" you may ask. Easy. My parents believed that "if it's important, they'll call back" so it was FOREVER before we even had one. Like, we skipped the whole type of machine that had the tape you had to rewind. Our very first answering machine had multiple "inboxes" and was completely digital. And while my parents said it was more about dad's work, I still think that the biggest reason we got one was that I kept using *69 to find out if anyone had called for me while I was gone. Again, if you're too young for this reference... I don't know, go find someone who was alive and using phones in the 90s and ask them to regale you with stories of the world of old.)

I got my first cell phone when I was 20 and I'm pretty sure I sent my first text that very day. Kids, this was back in the day when not only was texting a major pain in the ass, it was also pretty costly. Phone plans gave you a certain number of texts each month and anything beyond that cost extra. I'm here to tell you that a phone aversion + pay-to-play texting = money problems. In fact, my phone bills were a big reason I couldn't put enough money away to return to school back in 2005 and led me down my
While not my 1st phone,
I totally had this bad boy
for quite some time.
current life path, so... Stay in school? No, that's not the point here. Moving on.

Texting was expensive and I was, well, not exactly swimming in excess cash. So once my text limit was reached each month, I got used to taking phone calls with certain important people in my life. Again, they mostly called me instead of the other way around, but the freedom of being able to wander while talking allowed me to work out some of that nervous energy and I was able to stand it for a bit.

These days, texting (or any version of "instant" messaging) seems to be just part of daily life for the majority of us. (Hell, my parents text, and my dad is the guy who used to pride himself on the fact that all he knew about our home PC was how to turn it on and off.) And while I'm much better about using the phone these days (yay therapy!), texting is still my preferred method of communication.

Remember when I mentioned that most of the time people had/have to call me instead of the other way around? (It was several paragraphs ago, so if you don't remember or don't want to go back that far, just take my word on it.) I constantly worried that I would be interrupting something or that my call would be unwelcome or annoying in some way. Basically, I didn't think anyone wanted to hear from me, because if they did, wouldn't they have called me? Yes, I'm aware of the flaws in that way of thinking. Yes, I'm aware that most people just don't answer right if they're inconvenienced or don't want to talk. But for some reason, my anxiety convinces me that I'm going to be a bother to whoever I'm calling.

The same applies to texting. With VERY few exceptions (mostly my bestie and my sister), I am extremely hesitant to send an unsolicited, unprompted text message to most people I know. Circumstances make no difference. We could literally have been texting up a storm the day before, but today is a new day, and maybe today you don't want to deal with me, so... I should probably just leave you alone. The rational part of me goes, "Dude, if they're busy or don't want to chat with you, they'll just ignore it. It's fine." Then anxiety comes back with, "But how do I know if they're ignoring me because they're busy or if it's because they don't want to talk to me anymore?? If I don't text, then I don't have to worry about that!"

Yes, I realize how fucked up that is.

So, what makes texting such a double standard for me? The fact that I LOVE getting messages from the people in my life. Nothing puts a smile on my face like hearing from people I care about. I don't care if we haven't spoken in months; if you send a random AF text, my heart will be oh so happy. It doesn't even have to be like, "OMG, it's been too long and I miss you. We should totally talk sometime soon!" Honestly, it could just say, "Sup?" and I'd be genuinely psyched just to hear from you.

2 words can say SO much more

Plus, I worry. I know that's beyond obvious, but sometimes I think people underestimate the levels of worry that I can reach. And, my apologies to those of you in my texting circle... the more frequently we send messages, the worse the worry can get. For example, if I don't hear from my bestie in a few days (or, sometimes, a few hours), I start getting concerned. Is she okay? Did I say something to piss her off? Is her family okay? What did I do wrong? Are we still friends? WHAT DID I DO?!

Alright, I know that seems a little (or a lot) crazy, but that's anxiety. On a bad day, I can end up doubting that my bestie even wants to be friends with me anymore just because I haven't heard from her. This is my hetero lifemate. My person. My piece of corn (sorry, that one's an inside joke). Of fucking COURSE she's my friend! She's my BEST friend. Thankfully (yet, unfortunately), she understands the insecurities and insanity of anxiety and never hesitates to remind me that I'm a dummy if I think she's going anywhere.

And yet, ask her if I've ever apologized to her for "bugging" her with a message. Or saying something like, "Sorry, I'll let you go. Didn't want to bother you." Because the answer is yes. I haven't done it so much lately (we made a deal where we're not allowed to apologize to one another for such things; I'm doing my best to stick to it), but I absolutely have said sorry for texting MY BEST FRIEND. And at the same time, I would NEVER want her to apologize for messaging me, no matter the context or content. How could she ever be a bother to me?

There you have it. I'm constantly worried I'm bothering people with my texts, but my own heart soars when I hear that little ding. Someone's thinking of me! Someone wants to talk to me! Someone likes me enough to engage me in conversation! YAY!! I'm trying to turn that thinking back around; mightn't other people be happy to hear from me, just as I'm happy to hear from them? It's really hard to challenge negative thoughts, but I am actually trying.

Just the other day I was worried about bothering someone who was having a rough day, but then I thought, "Hmmm, if I was having a tough time, I'd really appreciate a text..." And so, I texted. A small but important victory, IMO. (Okay, so I've already since apologized for bothering the same person with a different text... baby steps, Bob! BABY STEPS!) Someday, I won't need to talk myself through that; for now, all I can do is keep trying.

Phew! This got a lot longer than I meant, so if you're still reading... Well, I won't apologize. You made the choice to keep reading, and I appreciate it. Thank you. :)