It’s Not About The Nail

[This is hardly original; I’m documenting for my own sake since it took so long for me to understand.]

There’s an old saw, that when a women complains she wants sympathy, but when a man hears a complaint, he tries to solve the problem. This viral YouTube video captures it perfectly:

Of course it’s not strictly limited by gender, that’s just the stereotype. And the underlying psychological details are fairly meaty; this article captures a lot of it pretty well for me.

I’ve known about all this for a long time now, and it’s always made sense at a sort of descriptive level of how people behave and what people need. But despite reading that article (and a good reddit thread) I’ve never really understood the “why”. What is the actual value of listening and “emotional support” in these kind of scenarios? Why do people need that? Well I finally had it happen to me recently when I was aware enough to notice the meta, and thus write this post.

I now find it easiest to think about in terms of the second-order psychological effects of bad things happening. When a bad thing happens to you, that has direct, obvious bad effects on you. But it also has secondary effects on your model of the world. Your mind (consciously or subconsciously) now has new information that the world is slightly less safe or slightly less predictable than it thought before. And of course the direct, obvious bad effects make you vulnerable (not just “feel” vulnerable, although normally that too – they make you actually vulnerable because you’ve just taken damage, so further damage becomes increasingly dangerous).

Obviously sometimes, and depending on the scenario, the first-order effect dominates and you really should just solve that problem directly. This is what makes the video so absurd – having a nail in your head is hard to beat in terms of the first-order effects dominating. But in real versions of these cases, sometimes the second-order effects are more significant, or more urgent, or at the least more easily addressable. In these cases it’s natural to want to address the second-order effects first. And the best way to do that is talking about it.

Talking about a problem to somebody you have a close relationship with addresses these second-order effects in a pretty concrete way: it reaffirms the reliability of your relationship in a way that makes the world feel more safe and predictable, and it informs an ally of your damage so that they can protect you while you’re vulnerable and healing. But of course you don’t accomplish this by talking directly about the second-order problem. The conversation is still, at the object level, about the first-order problem, which is why it’s so easy to misinterpret. To make it worse, the second-order problems are largely internal, and thus invisible, so it’s easy for whoever you’re talking to to assume they’re “not that bad” and that the first-order problem dominates, even when it doesn’t.

Working through this has given me some ideas to try the next time this happens to me. At a guess, the best way to handle it is to open the conversation with something like “I need you to make me feel safe” before you get into the actual first-order problem, but I guess we’ll see.

A Cautionary Note on Unlocking the Emotional Brain

[Follows from Mental Mountaineering]

In children’s stories, the good guys always win, the hero vanquishes the villain, and everyone lives happily ever after. Real life tends to be somewhat messier than this.

The world of therapy presented by Unlocking the Emotional Brain reads somewhat like a children’s story. Loosely, it presents a model of the brain where your problems are mostly caused by incorrect emotional beliefs (bad guys). The solution to your problems is to develop or discover a correct emotional belief (good guy) that contradicts your incorrect beliefs, then force your brain to recognize the contradiction at an emotional level. This causes your brain to automatically resolve the conflict and destroy the incorrect belief, so you can live happily ever after.

Real life tends to be somewhat messier than this.

After about a month of miscellaneous experimentation on myself based on this book, my experiences match the basic model presented, where many psychological problems are caused by incorrect emotional beliefs (I don’t think this part is particularly controversial in psychological circles). It also seems to be true that if I force my brain to recognize a contradiction between two emotionally relevant beliefs, it will resolve the conflict and destroy one of them. Of course, as in real life where the good guy doesn’t always win, it seems that when I do this my brain doesn’t always destroy the right belief.

I have had several experiences now where I have identified an emotional belief which analytically I believe to be false or harmful. Per UtEB I have identified or created a different experience or belief that contradicts it, and smashed them together in my mind. A reasonable percentage of the time, the false belief emerges stronger than before, and I find myself twisting the previous “good” belief into some horrific experience to conform with the existing false belief.

In hindsight this shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Whatever part of your brain is used to resolve conflicting emotional beliefs and experiences, it doesn’t have special access to reality. All it has to work with are the two conflicting pieces and any other related beliefs you might have. It’s going to pick the wrong one with some regularity. As such, my recommendation for people trying this process themselves (either as individuals or as therapists) is to try and ensure that the “good” belief is noticeably stronger and more immediate than the false one before you focus on the contradiction. If this doesn’t work and you end up in a bad way, I’ve had a bit of luck “quarantining” the newly corrupted belief to prevent it from spreading to even further beliefs, at least until I can come up with an even stronger correct belief to fight it with.

Mental Mountaineering

Back in November, Scott Alexander wrote a post called Mental Mountains, referring to the book Unlocking the Emotional Brain and this discussion of it over at Less Wrong. I’m halfway through the book itself, and I’ve read both discussions of it including some of the follow-up conversations that happened in the comments. It’s a fascinating model and definitely worth reading if you’re into that kind of thing. I’ve been reading a lot of therapy/psychology books recently and this one does seem to tie a lot of things together very nicely.

One partial comment that stood out to me from the Less Wrong discussion was the following by PJ Eby:

…I didn’t realize yet that hard part 1 (needing to identify the things to change) and hard part 2 (needing to get past meta issues), meant that it is impossible to mass-produce change techniques.

That is, you can’t write a single document, record a single video, etc. that will convey to all its consumers what they need in order to actually implement effective change.

I don’t mean that you can’t successfully communicate the ideas or the steps. I just mean that implementing those steps is not a simple matter of following procedure, because of the aforementioned Hard Parts. It’s like expecting someone to learn to bike, drive, or debug programs from a manual.

Let it never be said that I didn’t like a challenge.


I’ve been working on my own brain fairly intentionally for several years now. This process has included traditional therapy with a licensed psychologist, a bunch of reading, and of course just a lot of my own time spent thinking and introspecting and running various thought experiments to see how different hypothetical worlds would make me feel. In this time I have made substantial progress on some problems, and very little progress on others. I’m always looking for more tools to add to my toolbox, and when I first read Scott’s article I added Unlocking the Emotional Brain to my short-list of books to get out of the library.

I’ve read the first three chapters of the book now, and I’ve already paused my reading several times to try and put various pieces of it into practice inside my mind. It’s far too early to draw any reliable conclusions from that, but preliminary results appear promising. I should, however, note that I’m likely to be an outlier in this respect. I’m an introspective and generally self-aware person to begin with, this is an area of general interest for me anyway, and of course I’ve already spent a substantial amount of time articulating and discussing my problems with the help of a real psychologist (though not one who is aware of UtEB). In other words, I have a fairly substantial set of advantages over the average person who might read UtEB and try and self-inflict its particular form of therapy.

At this point it’s too early to know if the internal process I’m going to follow is even going to generate substantive long-term results. If it does however, then I may very well take a crack at generalizing that into a series of posts for do-it-yourself therapy. PJ’s reservations are well-founded but I firmly believe I can explain just about anything to a general audience, and this sure seems like it would be valuable enough to try.

Naming Feedback Loops

I’ve often thought that the terms “positive feedback loop” and “negative feedback loop” are poorly named. The words “positive” and “negative” have such strong emotional valences that it’s hard not to get confused when trying to talk about, for example, the positive feedback loop of a being in a bad mood. Instead, I’d rather use the terms “explosive feedback loop” and “stabilizing feedback loop”. They seem to capture the relevant characteristics more clearly.

I care about these words because I’ve found myself stuck in a couple of explosive feedback loops recently due to meta-emotional worries. I notice myself feeling bad for one reason or another, and this worries me, and the worry makes me feel even worse. Rinse and repeat. I’ve poked at this behaviour before (primarily in my post on worrying two years ago), but it’s reared its head again recently, and I’m finally noticing the same general pattern in other aspects of my life. For example, I’m not typically a hypochondriac, but as soon as one aspect of my health comes to my attention it’s a short spiral to internalized histrionics.

Typically self-awareness is counted as a positive trait, but there is a very real sense in these situations where it is an active problem. I’m self-aware enough to send myself into these meta-emotional spirals, but not generally self-aware enough to pull myself out of them. The fact that I’ve noticed it as a pattern now produces some measure of hope, but honestly I noticed it two years ago in that other post as well, and I don’t think I’ve applied it once since then. In a lot of ways, half-way up the mountain is the worst spot to be.

I meta-worry about all my worries and then I worry over how to stop meta-worrying and then my head explodes.

Me

Other Opinions #65 – Trying to make sense of Bourdain

https://www.popehat.com/2018/06/10/randazza-trying-to-make-sense-of-bourdain/

There is something to this one that seems to strike home for me. The idea of “success” as ultimately unsatisfying is something that doesn’t get talked about enough. Give me a family and community any day of the week.

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Worrying

On Sunday evening, I sat down and wrote a thousand words on this blog baring my soul, confessing my deepest secrets and revealing at least two deeply personal things that I’d never told anyone before. As you may deduce by the fact that you haven’t read it: I never hit “publish”. In hindsight, at least some of it was a tad melodramatic, a sin of which I am more than occasionally guilty. But the essence was right.

Now, of course, I’m sitting here two days later writing a very confusing meta-post about something that none of you have read, or likely ever will. You’re welcome. Really, as the title would suggest, I want to talk about worry, since I think it was the thread that underlies my unpublished post.

I worry a lot (this is a stunning revelation to anyone who knows me in real life, I’m sure).

There are of course a lot of posts on the internet already about dealing with worry. I don’t want to talk about that, even though I could probably do to read a few more of them myself. Instead, I want to ramble for a while about the way that worries change our behaviour to create or prevent the things we worry about. This is the weird predictive causal loop of the human brain, so it should be fun.

First off, some evolutionary psychology, because that always goes well. From a strictly adaptive perspective, we would expect that worry would help us avoid the things we worry about, and indeed the mechanism here is pretty obvious. When we worry, it makes us turn something over in our head, looking for solutions, exploring alternatives. Perhaps we stumble upon an option we hadn’t considered, or we realize some underlying cause that lets us avoid the worry-inducing problem altogether. The people who worry like this have some advantage over the ones who don’t.

But of course, nothing is ever perfectly adaptive. The easy one is the immediate mental cost of worrying; worrying about tigers is less than helpful if in doing so you distractedly walk off a cliff. The slightly more subtle concern is the fact that we don’t always worry about the right things. Every time we choose to worry about some future event we are inherently making a prediction, that the event is probable enough and harmful enough to be worth worrying over. But humans make crappy predictions all the time. It’s an easy guarantee that some of the things people worry about just aren’t worth the extra mental effort.

These mis-worries still affect our behaviour though. We turn scenarios over in our mind, however unlikely or harmless, and we come up with solutions. We make changes to our behaviour, to our worldview. We make choices which would otherwise be suboptimal. Sometimes, in doing so, we create more problems for us to worry about. These things are sometimes bad, but even they are not the worst of what worrying can do to us.

The most terrible worries are the meta-worries: worries about our own emotional state. If you start to worry that maybe you’re emotionally fragile, then you’ve suddenly just proved yourself right! The constant worry over your emotional fragility has made you fragile, and reinforced itself at the same time. These worries aren’t just maladaptive, they’re also positive feedback loops which can rapidly spiral out of control.

With all of these terrible things that can come from mis-worry, we can make bad, hand-wavy assumptions that historically at least, worry has been more adaptive than not, else we wouldn’t have it. But certainly in the modern age, there is a plausible argument that worry is doing us far more harm than good. Instead of worrying about tigers, and cliffs, and what we’re going to eat tomorrow, we worry about sports teams, taxes, and nuclear war with North Korea. (If you’re me, you worry about all of the above, tigers included, and you also worry about that girl you think is cute and you meta-worry about all your worries and then you worry over how to stop meta-worrying and then your head explodes).

For about three years now I’ve been actively fighting my mis-worries (aka my anxieties) kind of one at a time, as I realized they were hurting me. This has involved regular visits to a therapist during some periods, and has been a generally successful endeavour. Despite this, I am not where I want to be, and in some respects my meta-anxieties have actually grown. So in the grand tradition of doing bad science to yourself in order to avoid ethics boards, I am going to do an experiment. The details are secret. Let’s see how it goes.