Discover more from Where the Map Ends by Kyra Evans
A letter about red flags (for all of us who ignore them)
This week I find myself thinking about acclimatization.
Humans are an adaptive species. It’s a beneficial quality to be able to adjust oneself to remain resilient in the face of change and challenge.
But, like all good things, when adaptability exits moderation and enters excess, it can get us into a lot of trouble.
I think often about the metaphor of a frog in boiling water. (PSA: Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the mentioning of this metaphor.)
Apparently, if you put a frog in a pot of cool water and heat it slowly to a boil, it won’t notice that it’s dying until it’s too late.
I can relate.
I feel like I’ve been that frog many times; adapting to an increasingly intolerable environment so well that I eventually find myself gasping for air in the violent seas of a rolling boil.
Lately, I’ve been wondering: How does it happen?
Here’s what I’ve got.
My Life as a Frog
If I were the frog, this is what my process would look like:
1) I’m incredibly sensitive, so I notice the water getting ever so slightly warmer at the first half degree.
2) I gaslight myself for a bit; I tell myself I’m feeling warm because I’m too sensitive to temperature.
3) I intellectualize the fact that the water feels warmer. This might include thoughts like:
Maybe warm is “good for me” so I should go with it even though it feels bad.
No one else would feel the way I feel, so I should feel differently.
It will get cooler eventually so why make a fuss in the meantime?
I can’t escape this pot anyway so might as well make the best of it.
All the water everywhere is getting warmer, so even if I could jump to a new pot it will probably be equally warm.
Exiting the water means “quitting” and I don’t want to be a flake.
4) I decide that it’s a bad idea to say or do anything about the water temperature, lest I seem “crazy”, “demanding”, “entitled”, or like I’m being a “diva”.
5) I learn ways to exist in the ever-increasing temperature: Swim less, float more, dissociate.
6) I become increasingly embarrassed by how hot I’m feeling, and try to hide it.
7) I lie to myself and others about the heat. If someone yells into the pot, “How’s the temperature?”, I respond with something like, “I’ve always wanted to live in a warmer climate!”
8) As the bubbles rise above my ears, I notice that I am now in crisis.
9) End scene.
I suppose we could ask the question of how I got here.
And while I could use this space to list the countless personal experiences that are at least partially responsible, I think it’s most relevant to you, dear reader, to look at some of the larger cultural factors that you’ve probably been bubbling in too.
Science shows us that boiling frog syndrome is something that’s more commonly experienced by females than males.
Females are more likely to hold on in the face of adversity; to tough it out.
The motivations for this are unclear. Perhaps we’re waiting for things to improve, perhaps we’re more willing to ignore red flags, perhaps we’re more tolerant to discomfort, or perhaps it’s in our DNA to just keep going.
In the book, “Burnout” by Emily and Amelia Nagoski (highly recommend if you haven’t already read it), they mention one study in particular that really struck a chord with me.
Scientists took female and male rats and introduced them to conditions meant to replicate “chronic, low level stress”. Things like strobe lights, tilting their cages by 45 degrees, water poured on their bedding… Stuff that isn’t dangerous, but in human terms would be considered “one damn thing after another”. The rats were then placed in water for a forced swim, and their progress monitored.
As compared to their pre-stress self, male rats in the forced swim dropped their swim time in half immediately.
Like, they got in the water and were instantly like “Fuck this shit. I’ve been through too much. I don’t deserve this crap.” And they gave up.
Can you blame them?
Female rats, on the other hand, took an average of 3 weeks to halve their swim time, and they kept that rate up even after 6 weeks.
It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. In many species, the females are the ones who are responsible for nurturing and protecting the next generation, long after the babies are born.
If females gave up easily, it stands to reason that the vulnerable ones under our care may not make it, thus placing our entire species at risk of extinction.
But hey, no biggie right?
Essentially, from this perspective, even if we want to give up because our internal alarm is sending us a warning message, hundreds of millions of years of evolution bubble up as the belief that staying, sticking it out, or fighting through it is always the right answer; that quitting is riskier than watching the temperature rise.
Imperceptible, Incremental Ick
Next, and perhaps most obvious, is the fact that a slow boil is just that: Slow.
If we entered a new situation and suddenly, jarringly, started receiving blatant insults, or overtime requests, or unannounced visitors, we might be more likely to leave the situation right away. We’d chalk it up to a bad fit and call it a day.
Instead, boiling frog syndrome sneaks up on us.
It starts with something that feels just a little off but we can’t put our finger on why. There’s a “perfectly good explanation” for it. And for this reason, we believe it to be an aberration from the norm.
Slowly, the ick moments start to accumulate.
But since we have more proof of the situation or person’s “good qualities” at this point than we have ick moments, we simultaneously begin to accumulate a library of “perfectly good explanations”.
News flash: A perfectly good explanation is a sneeze away from an excuse.
As we continue to rationalize excuses, the ick eventually takes over as the norm, which makes it hard for us to remember what things were like at the beginning, back at our starting temperature.
Looking Outward for Inner Answers
The final factor that I think plays a role here is the extent to which I personally, and I suspect many of you as well, look around us when the water starts to warm rather than inside us.
We feel the heat and rather than listening to ourselves and our instincts, we observe others in a similar circumstance to see how they’re responding.
This is problematic for a couple of reasons.
First, because the cultural imperative to always appear “together” means that most people are pretending to be fine on the outside, even though they’re falling apart on the inside. We observe others’ outward reactions and believe we’re seeing the truth of their experience. But often, outside appearances aren’t showing us the whole picture.
Secondly, and most importantly, even if everyone around you is legitimately loving life, gleefully soaking in the warm water of your pot, if you’re uncomfortable with the temperature IT LITERALLY DOESN’T MATTER WHAT SOMEONE ELSE FEELS ABOUT IT.
This is a foundational part of the human experience: People like different things and thrive in different conditions.
If everyone around you loves warm water and you hate it, it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed to adapt. It just means that you require cooler conditions in order to thrive.
And you’re allowed to bow out and seek a change that suits you better.
Throwing in the Towel
So knowing all this, the question becomes: Should we learn to quit quicker?
When is it worth it to ride it out, versus knowing it’s time to leave?
At what point does persistence cease to be admirable, and start to be harmful?
There isn’t a black-and-white answer. The hardest part of this dilemma is that only WE know what the right temperature feels like. No one else can feel it for us.
The good news is that we are, in fact, humans and not frogs. We have huge brains that can help us find solutions and alternatives. And – even when the walls of our pot seem insurmountable and intimidatingly tall – we can make plans and take action to find a way out.
Friend, even though it might feel like it sometimes, the truth is that we are never stuck.
It’s just that the key to our freedom often lies solely in our ability to trust ourselves enough to take the leap.
Sending you so, so much love.