Gretchen Rubin

Do You Know Your “Tell?” And the Comfort Food for Your Brain?

Do You Know Your “Tell?” And the Comfort Food for Your Brain?

My new book about habits, Better Than Before, comes out one week from tomorrow. It's hard to believe that publication day is so close.

I don't feel particularly anxious, but I realized that actually I am pretty anxious -- because I recognized my "tell."

Self-knowledge is one of the greatest challenges for happiness and good habits. Why is it hard to know that I'm feeling anxious -- don't I feel it? Why is it so hard to know myself? It seems like nothing should be easier and more obvious than to know myself– but it’s not.

Because I find it hard to know myself, I’m always on the look-out for indirect ways to gain self-knowledge. For instance, I ask, Whom do I envy? What do I lie about? My envy and lies reveal a lot — including things I’d otherwise try to keep hidden, even from myself.

And I’ve also learned to look for my “tells.” In gambling, a tell is a change in behavior that reveals your inner state. Gamblers look for tells as clues about whether other players are holding good or bad hands.

This is my tell: a while back, I realized that when I’m feeling anxious or worried, I re-read books aimed at a younger and younger audience. The more worried I am, the simpler the book. Under all circumstances, I love children’s and young-adult literature, and read it often, but when I’m reading these books as an anxiety tell, I inevitably re-read instead of reading books I've never read before. I want the coziness, the familiarity, the high quality of a book that I know I love.

For instance, when I was writing Better Than Before, I went through a stage of a major editing. Not just little changes here and there -- massive re-organization, massive cutting (I went from 140,00 words to 80,000 words without losing any ideas), massive line edits. It was exhilarating, but also very stressful and intellectually demanding.

And during that time, I re-read the entire Harry Potter series.

What book did I pick up yesterday, without quite realizing I was doing it? J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.  Frodo and company were already at The Prancing Pony before I recognized, "Oh, hey, I'm anxious, and so I'm reading this now."

Once I first recognized my tell those years ago, I realized that I can use children's and young-adult literature as “comfort food” for my mind. When I want some comfort, when I want to know that I'm going to enjoy something whole-heartedly, and get a distraction from my thoughts, I now deliberately turn to those books.

In this case, though, part of my brain realized that I needed comfort food before I consciously grasped it, myself.

One reason I'm anxious is that these days, a book's first week of sales has a very disproportionate importance. If a book sells well that first week, it gets a big, big boost.  So next week really matters.  (Which is why, if you're inclined to buy the book, it's a big help to me if you pre-order it now.)

But at this point, with one week to go there's not much more I can do to affect my book's fate. I told my husband, "It's like knowing that I'm gong to take a major exam, but I can't study."  He gave me a patient look and said, "Gretch, you've already studied."

Hmm. Well, I don't know what will happen to Better Than Before, but I do know what happens when the Nine Walkers enter the Doors of Durin. And I love reading about it, again and again.

As any lover of Tolkien would agree:  once the story of the One Ring begins, there's no stopping: you’re going there and back again. And then I’ll want to watch the movies, too, like as not. So, depending on how much free time I have in the next week, I may be set until my publication date on March 17.

How about you? Do you have a "tell" that shows that you're anxious?  And do you have a "comfort food" for your mind -- some activity or subject that soothes you?

 

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