Relationships | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Some Radical Holiday Reform Ideas

Ideally, at least in my view, the holidays would be a time for people to relax and enjoy the company of family and friends, without a lot of pressure to perform or please others.  But it seems like the reality, for many people I know, is just the opposite.

For them, the holidays are a time to stress over whether their homes look good enough, whether the gifts they plan to buy will be well-received, the uncomfortable interactions they can look forward to having with people they’re going to see, and so on.

‘Tis The Season To Be Neurotic?

My sense is that, for a lot of people, the source of holiday-induced stress is the long set of “rules” they believe they have to comply with during the season — rules like “you must look like you’re in a happy, festive mood,” “your house must be decorated appropriately,” “you must buy gifts for everyone you know, and they must enjoy getting them,” and so on.

All this leads me to wonder — what if, just for one holiday season, we tried doing away with all the traditions and rules, and just bringing together a bunch of people we care about and want to celebrate having in our lives?  For just one year, what if we experimented with getting rid of holiday-themed gifts, meals, decorations, and so on, and simply invited a group of people over?

To get even more radical, I think it would be fun to play some games with the group of people who came over that encouraged honesty and connection.  For example, what if we played a game where each of us talked about the neurosis that the holiday season tends to inspire in us?

If I were playing this game, I’d probably say something like “I worry that I ‘haven’t done enough’ during the past year.  After all, I didn’t win any Nobel Prizes or become a bestselling author or something like that.”  After I admitted that, I’d probably find myself laughing in wonder at my mind’s ability to play tricks on me.

The “Plain Get-Together” Proposal

If my own family tried this out (at least the “plain get-together” part), I suspect I’d be a lot more enthusiastic about the holidays than I usually am.  Not that I try particularly hard to keep up appearances or follow traditions as it is (I don’t think I’ve ever owned a Christmas tree, for instance), but I think people around me would be a lot more relaxed and fun to be with if they stopped trying to do that as well.

That being said, I can respect the fact that, for some people, preparing for the holidays gives them a sense of purpose.  Some people may see decorating the house, choosing gifts, and so on as a worthwhile challenge that it’s satisfying to overcome.

What’s your take?  Would it be worthwhile to try a holiday season with nothing but “plain get-togethers”?

Un-Kinking The Hose Of Love

I don’t know about you, but I usually feel the most love and compassion toward people right after I tell them I’m irritated about something they did.  Somehow, revealing that I’m annoyed at them frees up my ability to truly love them again.

I had this kind of experience recently with a friend.  My friend was giving me some advice, and talking to me in a way that seemed condescending to me.  I debated for a while whether I was going to tell him, and eventually I bit the bullet.

When I told him I was feeling resentful as he was talking to me, I suddenly felt a great deal of tension in my shoulders melting away, and I got back in touch with how much I cared about him.  Immediately, I found myself saying how deeply I valued having him in my life.

On the other hand, if I’m annoyed at someone and I hide it, I tend to feel tight and anxious around them, and experiencing real love for them gets hard.  If I tell them I love them, my voice has a deadpan or barking quality to it.

The Hose Metaphor Explained

A mentor of mine once described this kind of experience by saying that each person is like a hose.  The water flowing through the hose is like the collection of all the emotions we feel — love, anger, sadness, and so on.

If we try to pretend we’re not feeling something, we basically kink up the hose and cut off the water.  When we do this, we stifle all the emotions flowing through the hose — not just the one we’re trying to avoid.  So, if we push our anger away, we end up pushing love away as well.

Love Can Thrive Alongside Anger

For a long time, I didn’t understand how all this works.  I believed, as I think many do, that love is basically the opposite of emotions like anger and boredom, and can only exist when anger is absent.

But the truth, I think, is that love is something that naturally arises when I’m fully open to what I’m feeling, wherever it might take me — basically, when I un-kink the hose.  If I’m willing to acknowledge and even show my irritation, I get access to love as well.

Sometimes admitting what’s really going on for me is easier said than done, but I think experiencing genuine love is worth the struggle.

Why I’ve Been Talking About Myself

I recently noticed that, over the years (and it has been years) that I’ve been blogging, I’ve become less interested in giving advice to other people about what they should do, and more interested in just sharing my own experience of living.

I thought it would be interesting to take a moment and ask why I’ve moved in this direction.  I mean, let’s face it — the most popular posts in the blogosphere seem to be lists of the best ways to pitch your business, the best iPhone apps to buy, and so on.  Why would I shy away from this “prescriptive” approach people seem to like and just start talking about myself?

“Prescription” Ignites My Inner Two-Year-Old

The most obvious reason is that I simply don’t like being told what to do.  When someone tells me something like “here’s how you should introduce yourself to people,” my first instinct is to resist and perhaps even do the exact opposite of what I’m being told.

I may be unique in this sense — maybe, for some reason, I never fully grew out of the “Terrible Twos” stage of psychological development.  But my sense is that a lot of other people also instinctively dislike being told what to do, whether by their mothers or some random dude on the internet.

My Rejection of Projection

At a deeper level, though, what I’ve come to realize is that, when I’m writing about what someone else “should do,” I’m usually, in reality, talking to myself.  If I’m telling someone how to organize their living space, for example, my own (physical or emotional) space is probably somewhat of a wreck, and I can likely stand to take my own advice.

Psychologists call what’s happening here “projection.”  Because we don’t want to acknowledge what we’re feeling and what’s going on in our lives, we pretend as if someone else is having the experience we’re having.  If I say “you sound really angry,” it’s likely that I’m projecting my own anger onto you because I don’t want to admit that I feel it.

It feels riskier, but more honest, to drop the façade of telling you what to do, and acknowledge what’s going on for me and what I want to do.  If I tell you that I want to be more organized, I take a risk, because I admit that I’m disorganized and therefore imperfect.  Still, it feels liberating to be able to simply speak my truth, without trying to look good or avoid criticism.

It also feels great to me when someone else tells me what’s going on for them, and what they want and need.  It gives me a sense of permission to let down my own guard, and helps me to feel a connection with the person I’m talking to.

So that, in a nutshell, is why I’ve taken to navel-gazing lately, and why you should do it too (just kidding).

Meet the Steve’s Quest Team, Part 2

As I noted earlier, the Steve’s Quest team is like a volcano thunderously erupting with raw, molten talent.  Okay, that may not have been a very good analogy, but the point is that they’re talented.  I’ll share the details on some more members of our team and the molten-hot art they’ve been doing.

Kat Valliant is a UI and 2d illustrator, character and creature designer, comic artist and graphic designer.   Most recently, she completed nearly 100% of the assets for the Android game Word Train.

Here is one of Kat’s pieces for Steve’s Quest, which is a drawing of Gain, the hero of Steve’s cyberpunk-themed novel, The Chronicles of Gain, Part 1: Under a Plastichrome Sky:

Michelle Poust is a freelance illustrator, inker and comic colorist.  Michelle has been designing some of the electrifying backgrounds (I think that’s a better adjective than “molten,” or at least it offers some variety) we’re using in the show.

Here is one of Michelle’s scenes from Metro City, the futuristic metropolis depicted in Steve’s novel (you can see another Metro City scene here):

Consuelo Griego leads a user engagement consultancy focused on turning good ideas into value added apps.  In addition to that, she also does website and graphic design stuff. :)

Consuelo patiently did about twenty iterations of the Steve’s Quest logo for me before I gave the okay. She has also done some excellent work on the layout of this site.

In case you haven’t seen it before, this is our logo, in all its streamlined, metallic glory:

I look forward to sharing more with you soon!

Why Do I Like Honesty?

Over the years (and it has now been years) this blog has been around, the focus of my writing has shifted from making recommendations about what you should do in order to be happy, to honestly sharing about my experience.

I don’t think I’ve ever explored with you all why my writing has evolved this way, and it’s an issue I think is worth exploring.

After all, it can be scary to share honestly, and it certainly isn’t a surefire strategy for getting blog traffic.  When I talk about my own “uncomfortable stuff,” it has a tendency to bring up others’ “stuff” too.  People who read blogs to get a break from their stuff, rather than see it plastered across their monitor, might not be cool with that.

I Don’t Tell The Truth Because It’s “Right”

Here’s another interesting fact I’ve noticed in my self-exploration:  my honesty doesn’t come from a desire to be “right” or “moral” either.  What morality demands when it comes to honesty is a tricky issue — some people would say it’s wrong to be “too honest” because it might “hurt somebody’s feelings,” while others would say honesty is required at any cost because “lying is always wrong.”

No, I don’t share vulnerably because it’s “the right thing to do” — I do it for the sake of my own growth.  If others grow along with me because they read my writing, that’s wonderful.  (And from my mystical, Northern California point of view, we all grow together whenever one of us does.)  But if I told you I share solely out of a selfless desire to improve your life, I’d be lying.

Honesty Is Like A Massage

Why does authentically talking about myself improve my life?  For me, it’s pretty simple — my body releases tension and relaxes when I’m genuine about what I’m feeling and thinking.

Whenever I’m pretending I have feelings, wants or thoughts other than the ones actually arising in me, my body tightens up.  The easiest example of this is a fake smile — forcing my lips to curl upward, when it’s not what my body would naturally and unconsciously do, creates tension in my face.

I have the same experience when it comes to everyday “small talk.”  If someone asks me “how are you?” and I respond “fine” even though that isn’t how I’m feeling, I feel a tightness and sourness in my stomach.  By contrast, when I tell someone what’s actually going on for me, even if it isn’t all sweetness and light, the sensation can be almost like getting a massage.

I used to be more willing to compromise — to tell people I felt “fine,” laugh at jokes I didn’t find funny, and so on — thinking the tension that built up in my body when I acted inauthentically was a small price to pay for keeping people happy.

What I eventually realized, from talking to a number of people about what it felt like to be with me, was that, when I compromised and held back what was really going on, their bodies tensed up as well.  Every time I withheld the truth, or at least “my” truth, I was bringing more uptightness into the world.

My hope is that my writing can function kind of like a good shoulder rub to help me — and others — release the tension that builds up from living in a world where we too often silence how we feel and what we want.

Exploring A Touchy Issue

What is your relationship to touching others and receiving touch?  I don’t mean this figuratively — I’m not talking about “touching people with your kindness” or something like that — I mean skin-to-skin physical contact.

For me, looking at my relationship to touch has been a big source of insight about myself, and the places where I can stand to grow and explore.  One reason for this is that I have very little control over how my body reacts to physical contact.

Most of the time, if I want to, I can walk around holding up a mask, pretending to be tough, always comfortable with myself, or something else.  But there’s no masking the way I respond to touch.

If I’m uncomfortable with a particular kind of touch, my body will subtly tighten up or pull away, no matter how hard I may try to look like I’m okay with it.  That reaction has a unique rawness and immediacy about it.

I wanted to share some questions I’ve been asking myself in this exploration, in case they’re useful for you to think about:

1.    When do I allow unwanted touch?

I think it’s interesting to look at those times when we let someone touch us, even when we don’t want contact in that moment.  Maybe, for example, we let friends and relatives hug us, even when we don’t genuinely feel a desire to be hugged.

When I disregard my own wishes like this, it’s often out of a sense of obligation.  They’re my friends and family, after all — it would be hurtful or childish not to allow them to affectionately touch me.  Because it’s my duty or I want to keep the peace, I let my boundaries be violated.

The trouble is that, when I permit unwanted touch, I tend to feel a subtle resentment toward the person who touched me.  This makes our relationship less fulfilling — not just for me, but also for them, because on some level they sense my irritation.

For these reasons, I’ve been moving in the direction of being clear about when I want physical contact and when I don’t.

2.    Does it feel okay to ask for touch?

In other words, if I would like to hold someone’s hand, give them a hug, practice my massage skills, and so on, am I able to request those things?  Or do I hold back from asking for touch, out of fear of being embarrassed, being seen as “too forward,” or something else?

Personally, when I find myself having trouble asking for contact, it’s often because I’m concerned about being seen as “needy.”  According to the way I’ve seen the world for most of my life, a “needy” person is someone who needs to be comforted by other people to get by, and needy people are distasteful and “childish” because they should be able to take care of themselves.

In the last few years, my perspective has shifted.  I’ve come to see requesting touch as an act of courage, not cowardice.  Admitting I want to be close to someone is a lot harder than pretending I’ve “got it together” and I don’t need anything from anyone.

3.    How do I react when my touch is unwanted?

When someone doesn’t want contact with me, I can usually feel my stomach tighten a bit.  I may also find myself making up a story about the reasons they don’t want my touch that casts me in an unfavorable light — it must have been because I’m unimportant, unattractive, “a loser,” or something along those lines.

I’ve found it useful to take a close look at the story I tell myself when it seems like my touch is rejected.  When I stare it straight in the face, I’ve found, the story starts to look pretty absurd and amusing.  Even as I sit here now, I can’t help but laugh at the notion that I’m a bad person because he or she didn’t want to touch me.

I think a lot of people suffer because they’re not willing to look straight at the painful story they’re telling themselves when they feel rejected.  Instead, they try to distract themselves from the hurt, explain away what happened by telling themselves the other person was just having a bad day, and so on.

It can be difficult to take an honest look at our relationship to touch, but I think exploring that area can be a great source of self-understanding and growth.

The “Dark Side” Of Dolphins (And Humans)

Dolphins are beautiful, playful and intelligent creatures.  People who have had the chance to swim with dolphins often describe it as an experience of spiritual communion.  Some have commented on how harmoniously a pod of dolphins lives together, and wished humans could get along so well.

But dolphins have a dark side.  They don’t exactly follow a vegan or macrobiotic diet.  In fact, they don’t eat veggies at all.  They’re carnivorous predators, and they have sophisticated techniques for rounding up, and gobbling up, big groups of fish at a time.

Dolphins Have a What?

Did it sound silly to you when I said “dolphins have a dark side”?  It sure did to me.  After all, dolphins don’t choose to be carnivores.  That’s how they’re designed (or, I guess, how they randomly came to be, depending on what you believe).  There’s nothing “dark” or “evil” about one animal eating another.

So, for me, that raises the question:  why do we tend to see humans as having a “dark side”?  Why do we tend to cast emotions like anger, sadness, and envy — feelings humans seem to be designed to experience — as “negative,” “evil,” or “bad”?

Why Believing In “Negative Feelings” Creates “Negativity”

I think the idea of “negative emotions” is one of our culture’s most crazy-making notions.  This is especially clear in the way parents relate to their kids.

We often see a parent thinking this way:  I felt angry when my child did X; anger is a “bad” emotion I’m not supposed to feel; my child is “to blame” for my anger; thus, I will hit or demean my child to take revenge for how they “made me feel.”

I think there’s a good chance that, if we stopped seeing anger as a “negative emotion,” there would be a big shift in how parents relate to their children.  Instead of trying to “hurt their children back” when they felt angry, perhaps parents would become able to simply tell their children how they were feeling.

Please Just Drop The “Shark Grin”

And how about sadness?  So often, I meet people who are forcing their faces into a rigid grin to hide how sad they feel, because they think it’s weak, inappropriate, or an imposition on me to show what’s really going on for them.

When I’m with a person who seems to be trying really hard to hold back their sadness, I’ve taken to simply asking them if they’re feeling sad.  If they’re willing to drop the smile and admit it, both of us usually feel so much more relaxed.

I think learning to accept that we’re all going to feel angry, sad, envious, and so on from time to time, and that we can’t, and don’t need to, “get rid” of those feelings, is such a key part of our growth.  Just as dolphins are designed to eat fish, humans are designed to experience “dark emotions” once in a while.

Oh, and I’ve got some more Johnny Signs videos to share with you.  Some people have asked whether it’s okay to laugh at these, and my response is:  you have my blessing.  Enjoy!  (Again, if you like them, I’d appreciate a “Like” on YouTube.)

I’m Back And Ready To Explore

I’ll start by thanking everyone who’s checked in with me during my month-long absence from blogging — that really brought home to me that I’ve made some genuine connections in the blogging world, and it’s not all just about “one hand washing the other” and “you scratching my back and me scratching yours” and collectively achieving A-List Social Media Superstardom.  :)

The explanation for my absence is that, for a long time, I just didn’t feel inspired to write.  The way I was writing simply wasn’t fully bringing out who I am.  There are aspects of me — particularly my wild, spontaneous part — that my structured, “prescriptive” style of writing wasn’t making use of, and that was frustrating to me.

I thought and agonized about this for a while, and finally came to a resolution.   I just needed to try a different kind of creative expression for a while, and find something that did bring out those parts that wanted to be seen.  I didn’t need to stop writing altogether, but I needed to take a little detour.

So, I’ve been exploring for a bit, and trying some new stuff.  I’ve been working on a computer game with a friend that focuses on what Stone Age spirituality might have been like.  :)  I’ve also done some videos I’d like to share with you.

At Least I Feel Alive

I’ve received all kinds of reactions to these videos so far — from “I had to lie down after watching these” to “I don’t get this at all.”  Wherever your reactions are on that spectrum, they’re welcome here (if you like them, I’d appreciate a “Like” on YouTube).

One thing I’ve noticed is that people’s reactions to my creative work, no matter what they are, always help me feel alive.  It’s not always a blissful kind of aliveness — it may be a “fight or flight” kind of aliveness, for example, when someone talks to me in a way that seems critical and attacking.

But one thing is certain — when I’m getting feedback on projects I’m invested in, and feeling the emotions that come with it, it’s impossible for me to go through my day in a numb and robotic way, as I can from time to time.  I’m sure to feel a lot of rich sensation — and learning to embrace intense sensation, instead of turning away from it, is what my own growth and exploration, and the work I share with others, are about.

Without further ado, here are the videos.  I’ll be doing a lot more writing shortly, and I’m looking forward to catching up with those of you I haven’t connected with in a while.

Loneliness and Embracing the Space

Like most people, I have moments of loneliness.  They tend to begin with thoughts about how I wish I had more people around me, everyone else is probably having fun and I’m not, blah blah, et cetera, ad nauseam.

If I look more closely at my loneliness, I usually notice that, underneath all the thinking, there’s a sense of emptiness in my body.

For me, the feeling of emptiness I call loneliness shows up in my pelvis and groin area.  It’s as if there’s nothing connecting my lower back to my legs, and I might be in danger of spontaneously splitting in half.  (Not to mention all the other implications of having no groin.)

Can’t Fight This Feeling

I used to assume, when I felt this sensation, that I had to “do something about it.”  I needed to call my friends, go hang out in a public place, or something along those lines, to make my loneliness go away, and “make myself feel better.”

I eventually realized, though, that my efforts to fight off loneliness didn’t usually succeed.  This is because the things I do aren’t fun when I do them from a place of wanting to avoid feeling alone.

If I call you on the phone, hoping you’ll make me feel better, the conversation will probably have a desperate, forced quality for both of us, even if that quality only shows up in subtle, unnerving ways.  Many people stay in relationships that have that quality for years, and wonder why they never feel fulfilled.

Exploring the Emptiness

What I’ve learned is that, when I feel that empty sensation, the best approach is to put my attention on the emptiness — to get a sense of how big the space feels, the shape of the empty area, whether it has a color, and so on.  I explore the space, rather than trying to fill it up or block it out.

When I come to that vacant feeling with curiosity, the vacancy starts to seem fascinating, rather than threatening.  And here’s the best part — the same wonder I bring to that empty feeling starts to spill over into the rest of my life.

When I’m in that curious place, I find myself wanting to be with people — not from a place of trying to relieve my loneliness, but to explore what it’s like to relate with others.  I actually want to know you, rather than to use you to make me feel better.

Maybe Life Is About Embracing Space

The more exploring I do, the more I’m starting to suspect that this isn’t just true for loneliness — it’s true for all of the emotions we tend to label as “negative” or “bad.”  Anger, sadness, frustration, and so on all seem to be tied to a feeling of inner spaciousness.

Anger, for instance, tends to come up when we think a weak (empty) part of us has been exposed, and we feel a need to protect that part from harm.

Our first instinct is to see these feelings as holes we have to fill — maybe through money, sex, food, or something else.  But I’ve come to think that, when we start exploring that space instead of trying to get rid of it, we deepen our enjoyment and appreciation of living.

Let’s Call It The “Inner Adult”

Some say we have an “inner child” — a part of ourselves that’s “emotional,” vulnerable, and open about its wants and needs.  Lots of personal growth work is about accessing and nurturing this “inner child” part.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the term “inner child.”  In our culture, it’s usually seen as a criticism to label someone or something a child.  If I call you “childish” or “childlike,” I’m basically saying you’re weak, spoiled, selfish, irrational, and so on.

I think I’ve got a better name for this vulnerable, emotionally open part.  I want to call it the “inner adult.”  After all, doesn’t it take maturity and courage to step up and say what we’re feeling, and what we need and want?

I don’t know about you, but expressing desires and emotions can be scary for me.  It can feel risky to tell someone that I want to spend time with them, that I’m angry with them, that I love them, or something along those lines.  It took a lot of growth for me to get comfortable being that open.

Our Culture Has Adulthood Backwards

Of course, the conventional wisdom says the opposite.  It seems the ideal adult, in our culture’s eyes, is emotionally closed, and never asks for anything.  We’re supposed to be tough and self-sufficient, and “never let ‘em see us sweat.”

Self-development, from this point of view, isn’t about learning to express what we feel and want — it’s about acquiring money, credentials, and other stuff, so that we’ll become “important” and others will start giving us what we want even though we don’t ask for it.

Ironically, though, this “superman” or “superwoman” image is often just a manipulative strategy, developed in childhood, for getting our needs met.  The idea is that, if we look invincible and “unemotional,” we’ll please our caregivers, and they’ll give us the love and attention we crave.

That invulnerable façade is really a ploy by a scared kid who fears that his parents will criticize him for expressing his needs, and thinks they’ll only care for him if he impresses them with his need-lessness.

It Takes Maturity To Be Vulnerable

What usually passes for “adulthood” today, I think, is really a deep-seated insecurity and immaturity.  It’s the qualities we tend to see as “childlike” — openness, vulnerability and curiosity — that take real wisdom and maturity to develop.

To be clear, I don’t mean to say that, in order to grow, we should imitate children.  We don’t need to throw tantrums or grab stuff we want from other people.  One important distinction I think we come to see with age is the difference between telling someone what we want, and using force or acting out to get it.  Children aren’t always aware of that distinction (though, of course, adults aren’t always either).

My point is that self-development, in many ways, is about unearthing the parts of ourselves we buried because we learned, as children, that they weren’t acceptable.  A big part of “growing up,” I think, is rediscovering who we’ve always been.