Stop Misusing Your Imagination and Free Yourself

Every once in a while someone hands me a phrase that changes my life. Sometimes it’s a new way of looking at things or a distilled concept wrapped up in a way that lets me carry it around and brandish it when needed. My dad recently gave me one of these which fits both of these categories and has changed my life.

I was talking to him about my difficulties in opening conversations with women I find attractive but yet don’t know. (I’m guessing most of you guys out there have had this experience.) Suppose you’re at a party and see a gorgeous woman: what’s your first response? Probably something along the lines of wanting to interact with her (I’ll leave that vague to cover the various possibilities). Then what do you do? For me, the answer was, unfortunately, to start to talk myself out of it, coming up with reasons why she doesn’t look like she’d want to talk to me. Maybe she’s texting on her phone, so I wouldn’t want to interrupt, it’s probably important, or maybe I can’t think of anything funny to say, and I wouldn’t want to make a bad impression… I could go on and on (and usually do), but you get the idea. So what’s the phrase which helps me catch and change this then?

“You’re misusing your imagination to abuse yourself.”

That’s it. Pretty simple right? And very true. Back to the above situation, I actually have no idea what could possibly be going on in her head. I don’t even know her. Why then am I supposing that she’d be offended or turned off by me? I’m anxious and defending by projecting thoughts and habits from within myself onto her. Why the hell am I doing this to myself? Why don’t I flip things around an imagine the best case scenario? Suppose I walk up to her and just say “hi”. Since I’m just imagining things, why not imagine that she responds by looking me in the eye, grabbing my jacket and pulling me in for some making out.

Start to attend to your anxiety and habitual ways of dealing with it. Work on midfulness of creating conversations in your head or when you’re stopping yourself because you think someone else may say or do something, or maybe you’re worried something they’ve done was because of you. That brings us to our first headline.

Separate self from the other:

Once you catch yourself doing this, stop, get a piece of paper and a pen, and draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper (or in your head if you don’t have one). On one side list the things you know for certain because you’ve observed them in yourself or the world. On the other side, write down all of the things that you’re imagining. Are you using your imagination to come up with doomsday scenarios? Probably.

Instead, cross that all out and decide what you want to do and that you’re going to make it happen. Flip you paper over and user your mind to come up with the how for that. Figure out a plan and then execute. You may run into roadblocks, but they’ll be real, not in your head. Then you can deal with reality. This brings us to the next headline.

Accept Reality:

Without accepting reality, none of this will work. We need to be able to understand and react to reality without applying negative filtering from out punitive superegos. We function most ideally when we’re operating on facts. They won’t always be what we want, but viewing them without applying negative self-talk is hugely beneficial.

We also need to able to admit flaws in ourselves and others and accept that some things are out of our control. Back to my example of meeting women. Imagine that some poor young woman’s dog has just died and she’s gone to the pub to drink a pint. I may be the perfect man for her on any other day, but she won’t care today, she’s mourning her dog. That’s a hard reality. I won’t know about her dog and anguish until I try to interact, so I shouldn’t stop myself, nor need I later on try to come up with manufactured reasons that I’ve “failed”.

In fact, look at that ugly word, “failed” — is that a good thing to do to myself?  Did I fail, or did I try and get less than what I wanted yet learn something? Accepting that failure is part of life and learning is a whole other topic, but certainly one worth trying to recognize.

Shut down the superego:

Once we’re started to recognize our imagination abuse (or the punitive superego I mentioned above if you want to sound scholarly) we then have to stop it. For me, trying to separate what I control from what I don’t and accepting facts without letting myself tint them is the best way to do this. Once I’ve done that, I’m free to use my imagination to come up with something to say (like “hi” works well) or to solve the actual obstacles that are in my way (my own anxieties, for one). I might even use my imagination to create a best case expectation to talk myself up and try to relieve some anxiety that may be arising what the situation I’m in.

I owe a great deal of gratitude to this phrase, and I hope that it helps you lead a better, freer life too. I’m certainly still working on my own internal demons, but I’ve gotten better and will continue to do so. There are so many great things to do in the world, fantastic people to meet and terrific places to see, that we can’t afford to let our own old habits hold us back. The only thing holding us back should be reality, and we should be doing our damnest to move forward in spite of it. Onwards.

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Changing Things Up

I’ve spent a lot of my life since graduating high school moving to different places. Here’s a quick rundown for reference:

  • Graduate after spending the first 17 years of my life in Missoula
  • Move to Thailand for a year
  • Move back to Missoula for 4 months
  • Move to Washington for school for 9 months
  • Back to Missoula for 3 months
  • Back to Washington for 6 months
  • Germany for 5 months
  • Back to Washington for 12 months
  • Seattle for 3 months
  • Back to Washington for last 9 months of school
  • Off to Los Angeles for 2 1/2 years (one inter-city move in the middle of that)
  • Back to Missoula for 3 months
  • Currently in Argentina for 1 month (2 more planned)

Through all of this, I’ve had to learn a few things about travel and what’s important in my life. More than anything though, I’ve learned how to appreciate where I am. All to often people (myself included) get stuck in routine. Routine is nice because it’s comfortable. Change can be very anxiety provoking. I still hate moving, but I love exploring.

I was looking at a tourist map of Buenos Aires recently and had an epiphany: why don’t I own a tourist map of Los Angeles or Tacoma (where I went to school) or Missoula for that matter? Did I let myself get complacent? I’ll never know everything there is to know about a place, so why did I ever stop exploring? From here, I started pondering what else I could learn from my travel experience to apply towards more fully appreciating what life has to offer. Here’s a few items from my list.

Re-assess every 3 months

Breaking off connections and forcing myself into a new locations means that I have to find new places for my hobbies, new teachers, new classes, new teammates, new companies, etc. Because there is time and energy involved in this search, I often find myself rethinking what’s important to me. This means I get the opportunity to start or stop whatever I was doing guilt-free. Maybe I was playing ultimate frisbee with a team (I wasn’t, but for example) that I had some friends on, but really was only going because I felt obligated and because it was my weekly habit to go. Well if I move to a new city and don’t feeling like joining an ultimate league, I don’t have to. Granted this is a terrible way to get out of obligations, but realizing that freedom led me to the above rule.

Every activity you do should be working towards some greater goal for yourself. You don’t have to enjoy every minute of it, but it should be noticeably improving your life or have good probability of doing so in the future. Set aside some time right now and do this:

  1. Write a list of every activity you do regularly: Exercise, work, dance, art, music, meetups, hiking groups, drinking, poker playing, whatever…
  2. Ask yourself for each one: if I moved to the other side of the country, would I seek out people to help me continue doing this?
  3. If you answer no for any of these, stop doing them (unless you have a very good reason not).
  4. Make a calendar appointment for yourself to repeat this exercise 3 months from today.

One piece that makes this process easier is picking quantifiable goals. I bolded that because it’s that important. I get caught in time traps by my own mind every so often because I pick open ended goals. I hate giving up, so I stick with things that may not be what I really want to be doing. What I’m not saying is that you should constantly be changing your activities, merely that you should give yourself a chance to reevaluate every so often. For example, I recently decided that I want to get stronger so I’m going to spend 2 months doing a specific workout plan for that purpose. After that two months, I think I want to work on my running, but I’ll reevaluate at the end of the strength gain program and decide to continue if I’m really liking it, or move on if I feel it’s time. No worries, no guilt, because I accomplished my goal of doing it for two months.

Goal: Complete the task above and pick a goal you can do in the next two months.

Pick up a guide book:

If you live somewhere long enough, you get desensitized to all the excitement that’s around you. You go to the same places, hike the same trails, see the same sites. Next time you get a chance, stop by a local hotel and browse the brochures they have, or go to a local bookstore and pick up a trail map or a guide book for your region (the internet works well for this too — but I’m a fan of getting out of the house). From there it’s simple, find somewhere new to go. Maybe there’s a great museum you went to 3 years ago, but haven’t set foot in since, maybe there’s a concert venue you’ve never been to, could be anything. This step is pretty simple, the hard part is remembering to do it. Use your calendar again: put in a reminder for yourself every month to do something new that month.

Goal: Find one thing to do this month in your city that you’ve never done before.

Bring a camera:

Walking around with a camera puts you in a different mindset. Instead of walking to get somewhere, you’re walking to observe, to look at things in a new way. When you’re taking photos, suddenly a fire hydrant you’ve walked by every day for the past year is a dash of red in the forefront of a composition of green bushes. Once you’ve done this a few times taking photos, you’ll start to develop an appreciation for the beautiful things around you even without the camera. You’ll notice the clouds, the colors, the shapes of things you’d have passed by for mundane before.

Goal: Walk to a park near your house with your camera.

Make new friends:

The most difficult part of relocating is probably the loneliness of knowing no one. On the plus side though, this is a good motivator for being friendly and trying to meet new people. You’d be amazed how quickly you can find acquaintances and get to know people when you’re trying. Granted, not all of these are going to turn into your best friends, but at least you’re feeding one end of the funnel and it’s likely that you’ll filter out some you don’t get along with, but those that make it through will become a valuable part of your life.

Too often people find enough acquaintances in an area to fill up their invite calendars with drinking occasions, then stop looking. While this is fine, and it’s nice to have a stable social network, why not expose yourself to new people? It’s likely you meet new people all the time, but don’t consider getting to know them because they don’t need to. Keep in mind though that not needing something and not benefiting from having that something are separate concepts. Challenge yourself to keep exploring.

Goal: Invite someone new to do something with you and your friends.

Conclusion:

I hope this inspires you to get out and live a bit. Life can be hugely fulfilling or crushingly overwhelming and a lot of it has to do with how you treat yourself. If you set yourself up to enjoy it, you’ll enjoy it. That’s probably a whole other blog post in and of itself though, so I’ll just leave you with the above suggestions and hope you can take them and run.

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First Month in Buenos Aires

Hola everyone. Tomorrow morning will mark one month in Buenos Aires, so I figured I should document what I’ve been up to, for my own sake and in the event some of you might be curious.

Arriving

Asado de Tira

Asado de Tira

I got here February 1st, and took a pre-arranged shuttle to my apartment in Palermo. I found my apartment on a site called Spare Rooms BA, which is certainly worth checking out if you are looking for a cheap option for temporary housing in Buenos Aires. After arriving, I spent some time checking out the basics nearby, grocery stores, butcher shops, restaurants. My first meal here happened to be one of the best I’ve had. I ordered Asado de Tira because I knew that meant some kind of beef, and to go along with that I ordered a penguïno of wine (which I was pleasantly surprised to find was a vase-like penguin filled with wine. A lot of wine. Luckily my new roommate from Holland was there to lend a hand in this endeavor.

Un Bueno Penguïno

Since then I’ve probably eaten, on average, more than one steak per day. A few days ago I had to take a day off to recover, but now I’m feeling ready to get back into the action. I recently discovered a lunch place where I can get a 3 course meal and drink for about $12: My choice of sausages for appetizer accompanied with french fries, then salad and a large steak, the topped off with my choice of ice cream or coffee. I’m not a huge ice cream guy, but it sure is a nice treat to sit down and just enjoy my lunch time now and then. All that said though, I’m basically sticking to my usual Paleo approach here, I’ve only really gone off of it on maybe 3-5 occasions.

Cooking

So as I’d mentioned, I quickly started scoping out places to buy food and supplies. My kitchen here was very limited in terms of pots/pans/utensils, but I figured I could make due. I quickly discovered, however, that Argentines are not known for their keen use of spices while cooking. They have salt and pepper and maybe another kind of pepper… (ok maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, they did invent chimichurri I think).

Spices from China Town

Not wanting to blow all of my money in the first month eating at restaurants, but also not wanting to eat plain ground beef with tomatoes, I set off in search of spices. As it turns out, the place to find them is China Town (or Barrio Chino in Spanish). It’s just a short bus trip from my house, so I headed down there and after some wandering into various grocery stores, and scouring shelves, I finally came out about $80US lighter, but loaded up with everything I should need for the next few months spice-wise. Since then I’ve made chili, thai curry, meatballs, and a few random concoctions. My landlady thinks I’m some kind of bizarre cooking feind, but she figured it was ok after I let her try some stuff.

Gym

Before I got here, I’d scoped out for any CrossFit gyms in the area. It turns out that there are only like 3 of them in the whole country, but one was only about 3/4 of a mile from my apartment. CrossFit Tuluka is the name. So far it seems pretty standard CrossFit gym, the trainers seem knowledgeable and people are nice. Luckily I kind of know what I’m doing because I don’t always understand what’s being said. I’m actually considering moving to a different gym though, because I want to go through a phase of strength training and they’re pretty much strictly metcons (metabolic, high-intensity, workouts — my metabolic capacity is fine, my strength is not so much). We’ll see though, most of the other gyms here are small and just have machines. It’s amazing how hard it is to find a place with some decent barbells.

Office Space

Japanese Garden

It only took me a few days to lock down a place to work. I really didn’t want to work from my apartment (what’s the point of being here if I do that?). I’d done a bit of research beforehand and knew that there were some coworking offices around here. Some more google-ing turned up this page, which eventually led me to find Areatres. As it turns out, Areatres is owned by Martin, a cool US expat. He’s been very helpful on several occasions, as well as the women at the front desk who have helped me order things I needed (like a monitor, then after that a mini-display to VGA adaptor so I could use my monitor — seriously, who still uses VGA on 1920×1080 monitors??).

Parks

My first weekend, I took advantage of the famous Palermo parks. There’s a decent zoo and a decent Japanese Garden pretty close to my house, so it gave me a great chance to get out and see a new area as well as enjoy both of those. I’ve since then been to a couple of the other parks there. Pretty good for people watching, and there are some pretty cool artificial lake to enjoy as well.

Tango

One of my main reasons for coming here was to improve my Tangoing skills. I started back in September in LA, then found classes in Missoula as well. So by the time I got here I at least knew a little bit. My landlady found out that I wanted to learn how to tango (and conveniently she has been dancing for years), and took me to a milonga (a tango dance party) shortly after i got here (I struggled there in case you’re curious). From there, I just started asking people for good places to go. I met an Australian woman who’d come here to learn how to tango years ago, who gave me a number of good recommendations, then from there I did a lot of searching and talking to people. I still have a few other places on my list to check out, but the last two weeks I’ve gone to classes and dances at least 4x/week. It’s been a rewarding/frustrating experience. I realized this last weekend that I finally broke out of the beginner phase and into the daunting position of realizing how little I actually know. So now it’s just time to dig in and keep investing the time to get better. FYI, here’s map of various places I’ve found to Tango here:

View Tango in a larger map

Spanish Classes

The other main reason I wanted to come here was to learn Spanish. Again, looking online, I found what’s turned out to be a pretty decent deal here. I did some private one-on-one classes to check out the teaching quality, which turned out to be good, then I went on to try 20 hours of intensive classes in a group with 3 other students. Turns out that 20 hours/week is a lot of time though, so I’ve settled on just doing 4 hours/week of private classes, then dedicating time on my own to studying. I’ve managed to go from being basically unable to speak to being able to communicate some basic things (like ordering steak medium rare and asking if I can try on a pair of shorts before I buy them). I can still understand far more than I can speak, but my speaking is getting better and my teacher informed me that I only have a very slight accent, so that was nice to hear.

The Future

Alright, well that’s about all I have for now. I’ve made a few friends, both local and foreign and am looking forward to the next two months here (I’m heading back to the states on April 30th). In the mean time, I’m hoping to keep meeting people, and get a chance to head down to Patagonia and possibly make it up to Iguazu Falls. On top of that, I have to get in my steak quota and learn a lot more about tangoing. Hopefully I’ll manage to pick up some more Spanish along the way. I’m moving to a new apartment tomorrow morning with a bigger room and bed (and as a major bonus, a stone bbq and patio area!). The new place smells like their dog, but I think it’ll be great. It’s only 1/2 mile or so from my current place, so I’m excited to start the next phase of this adventure.

Hasta luego!

It Takes Two to Benefit Cortisol and Testosterone levels

I’ve recently taken up learning tango dancing as a new hobby. I’ve been doing it for several months now and have to say that it’s quite enjoyable. I mentioned to someone in conversation how when I dance, I feel very elated afterwards, and they remarked that there’s probably quite the testosterone response from tangoing. Not being one to let a good opportunity for over-examination go to waste, I did a quite good search for articles on tango and hormone release. Turns out that one exists. Here’s a link to an abstract.

The study tested levels of both salivary cortisol and salivary testosterone before and after dance. The study was set up as a 2×2 study looking at dancing with and without a partner and with and without music to compare the effects of both variables alone and in combination with eachother.

Cortisol

Results showed that dancing with a partner showed the greatest drop in cortisol levels, however all test situations showed drops in cortisol. The drop from tango dancing with both music and partner showed nearly double the drop in cortisol on average compared to other test situation. The presence of music seemed to have a large effect on this drop, as the least significant changes were seen in cases without music.

Testosterone

Effects on testosterone seemed to be largely dependent on presence of a partner. Change with a partner was M=2.66 pg/ml, SD=4.45; and without a partner was M=–0.260 pg/ml, SD=4.23. So testosterone levels actually decreased slightly (on average) when dancing without a partner. Interestingly though, the study designers chose to repeat the situation of the first week (with partner and music) on the fifth week to see if perhaps the nerves or novelty of the first week could have caused a difference in testosterone levels. As it turns out, it had a huge effect. Session 1 showed an increase  of 4.06 pg/ml, SD=5.77; yet when they returned to the same conditions in session 5, they saw -1.17 pg/ml; SD=7.19 pg/ml.

From my experience, I would hypothesize that this change was a result of novelty. Dancing with a new partner can be extremely exhilarating (Coolidge Effect fallout anyone?). Although all participants had over one year of experience dancing and all but 4 enrolled with partners with whom they were partnered the entire time, the study does not mention the frequency or recency with which they couples had danced together previously. I suspect that the regularity of the study caused some of the novelty to wear off by the 5th session. One interesting follow-up for this would be to have one group of couples which would switch who they danced with and a control group which remained with the same partners and measure the effects on testosterone over the sessions.

Conclusions

I’m going to keep dancing because I enjoy it, but it is nice to know that I’m helping to reduce my cortisol and increase (maybe) my testosterone levels. I’d be very curious to see a larger study done with more participants and some additional factors. This one only had 22 participants, and while results were tested for statistical significance, it’d be nice to have more data.

Life-Mod: Physical State-Anchoring

I was recently watching a video on YouTube about how to spot a liar and toward the end of the movie, the guy mentioned something interesting. He has physical cues for himself which he uses to trigger certain states. Touching his pointer finger to his thumb recalls the state of meditation for him which helps him suppress micro-expressions when he’s negotiating. He also will raise his right big toe when he needs to remind himself to be patient with people that he doesn’t care for.

Hearing this set me to wondering: could I train myself to recall or trigger certain mental states by linking them in my mind with a physical action? I have heard of athletes doing similar things to get themselves into the zone for a play or a game, so I see no reason why it wouldn’t work.

My first cue to try is to remember not to display submissive/defensive body language. My main problem on this is when I’m tired, I will make bad eye contact and avoid confrontational situations or display generally defensive posture.

So far this seems to be working, I’m not sure if it’s actually that the physical cue is actually helping, but it does aid in reminding myself to be aware of my actions. So perhaps that alone is worth the effort.