Margaret Cho Wants You to Embrace Your Darkness

Using creativity to cope and connect

Margaret Cho has been finding ways to entertain us for decades. From her stand-up routines, such as The Notorious C.H.O.; to her books, such as I’m The One That I Want; to her roles in films such as Face/Off, Cho continues to come up with new ways to explore and share her artistry.

A major reason why Cho continues to be so prolific is the same reason why she is so beloved by her fans — she is willing to tackle and speak out on difficult issues. Cho has been an advocate for LGBT rights, has opened up about her having experienced sexual abuse, and about her sexuality, as well as her consequent struggles with an eating disorder, addiction, depression and suicide. In doing so, Cho has given voice to people who feel alone and invisible in their struggles with social and emotional issues.

And with her new album, American Myth, Cho is continuing her message: Don’t run away from your darkness — embrace it.

Cho explains how this is a central approach to her life and art. She told me, “People should be conscious that pain and suffering are essential to living. We need it as much as we need happiness and joy and pleasure. There would be no contrast in your existence if the bad and dark parts didn’t exist.”

For Cho, this stance is personal. One of the painful issues with which she has struggled over the years is depression. People who struggle with depression — even only sub-clinical depressive symptoms — may experience significant loss of physical, social and role functioning. And the loss of functioning associated with depression appears to be comparable to or worse than that of other chronic medical issues.

“I think I’ve always had it. It’s something that sounds familiar when people talk about their experience of depression,” Cho explained. “But I’ve never been diagnosed or medicated or anything. It’s not weeks; it’s more just like it’s parts of days.”

Cho describes her depression as feeling like existential dread, also referred to as existential angst. “There’s always been this existential dread that I’ve had, not knowing what the future is going to bring,” Cho explained. “And not knowing how you may have done something in the past that’s upsetting, or regret something that you’ve done.”

Like many others who experience depression, Cho also experiences rumination, which is to compulsively and repeatedly think about something. Rumination can be useful if one is attempting to deliberate over possible solutions to a problem. But it can also take the form of obsessing and amplifying a problem without arriving at a solution.

“It becomes something amplified in your mind to obsess over. The tiny slights that build up – like someone doesn’t email or text you back,” she explained. “Something that you obsess on, and then you realize that the other person has no idea that you’re going through this crazy thing. And it’s just strange how certain facts or details about your life become amplified.”

Managing one’s negative experience can be difficult enough, but Cho felt that while she was growing up there were many social signals that she and her feelings didn’t matter. This first came with observing the underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in popular culture. Research suggests that even subtle forms of racism can result in negative psychological consequences.

In Cho’s case, she described the feeling of invisibility — like she was not there and she didn’t matter — that can arise from these forms of racism.  “I think you feel betrayed and shocked when you realize that you’re not what’s being represented or you don’t feel included. It’s just this strong feeling of invisibility. And it can be very hard to explain to other people.”

-Michael Friedman, PhD, Brick By Brick

20 Rules to Live By

14. Be kind, not nice.

1. Bring your sense of humor with you at all times. Bring your friends with a sense of humor. If their friends have a sense of humor, invite them, too. Remember this when going to hospitals, weight-loss centers, and funerals, as well as when going to work, coming home, waking up, and going to sleep.

2. If it’s worth crying over, it’s probably worth laughing at. Cultivate a sense of perspective that permits you to see the wider and longer view of the situation; this will help you realize that although your situation is upsetting, it might also one day become a terrific story.

3. Other people don’t care what you’re wearing.

4. Don’t be a sissy. This is especially important if you are a woman. Girls can be sissies, but behaving like a simpering, whining, fretful coward as an adult is unacceptable no matter what your gender happens to be. If you are anxious, scared, and feeling powerless, you don’t need to change your behavior; you need to change your life.

5. Don’t lie. Cheat the devil and tell the truth.

6. There is one exception to the rule above: Never say a baby looks like a sausage wearing a hat. The parents will not forgive you. This is a situation in which telling the truth is not wholly necessary. If it’s not possible to tell the whole truth for fear of causing undue pain, just say the baby looks “happy.”

7. Never use the passive voice. Do not say, “It will get done.” Say, “I’ll do it” and then offer a solid, unwavering deadline. Always make your deadline.

8. The pinnacle is always slippery; no peak is safe. Only plateaus offer a place to rest. Are you ready to stay on a plateau or are you climbing? Decide and pack your bags accordingly.

9. As we age, love changes. As a youth, you fall for an unattainable ideal. When you’re more mature, you fall in love with a person: “Sure, he has only one eye in the middle of his forehead,” you’ll rationalize, “but he never forgets my birthday.”

10. Power is the ability to persuade stupid people to do intelligent things and intelligent people to do stupid things. This is why power is dangerous.

11. Sherlock Holmes said, “Work is the best antidote to sorrow, my dear Watson.” Listen to Mr. Holmes.

12. Everybody wants a shortcut to love, prosperity, and weight loss, although not necessarily in that order. Apart from being born into an adoring family, getting good genes, and inheriting the mineral rights, however, there are no short cuts. The rest of us have to work at it.

13. Help the dramatically self-pitying to understand that they are not, by definition, sympathetic or interesting. Encourage them to address topics other than themselves.

14. Be kind, not nice. Kindness is both intentional and meaningful. Acts of kindness requires generosity, emotional and otherwise. Perfunctory and superficial niceness is, too often, mere window dressing.

15. Only poor workers blame their tools. It’s not the fault of the computer, the school, the train, the government, or poor cell phone reception. Take responsibility.

16. You know how sometimes you don’t think you’re asleep—you’re half listening to a conversation or the television—only to discover you were unconscious? One part of your head would swear it’s awake, but when you actually snap out of it, you realize you were wholly elsewhere? Sometimes that happens in life. Sometimes the only way you know you’re truly in love, in the entirely wrong profession, being a moron at parties, or a great poet is when you snap out of it.

17. You can always stop what you’re doing.

18. You should either be doing something useful or you should be playing. You should not be thinking about playing while at work or thinking about work when you’re out having fun. Compartmentalizing your life is not inevitably a bad thing. It’s easy to waste pleasure by feeling guilty and waste potentially effective time by feeling resentful.

19. Be aware that a safety net, if pulled too tight, easily turns into a noose. Don’t trade independence for security without being aware of the consequences.

20. Someday you will die. Until then, you should do everything possible to enjoy life.

-Gina Barreca, PhD
Excerpted from IF YOU LEAN IN, WILL MEN JUST LOOK DOWN YOUR BLOUSE? published by St. Martin’s Press (March, 2016)