Recognize Your “Tell.”

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Self-knowledge is one of the greatest challenges for a happiness project. Why is it so hard to know myself? Why is it so tough to Be Gretchen? It seems like nothing should be easier and more obvious – 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.

I also push myself to Imitate a spiritual master. To do so, I first had to identify my spiritual master, and recognizing that St. Therese of Lisieux is my spiritual master revealed a great deal to me about 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.

I have a tell. It took me a long time to recognize it, but finally I did, just a few years ago. But funnily enough, even though this tell has been telling away for several days, I only noticed it this morning.

This is my tell: 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. I want the coziness, the familiarity, the high quality of a book that I know I love.

Over the few weeks, I’ve re-read Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, Julie Andrews’s Mandy, and Jennie Lindquist’s The Golden Name Day (I re-read these books very quickly). But I didn’t pick up on this clue to self-knowledge until I saw myself, as if in a dream, reaching for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. As I believe any lover of Tolkien would agree: that’s a long road, with no turning back. Once you begin, you’re going there and back again.

Sheesh, I have work to do! I can’t re-read the entire Lord of the Rings! And then I’ll want to watch the movies, too, like as not.

And that’s when I saw the mirror to myself: without quite perceiving it, I’ve been feeling unsettled, with a low-level of anxiety, for the last few weeks. Now that I know, I can deliberately do the things that calm me: re-read those Tolkien books; go out of my way to cultivate good smells, get enough sleep, exercise, and all the rest. It’s odd – for some of that time, I’ve been on vacation, but for me, vacation isn’t as comforting as The Lord of the Rings.

My friends have mentioned their “tells” — one watches reality TV, one eats ice cream (there’s a reason that it’s called “comfort food”), one starts sleeping much more than usual.

How about you? Do you have any tells that signal that you’re anxious, sad, happy, overworked?

From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.






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