Closer to Fine

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.

Basic Mood

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.

Emotional Lability

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.




20 thoughts on “Closer to Fine

  1. This was an excellent post to read, and I think I got a lot more out of it than i realized. I actually quite like your idea of putting inspirational quotes in an SRS deck to internalize them over time – being someone who’s struggled with many of these issues myself at different points.

    Something /I’ve/ struggled with for a long time which might fall under the perversity banner is the idea of just *being disciplined*. I had this sense growing up that if I stuck rigidly to any sort of schedule, that I was somehow selling myself short. The thought process was one of pride, I guess: “Take out a time to actually study/practice/exercise/sleep? Ha! I’m too good at life for that to possibly be useful!” Now, of course, I’m starting to realize that hey, just because I live with a family that doesn’t understand the value of structuring your time, doesn’t mean I have to follow suit.
    (I’m not sure if I’d call that full-blown armor against perversity. It feels closer to those arrow-stopping silk shirts that the Mongols wore.)

  2. This is good. Thanks.
    I think deciding to do bad stuff is about preserving your sense of agency. It protects you from having to conclude you don’t always reach your goals. I guess confirmation bias truly runs deep.

  3. “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.”

    Why scalar rather than vector?

  4. I’m afraid of posting this because I don’t want to exacerbate other people’s scrupulosity, but this feels really important and it’s something I really want help with. If you want to delete this comment and send me an email I’d be okay with that.

    It feels like any possible rationalizations against my scrupulosity are ridiculous and pathetic and anyone ought to be able to see through them. I feel often that I don’t deserve anything I have and I’m pathetic and lazy – and this is supported by facts! It costs >$20k/y to keep me clothed and fed and housed, and half of the world’s population lives on <$2.50/day, there is no possible way that my pleasure could be weighted so high that I deserve 20 times the money and resources as other people. I wish there were some sort of framework in which I could be okay with this, and if you have one I would love to learn it, but this feels utterly inescapable.

    OTOH "how I ought to feel about being privileged" is not an actual fact-about-the-world, and it seems that these kinds of feelings are unusual – I'd be happy to believe that I simply lost the BadBrains lottery, and that I can just turn off my BadBrains and go about my life and feel better. It is only a loss in utility for me to feel bad about my privilege, unless I moved to the third world and donated all of my income or something, which still seems like a good idea…

    Furthermore I'm really afraid of buying into any kind of larger moral system that might try to rationalize away these feelings, every time I read or hear anything in that genre it only feels like platitude algebra, and I feel like the people who trade in such platitudes are epistemic garbage and I can't touch them or I'll become dirty – but I'm already epistemologically filthy, and I'll never believe only true things, and my opinions are all worthless and I should just shut my mouth and study more. Now, obviously when I verbalize those feelings, it looks /nuts/, and at a higher level I don't really wish to feel that way, and there is no gain in overall utility from me feeling that way – but I don't know how to get rid of those feelings, and I'm afraid of feeling forever like I made myself believe nonsense in order to feel better about myself.

    On the particular point about epiphanies, I've spent a bunch of time doing psychedelics, and in a similar way to how one might imagine a scientific achievement pill, psychedelics are an epiphany and profundity overdose, *everything* is incredible and insightful and beautiful, a tree represents your whole life, you're acting out cosmic dramas on the dancefloor. My response to this, as a rationalist, was to compartmentalize those experiences and beliefs, perhaps I ended up anesthetizing myself to epiphany; regardless I was immediately very skeptical of how you described your experience there, and then after very jealous that you were able to actually integrate those beliefs. None of this says anything about how you ought to feel, I mean only to describe my own experience.

    So, how do you feel you were able to escape the feeling that positivity memes aren't just worthless rationalizations? What is the overarching moral structure you came to? What advice do you have about dealing with scrupulosity feels in general?

    • Well, this is a long story and I’ll get back to you later with something more detailed, but for now let me assure you, there are clean and mostly-rigorous and definitely honest ways to be OK with not living in poverty. The tl;dr is that utilitarianism isn’t the only moral theory. Instead you can understand moral principles as natural consequences of the will-to-live that we’re all born with. So “why am I allowed to have nice things?” is not even a question; happiness/flourishing is the *point* of life.

      The only epiphanies I’ve kept and take seriously are the ones that I continue to believe on the basis of articulable reasoning; I know that “it came to me in a dream” or w/e is not a good reason to believe things.

    • I don’t actually see what’s wrong with *your* scrupulosity. Presumably it’s good to have at least *some* people who seriously care about the big picture. So the impulse or basic intuition may be good, but it may be doing harm because of, say, wrong ideas about how to act on it.

      I’ll say first of all that I see nothing inherently wrong with the idea of wanting to live a life of sharing and simplicity. Certainly I would prefer that to the effective-altruism ideal of earning lots of money and then giving it away to benefit people I will never meet or know.

      I also prefer that way of thinking to an artificial metric of “everyone should have approximately the same income”. That only makes sense in a common context. Your context is not a village or slum where people live on $2 a day, unless you actually move to such a place.

      So my suggestion is, if you want to act on these impulses, first think about whether you can do so within the community and society that you already inhabit. Would it make sense for you to give half your income to street people in your own country? If there’s something better than that, that you could do *within your own country*, what would it be?

    • So, I was going to write a longer response explaining my views on why you don’t have to feel guilty, but I wasn’t doing justice to it, and it would basically just have been a gloss of, so let me just recommend that book. It’s a fairly systematic, if a little ranty, treatment of the issue, and I can’t think of anybody else who has addressed that precise issue directly in a way I found convincing.

      There’s also Ancient Greek philosophy, where egalitarian/compassionate concerns simply don’t arise as central to ethics, and I’d recommend reading some Plato and Aristotle just for gaining the perspective that very different moral systems from your default one exist.

      Some people also find Buddhism very helpful for dissolving the issue of “I feel guilty” by arguing that the self is a fiction anyhow; I’ve never been able to get much use out of it, but I very frequently hear people say that it was a salve for psychological problems without being just a bunch of empty positivity platitudes.

      There’s also the possibility, as Mitchell Porter suggests, that you’re *right* and economic inequality is unfair. If so, you could resolve your guilt by changing your behavior to match your ethics. You could donate, or live simply, or work to change whatever injustices you think are responsible for the harm in the world.

      Heavy scrupulosity takes a long time to get over, and you have my sympathies while you try to work things out. In the meantime, while the pain remains, I’d recommend having a sense of humor about it; think of it as “just my scrupulosity acting up again”, like a bad leg, and do your best to keep moving forward with life. Keep your appointments, even if you’re feeling like leaving the house would make you evil. Keep up with self-care. Try to be helpful to other people; in addition to being useful, it can be a great distraction from your inner torment. Enjoy your good days. Someday every day will be like your best days.

    • Another (empirical) reason not to be scrupulous is that poverty alleviation is *hard*, because of knowledge problems & transaction costs. It’s actually quite doubtful how far donation can go, and even GiveWell estimates rate costs per DALY as pretty high. In which case the humanity-benefiting thing to do is “understand the world better and find out where, if anywhere, wins exist” rather than “give your belongings away”.

  5. Great post, I especially enjoyed the description of how epiphanies seem to function. I’ll note that I have observed ‘get off social media’->’wait a minute, life can actually be good’ enough times in myself and others that I’ve strongly updated in the direction that reinforced dopamine spiral palliatives are straight up depressing.

  6. The Allies weren’t ‘good guys’ in the Hollywood sense or any sense you would mean. To the extent that you can make that case, it is purely on the basis of the excesses of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan – but you aren’t absolved of responsibility for your actions because the other guy does something worse. Both sides deliberately burned women and children alive, with no more military justification than existed in any past massacres by marauding armies in antiquity. No-one was ‘nice’ internally either. You should note that while there are atheists in foxholes, there are damn few liberals – and armies themselves are mini- totalitarian dictatorships, with absolute hierarchies and strict information control.

    Also note the ideological uniformity of fighting men of all sides – the Soviets when push came to shove shed their anti-nationalist pretense and fought ‘for Mother Russia.’ The Germans fought for Germany, not ‘national socialism.’ Fighting men are very illiberal nationalists. Liberalism, socialism, and any other universalist -ism is fundamentally parasitic on particularist totalitarian nationalism. ‘We’re the best – now fuck these bastards right to hell, then fuck their women too!’ That’s the only attitude that has ever won a war. That coupled with the willingness of the masters of armies to shove the men and boys they command headfirst into a meat-grinder on an industrial scale.

    Watch what a society does when it is under the gun to see what it really is. Shallow turn-the-other-cheek-christian or liberal or socialist blabber gets cut off and replaced with extreme authoritarianism, particularism, and intense suppression of anything that even slightly resembles defection. That’s what appears when what you do actually matters, because it is effective. When the pressures off endless nonsense flows from everyone’s mouths – there is no culling of idiocy, ideas lacking foundation do not collapse and spiral endlessly skyward.

    • Things that are almost universally terrible happened therefore good things have no meaning? We increasingly live in an era of limited violence. Where people mostly stop fighting as soon as they are able rather than grinding their enemies to dust. Genghis Khan would be horrified at our lack of progress, we have like zero mountains of skulls. ‘Yeah but let someone put a gun to your head and etc’ so a scared human will do terrible things more readily. Why is this more fundamental than humans Will eat cake if left in a room with cake?

      • ‘Almost universally terrible’ is incoherent. They were bad for the losers – very good for the winners. This is fundamental because something has to decide who gets pushed off the island. There isn’t room for everyone’s potential offspring. Proficiency at the art of war is one deciding factor, and it happens to be the most glorious, beautiful, and forward-looking of the options. The options are – war, famine, or disease, as primary malthusian limiters. You’ll have all three, inevitably, but you can weight them differently. Less war means more famine and disease. I prefer the selection pressure of war to the latter two. A future of smart, valorous warriors sounds better than a future of disease resistant pygmies.

      • @ilkarnal:

        There isn’t room for everyone’s potential offspring. Proficiency at the art of war is one deciding factor, and it happens to be the most glorious, beautiful, and forward-looking of the options. The options are – war, famine, or disease, as primary malthusian limiters

        A very interesting argument that I hadn’t previously encountered in so crystalline a form.

        But: how do you explain the demographic transition — the phenomenon wherein prosperous societies basically stop reproducing voluntarily? (So that there is hardly any war, famine, or disease in the First World.)

  7. > 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?

    You might not have to give this desire up entirely; good improv games are designed to give catharsis to *exactly this*! If you want to think about whether it might work for you before you try it, I highly recommend “Impro” by Keith Johnstone.

    • It makes sense that “drama” in the sense of “interpersonal conflict” should be related to “drama” in the sense of “theatre”. I’m surprised I didn’t think that connection earlier. Thanks!

  8. > 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.
    Really appreciated this insight because it fits strongly with my natural state. Actually a big skill that I’ve had to learn was how to give people the emotional response that they’re looking for when they share instead of holding myself to being a bit of an non-reacting robot who too obsessed with seeing both sides. Can you elaborate a little bit more on what it means for reacting emotionally to be deceptive in contrast with the view that often when people engage you with a bid for connection they’re not looking for an honest and reasoned response, they’re just looking for an acknowledgement of the bid?

  9. This is exciting to read – I came to a similar ‘I’m not finished improving myself, but I’ve mostly finished fixing the broken stuff’ conclusion recently, and my writeup isn’t yet finished. Just wanted to say that the image of who you want to be in the future – ‘an intelligent, decisive, practical woman’ was really evocative for me and is probably who I want to be too!

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