Are your life hacks distracting you from the monster in your closet?

[Image description: A neatly organized tool board with lots of different sized screwdrivers in special screwdriver pegs. A place for everything and everything in its place, except for my crippling fear of mortality, tra la la! Photo by Barn Images on Unsplash]

I’m an optimizer. I’m always trying out some new way of doing things to improve some small aspect of my life. That’s kind of the whole premise of this blog. KonMari, Mustachianism, P90X, lifehacking, habit formation… I eat this stuff up. Most of the time, I get gung-ho about something for a month or so. Occasionally parts of the Revolution stick around for the long term (like budgeting and dressing in my color palette), but generally the excitement fades and I fall back into my usual patterns.

This was one of the things that gave me pause about whether I really wanted to transition. Was this just another attempt to optimize? Was this another exciting revolution I’d tire of?

My partner is also trans and also an optimizer. I’ll come home and they’ll have rigged up some System to hold the door open or lift the monitor to the right height or some other small environmental fix. They used to be much more into Big Lifestyle Changes. Most of this had to do with diet. They tried everything: vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan, gluten-free, Soylent. None of these diets resolved the vague but persistent feeling that something important was wrong and that it had to do with their body somehow. After they transitioned, the diet stuff didn’t seem important anymore. Of course they still try to eat healthy, and occasionally make small dietary adjustments here and there, but it no longer feels like an urgent prerogative to Make A Big Dramatic Change and Totally Revolutionize Eating!

Do we transition because we are optimizers? Or are we optimizers because we need to transition?

I knew about transgender people from a young age. I thought about queerness and gender a lot. As a teen, I drew comics where the main character was a trans boy, and I looked up binding methods “for research.” I was fascinated with trans people, especially trans men, and sometimes wished I could be one, but I thought I couldn’t possibly be. I’d know, wouldn’t I? I assumed gender dysphoria would be screamingly obvious.

It turns out it’s not always obvious. It can manifest as a nebulous feeling that Something Is Wrong, and the Call is Coming From Inside the House! We know we need to fix something about ourselves, our bodies, our social roles, but what, exactly? Some of us know on some level, but we’re not ready to accept it; some of us are genuinely flummoxed. Either way, we may end up trying a bunch of other fixes - fixes that, compared to the uphill battle of transition, are more obvious or culturally accepted, easier, simpler, cleaner, less emotionally charged.

This is not the only problem that manifests as an entirely different problem. Low-hanging fruit optimizations and personal lifestyle “revolutions” are an attractive smokescreen for people with all kinds of big, thorny life issues that are harder to solve.

For example, have you ever...

... created a budget because your house was a mess?

... rearranged your furniture because you didn’t know how to stop spending money?

… dyed your hair because you didn’t have enough friends?

… made a dating profile because you hated your job?

… started an exercise routine because you felt stuck in your relationship?

... bought a shiny gadget or pretty colored whatchamacallit because you felt anxious about your economic future, insecure about your productivity, and alienated from your fellow human beings? (NB: this is the permanent state capitalism wants you in!)

Small fixes aren’t always distractions from something bigger, of course. Sometimes they are genuinely positive life steps. Sometimes they really do address a problem you have, and address it head-on. If your main problem is that you’re stalled in your career, then it makes absolute sense to take a class to build skills, fix up your resume or portfolio, save money for a “quittin’ day” fund, and look for a new job. But if your main problem is that your social life is lacking, then these same steps - as satisfyingly goal-oriented as they can feel - will not get at the root of the problem.

Everyone has different aptitudes. If you’re great at money then money-related fixes are going to seem fun and you may be tempted to try to hit every nail with that hammer. If money is completely terrifying to you, you’ll max out every other life-success-meter before you sort out your finances. It’s natural to try to solve the easy problem before attacking the big, scary one. Unfortunately, the bigger and scarier a particular problem seems to you, the more likely you are to neglect it and turn your attention elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the problem continues to grow, and your pointed avoidance of it encroaches into your life in more and more problematic ways. Without even noticing, you may enact complicated workarounds to avoid ever thinking about the problem. If unchecked, these workarounds can really fuck with your day-to-day. As a personal example, rather than deal with my gender discomfort, I simply and quietly removed a bunch of basic human experiences from my personal mental list of Things I Do, including swimming, singing, and dancing. It was literally easier for me to be a Person Who Doesn’t (do a bunch of basic human experiences) than to confront the root issue head-on.

How do I know that gender is the Actual Problem(™) for me, and not just a way of avoiding something else? I don’t, really. How do you ever? I definitely worried that I was starting yet another pointless Life Revolution, or committing a “well it worked for my partner, why not me???” fallacy.

But here are some signs that I think are telling:

Before I came out, thinking about my gender…

… felt wrong or even impossible, like there were a bunch of “don’t go there” signs in my mind. Like, it was actually difficult to think about because my mind kept redirecting me to other things.

… made me overly emotional, even just thinking about small pieces of it. If the idea of changing your pronouns doesn’t appeal, you probably don’t want to change them. If it makes you straight up sob, it’s probably something worth probing into deeper.

… shook the foundation of certain truths I took to be self-evident. See “List of Things I Simply Don’t Do” above.

… unearthed a bunch of assumptions and assertions that I couldn’t defend or that were against my stated values. For example, I said about myself, “I can’t be a man because I like pink and flowers,” even though I would never tell a man who liked pink and flowers that it made him less of a man. I was surprised by the shit that came out of my mind and my mouth. These were unexamined assumptions that I’d formed as early as childhood. Somehow my adult intellectual opposition to misogyny/homophobia/transphobia hadn’t touched this area of my brain. It was as if I was pulling back the carefully maintained golf course and revealing the perfectly preserved landfill beneath.

Maybe you don’t have any one Big Important Roadblock to Your Life. Not everyone does! And maybe your biggest problems are things that cannot be improved by any personal action on your part, no matter how drastic (e.g. poverty, disability, mortality, being on the shit end of violent and oppressive systems like capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy). But if you find yourself constantly optimizing and looking for the Thing That Will Fix My Life, it’s worth doing a gut check to figure out if there’s something you’re avoiding. Is there a Big Scary Monster in your mind? All you want to do is avoid that monster, but he’s the one to prod.


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