We spent a few days in DC last month, visiting family and taking refuge from the rain in many museums. We stayed with CK’s cousin, his wife, and their two children in the kind of house with huge closets and a Pinterest-worthy kitchen that made me want to sell our condo in California and move across the country until I remembered that East Coast temperature and humidity regularly compete in a race to 100 during the summer while SoCal is holding an arid 78º.

I’m the youngest in my family and had only one short-lived babysitting job which, while uneventful, only solidified my desire to never have children. I’m pretty good with babies but once a kid can hold a conversation and start judging me they make me uncomfortable. I want kids to like me. I want to be Cool Aunt Pam that they fondly remember when they look back on their childhood but I’m really very Uncool Pam who would prefer everyone just go quietly read a book in their rooms. I want them to simultaneously like me and leave me alone.

I haven’t seen a Disney movie since The Lion King and young kids aren’t usually up on the latest Twitter kerfuffle so we don’t have much to talk about. I’m also always trying not to reinforce societal gender norms with my words while managing to do just that with my actions (yes I dye my hair, no you don’t need to). I also feel restrained by not wanting to say anything that conflicts with what the parents are trying to teach or inadvertently traumatize a developing mind. 

So all this is to say that talking to children is more stressful to me than is probably normal and I’m acutely aware of that but that doesn’t make it any better.

On our last night in DC the six of us went out to dinner at a place called Peking Gourmet Inn, a sprawling Chinese restaurant decorated with hundreds of photos of celebrities and politicians shaking hands with the owner. We’d been around the kids for a few days now and we were all getting more comfortable with each other. Conversion was less strained and the youngest, who usually just looks at me like you look at a man who gets on the elevator with you when you are in there alone at night and you’re trying to decide if he’s dangerous or not, instructed me to sit next to him while we ate. Cool Aunt Pam achievement unlocked. 

Over Peking Duck the kid started telling me bad jokes. I don’t know many that are appropriate for public consumption, much less by a 6 year old but I do have a knock-knock joke that I’ve had stuck in my head for 30 years:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Dwayne.

Dwayne who?

Dwayne the tub I’m dwowning!

Finally I had a chance to use it so that brain space wasn’t wasted. It was my secret weapon to cement this memory of dinner with Cool Aunt Pam in my nephew’s head and…I botched it. 

I said “Dawyne the dwayne I’m dwowning.” He looked at me for a second, with squinted eyes and a confused head tilt, then laughed before loudly retelling the joke, error and all, to the rest of the table. I didn’t correct him so now that’s how he thinks the joke goes and the mistake is burned in my memory.

So here I am a month after I fumbled telling a knock-knock joke to a 6 year old and the memory still pops in my head every few days. I think about him telling the joke to someone else and them being like yah that doesn’t make sense and him realizing it doesn’t and getting embarrassed then mentally demoting me to Weird Aunt Pam Who Told Me a Shit Joke. My heart rate increases slightly before I remember that this doesn’t matter at all and no one else is sitting around thinking about those 37 seconds except me and he’s never going to retell that joke because it’s not funny anyway.

Why does this meaningless memory keep popping into my head? Because that’s what our brains are designed to do. They tell us about threats over and over and over so we make sure to avoid ever doing the thing that threatened our survival again. 

Unfortunately, our brains perceive social awkwardness as a threat because despite having iPhones and Amazon Prime and Teslas, we’re just animals that used to have to hunt and gather and work together to survive. When our brains developed this constant vigilance about threats, if you were a weirdo that did stupid shit, no one would have wanted to work with you so you’d probably be ostracized and die of starvation. So, being socially awkward really was a threat.

Now being socially awkward will not only not result in starving to death but will probably make you a bestselling author or at least a good software developer, but our brains haven’t figured that out yet. So, they still remind us ad nauseam about saying “you too!” after a waiter says “enjoy your meal” or “I love you” at the end of a phone call with your boss because you forgot you weren’t talking to your mom.

That’s just how it goes, for everyone, no matter how much they seem like they have their shit together. Right before they fall asleep at night their brain whispers, “Hey remember in 4th grade at Tiffany’s slumber party when you tried to dance and knocked over her mom’s tchotchke rack and everyone laughed at you?  That’s why you shouldn’t dance in public.” 

All of those little embarrassments blend together and shape the person you are, the things you’re afraid of doing, and the traits you admire in others. Those little embarrassments can turn into big anxiety if you let them. 

Every time you have a thought you grease the groove of that kind of thought in your mind making it more likely that you will have a similar thought again. If you worry a lot, worrying becomes the easiest, most traveled path for your thoughts until worrying is what you do well. It’s like you’re rehearsing and perfecting being a worrier. With enough practice you become very, very good at it.

And, again, that’s your brain’s job. It’s supposed to get really good at having the kind of thoughts that will keep you alive so if you have a thought and reinforce that it’s something you do, in fact, need to think about by making mental connections between the thought and your self-worth, your brain will go “got it, this is important, we will think about it more!” Which just means that the thing you really don’t want to think about any more becomes the thing you think about all the time.

So your brain’s job is to think about things that you deem important and your job is to teach it what’s important by taking conscious control over the conversation you have with your own thoughts. You literally have to notice when your brain is bringing up some bullshit that isn’t helpful and tell it “that’s not important” or “I can’t do anything about that so let’s move on” or whatever works for you to interrupt the thought, direct your attention back to the present, and stop that thought pathway from getting permanently paved. 

I know it seems a little crazy that you have to reply to your own thoughts but you’re already having conversations with yourself all day so it’s really not. Once you make the Anxiety Highway in your head a rougher road to travel down, your thoughts will opt for the smoother path you’ve developed with your mindfulness and you won’t have to work so hard to redirect your attention.