Epistemic Status: Personal
I’ve done a lot of personal growth work in the past year, and I wanted to document it here, for the sake of general edification and also to keep a record of things.
I’m now at the point where I have markedly less interest in general “self-improvement” — skill-building never stops, of course, but I feel like I’m fundamentally fine and don’t need fixing, I feel like I’m done with the “fix myself” stage of my life. So it seems like a good point at which to stop and reflect.
I manage my mood with antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds, and have since September of 2015. I have pretty vanilla 21st century mild depression/anxiety, and at the moment I do much better medicated than not.
But I think of mood as just a sort of baseline scalar value, and addressing it chemically isn’t enough if you also have more complex cognitive stuff going on that needs to be fixed.
Scrupulosity is a term borrowed from the Catholics, referring to “An unfounded apprehension and consequently unwarranted fear that something is a sin which, as a matter of fact, is not”. In other words, irrational guilt. This used to be a big problem for me.
Scrupulosity is very painful, and seems to be little discussed outside of religious contexts, but one can definitely get it about secular issues. Is it bad that I make money? Is it bad that I hold some controversial opinions? Am I too difficult, too overbearing, too greedy, too much?
The first thing, for me, in combating scrupulosity, was having a moral framework in which I could be confident that the benign things I did were, in fact, not wrong. It was very important to me that this framework was credible and didn’t feel like a bunch of pretty lies. Some things are wrong: cruelty, dishonesty, etc. I am not perfect and do occasionally do bad things. But things like “thinking for myself” or “asserting myself” or “earning a living” are good, not bad. And there are straightforward reasons why.
This isn’t enough by itself, because you can be intellectually aware that a thing is true, and still have strong negative feelings that contradict it. So the first thing I started doing was developing repetitive associations & verbal fluency. I literally made Anki cards with inspiring quotes on them and memorized them. I read books that encouraged self-worth. I talked to people who could tell me I was okay. I picked up little verbal mantras that I’d repeat to myself when I felt down.
This still isn’t enough, because you can fall into the trap of depending too much on external reassurance. There’s a big difference between “please tell me I’m okay, for the umpteenth time” and just believing “yeah, I’m okay, that’s a fact about reality.” Getting over this last hump, for me, was mostly a matter of insights, deeply internalized.
Epiphanies are weird, because what happens in practice is that you have a lot of them, and they all sound really obvious if you say them out loud. I believe this is normal. Single epiphanies don’t change you for life, mostly, but an aggregate of many epiphanies on the same theme add up.
Things like “I can trust myself more”, “I deserve happiness”, “I am actually successful by my own standards”, “I have strong convictions and admire heroism and that is a good thing”, “I care about truth and science a lot”, “I care about peace and freedom a lot,” “I deserve to give myself credit”, “I deserve to live”, and so on, sound like mundane platitudes, but there’s an experience of grokking them deeply, recognizing that they’re not just nice things to say but in a certain sense literally true in real life, that is essential and can’t be replaced.
I had a problem with freaking out over small stuff and wanting a lot of comfort and attention in response. Moreover, I didn’t entirely want to stop freaking out; I kind of enjoyed the drama.
What “attention-seeking” felt like on the inside was craving an intense sensation of pleasure, which was maddeningly hard to get access to, but seemed like it ought to be easily available, and it was frustrating that people weren’t giving it to me, when it seemed so simple. All you have to do is react strongly to my behavior — be shocked, be enthusiastic, be angry, be sympathetic, give me stimulus of some kind! What’s so hard about that?
But it is hard for a lot of people, and I began to realize that it was a burden on people I love. Moreover, it’s especially harmful to people who are very truthful. Emotional reactions often run counter to careful, honest reasoning. Splashing around in the Emotion Sandbox often means saying things you don’t really mean, and when people take you literally, you’re deceiving them. Truthful people are also reluctant to jump into the Emotion Sandbox with you, because they want to maintain their own intellectual integrity.
Careful, denotative, truthful use of language, where you’re trying to communicate about reality, rather than just splashing emotional stimulus at each other, is a really useful skill. It built civilization. Very few people are good at it, and those people are precious. Some of the most important people in my life are good at rationality in this sense, and I care about their happiness, and wouldn’t want to pressure them into damaging their souls. I’m good at rationality in some contexts, for that matter, and enhancing my ability to do science is very important to me, so I need to be careful with my mind.
Also, I’m getting older. “Wild and crazy” is cute on a teenager, less so on an adult. The person I want to be in the coming years is an intelligent, decisive, practical woman. I’m going to have a lot of things to do, and that trades off against emotional sound and fury.
So I basically concluded that I can accept a lower-emotional-lability life, because other things are more important.
In practice, that means I’ve cut out social media, drastically reduced the amount I bug people for emotional reassurance or otherwise try to provoke an emotional reaction, and am cultivating a sort of “I’m fine”, cheerful-worker-bee, don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff, sensibility.
At first it started out as a sort of grim satisfaction in Doing The Right Thing, but increasingly it’s felt more like actual cheerfulness, or like strength. Security in my own ability to be fine.
Perversity is my word for when you do bad things on purpose. Usually, in my case, this was laughably simple: I would go around saying “I’m bad!” and using really gloomy language.
I think it’s akin to some kinds of impulsive behavior like abusing drugs or self-harm, though, in that it involves doing stuff because it’s against the rules or doing stuff because it fits your self-image as a bad person.
I think perversity is actually quite widespread. When people lose hope that some good thing is possible, they say “forget it, I’ll just be Bad then.” When people believe that ethical people are doomed to lose to unethical people, they can decide to be Bad. (I’ve met finance guys who are actively excited about how they’re investing in companies that destroy the rainforest. It’s not that they’re principled critics of environmentalism, it’s that they identify as the Baddies.) I think some kinds of shallowness and cynicism and playing-dumb are symptoms of loss of hope. I think that when you lose hope, you tend to adopt the belief that only losers hope.
In the game of Hearts, the person who accumulates the most heart cards loses — unless you accumulate all the hearts, in which case you win. This is called “shooting the moon.”
Perversity is like shooting the moon; somewhere, subconsciously, you hold the belief that if you only lost enough, you’d win. It doesn’t make sense, but somehow it can be emotionally powerful. There is a will to lose. There is such a thing as Thanatos, the death-drive. There is such a thing as hatred of the good for being the good.
Any talk of such impulses has a tendency to sound paranoid, but I’m pretty confident that this is a real thing. It’s not a complicated thing, or a mysterious force of darkness, though. It’s just the subconscious belief that a.) you’re definitely screwed (in some way), and b.) if you decide to lean into the bad thing on purpose that will make it okay. If you suck on purpose, you don’t have to feel guilty for failing; if you harm yourself on purpose, or harm others, that will make it okay that the world harmed you.
This is kind of bassackwards, of course. There is no rule in reality that if you collect all the Badness, you win. You just lose more.
(I am not the first person to notice that Hearts can be a weirdly emotionally compelling game, and deeply linked to the impulse towards perversity.)
For me, perversity was partly downstream of scrupulosity. The “I’m definitely screwed” part took the form of believing that I was a bad person, or an unsuccessful person, or an undeserving person. Understanding that this literally wasn’t true was essential to overcoming despair.
There’s also the more-or-less independent epiphany that’s best summarized as “Goodness works.” Being truthful, constructive, principled, etc. results in victory, not defeat. The Allies won and the Nazis lost. The Quakers got rich on their reputation for honesty in business. Correct physics will build airplanes that fly. Having nice things depends on people building nice things, and most of the time and in the long run, the best way to have nice things is to contribute to building them. Exploitation is an edge case, that only works locally and burns itself out quickly.
Scott Alexander gets this:
I worry that I’m not communicating how beautiful and inevitable all of this is. We’re surrounded by a vast confusion, “a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night”, with one side or another making a temporary advance and then falling back in turn. And in the middle of all of it, there’s this gradual capacity-building going on, where what starts off as a hopelessly weak signal gradually builds up strength, until one army starts winning a little more often than chance, then a lot more often, and finally takes the field entirely. Which seems strange, because surely you can’t build any complex signal-detection machinery in the middle of all the chaos, surely you’d be shot the moment you left the trenches, but – your enemies are helping you do it. Both sides are diverting their artillery from the relevant areas, pooling their resources, helping bring supplies to the engineers, because until the very end they think it’s going to ensure their final victory and not yours.
Understanding that goodness wins is the same thing as understanding that you can’t shoot the moon.
Being as bad as possible doesn’t make you Milton’s Satan, it makes you the dictator of North Korea. It is small and shitty and ruined and disappointing and sad. You can’t get nice things by wrecking all the nice things.
If you grok this, then you stop seeing the appeal in fake things, or scams, or random chaos, or anything that isn’t “productive” in the “building more nice things” sense. An unscrupulous employer can give you money…which you won’t enjoy, because working there will wear you down? That doesn’t sound fun. An angry outburst will…hurt the love of your life? Well, that just sounds sad. Obeying someone mean and scary means…you have to spend more time obeying someone mean and scary, instead of getting free. What’s so great about that?
I don’t think I’m articulating this well, but there’s sort of a sense of “you could have paradise — why would you lock yourself into a cage? why not have more good things…and fewer bad things?” And when this solidifies into what you actually believe (as opposed to an idea you’re flirting with or trying on), you have a kind of armor against perversity.