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Making Sense of Modern Life

console.log(feelings);

What happens when programmers explore their feelings with a weekly check-in.

In the fall of 2015, I joined a batch at the Recurse Center (RC) in New York City. For those unfamiliar, it’s a bit like an artist’s residency or writer’s workshop, only for programmers. In each batch, you’ll find some combination of: experienced members of the software industry, recent grads, academics, old school hacker types, and creatives. Some have masters degrees and PhDs, some didn’t finish high school. Some folks work on famous projects, others are just starting out. There’s about a ten-percent acceptance rate, and everyone is exceptionally good at something. A universal trait among the participants is that strange combination of mystification and gratitude at being accepted. One of our alumns described the RC community at large as the best professional organization in the world, with a three-month on boarding process.

I taught myself to program during my masters in analytic chemistry to work through large data sets associated with CO₂ research. At RC, I tried to refocus that skill into expressive art using analytic and technical methodologies. Meanwhile, I was fresh out of a year of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): My daily experience involved noticing, sorting, and managing substantially challenging feelings, thoughts, and beliefs related to being pre-gender transition, a recent break up, and significant CSA/SA related c-ptsd. This made me a lightning rod to the mushy emotional stuff that folks goes through when they have few guidelines, are surrounded by expertise, and live in a strange city far from their loved ones. I kept having the same conversation over and over again with person after person about grief, loneliness, imposters syndrome, separation anxiety, social anxiety, and self-worth.

Clearly these conversations needed to happen since they were, however this was not why I came to RC. I wanted to get good at coding, and I needed to find work soon in an incredibly expensive city to be able to stay. These discussions took a ton of time and emotional labor, and I was not a therapist. That being said, I rangered and served at sanctuary during regional burning man events, and I generally believe in peer-support as an effective practice for non-acute mental health issues. I needed a way to support my community, and also get the time to refocus on my own coding projects. What would happen if we started a group check-in, similar to our technical stand-up meetings, but instead talked about what was coming up internally?

Something amazing.

Key components of the RC community are self-directed learning, personal accountability, and community ownership. Projects are open-source, publicly-shared, typically collaborative, and only accountable to those working on them. Our social rules (which many choose to live by from their first batch onward) are specifically intended to create a safe and welcoming, intellectual environment where everyone can learn as much as possible about programming without distraction.

To that end, it was vitally important that this practice was not mine. It had to belong to everyone. The check-in would live or die, based on community need and interest.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

I asked a number of likely participants if a feelings check-in was something they might try, extracted promises to show up so I wouldn’t be alone in a room, reserved the space, set a time, and announced the check-in on our internal chat server and forums. What happened is largely how the meetings operate with few changes to this day.

The following are the basic guidelines for running a successful feelings check in.

Logistical

Everyone should gather at a set time. Read the guidelines so everyone’s on the same page. We picked a weekday afternoon, when alumni were welcome, as well as current participants, to open the process up to the broad community. People may leave early, but must come on time so as not to disturb the container we create.

Be fully present in the room and with each other as possible. This means turning off phones and closing laptops, closing the blinds, and hanging a “Do not disturb” sign on the door so you are not interrupted.

One person talks at a time. At first, this consisted of me standing at the front keeping track of the order of who raised their hands. We quickly switched to a “talking stick” method (or in our case a plush emoji ). With zoom, it’s nearly impossible to understand anyone unless it’s one at a time.

There is no set order, and no requirement to share. A person may pass and share later, or not at all. Sometimes simply observing is all someone feels comfortable doing. Active listening is still participation.

Give your name and pronouns, if you feel comfortable doing so. You are not required to identify yourself, but it helps others address you in a way that feels comfortable to you. Using pronouns if you are cisgender welcomes people who may identify as something different than they appear.

We do not “workshop” other folks’ experience. This is a place and time to notice, acknowledge, express, and be witnessed. If something resonates with you, and the person sharing would like suggestions, you can discuss your thoughts later. There’s nothing worse than wanting to be heard and being interrogated about what you’ve done to fix the problem. Often this is a person’s anxiety at facing another person’s difficult feelings. In some of the groups we have a part two in which folks can discuss their shares. This should be opt in.

Qualitative Advice for Shares

Drop the “story” as much as possible. This is not entertainment. You don’t have to rationalize, or prove anything to anyone present. Nor is this the place to lecture on philosophical ideals, faith, allegiances, or political parties. Your feelings on their own are valid. Full stop. Sharing context is fine, but focused brevity helps maintain attention and reduces justification.

Try to not make judgemental statements. There are no right or wrong feelings. They are simply feelings. To this end, we encourage participants to phrase things in terms of their own experience rather than absolutes. (e.g. Try, “This week was hard for me, because this happened and I felt ________.” Rather than, “This week sucked.”)

Try not to identify as your feelings. We are humans and as such, we experience any number of feelings throughout our lifetimes, careers, projects, days, and even moments. Speak about your experience accurately and therefore without claiming that you are what you are feeling (e.g. “I am feeling happy” vs “I am happy.”)

Speak for yourself. You only know your own experience. Unless someone directly told you something, you cannot say what they are thinking, feeling, or intending. We do not all share the same morals, faith, ethics, worldviews, goals or identity. Feelings check in is for you to check in with your feelings, not to interpret other people’s.

Building Safety

Try to Leave “-ism’s” at the door as best as you can. In these spaces all participants, including the moderator are equal. Some people may be more experienced with the format or less but, experience, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, faith, economic philosophy, political affiliation, economic class, education, caste, or any other divider beyond a willingness and interest in exploring feelings, should not affect access and welcome to the group.

Give content and trigger warnings where appropriate, including enough time for others to prepare themselves, or exit the room. These subjects typically include but are not limited to: references to “isms” (racism, sexism, hetero-sexism, cis-sexism, etc), “phobias”(homophobia, transphobia, etc), self-harm, and various modes of sexual, emotional or physical harassment, abuse and/or violence.

Similarly, avoid the use of words associated with violence towards groups of people, unless you are self-describing (e.g B****, N*****, and T*****). This reduces the chance of impacting folks from marginalized groups. Reclaiming a historically harmful word can be empowering. However, the winds of society affect the force with which our words impact others, and it’s best to be safe. Remember, the goal of this space is a place to explore our own inner experience. It is incumbent on all to ensure each other’s safety.

If you need to direct feelings towards another in the group, try to use non-violent communication skills. There can be a lot of depth and exploration here, but at its most basic this means phrasing things in some form of, “When you did X, I felt Y. Could you please try Q instead? That would help me to R.” We are creating a space of vulnerability and open discourse. If we lash out, rather than take ownership of our experience it becomes hard for folks to be open and trust. This also slows the pace of an emotional discussion down to a safer speed and reduces the chances of harm.

Last but not least, what we say should stay in the room. Obviously organizers cannot guarantee absolute privacy. Yet, the experience only works because we allow people to be open and vulnerable within that container of space and time. If folks share outside of that container, then we lose that sense of safety.

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

In that first session around twenty-five people came; for context, the batch consisted of fifty-five. Often when a person shared a particularly challenging experience, a chorus of snaps clicked back that it was relatable. Without fail after sharing, participants would look up, and thank everyone for hearing them. At the end of each meeting, if there was time, I lead a five minute mindfulness exercise to help refocus on the present moment.

People openly wept, expressed frustration, joy in seeing a loved one, or pride in overcoming a challenge.

Over the remaining months, attendance at times dropped to five or six individuals or swelled to dozens. People shared grief, joy, fears, anger, frustrations, victories and defeats; in short their humanity. Over the end of my batch and in the months following, I taught a few regulars how to run the meetings and handed it off. I attended a few check-ins during the intervening years, but only as a participant. It didn’t occur to me how important this practice might be, until a year later when meeting a young man in his mid-twenties at a social gathering who enthusiastically shared,

“I’d never told anyone how I felt about anything before!”

That statement honestly shocked me. How do we know what we want and need if we don’t stop to notice how we are experiencing the world? Since then, participants expressed that this meeting is what gave them a sense of belonging in the RC community, and even the software development field at large. Participants have gone on to start their own check-ins among their local community members, and coworkers. At RC, the meetings persisted despite a nearly complete population turn over every three months, and they opened the door to advanced group mindfulness practices like circling.

Photo by Thomas Lambert on Unsplash

The main reason I think feelings check-in works so effectively, is that it substantially leverages a number of important practices that Western culture and industry often do not prize, but make substantial differences in quality of life:

  1. Mindfulness
    We are often focused entirely on the future or the past. How will our new tech change the world? How did we do last quarter? How could I run that project better? It’s rare to have a place and time where we collectively drop the needle on our present experience, without judgement or interpretation. Often, simply developing awareness of our present experience is enough to manage what changes must come.
  2. Ownership
    We are experiencing and then interpreting our experience in every moment. Owning your awareness and interpretation does wonders for helping you affect change or acceptance.
  3. Vulnerability
    Sharing what we are feeling builds intimacy. It’s scary, sure. Creating a container of time and space, where we all agree to abide by certain rules, makes it easier to let your guard down, open up and connect. Thirty percent of millennials express feeling lonely. Twenty-two percent say they have no friends. This is an epidemic of loneliness. Fostering deep connection matters a great deal.
  4. Normalization
    Hearing from others that they’re struggling with the same kinds of things as you is incredibly validating. It makes us feel not so alone. Sometimes that helps us make changes in our personal or social situations. It also can just be enough to know that what we are experiencing is hard or unpleasant for everyone, we can and will get past this moment.
  5. Emotional Literacy
    It is impossible to get what we want, unless we know what it is and how to ask for it. Your suite of feelings is essential data. Consider your conscious and unconscious mind a central processing unit running the operating system that is you. It has a multitude of processes and variables that you have more or less control over. Feelings are valuable debugging information for understanding and potentially modifying that algorithm. Knowing how we are feeling in a meaningful way (e.g. how it relates to our experience, actions, and beliefs) and learning to express it to others is the first step in understanding yourself. From there, you can begin to improve your personal “operating system,” and thereby building meaningful relationships of all stripes.

The meetings at RC fulfill a key emotional need during this kind of short intensive experience. Participants are separated from their usual emotional support structures, and feeling extreme pressure to perform without clear metrics to evaluate success. Is it enough to get a general top-down map of a subject? Do you need to dive deep into a specific technology or algorithmic concept? Is it perhaps a combination of the two? The truth is much trickier; often we think we’re going a specific destination, but really it’s just a few steps that way and then we must redirect. We still needed to explore that first path in order to find the future correction. It’s not possible to skip to the end.

I hope that you find this useful. It is a social experiment that is still running with zero input from me nearly five years later. I’d imagine other time-boxed intensive programs like writer’s workshops, graduate degrees, and group artistic residencies could benefit greatly from this kind of practice, or for that matter; peer groups, religious communities and more. Feelings are not the be all, end all, but being able to recognize them in ourselves and others helps build lasting community. A teacher and friend of mine once told me “Real friends talk about real things.” I can think of little more real than owning our experiences of life; whether good, bad, easy, hard, funny or just bizarre.

A few pragmatic notes for future facilitators:

  • You are not a therapist. Nor are feelings check-ins a substitute for one. You are simply organizing a peer group check-in. This is not the appropriate place to unpack or process severe trauma, psychosis, or abuse. If someone expresses self-harm or suicidal urges, encourage them to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273–8255, and hopefully a therapist. If they express a plan to harm themselves or another, immediately reach out to a local crisis intervention team (Google is your friend here), or if unavailable, local law enforcement.
  • It might be useful to have a feelings wheel handy. Emotional illiteracy is so common these days in the never-ending distraction culture we exist in, that sometimes it’s hard to put words to what’s going. When in doubt starting with what someone’s body physically feels like may help.
  • This is a living practice. It should fit your community. What I’ve listed above is how we found these meetings to be useful. If something isn’t working for you, change it (and tell me about it in the comments!). This practice is yours as much as mine.
  • RC is not a hierarchical community. I do not know how well this would work in a family or corporate environment. There are power inequities that may make things challenging. Perhaps keeping the meetings within specific strata may be useful. I suspect were RC facilitators present at the check-ins it may not be as effective. A key component is the check-in’s self directed nature. It went where it needed to go for those who were participating.
  • Enroll multiple potential check-in facilitators. It isn’t hard to lead, and you can still participate as the facilitator. Often being a good example is the best way to lead. Eventually someone will get sick, have to travel, or move on. Having a few people comfortable with the process makes everything go more consistently and prevents burn out.
  • If it’s a big group, consider breaking out into smaller groups. 10–15 seems to be the best for maintaining intimacy. It’s feasible up to around twenty. Above that, I’d split the group. Good time for those additional facilitators
  • If you are hosting the meetings in personal spaces, rotate the venue. It’s not fair for one person to be responsible for hosting week after week and whomever is commuting the longest will eventually get fed up with the commute. Venue rotation balances these labor burdens.
  • Use a consistent day and time, and send reminders. Usually the morning of, and fifteen minutes before if you are all in the same building or an hour prior if participants have to commute.
  • Have tissues handy. They aren’t always necessary, but sometimes there’s a flood. When it happens, you’ll be glad.
  • Things may intensify a bit at first. This is normal. We bottle our emotions, when you pop that cork, there’s a backlog of feeling, and it can take some time to come to equilibrium. Outstanding issues will come up to be examined. This is ultimately beneficial, but it can be scary and overwhelming at first.

If you try hosting a check in, or did something similar please tell me about it in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts. What worked? What didn’t? What did you like? What was uncomfortable? Why? Please tell!

Author’s note: I started writing this last year and have delayed publishing several times, because I was not satisfied with how it flowed. Now perfectionism be damned, I am starting some new instances of the feelings check-in, and I think under the current health crisis(Covid-19), it is an important tool for communities to have available.

I present this “social technology” under a creative commons non-commercial license. I don’t mind if organizations use it, but I do not want you charging entry to these check-ins. If this is helpful and you want to support me producing more stuff, feel free to hire, or throw money at me, and I’ll do more things and write about them. ^_^

Changelog

10/27/21: {After a few incidents in some ongoing meetings, I’ve added sections in the recommendations to address feelings towards others in the group, avoid ism’s, and ban the use of group derogatory words when not a member of said group. Also added a comment to the minimization of story to avoid using your share time as a platform to monologue about some ideology.}

12/16/21: {Updated & slightly reorganized the guidelines for clarity}

3/22/2022: {Added a link and description for the feelings wheel.}

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Transfemme/nonbinary polymath with experience in the arts, chemistry, oceanography, nonprofits, web development, and marketing. Pronouns: They/Them/She/Her

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Thia Griffin-Elliott

Thia Griffin-Elliott

Transfemme/nonbinary polymath with experience in the arts, chemistry, oceanography, nonprofits, web development, and marketing. Pronouns: They/Them/She/Her

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