Kryptonite

As I sat there on the floor, looking up at my partner’s stern and disappointed face, I wondered how he’d managed to read my mind, and why my mind was so full of disgust, and whether I’d have anything new to add when it was my turn to attack myself.

Today was Engineering Empathy day again, and they say the second one is the hardest to get through. I hope so. I don’t know if I can do anything harder than today while I’m here.

The topic was the superego, that little bundle of rules and judgments and narratives, and how it sounds when it attacks you. Split into pairs, my cohort took turns unpacking all our inner self-doubt and self-loathing and self-destructiveness, one on one, face to face. I sat while my partner became his superego and I became him, and it was my job to look him in the eye and listen to all the terrible things he liked to say to himself when things got hard.

Then it was my turn. Stand up, look down, see myself, lash out: “You disgust me…everyone thinks you talk too much…why don’t you try another Netflix binge if being an adult is so hard…you’re going to fail again…”

And so forth. It was a long two minutes, but when it was over, I felt like I’d barely scratched the surface. Turns out I have a lot of ways to tell myself I’m not good enough. I had suspected as much, but anticipating an exercise like this one was way different from being right in the middle of it and realizing how invested I am in cutting myself down at any given moment.

I wasn’t the only one shaken. From the looks on people’s faces, I’m guessing a lot of us left that room in worse shape than when we’d entered it. But by the end of the day, I was grateful for the experience. It kept me from beating myself up when the challenges started to change.

Last week, most of the work we did was algorithmic, with one or two optimal “solved” states and infinite ways to get there. I thrived in that environment. Today, I missed that environment about as much as I miss my family back home.

We’re diving into the deep end now, building things that model real-world objects, sticking to a few key principles. Object-oriented programming has design guidelines, and following or ignoring them can mean the difference between code maintainable by total strangers for decades and code that no other programmer wants to touch. The rules have flipped. Now we’re facing challenges with infinite solutions and a scant few acceptable ways to write them.

As my pair and I struggled with the day’s open-ended challenges, we kept running into brick walls. This class wasn’t specific enough. That method was superfluous. Such and such variable was set with the wrong scope, or named wrong. I’m not sure if we correctly implemented a single data structure.

What really stings is the knowledge that today was likely the “key” day of the week, the one where the most crucial concepts are solidified and tested. All that buildup, and I feel like I flopped on the execution.

Or did I? I keep thinking back to the morning’s exercise, and then forward to the afternoon’s frustration, and I can’t help but notice that my self-talk sounded frighteningly similar in both situations. “You’re not prepared enough for this stuff…you take things too literally; design principles won’t stick to you…you probably don’t belong here…you disgust me…”

The superego session has already proven invaluable. Could I have been more prepared for today? Sure. Was my work good enough for my own standards? Nope. Do either of those things have anything to do with who I am as a person? I strongly doubt it.

I’m still upset with my poor grasp of design principles, but I’m learning that the other thoughts I’m having about today, the ones less about today and more about an ingrained instinct to “should” myself to death, those thoughts aren’t facts and I don’t need to carry them beyond the last word of this post.

I’m learning that some days I’ll ask for help a lot and get it, and the schedule will be full of meetings and lectures and improv and I won’t get much done regardless of how hard I push myself in between. I’m learning that sometimes pairing means getting to struggle with a friend and recognize that you’re not alone in not getting everything right away.

That was the big takeaway from the Superego Session. We all had similar fears, similar ways of yelling at ourselves, similar strategies for getting away from conflict by any means necessary. By suffering together, we lightened each other’s load a little.

After each paired Two Minutes Self-Hate, the listener got two minutes to reflect on how the experience made them feel. A lot of people used the time to try and counteract the arguments they’d just heard: “You made it this far and that counts for something…people don’t look down on you like you think they do…you’re doing a great job so far…I know you can do this…” People were looking at each other with kindness and speaking their truth about the beauty and strength and potential they saw.

Wouldn’t it be awesome, concluded the facilitator, if we could learn to look at ourselves with the same loving kindness we saved for others?

I think so. I also think I have a lot of reading and catchup to do in the next 24 hours if I want to keep my superego happy. And right now, that’s what I’m deciding to do.

I don’t have the time to listen to that voice anymore this week.

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