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I was having a conversation with Ruby a while back–the gist of it was that I was upset because of a nightmare I’d had the night before, and mad at myself for being upset about something that hadn’t even really happened, and trying to figure out how to stop feeling terrible. He said a thing that turned out to be surprisingly helpful.
Life involves feeling bad, often with good reason, often, not. A lot of the time the best response is to say 'Yes, I'm feeling shitty today, no, I'm not going to able to focus, and that's crap, but that’s today.’
It's different from tolerance or resignation, it's more 'this is reality, this is my starting point and I've got to accept this is what it is'.
Then if you can find a way to make it go away, great, if not, most things pass soon enough, and even if didn't, you could accept that too.”
I’m not good at this. I’m frequently using System 2 to fight System 1: for example, when I’m feeling introverted and really don’t want to be at work having face-to-face conversations with patients and co-workers, I basically tell that part of my brain to suck it up and stop being a baby. I get mad at myself for wanting things that I can’t reasonably ask for, like praise from random other nurses I work with. I get mad at myself for wanting things for what I think are the wrong reasons: for example, wanting to move to San Francisco because I’m friends with lots of people there, and reluctantly accepting that I would need to leave my current job to do that, is one thing, but wanting to leave my job because it’s stressful–not okay! And then I mistrust my brain’s motivations to move to San Francisco at all–heaven forbid I should behave “like a groupie.” I ignore my desires for food that isn’t the same bean salad I’ve been eating for four days, for an extra evenings of sleep, or to cancel on plans with a friend because I just want an afternoon alone at home.
And even though I’m pretty good at overriding all of my desires, the sub-agents that represent those desires don’t go away. They just sit there, metaphorically, fuming at being ignoring and plotting revenge, which they usually achieve by making the desires ten times stronger...and then I go out and buy hot dogs at midnight, or stay in bed for thirteen hours, or spend an entire stretch of days off hiding in my apartment reading fanfiction. Or I just end up confused and conflicted and not capable of wanting anything. In other words, I’m a society of mind (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_of_Mind) that’s frequently in a civil war with itself.
I hadn’t thought of trying to accept the civil war. Of saying “tonight, during this hospital shift, I will not be able to solve the civil war. Rather than adding to the negative affect by getting mad at myself, I will accept that today will simply suck and I will feel shitty. Going into the future I will work on peace talks, but today I must endure.”
"And that’s okay."
There’s one area where I’ve successfully taken a thing that I was confused and conflicted and frustrated about, and turned it into a thing that’s okay, even though the original conflict hasn’t been solved. That thing is relationships. At some point, around the time that I started applying the term asexual (link) to myself and first read about tactile defensiveness (link) and suddenly had words for the things that were ‘wrong’ with me, I stopped being frustrated about them. I haven’t solved all the problems. I’m still confused about relationships, I still get super anxious and avoidant in the face of being wanted too much, and that’s okay. Maybe it’ll change. I haven’t given up, and I’m trying things on purpose. It turned out that most of the suffering from this problem was meta-suffering and now it’s gone.
Somehow, when it wasn’t okay, it was a lot harder to try things on purpose.
I hypothesized that adding the mental phrase “and that’s okay” onto all your problems would be a good general-purpose strategy.
Ruby disagreed with me: “One of my strongest virtues, but I pay a cost for it, is how not-complacent I am. I'm not good enough, the world's not good enough. And I just see it. It's there. And I'm not okay with it.”
The problem is, even though I don’t have the virtue of acceptance, I don’t have the virtue of non-complacency either–in the sense that seeing the things that aren’t good enough, and not being okay with them, rarely causes me to do something to make the things better. It causes me to not think about them, unless it’s something as object-level as “my patient is in pain and the doctor refuses to give me an order for more pain meds.” And sometimes even then, I’ll retreat into it no longer being my problem.
I think that I, and probably others, need a certain amount of acceptance, a certain amount of “and that’s okay”, to let the wrong things into the circle of our awareness–to admit that yes, they really do suck. It’s a bit like the Litany of Gendlin. What’s true is already true, and even though thinking about it being true makes me feel like I must be a bad person, it can’t cause me to be more of a bad person than I already am.
"You need to own it."
Once, I had a fairly awful nursing school placement at a very large, stressful ICU. I made mistakes, despite the fact that ‘I knew better’ in theory. (I’ve since learned that nursing is something that takes place under average conditions, not optimal conditions, meaning that you will have good days and bad days and that on your bad days, you will make dumb mistakes.)
As a perfectionist, I found this really hard, even though I knew enough cogsci to recognize that my brain was behaving predictably and understandably. My mentor said a lot of things that weren’t helpful, but one of the things that she said is “you need to own your mistakes.” At that time, those words left her mouth and reached my ears and then got processed and turned into “you should admit that you’re hopelessly incompetent and a failure.” The only obvious conclusion to draw was that I ought to quit nursing school right then. I didn’t want to quit, and the only other option was to not think about the stupid mistakes–or, rather, try not to, and then end up thinking about them anyway and being anxious all the time.
Nowadays, when I process those words from a much better emotional place, they come through as “you need to let your mistakes into your self-concept, so that you can learn not to make them again even if you’re put under those same awful conditions again.” The fact that being distracted by an interruption and then trying to put an un-primed, full-of-air IV tubing in the pump is understandable and predictable doesn’t make it less likely to kill someone. The correct response is to develop habits and routines that cause you to predictably not make that mistake. But if thinking about it means automatically bringing up the possibility that you should just quit nursing school now before you actually kill someone, it’s hard to think of good routines or focus on training your brain to do them.
In this case, what eventually helped was letting my past mistakes be just okay enough that I could admit them into my mental autobiography, think about them, strategize, and learn from them–in short, own them.
On Having Priorities
When I brought this up to my friend Ben Hoffman, he had another point to add.
The obvious-to-me alternative here is the trick of putting EVERYTHING on a list, prioritizing, and optimizing for working on the "most important thing" instead of for getting all the "important things" done. (Or solving the most important problem, however you want to word it.) This is the strategy I've started using, and when I'm disciplined about it I feel nearly no badness above the baseline level from having some problems unresolved.
This rings true with a part of my nursing clinical experience, and a thing I found especially frustrating about my interactions with my mentor. Once, I accidentally gave my patient an extra dose of digoxin because I misread the medication sheet. Which ended up doing basically nothing, but the general class of “medication error” contains a lot of harmful options. (The most embarrassing and potentially serious med error that I’ve made so far at my current job involved accidentally running my patient’s fentanyl infusion an order of magnitude too high.) There was also the IV-tubing-full-of-air incident.
Then, there was the thing where I would leave plastic syringe caps and bits of paper from wrappers in patients’ beds. This incurred approximately equal wrath to the med errors–in practice, a lot more, because she would catch me doing it around once a shift. I agreed with her on the possible bad consequences. Patients might get bedsores, and that was bad. But there were other problems I hadn’t solved, and they had worse consequences. I had, correctly I think, decided to focus on those first.
That being said, I wasn’t actually able to stop feeling bad about it enough to actually free up mental space for anti-med-error strategizing. This is partly because an adult in a position of authority was constantly mad at me, and I wasn’t able to make that stop feeling bad. But it’s partly because I genuinely felt like a failure every time I caught myself doing something wrong, whether it mattered a lot or not.
Making lists and prioritizing is a useful thing to do, but the physical motion of writing down a list isn’t all that’s involved. There’s the “being disciplined about it”, the ability to actually take all the problems seriously and then only work on the first and most important. I think that's non-trivial, and doesn't automatically happen when you make a list of Important Problems 1 through 5.
There are two closely related concepts here. One is the idea that you can let go of struggling against unpleasant feelings–you can just have the unpleasant feelings and accept them, forgoing the meta-suffering and the useless burning of mental energy that comes with fighting them. If you apply this mental habit of not struggling against suffering, the result is that you have less overall suffering.
The second concept is related to owning mistakes you've made, or personal flaws, or atrocities in the world. By default, it seems like most people either obsess over these or don't think about them–I expect that this happens because the things are too awful. If you apply the mental habit of admitting that you made that mistake and it really was dumb, or that poverty really is bad, but that that's okay, the result is that you can think about it sanely, set priorities, and maybe actually fix it.
However, when I go through these mental motions, they feel like the same operation, applied to a different substrate. It's an habit that I would like to cultivate more.
In stark contrast to most Western psychotherapy, ACT does not have symptom reduction as a goal. This is based on the view that the ongoing attempt to get rid of ‘symptoms’ actually creates a clinical disorder in the first place. As soon as a private experience is labeled a ‘symptom’, it immediately sets up a struggle with it because a ‘symptom’ is by definition something ‘pathological’; something we should try to get rid of. In ACT, the aim is to transform our relationship with our difficult thoughts and feelings, so that we no longer perceive them as ‘symptoms’. Instead, we learn to perceive them as harmless, even if uncomfortable, transient psychological events. Ironically, it is through this process that ACT actually achieves symptom reduction—but as a by-product and not the goal.
Discussion article for the meetup : Upper Canada LW Megameetup: Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo, London
Hi all LWers and CFAR alumni in the eastern Canada region! We'll be hosting a megameetup in Ottawa, Canada, running from 7:00 pm on Friday, July 18th, until early afternoon on Sunday, July 20th. We have a house available and enough space for everyone to sleep on site for the duration. We'll be eating communally, and there will be lots of snacks stocked up at the house, but please plan on contributing some money to cover food costs.
Friday night will be a fun social. Saturday will have a schedule of talks, activities, and CFAR-style classes. Sunday, we will most likely have an outing to a park or beach, depending on weather.
If you would like to come to this meetup, please fill out the following Google Form for logistics purposes: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1zAFz-2nFUfQ31aVW6nFl61gsmnsER7PVCSvlJjwU__E/viewform?usp=send_form
If you have any questions, you can message Swimmer963 and I will try to answer them.
Discussion article for the meetup : Upper Canada LW Megameetup: Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo, London
A few months ago, my friend said the following thing to me: “After seeing Divergent, I finally understand virtue ethics. The main character is a cross between Aristotle and you.”
That was an impossible-to-resist pitch, and I saw the movie. The thing that resonated most with me–also the thing that my friend thought I had in common with the main character–was the idea that you could make a particular decision, and set yourself down a particular course of action, in order to make yourself become a particular kind of person. Tris didn’t join the Dauntless cast because she thought they were doing the most good in society, or because she thought her comparative advantage to do good lay there–she chose it because they were brave, and she wasn’t, yet, and she wanted to be. Bravery was a virtue that she thought she ought to have. If the graph of her motivations even went any deeper, the only node beyond ‘become brave’ was ‘become good.’
(Tris did have a concept of some future world-outcomes being better than others, and wanting to have an effect on the world. But that wasn't the causal reason why she chose Dauntless; as far as I can tell, it was unrelated.)
My twelve-year-old self had a similar attitude. I read a lot of fiction, and stories had heroes, and I wanted to be like them–and that meant acquiring the right skills and the right traits. I knew I was terrible at reacting under pressure–that in the case of an earthquake or other natural disaster, I would freeze up and not be useful at all. Being good at reacting under pressure was an important trait for a hero to have. I could be sad that I didn’t have it, or I could decide to acquire it by doing the things that scared me over and over and over again. So that someday, when the world tried to throw bad things at my friends and family, I’d be ready.
You could call that an awfully passive way to look at things. It reveals a deep-seated belief that I’m not in control, that the world is big and complicated and beyond my ability to understand and predict, much less steer–that I am not the locus of control. But this way of thinking is an algorithm. It will almost always spit out an answer, when otherwise I might get stuck in the complexity and unpredictability of trying to make a particular outcome happen.
I find the different houses of the HPMOR universe to be a very compelling metaphor. It’s not because they suggest actions to take; instead, they suggest virtues to focus on, so that when a particular situation comes up, you can act ‘in character.’ Courage and bravery for Gryffindor, for example. It also suggests the idea that different people can focus on different virtues–diversity is a useful thing to have in the world. (I'm probably mangling the concept of virtue ethics here, not having any background in philosophy, but it's the closest term for the thing I mean.)
I’ve thought a lot about the virtue of loyalty. In the past, loyalty has kept me with jobs and friends that, from an objective perspective, might not seem like the optimal things to spend my time on. But the costs of quitting and finding a new job, or cutting off friendships, wouldn’t just have been about direct consequences in the world, like needing to spend a bunch of time handing out resumes or having an unpleasant conversation. There would also be a shift within myself, a weakening in the drive towards loyalty. It wasn’t that I thought everyone ought to be extremely loyal–it’s a virtue with obvious downsides and failure modes. But it was a virtue that I wanted, partly because it seemed undervalued.
By calling myself a ‘loyal person’, I can aim myself in a particular direction without having to understand all the subcomponents of the world. More importantly, I can make decisions even when I’m rushed, or tired, or under cognitive strain that makes it hard to calculate through all of the consequences of a particular action.
The Less Wrong/CFAR/rationalist community puts a lot of emphasis on a different way of trying to be a hero–where you start from a terminal goal, like “saving the world”, and break it into subgoals, and do whatever it takes to accomplish it. In the past I’ve thought of myself as being mostly consequentialist, in terms of morality, and this is a very consequentialist way to think about being a good person. And it doesn't feel like it would work.
There are some bad reasons why it might feel wrong–i.e. that it feels arrogant to think you can accomplish something that big–but I think the main reason is that it feels fake. There is strong social pressure in the CFAR/Less Wrong community to claim that you have terminal goals, that you’re working towards something big. My System 2 understands terminal goals and consequentialism, as a thing that other people do–I could talk about my terminal goals, and get the points, and fit in, but I’d be lying about my thoughts. My model of my mind would be incorrect, and that would have consequences on, for example, whether my plans actually worked.
Practicing the art of rationality
Recently, Anna Salamon brought up a question with the other CFAR staff: “What is the thing that’s wrong with your own practice of the art of rationality?” The terminal goals thing was what I thought of immediately–namely, the conversations I've had over the past two years, where other rationalists have asked me "so what are your terminal goals/values?" and I've stammered something and then gone to hide in a corner and try to come up with some.
In Alicorn’s Luminosity, Bella says about her thoughts that “they were liable to morph into versions of themselves that were more idealized, more consistent - and not what they were originally, and therefore false. Or they'd be forgotten altogether, which was even worse (those thoughts were mine, and I wanted them).”
I want to know true things about myself. I also want to impress my friends by having the traits that they think are cool, but not at the price of faking it–my brain screams that pretending to be something other than what you are isn’t virtuous. When my immediate response to someone asking me about my terminal goals is “but brains don’t work that way!” it may not be a true statement about all brains, but it’s a true statement about my brain. My motivational system is wired in a certain way. I could think it was broken; I could let my friends convince me that I needed to change, and try to shoehorn my brain into a different shape; or I could accept that it works, that I get things done and people find me useful to have around and this is how I am. For now. I'm not going to rule out future attempts to hack my brain, because Growth Mindset, and maybe some other reasons will convince me that it's important enough, but if I do it, it'll be on my terms. Other people are welcome to have their terminal goals and existential struggles. I’m okay the way I am–I have an algorithm to follow.
Why write this post?
It would be an awfully surprising coincidence if mine was the only brain that worked this way. I’m not a special snowflake. And other people who interact with the Less Wrong community might not deal with it the way I do. They might try to twist their brains into the ‘right’ shape, and break their motivational system. Or they might decide that rationality is stupid and walk away.
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