Sunday, February 28, 2016

Joe Omundson

working on anxiety

Something that’s come to my attention in the last year or so is a pattern of social anxiety in my life. I wrote about it in some detail in this post. When I notice themes like this, I’ll sometimes describe it as something I’m “working on.” I wanted to explore what that means for me, because people “work on” their issues in different ways.

I know some people who realized they had social anxiety, and their response was to confront that fear head-on; they put themselves in positions where they were required to be outgoing, learned how to act in ways that appeared extroverted, and found other practical techniques for managing their fears and converting them into confidence. I am impressed and fascinated and completely mystified by these people. It is wonderful that they have found methods that work for them, but I seem to operate very differently.

When I notice that some part of me is out of sync, my goal is not to “fix” it by reversing my actions and enforcing different ones; instead I simply try to notice the details of what is going on with my mind and body when the dysfunctional thing happens. I try to become aware of my subconscious patterns, and it seems like once I notice and understand them, I am more able to catch them early on and remind myself of what I know to be true. By practicing this, I can reverse habits that no longer serve me. The downside of this is that it probably doesn’t produce results as reliably, or as fast. The benefit is that the changes I do make come from a place of genuine growth, and I have a sense that my nature has changed, not just my actions. The changes feel more integrated and efficient.

Of course, the above paragraph is a hugely idealized version of how I handle my dysfunctional patterns. I certainly haven’t found good ways to work through all my problems simply by noticing them. The main point is that I am more interested in understanding root causes than I am in attaining specific results. I don’t think my ways are better, they are just more natural to me.

Recently I visited some friends for a get-together they were having. We had dinner and it was great. It was also an opportunity to work on my social anxiety. I do pretty well in 1-on-1 settings, or in small groups, but this was a larger group than I’m used to hanging out with, and I feel like most of their personalities are not very much like mine. Also, I got pretty high when I arrived there, and that tends to focus my attention on any social discomfort I’m experiencing. So it is not surprising to me that I felt anxiety as a result of these things. If this all that’s making me anxious, I can generally recognize that my tension is unfounded, and find a way to shake it off without forming the opinion that something is wrong with my environment.

On top of that, there were 2 other aspects that upset me. The first is that a couple of these people in particular tended to talk a lot about things related to career, money, and appearance. At one point they were talking about someone they know and how they think he is gross. They passed around a picture of him on one of their phones and everyone laughed as they saw it; when it reached me, I saw a picture of a guy who I felt looked very similar to me, and I felt hurt by that. I know that I’m lazy with my appearance and not the most hygienic person, and I don’t expect that people are going to think I look sharp. But I found this example disheartening because I know it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how much certain people are judged based on appearance and status. When I try to understand what would motivate a person to care so much about that kind of shit, it takes me to a dark place.

The second thing was the subtle sexism I felt in the dynamic, mostly from the same people. It never came across as something that was intentional. It flowed out as some percentage of their words by default, as part of the built-in narrative that they exist in every day. I know it is a very common theme in our world and it’s picked up unintentionally, but it frustrates me that it goes unchecked even by these people who have no reason not to know better. I can’t provide many concrete examples of what they said that bothered me, I just remember feeling like there were a lot of comments made that reinforced gender roles and stereotypes.

By that point I felt very uncomfortable. As dinner ended, it felt like everyone had a place but me. Several of them cleaned up in the kitchen, a couple did other things, but I kind of walked around awkwardly looking at things around the house, feeling guilty for not helping to clean and also feeling like I lacked the ability to seek a niche for myself amid their loud chaos. Nothing is more bewildering to me than a bubbly group of extroverts.

Recognizing how antsy I was getting, I decided to regroup by going out to my car for a while. I lay down on my mattress and pulled my down quilt over me. The tense muscles in my face, neck, shoulders, chest, and back quivered and relaxed as I recovered my mental space. I realized it probably wasn’t helpful to get really high in social situations that might trigger my anxiety. I decided that I would go back inside, hang out for a little bit longer, and then say goodnight and go to bed in my car.

I realized something else as I rested there: misogyny bothers me not because it isn’t “PC”, and not because I have the ability to empathize with someone else’s oppression. It bothers me because part of me is female. It affects me personally; my own self, my own expression is under attack. I think to some extent, everyone has masculine and feminine qualities. A man who has misogynistic tendencies is actually self-destructive. There’s a delusion that it’s possible to be “entirely masculine”, and that therefore, a rift in privilege between men and women is something beneficial for men. The reality is that if we crush femininity with domination, mockery, and objectification, everyone loses. The feminine spirit is not weak. It is actually a great wisdom that our species needs especially now in this time of exploding population, dwindling resources, and strife all around the world.

I did go back inside, this time more calmly and with a clearer picture of what I had to give to the interaction. I talked for a while and eventually said that I was going out to bed. I felt like I did it awkwardly and I feared that I didn’t seem grateful enough for the delicious meal that had been provided to me, and which I had not helped to prepare or clean up. I brought beer, maybe that was my contribution. I tend to worry a lot that my actions left people disappointed, but as I walked out to my car I said to myself -- fuck it, I did the best I could tonight, I’m done feeling crappy about this. And I rested peacefully.

So, that is what I mean when I say that I am working on my social anxiety. I’m not forcing myself to give public speeches and I haven’t hosted any parties. But I am noticing it. I am trying to figure it out like a puzzle. I use it to learn other things about myself, like why sexism bothers me so much. I learn to identify the triggers, and I find ways to go through those situations without reacting so strongly. For me, if I were to try to simply force my actions to be more functional, I feel like I would miss out on the opportunity to notice myself objectively. The harsh judgments have to be suspended in order to pay attention to something subtler.
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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Joe Omundson


Welcome to this blog! My name is Joe Omundson. I’m 28 as of this writing, and I’m from Portland, Oregon, USA. I am interested in people and I like to examine the ways we exist in relationship to each other and inside the social systems we have set up for ourselves, and how those systems interact with the rest of our planet.

 This blog is based on openness and vulnerability. Sometimes it makes me really nervous to put my thoughts and feelings out here for the world to see. I fear that I will be seen as seeking attention, self absorbed, or like I am trying to appear more thoughtful than I really am. I know those fears are silly, because if you don’t want to read what I have to say, you’re free to leave at any time. I find a lot of meaning in the process of reflecting on my experiences, finding connections, and translating those abstract ideas into the clearest words I can find. So that’s what I’m going to do. My hope is that at least one other person will find meaning in the words that I share. To me that outweighs any embarrassment I might face from being overly honest.

 I titled this blog “self observing universe” because it represents the spiritual core of my worldview. I believe that consciousness comes as a function of the physics that exist in our physical bodies, and not from the attachment of some invisible, ethereal “soul” to that body. I believe that the atoms in our brains obey the laws of physics just like the rest of the atoms in the universe, so in a sense we are nothing more than deterministic, biological computers. Some see this as a bleak outlook, but I feel like it’s beautiful. To me it means that there is really no difference between “me” and the rest of the universe, since everything is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. And yet I have this amazing consciousness, this perception of choice and autonomy, which is unraveling as this continuous life story. I can only conclude that the laws of physics themselves lead to intelligence and perception in some way, because I am literally a small section of the universe which has become self-aware, self-observing. This thing I perceive as life, choice, awareness, consciousness, is actually a physical quality of the universe, which manifests itself in living organisms. I feel that if this were not so, entropy would not allow the increasing accumulation of complexity that we’ve seen from evolution.

 To give you more of a sense of who I am and where I’ve been, I’ll talk about some of the factors of my life that seem significant to me.

 I was born with aortic stenosis, a condition which restricts bloodflow through the heart. At age 15 I had an open heart surgery and I’ve had several catheter-based operations since then. Long story short, my aortic valve used to be my pulmonic valve, and my pulmonic valve came from a cow’s neck. I had a bacterial infection in my heart once. I’m lucky to have full capacity to exercise, and I am not on any drugs for my heart, so I have it a lot better than some other people with congenital heart defects, but this whole process made me accept my mortality at a pretty young age and I feel like that’s always set me apart from other people.

 I was raised as a Christian and was very passionate about God throughout my gradeschool years. I even went to Bible school for a year after high school. In the 2-3 years after that, my faith went through a process of questioning and inquiry, and I ended up realizing that I didn’t believe it at all. Since then I have considered myself an agnostic atheist, but I think those labels are kind of boring. I don’t feel like “does God exist?” is the most interesting question anymore. What we do with our lives is much more complex than that.

 I got married to my first girlfriend at age 20, and we were married 6 years. We went through the process of leaving Christianity together and it was great that we had each other for that. Since the divorce I have only dated 1 person, so I feel like I’ve had a kind of unusual experience with relationships and romance compared to most people.

 After getting my degree in engineering physics, I worked as an engineer for about 3 years, then I quit my job in April of 2014 to go hiking. I walked over 2500 miles from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail, a route that goes through the mountain ranges of California, Oregon, and Washington. I’ve been unemployed since then. The PCT was an incredibly life changing experience. If you would like to read more about that, check out my other blog When I haven’t been hiking, I’ve mostly been living in my car, an ‘81 VW Rabbit hatchback which I’ve converted to a mini camper. I haven’t had to pay rent for almost 2 years and I can’t see myself working dozens of hours every week just to afford the privilege of my own private toilet. I love the fact that so many different lifestyle options are possible. Exploring them is a passion of mine.

 I have had a privileged life. I was born to parents who wanted me, and who cared about being good parents. I never went hungry. I always had what I needed. I grew up as a straight, white, christian, male, in a decent school system, in a safe part of the world, with good physical and mental health. I did go through some traumas, especially with the heart surgery and my parents’ divorce in the 2nd half of my childhood. But I don’t know what it’s like to be mistreated for my race, gender, sexual orientation, or mental health status. Despite that, I have an interest in trauma and abuse, and I have met some people whose perspectives have rocked my world. To me these topics are important, fascinating, and I spend a lot of time thinking about them. Yet I recognize that I’m not an expert so I want to encourage any of you who have been through some of these things to tell me if my perception seems skewed, either in the comments or via email. My email address is and anyone is welcome to write me, even if you’re just looking for someone to talk to.

 I think that’s enough for now. More details will emerge as I make more posts, and I welcome questions. My idea is mainly to create blog entries based on things I write to my friends; I find that my best writing happens within dialogue. I’ll erase any details about my correspondent, and any other information that feels too private, but try to leave my thoughts intact. Expect to see stories from my life, personal realizations, observations about our society, and grand unified theories of how our existence is impacted by all the systems we interact with. Thanks for checking this out :)
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