Spirit of Life

Pleasure + challenge = getting through this pandemic

A bald, pink woman in a purple dress sits in front of a microphone, her hands gesticulating.

It’s that time of year when stuff can already feel hard: there’s the post-holiday blues, the bummer-ness of going back to work (if you were lucky enough to have a break from work in the first place), the dark mornings and early evenings, plus the fact that January is 157 days long. But this January! Is something special. We have omacarena out there ripping its way around town in a most unwelcome fashion, taking out health care workers just when we need them most, and making us have to stay the fuck home and be depressed. Thanks a lot, forces of evil!

As much as I don’t want to expend energy these days on, well, anything, I am still feebly trying to make life slightly less hellish by focussing on small pleasures. 

So I’ve been thinking about the fact that doing stuff that gives us pleasure and challenges us at the same time can be a way to intensify gratification. It leaves us with a sense of accomplishment, makes the nice-ness of it last longer and often gives longer-term rewards. We all know this—we experience it with athletic pursuits, making art, doing puzzles, being in school, finishing tough work projects, and even encounter it in tough-but-worth-it moments in relationships.

But the prospect of challenging ourselves can often make us wither and withdraw (ESPECIALLY DURING A PANDEMIC), leaving us with pleasures that can be fleeting or can morph easily into a state of boredom. Harumph.

Knowing this, I created a single intention for 2022 that combined the pleasure of creativity with the challenge of vulnerability: I decided to post one TikTok video every day of the year. 

If you know me in meat-space, you know that although I use social media to listen in on what’s happening in the culture, I rarely post, if ever. I’ve never been able to get settled into a mindset that is appropriate to any given platform: on Instagram, you gotta be shiny and accomplished; on Twitter, combative, quick and sharp; on Facebook—well, I wouldn’t know, since Facebook and I have never really gotten along. 

(And a newsletter? Well, this is the space where I get to be all of the above, plus everything else I am prepared for my public persona to convey.)

But TikTok is truly my jam, because people are so damn creative! And profoundly weird! And super affirming! And full of SO much good information about everything from how to properly hang a picture hook to how white people can be better allies to Black people. Plus if you’re fat and/or recovering from disordered eating, there is an awesome community of #radfatties to hang out with (seriously, who doesn’t want to hang out with someone like this?). Unfortunately/ fortunately, the goddamn algorithm does a really good job of helping you find communities of creators who make stuff you’re really interested in, including super-niche interests (seriously, I just found the segment of TikTok for people who like finding other peoples’ discarded grocery lists).

So after just hanging out and not posting anything for the past year or so, I decided to finally take the plunge and started posting daily. Fun! Challenge! Creativity! Bravely showing up vulnerably! Plus a daily streak for my perfectionist brain to latch on to and feel virtuous about!

Until the 6th day of my streak, when I got my booster shot and felt like complete shit within a matter of hours. TikTok be damned. The only brain space I had was used up for a re-watch of an episode of Succession before falling into a fitful fever n’ chills sleep.

But before letting go of my streak entirely for that day, I had to take a minute to coach the perfectionist part of my brain. I had to explicitly tell myself that making the choice to rest up when feeling like dogshit on the bottom of a finance bro’s shoe is the appropriate choice.

Does this seem ridiculous? Not if you’ve ever been trapped in perfectionist thought-loops before. And you know who’s been trapped in the most fearsome thought-loops of all? Dieters—and I mean everyone who is into restricting their food for emotional reasons (h/t to Isabel Foxen Duke for this definition). So guess who’s a champ at spotting bullshit brain-knots and unlooping them? Folks who’ve recovered from dieting, like me!

What’s even more goofy is that the perfectionist part of my brain didn’t even know I could and would get back into the TikTok saddle the next day, when I was feeling better. That’s because a perfectionist belief is like, well, we fucked up, I guess that’s it now, streak is broken, so we might as well not even bother anymore. (In the diet world, this is also known as “oh, shit, I broke my diet, and since this proves I’m clearly a terrible person, I guess I’ll go whole hog on my forbidden food until Monday, when it’s day 1 of my diet again.”)

When we allow perfectionist beliefs into the driver’s seat, we are far more likely to quit and self-sabotage than when we allow grounded, smart, loving self-compassion to lead the way. The reality is that having a goal or intention that you shoot for consistently is far, FAR better than setting up an unrealistic standard of perfection for yourself that you inevitably fail to meet. (Am I implying a diet is an unrealistic standard of perfection you will inevitably fail to meet? Yes, yes I am.)

To get through the pandemic right now, we need to do all the public health stuff (get vaxxed, etc.), but we also need two other things:

a) Community, virtual and otherwise. If you’re on TikTok, I’m @sobitchcraft. If you’re not, come check it out. No matter how weird or obscure your hobby or interest is, I guarantee someone else who shares it is making content for you right now.

b) to marshall any available emotional resources to manage our mental health. This means rejecting perfectionism, and includes managing your self-talk, exploring self-compassion, making time for pleasure, and, depending on where you’re at, combining pleasure + challenge to make something that feels affirming and makes life worthwhile.

Question: are YOU doing anything these days in the pleasure + challenge department? I’d love to hear about anything you’re doing to manage depression, beat back the doldrums, channel rage and otherwise deal with the ridiculousness of our collective state.