Dealing With Sensitive Spots

“No.  It’s not difficult between two sane, consenting adults.  It rarely is.

Unfortunately, we’re also rarely entirely sane.

Thing is, sanity is a percentage.  We all have weak spots where if you poke us, we melt down.  We all have embarrassing hotspots that we reflexively conceal, whether we should or not.  You can be perfectly sane about 99% of things, but everyone has some crazy spot that triggers them into overreacting.  And everyone has some emotional issue that, when raised, makes them word not so good that communicates are mall workingfail.

And when someone skips across your insane zones – you have them – then you react in bizarre ways, and God forbid your bizarre reactions trample on your partner’s insane zone.  If you’re lucky, eventually you deal with it.  But that doesn’t make it magically “not hard” to do, especially when your monkey-brain wants to bite their face off for leaving toothpaste on the sink again.”

This Should Not Be Hard Between Two Sane, Consenting Adults

I have been thinking about this kind of thing a lot lately. Historically, the “zone” of mine that has perhaps the most history and at times absurd intensity is my sensitivity to flakiness and imbalance in relationships with people (I have written some about this before).

A lot of this sensitivity is on account of a couple of relationships early in my life where flakiness was an issue. More generally, I think the way that my life looks right now is unfortunately conducive to poking at this sensitive spot on a regular basis for reasons that are nobody’s fault. I still can’t physically work a full work week without aggravating repetitive stress symptoms. I am accordingly almost always a lot less busy than most people are. This means I have a lot more time to fill than most people do, which makes me generally more likely to be looking to interact with people more frequently than most.

Essentially, if I and another person are about equally enjoying hanging out with each other, let’s say that means that we each feel like spending time together about once per every 40 hours of free time. Because I have more free time, I will hit that 40 hour threshold faster even given a similar level of interest. Additionally, my having more time means I am also less likely to have uncontrollable schedule things come up that might necessitate my flaking out. This means I am often more likely to feel like initiating more interaction and less likely to flake versus other people without being an inherently more interested or less flaky person.

The sense of imbalance that creates is the Boss Battle Weak Spot of my ability to be levelheaded and rational about things. When it gets hit there are YEARS of frustration and anger behind it the origin stories of which would make this post several times longer. All that accumulated angst gets piled up and directed at completely different people and situations. Knowing about it and navigating around it is a determining factor in a LOT of my social decision-making. Even with all that management, though, there is no way to avoid triggering it entirely.

When that happens, I do my best to communicate about it. While that communication certainly helps and is certainly better than not communicating, it isn’t a cure for the feelings that happen. I am still in the pretty early stages of figuring out how to deal with and process those in a way that makes me feel better. I am also still figuring out how to deal with and process them in ways that do not cause undue distress or hurt to those in the Feelings Splash Zone.

I’m curious if any readers might have experience dealing with the feelings that result from having sensitive spots like this in a way that accomplishes those things? It’s one thing to generally have a sense of a reaction being out of proportion and a wholly different thing to apply that sense and whatever tools are available in a way that actually successfully ameliorates the feeling. Doing scary, haphazard Feelings Science to this is exhausting and, well, scary, and I would much rather just cheat off someone else’s homework.

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Honing HabitRPG and the Practice of Being Generous to Myself

I have been using the online task-management-as-and-RPG-game called HabitRPG for a few months, now. I think it is absolutely fantastic, and I want to talk a little bit about why it is and what I do to help make it that way.

The number one thing that, for me, makes HabitRPG incredibly effective, is remembering to always keep my focus on my objective. My objective is to get me to do the things I want myself to be doing. That’s it. HabitRPG is a tool for getting things done.

It is emphatically NOT my goal to make it as similar to actual RPG’s as possible. I know people who have given up on the game on account of feeling overwhelmed when their tasks pile up, and decided it won’t work for them, and in most cases I think it’s because they are thinking about it the wrong way.

The last couple of months have been incredibly stressful for me. Adding 7 to 10 daily task goals on top of that stress is a recipe for even more stress, so I reduced the number of daily tasks I have to five, two of which overlap with two of the others. They are:

  • Take meds
  • Start work
  • Start work by 10 AM
  • Finish 80% of daily work by 4 PM
  • Finish all daily work

All of my other goals right now are either one time goals or in the habits column for multiple-times-daily tasks that you aren’t necessarily penalized for not doing.

It is usually pretty easy to complete these main five tasks in a day. That said, without the RPG game-ifying aspect, I can virtually guarantee I wouldn’t be getting work done as effectively. Again, the goal isn’t to make this hard; it isn’t to make this as much like an RPG as possible, it’s to get stuff done. The RPG elements are useful only so long as they help me to get stuff done.

When I first started using HabitRPG, I did not have “start work” as a goal. But it turns out that getting work done is pretty easy once I’ve started it; getting started is actually the hardest part. So I added starting as a goal. Later, I realized that having time constraints makes me a lot more likely to not put off that goal until late in the day, so I added the 10 AM requirement. If I start work before 10am, I get credit for both.

When things are less hectic and stressful than they are right now, here are some of my other goals:

  • not getting on my computer until at least half an hour after waking up
  • 30 minutes straight meditation before 5 PM
  • getting off the computer for at least 30 minutes within 30 minutes of finishing work
  • taking vitamins
  • getting to the gym
  • going walking for at least 20 minutes

Even when all of those goals are active every day, I am not actually required to complete all of them to get credit for all of them. Some of them have alternate success cases. For example, if I don’t finish my usual amount of work on a Friday because of either mental exhaustion or repetitive stress concerns, I give myself credit for the work goals anyway, in this case thinking of them as a reward for responsible, healthy decision-making.

Sure, it makes it easier. It also makes me do exactly the things I want to be doing.

Decisions like the alternative success cases sometimes make me feel like I’m cheating, which is why it’s so important to remember the cardinal rule: the goal is to get me to do the things I want myself to be doing. Nothing that accomplishes that is “cheating”. I want myself to be getting work done, but just as much as that I want myself to be making responsible mental and physical health decisions.

Multiple times daily habits consist of things like gaining experience for completing Pomodoro shifts, taking damage for ignoring Pomodoro shift breaks, gaining experience for completing errands, taking damage for working more than my normal hours (it’s a repetitive stress risk), several generic reward categories (minor task, medium task, and major task), and a few categories for things that I will only ever do once in a while, but am interested in encouraging myself to do: asking for support during difficult times, for example.

That last one is what I call a “multiple”, meaning one that I think is important enough that it merits more than one click when I do it successfully. The minimum reward for asking for support is three times the usual reward for a “hard” task. Is it cheating? Again: the goal is to get me to do the things I want myself to be doing. Nothing counts as cheating if it accomplishes that goal.

One of the other decisions I’ve made over the course of honing my HabitRPG goals to be as effective as possible is that I can’t be thinking about them every hour of every day. The cognitive load of keeping track of them takes a certain amount of energy, and thus it’s important for me to be careful how often and how greatly I am spending that energy. As such, all of my goals are disabled on weekends, and I generally do not give myself rewards for completing any tasks of any kind on weekends. Weekends are cognitive-load-free zone.

In addition to the weekend’s role, I have specifically chosen my daily tasks such that all of them can be completed by 5 PM. I had to abandon brushing my teeth in the evening as a daily goal because it meant I was necessarily concentrating on my goal list for the entire day, where my current setup means I am usually only concentrating on it during work hours.

Sometimes I give myself experience without any reason whatsoever. Really. This is my favorite thing about HabitRPG: it gives me a chance to practice being generous with myself. If I’ve accomplished something awesome, or I am enduring something difficult, I try to remember to treat myself to things. The problem with that in everyday life is that treating myself to things usually costs money or time that I may or may not have. In HabitRPG, however, that problem doesn’t exist. I have an infinite resource for rewarding myself for accomplishments and treating myself during difficult times, and I use it.

Is it cheating? Again, I say it’s not, because it helps me. As absurd as the idea that those little points, completely disconnected from any real-world application or tangibleness, have any impact on my day-to-day life, acquiring them makes me feel good. And feeling good is nice, and nice feelings mean less stress, which means less exhaustion, more energy, and as such more ability to get things done. All the while, it’s giving me a chance to practice being generous with myself; it’s giving me a chance to practice being that awesome boss who cuts you some slack when you need it, and is understanding when you need it.

There is one more multiple-times-daily goal I haven’t mentioned, which is the generic “good brain gardening” goal. I get to click this one whenever I practice good mental habits. If I start to beat myself up over something and then remember not to, I get experience. Here’s the kicker for me: sometimes I do feel like I’m cheating in the game. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that I should treat this more like a game with rigid rules, be a stern taskmaster, etc. Then I remember that the goal is to be getting stuff done and that the strict way of doing things isn’t actually nearly as effective as the more lenient, generous, caring, encouraging way of doing things.

Whenever I remember that, I give myself points. Good brain gardening points. And if the sense of “maybe I should be harsher/don’t deserve these points/etc.” persists, I get even more points for giving myself points in the face of that persistent nagging voice.

If you want, you could say that I cheat constantly and furiously at HabitRPG. But it sure as hell gets the job done, and it’s the way I honed this particular getting-stuff-done tool to be one of the most effective weapons I have against not getting stuff done. For me, generosity works better than rigidity.

If you decide to give it a spin, remember to never lose sight of your goal: to get you to do the things you want yourself to be doing. And practice being generous with yourself. At least that’s what works for me. Not to mention I can really use the practice.

On The Virtue of Doing My Best

I am an ethical perfectionist. I tend to look back on complicated things that happen with people and ask myself “Did I do everything right?”. Did I make the right decisions, should I have done this, or done that, or said this in a different way, or heard that in a different way?

Some situations you eventually get to ask. You get to look back and reflect on them with the people they happened with, and figure out what you might have understood or not understood at the time. Others you don’t.

“Real life is messy, inconsistent, and it’s seldom when anything ever really gets resolved. It’s taken me a long time to realize that.”

― Hollis Mason, Watchmen

Times when I wonder about things like this, it helps me to remember that I did my best. I pretty much always do my best when it comes to trying to do right by people, so it’s a helpful mantra. No one can expect me to do any better than the best I can do, and if the best I can do isn’t good enough to perfectly figure everything out about a given situation, then it isn’t good enough. It’s still my best, and it’s still something that no one, including myself, can or should expect me to do better than.

Sometimes my best means getting to a point where I decide, for my own well-being, that I need to stop trying. Sometimes doing my best means saying “The best decision for me is to stop putting my energy into this thing.”. Those times are the most difficult ones to come to peace with, because you can always ask yourself “What if I had just tried a little bit harder, stuck it out for a little bit longer, or understood a little bit better?”. At the end of the day, though, I look back at most of my decisions and think “Yeah, I made the best decision I could with the information that I had, even when that decision was to stop trying.”.

I may never do things perfectly, and sometimes there are things I may not even do particularly well, but I usually do my best. Sometimes that means things work out, and sometimes that means I get to a point where I haven’t figured things out, but I don’t think I should put any more energy into working things out. Sometimes that decision is my best.

That is enough. It is more than enough. It is the best thing I can or could be doing, even when part of me wishes it had been enough to resolve things and it wasn’t. Even then, it was the very best thing I could do, because self-preservation is something I do both for me and for the people around me, and it is a more important responsibility than working things out in any individual situation.

The times when doing my best means self-preservation are just as commendable as the times when it doesn’t. I did my best, and that is the very most anyone can ever expect. It is okay. It is more than okay; it is my best.

Thoughts About My Weird Double Standards With Respect to Tough Conversations

Interesting fact about me: a lot of the time, I enjoy when people tell me “no”, or tell me that they’re frustrated with me in some way. It makes me feel more secure in my relationships with people when I know they’re able to tell me what they want and don’t want. It makes me feel like I’m more likely to know if I’m doing something they don’t like, and it makes me feel like they think their relationship with me is important enough that they’re willing to do the work to communicate with me about things.

I know this about myself, and yet in spite of it, I still find it difficult a lot of the time to tell people “no” about things or to tell them that I’m frustrated or angry with them about something. Recently, I had a long conversation with a friend about my preferences in terms of reliability and communication. It was a scary conversation to have, for me, but it went very well, and I was proud of myself at the end of it for having managed to get myself to communicate the things that were important to me.

About a week or two later, I ended up very frustrated with this friend, and realized I needed to have a conversation with them about it. As far as I could tell, that first conversation hadn’t been an annoying or in any way negative experience for this friend of mine — it had been a generally positive conversation, and she had thanked me for communicating about the things I talked about. Even so, my brain’s instinctive reaction to needing to have this second conversation with her was “Shit! I just had this one Serious Conversation, now if I have to have this other one so soon after it, she’s just going to feel like our friendship is too much work!”.

Much of the time when people have these conversations with me, I think it’s great, but when I have to initiate these conversations with other people, I assume it must just be annoying and exhausting for them. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe I just need to ask people the deliberate question more often and confirm that they find the initiation of such conversations as valuable and affirming as I often do. I don’t know. But it’s definitely a double standard I plan to do more thinking about.

After all, when I had the second conversation, it went fine.

How to Be Skeptical of Your Own Brain, Part Three: Ideas

 Introduction | Part 1: Chronic Pain | Part 2: Depression | Part 3: Ideas

I manned an Ask an Atheist table regularly when I was in college. A lot of good discussions were had at that table, and the ones I most enjoyed tended to be the ones that focused on a particular point. Someone would say they didn’t believe in evolution, and I would go over the genetic evidence for it (which was and is my favorite); someone would argue that without religion you can’t have morals, and I would explain why their morals had no more objective basis than ours; etc.

Every now and then, though, there would be one of those discussions where every time I made a few points against one of their arguments, the religious person would change subjects. The whole argument would be a game of religious apologist bingo, jumping from “The Bible says God exists” to “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist” to “But you can’t have morality without God” to “But you can’t explain the universe without God” to Pascal’s Wager, etc., etc. No matter how many arguments for a god failed to stand up to scrutiny, the person would just jump to another one.

The strange thing about this pattern, which you see in all kinds of debates all the time, is that people don’t seem to recognize the pattern. When five arguments have been knocked down, the person jumps immediately to the sixth argument, apparently without pausing to consider the possibility that maybe there is a reason the first five “foolproof” arguments have failed. That maybe the problem  is that the premise they’re defending is wrong, rather than that they just haven’t found the one argument that really will be foolproof.

To my mind, the reality in the argument with the Christian at the Ask an Atheist table is that the first five arguments failed for the same reason the next five arguments are bound to fail: because the premise they’re defending is false. Gods don’t exist.

Why doesn’t this occur to more people in these arguments? Why, after the umpteenth argument in a row has failed, don’t people think to ask themselves if maybe the problem is with their premise? Why do they keep searching for reasons why they are correct instead of asking if they are correct?

Well, why did I keep searching for a physical problem with my back when I started experiencing chronic back pain? Why did I keep searching for a problem with me all those times I experienced the emotional pain resulting from depression?

I know the answers to those questions: I kept searching for a physical problem with my back because physical pain begs for a physical explanation. Physical pain instinctively prompts you to ask the question “How am I damaged?”. By the same token, I kept searching for a problem with me when I felt bad about myself because that kind of emotional pain begs the question “What is wrong with me?”.

I think the reason why people search for reasons why they are correct instead of asking if they are correct is because cognitive bias begs the question “Why am I correct?”, not “Am I correct?” in the same way that pain begs the question “How am I damaged?”, and not “Am I damaged?”.

Our instinct is to trust our lived experience. Our instinct is to trust what we perceive — to trust that when we feel hurt, it is because we are hurt, that when we feel bad it is because of something bad, and that when we feel conviction it is because something is true.

I spent years uselessly searching for a problem with my back to explain my back pain, and I spent years uselessly searching for problems with myself to explain why I felt bad about myself, and everywhere you look, all the time, in arguments, people spend tremendous amounts of time asking “Why am I correct?” in response to their bias without even realizing that that is what they are doing. To me, these all look like different versions of the same story, and I think that the same type of skeptical thinking can be applied in each case.

What would it mean to think of bias as an analog of pain? It would mean thinking of bias as an experience produced by my brain based on taking in all of the available contextual data I have about an idea and turning it into a conscious experience of conviction about that idea. In the same sense that my brain will take in an enormous amount of subconscious context before creating a conscious pain experience, I imagine that it takes in context in a similar way before producing a conscious experience of conviction. Also, in the same sense that I can skeptically evaluate an experience of pain and make a conscious decision about whether or not it indicates damage, I can skeptically evaluate an experience of bias and make a conscious decision about whether or not it accurately suggests the validity of an idea.

Let’s do one more analogy:

Imagine that you have a motion-activated security system in your house. If someone tries to break in, it goes off, and you call the police. However, if you have a dog, sometimes your dog might set it off, too. You don’t want your reaction to the alarm sounding to automatically be “Someone is breaking in.”, you want your reaction to the alarm sounding to be “The alarm is going off.”, so that you can then ask “Is it sufficiently likely that someone is breaking in that I should call the police, or did I forget to close the gate to keep the dog upstairs?”. The alarm going off doesn’t mean “burglar”, it means “alarm”, and it’s up to you to decide whether or not that alarm is a sign that your house is being broken into or not.

In the same way that it is better to think “alarm” instead of jumping to the conclusion of “burglar”, I endeavor to think “pain” instead of “physical damage”, “emotional pain” instead of “something wrong with me”, and “I feel conviction about this idea” instead of “this idea is true”.

It is incredibly valuable to identify the experiences, the “alarms”, that cause us to act in certain ways or beg us to make certain assumptions. I wasn’t aware that it made sense to question my experience of pain, physical or emotional, until I realized that pain was a constructed experience that might not be accurate, and therefore deserved to be examined critically. By the same token, we are not able to question our biases unless we are able to separate ourselves from them, look at them, and critically question the conscious experience of them.

If you don’t realize that you are experiencing a product of your fallible subconscious brain when you experience, say, a conviction that a particular deity must exist, then you may end up searching for ways to justify it instead of asking if it is justified. You cannot effectively question the bias “alarm” unless you are aware of it. Similarly, if I didn’t understand that pain is a product of my fallible subconscious brain, then I would still be fruitlessly searching for ways to treat my low back. If I didn’t realize the same thing about emotional pain, then I might still be wasting time trying to find things to fix about myself in response to it.

I want to take a moment here to make sure that I emphasize that when I say we should question these experiences, I don’t mean to say we should dismiss them. Sometimes the alarm going off means there is a burglar in your house. Sometimes your ankle hurts because you sprained your ankle. Sometimes you feel bad about yourself because you really shouldn’t have taken that candy from that baby, or that job at Fox News. Sometimes you feel conviction that George W. Bush was a terrible president because he was, in fact, a really terrible president. The point of all of this is not to say you should instinctively doubt your experiences, but that you should practice instinctively being able to spot them and hold them out in front of you for examination.

In almost exactly the same way that I skeptically examine my experiences of physical or emotional pain, when I experience a conviction that a particular truth claim is correct, I try to figure out why my brain thinks that conviction is appropriate (“Why is the ‘conviction alarm’ going off?”). If I can’t recall the experiences or context that led to the conviction, but I have confidence in it, then, usually, instead of sifting around for justifications, I will simply say that it is my strong impression that a particular truth claim is correct. On the other hand, if I decide I don’t have confidence in the conviction, then I have an opportunity to reevaluate my position.

In light of this process, I have become incredibly fond of the phrase “It has been my impression that [assertion].”. In discussions, this is my way of saying “I have a bias about [assertion] that I trust, but I can’t remember the specifics of how I formed that bias at the moment.”. We so often think of bias as a negative thing, but for the most part I think of it as a useful form of data compression. Deciding to trust a bias isn’t necessarily bad, but it is a decision that should be made consciously instead of automatically wherever possible.

Be skeptical of your brain. See the process. See the “alarms” that prompt you to jump to certain conclusions before jumping to those conclusions. In the same way that I have to routinely ask “Why do I think I am physically damaged?” instead of “How am I physically damaged?” in response to pain, never ask “Why am I correct?” without first asking “Why do I think I am correct?”.

 The phrase "Deity X is real." being put under a magnifying glass, revealing the words "I am having an experience of conviction about an idea. This conviction may or may not indicate that this idea is correct. Do I have any other info to suggest that this conviction is or isn't the result of this idea being correct?".

The phrase “Deity X is real.” being put under a magnifying glass, revealing the words “I am having an experience of conviction about an idea. This conviction may or may not indicate that this idea is correct. Do I have any other info to suggest that this conviction is or isn’t the result of this idea being correct?”.

 

How to Be Skeptical of Your Own Brain, Part Two: Depression

 Introduction | Part 1: Chronic Pain | Part 2: Depression | Part 3: Ideas

I wasn’t officially diagnosed with depression until 2008, but when I look back on my life, I can see the beginnings of it started much earlier. Whatever part of my brain is responsible for producing the sensation of guilt has been working overtime for as long as I can remember.

When I was in high school, I tended to respond to the experience of feeling bad about myself by trying to fix things about me. I figured that if I just managed to figure out how to be an ethically flawless human being, I would be happy. I spent a lot of high school and college trying to manage being 100% perfect at honesty or pop-culture-Buddhist emotional detachment. I figured that was the key — I figured people felt bad because they were doing things wrong, and so when I felt bad it was because I was doing something wrong.

So every time I felt bad, it was because I wasn’t being as honest as I could be about this thing or that thing, or because I was attached to people in ways that prevented me from being able to see them clearly. It was because I needed to fix something. In the end, though, no matter how much effort I put into becoming ethically flawless, it didn’t ever seem to make me much happier. In point of fact, it tended to do the opposite.

It took me a very long time, even after I was diagnosed with depression, to understand the size of the mistake I had been making. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to fully articulate the bait-and-switch that happens when I’m depressed — the fact that all of the flaws that I find with myself when I’m feeling bad aren’t the cause of my depression, but a symptom of it. It was more recently, still, that I finally made the connection between depression and chronic pain.

The thing that it took me so long to realize is that the emotional pain that comes from depression is just as unreliable as the physical pain that I experience in my back. I needed to realize that the emotional pain doesn’t necessarily mean I need to fix something about myself in the same way that physical pain doesn’t necessarily mean I have physically damaged myself.

As I discussed in the last section, the process that I have learned to go through when I experience chronic pain symptoms goes roughly like this: when I notice pain, I try to think if anything has happened recently that is likely to have produced an actual injury. If I can think of something, then I treat it like an injury. If I can’t, then I assume that the pain is a mistake.

I almost never ignore pain entirely, but if I suspect it’s not actually due to physical damage, I treat it like a paranoid delusion, rather than something physically wrong. Much like you might try to calm down a paranoid person who is convinced “everyone is after them” by talking to them about why that’s probably not true and trying to calm their nerves, when I judge my pain to be the product of a paranoid brain, I focus on all of the evidence that nothing is actually wrong, I try to reduce stress, and while I don’t completely avoid physical exertion, I do try to keep it relatively mild so as not to further scare my brain. The interesting thing is this: what I have learned to do with respect to depression is almost exactly the same.

When I notice emotional pain, I try to think if there is any actual good reason for it. If I can think of something, then I try to address that. If not, then I treat my brain like it’s being paranoid. The only difference is that where in the case of physical pain the paranoia is resulting in an inaccurate picture of what is going on with me physically, in the case of emotional pain the paranoia is resulting in an inaccurate picture of what is going on with me, shall we say, existentially. I think of emotional pain as my brain’s potentially flawed artistic rendering of the state of my existential self in the same sense that physical pain is my brain’s potentially flawed artistic rendering of the state of my physical self.

The impact of this model on my mental state can be quite powerful. I have had the experience of waking up in a state of pretty severe depression, and thinking “I can’t think of any reason for these feelings to be happening, therefore they probably aren’t accurate, and there is probably no good reason for me to be having them.” and having the depressive feelings dissipate. It isn’t always that easy, but it is, at times, a powerful tool to have in my toolbox.

Even when it doesn’t have an immediate effect on depressive feelings, this model of thinking is an incredibly useful tool for critically examining depressive thoughts. Nowadays, when I feel bad about myself, I understand the problem to be the fact that my brain produces this emotional pain without good reason to do so, and instead of assuming it is a sign that I need to fix something about myself, I assume it’s a sign that I need to do some maintenance on my brain.

Now, when I experience physical pain that begs for a physical explanation or emotional pain that begs for a problem-with-me explanation, I am able, when it is appropriate, to deny them that — I’m able to say “No, this is not a problem with me, it is a problem with you, Brain.”

In the next post: how this same model applies to ideas and arguments.

 The phrase "I am worthless." being put under a magnifying glass, revealing the words "I am having an experience of intense emotional pain. This pain may or may not indicate that something about me is not okay. Do I have any other info to suggest that this pain is or isn't the result of something about me not being okay?".

The phrase “I am worthless.” being put under a magnifying glass, revealing the words “I am having an experience of intense emotional pain. This pain may or may not indicate that something about me is not okay. Do I have any other info to suggest that this pain is or isn’t the result of something about me not being okay?”.

How to Be Skeptical of Your Own Brain, Part One: Chronic Pain

 Introduction | Part 1: Chronic Pain | Part 2: Depression | Part 3: Ideas

Note: for the purposes of this discussion, when I use the phrase “physical injury”, I am generally referring to an injury for which the physical point of origin is not my brain. This is bad terminology, given that the brain is just as physical as the rest, but I haven’t yet been able to come up with a better shorthand.


My back pain became chronic about 10 years ago. I had occasional experiences with back pain before 2004, but none of it was ever the sort of all-the-time pain that I started experiencing after a particularly intense sparring test in kung fu that summer. I experienced what a few doctors would later refer to as a “spasm” of the muscles in my back, and, after the pain didn’t go away quickly, decided to take some time off from kung fu to heal.

I waited, and waited, and waited, but every time I experimented with practicing kung fu again, the pain got worse. Even when I wasn’t experimenting with kung fu, I was in pain. Eventually, I started seeing doctors to try to get some decent diagnosis and treatment for the injury.

One doctor said it was that my vertebrae and my sacrum were out of alignment, and I should do some PT and some exercises and wear an SI belt. That didn’t work. Another doctor said it was a muscle tension thing and recommended muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories. That didn’t work, either. Another doctor said it was core weakness and I should do some strengthening exercises for my core. That didn’t work, either. Another said it was that my leg lengths were different, another said it was a muscle in an ongoing state of spasm, another that it was networks of muscle knots…

No matter how many different doctors I went to and treatments I tried, none of them ever seemed to consistently help.

After about seven years of trying different doctors and treatments, I started going to a physical therapist who was more up on chronic pain research than most of the others I had been to. He would talk amiably through our PT sessions, and one day in the course of conversation, he said something that completely changed my perspective. He told me that there was almost certainly nothing wrong in the tissues of my back; he told me that the pain I was experiencing was almost certainly not a response to a physical injury.

I hadn’t considered that possibility before, because I didn’t know that this sort of pain could happen without being a response to a physical injury. Up to that point I had been convinced, without even consciously being aware that I was making an assumption at all, that the pain I was experiencing had to be a result of a problem with the tissues in my back.

Physical pain begs for a physical explanation, and because of that I searched for a diagnosis and treatment for a problem with the tissues in my back for years longer than I should have.

The thing I needed to understand about pain is that it is an artificial construct, not a direct feed of information. Pain in your foot doesn’t happen because of tissue damage in your foot, it happens because tissue damage in your foot sends danger signals to your brain, and your brain decides, based on those signals and historical context, that pain is an appropriate response*. Danger signals from the tissues are neither necessary nor sufficient for pain – they are one piece of context out of many that your brain uses to make a decision about whether or not to create a pain experience. Your brain can get danger signals and decide not to cause pain, and it can also decide to create pain in the absence of any danger signals whatsoever.

Metaphorically speaking, there’s an artist in my brain who looks at all of the physical inputs from all over my body, and all of the historical context from my life, and paints a picture that becomes my conscious experience. My pain isn’t a photograph of the state of my tissues, it is an artistic rendering  of the state of my tissues based on what the artist thinks is exciting or important. The same physical input will produce different sensations for me versus for anyone else, and for me now versus for me a year from now**, in much the same way you might expect different artists to paint the same scene with different styles and emphasis.

If I’m going to really take this metaphor all the way, then we could say that the problem with my body is that sometimes the artist gets drunk, and for some reason, when he’s drunk, he gets obsessed with my low back. The pictures he paints, and the pain I experience, do not correlate with what is actually going on in my tissues in any useful way whatsoever, they’re just a bunch of renderings of my lower back in violent red and orange.

For the last year or so of my life, my back pain has been better than at any other time in the last ten years, and I attribute that entirely to the fact that I learned these things about pain and have been able to apply them in useful ways. I may always have some difficulty with back pain, but for me, personally, no doctor or treatment has been as useful as learning about the process of how pain is produced.

My education about pain has enabled me to view my lived experience of pain through a skeptical lens. When I experience pain, I don’t assume that it is because of an injury. In the same way that a person with phantom limb pain isn’t going to worry that they’ve injured a phantom limb, I have learned not to worry that I have injured a part of myself when I experience “phantom pain” in a body part that just so happens to still exist.

In my day-to-day, this means that instead of responding to pain by not doing the thing that “caused” the pain, I respond to it by asking myself if it is likely that the pain is a response to actual damage, or a response to my brain making a mistake. If I think it’s the former, then I treat the pain like it’s an actual injury. If I think it’s the latter, then I use various strategies I’ve developed to accomplish the basic goal of telling my brain that it’s getting things wrong, and slowly increasing my exposure to the things that it mistakenly thinks are causing me damage.

In short, the single most useful tool for me, personally, in managing my chronic pain has been developing the ability to be skeptical of my experiences of pain***.

In the next post: the story of how I came to apply this same type of skepticism to my experiences with depression.

The phrase "Ouch! I hurt my back!" being put under a magnifying glass, revealing the words "I'm having an experience of pain in my back. This pain may or may not indicate physical damage. Do I have any other info to suggest that this pain is or isn't the result of physical damage?".

The phrase “Ouch! I hurt my back!” being put under a magnifying glass, revealing the words “I’m having an experience of pain in my back. This pain may or may not indicate physical damage. Do I have any other info to suggest that this pain is or isn’t the result of physical damage?”.

 


* In reality, the process is significantly more complicated than this — there are, for example, many different forms of modulation that can happen between the tissues and the brain — but I have made this simplified explanation as true to the actual process as I can without going into the less necessary fiddly details.

** Those of you who remember when you got your first cell phone may recall your first experiences with “phantom” cell phone vibrations. “Phantom” cell phone vibrations did not occur for any of us before we owned cell phones — not because our pant legs rubbed against our legs differently, but because our brains had not learned to interpret that type of input as possibly indicating the vibration of a cell phone. Same input, different context, different output.

*** I should note, here, that the strategies I use are not a cure for my chronic pain, but a major help, and that they are generally not easy or quick fixes, but take a lot of work, and that they will not, of course, work the same, or necessarily at all, for everyone. Not all chronic pain works like mine, not all of it stems from a purely neurological source. All pain does come from the brain, not the tissues, whether it’s phantom limb pain, actual limb pain, or pain resulting from the fact that you’ve just lost a limb, and as such I think education about these aspects of pain is probably always useful for chronic pain sufferers, but it will not always work as well as it has for me.

How to Be Skeptical of Your Own Brain

Introduction | Part 1: Chronic Pain | Part 2: Depression | Part 3: Ideas

 

From one thing, know ten thousand things.

— Miyamoto Musashi

 
I was going to try and write an introductory anecdote for these posts, myself, when I realized that another fantastic blogger had already written one perfectly. Before you continue reading, check out this post by Ferrett Steinmetz.

I think about the only other time I hallucinated, having dropped acid on a very hot summer’s night… and I found it disappointing.  Yes, my vision was flexing and distorting, and I witnessed all sorts of curious artifacts as my brain’s visual processing center went into overload – but I quietly dissected each illusion, breaking it down into its interesting components, and in such a way I reduced what could have been a wild trip down into a series of interesting quirks.

I don’t really hallucinate, I don’t think.  I know what my brain is up to.  And today, I realized why:

It’s because I’m a depressive.  I don’t trust my brain.

So when my brain starts providing false visual information, I do the same thing: I question it.  I compare it to reality.  And if it doesn’t make sense, I ignore it.

This post and those that follow it will be a series of anecdotes from my own life illustrating my personal journey from (1) learning to skeptically examine my chronic pain symptoms to (2) applying that same pattern of skeptical thought to my depression symptoms to (3) applying that pattern of skeptical thought to my reactions to ideas and arguments. In telling the story, I’m hoping to outline a generalizable model for thinking skeptically about all of our conscious lived experiences as human beings — a model for how to be skeptical of our brains.

It starts, naturally, with Part 1: Chronic Pain.

“What Happens After?”, the Anti-Catastrophizing Game

One of the strategies that a therapist of mine once recommended to me to stop catastrophizing is a game I call “What Happens After?”.

The thing about catastrophizing is that catastrophe narratives almost always end with the catastrophe. If you’re worried about failing a test, then catastrophizing means imagining that you’ll fail the test, and failing the test is the horrible Worst Thing in the World end of the story. If you’re worried about a breakup, then the relationship being over is the horrible Worst Thing in the World end of the story. I’ve borrowed the “worst thing in the world” phrasing from Cliff at The Pervocracy blog, who writes eloquently about this kind of thinking:

I remember when my first “I love you” relationship ended.  I couldn’t abide the thought.  I screamed.  I cried.  I tried to seduce him.  (While still crying. Sexxxay.)  I threatened to harm myself if he didn’t come back.  I called him until he stopped taking my calls.   The ridiculous thing is, I didn’t even like him that much.  It wasn’t about getting the joy of the relationship back.  It was about avoiding TWTITW [The Worst Thing in the World].

At some point I bawled myself to sleep, and the next morning I woke up and had to pee.  Because even in the wake of The Worst Thing In The World, you still have to pee.   I peed and went to work. It was the day after the end of eeeeeverything, but the bus still picked me up at 7:08 and I still got a half-hour and a chicken sandwich for lunch.  I was in pain, I was in bad pain, but I had thought it would be infinite pain, and it was finite.  It was only a six-foot cockroach.

I can’t say “and then I never believed in TWTITW again,” but it was the start of a journey.  Failing a class helped too, as did getting fired from a job, as did very messily breaking up with a very close friend.  Not because these things weren’t bad.  All of them sucked, all of them cost me opportunities I would never get back, all of them caused real and irreparable harm, yet the morning after… I still had to pee.

The “What Happens After” game is a pretty simple idea: if I’m ever worried about a particular worst-case scenario, I try to imagine what will happen after it. It doesn’t have to be a “plan” for what I will do after the thing happens (although making plans against worst-case scenarios can sometimes also be a helpful tactic) so much as the creation of a narrative, any narrative, that doesn’t stop with the catastrophe.

If I go through a breakup, then the day after that I’m going to have to make myself breakfast, and then I’m going to have to call that friend I haven’t been in touch with, and then I’m going to have to get some writing done or some coding done. The week after that I will have that swing dance thing to go to, and the week after that there is a conference…

The idea is that you just keep writing the story out until you realize that no matter how horrible it might be, the catastrophe that you’re worrying about will not be the end of the story. Somehow, moving catastrophes to the middle of their narratives from the end of the narratives has an ameliorating effect on the anxiety associated with them, at least for me.

Sometimes it happens that I forget to do the “What Happens After” thing, and then situations come up that prove the truth of the exercise to me. That is, something that I’ve worried a lot about happens, and then a bunch of stuff happens afterward, and I realize that the narrative doesn’t end at the disaster’s edge. This happened to me in a relatively minor way just recently.

One of the things I tend to worry about a lot is whether or not I have sufficiently established consent for the things I do with people. My pattern is pretty much to always explicitly ask for things, but it’s not uncommon, even in those cases, for me to worry like this: “I can ask, but this is a thing I really want to do, what if she isn’t interested, but she can tell that I really want to do it and feels pressured and then OH GOD I HAVE PRESSURED SOMEONE INTO A THING?!”

Recently, I had the experience of making out with two friends of mine for the first time. With the first friend, it went very well. I asked if she wanted to make out, she said yes, and then we enthusiastically did just that. With the second, I asked, and she said yes, but when it came to actually making out, I didn’t get a very strong sense that she was into what we were doing.

With the first friend, we made out for a while, and it was awesome, and I felt really good about it afterward. With the second friend, I got an uncertain impression, and decided to hold off on asking or initiating again. This may seem like the obvious way things like this would go, but in my brain it was a bit of an epiphany: “Oh! If I get the impression that maybe someone isn’t as into doing something as I thought, then instead of “OH GOD, DISASTER HAS HAPPENED AND THE WORLD EXPLODES”, what actually happens is I gather some data and use that data to inform how I initiate or don’t initiate things in the future.

Where before, the narrative ended in disaster, it now ends in my having more information and using that information to better understand the situation. Now, with that new narrative, the whole situation is a little less scary. This is how the What Happens After game is supposed to work, and I have found it to be very helpful at times for getting my head out of the “What if the world explodes?!” headspace, and into the “Well, then it will explode, and tomorrow I will still have to pee.” headspace.

Thoughts on Conferences, Friendships, and Introversion

Skepticon this year was a roller coaster. I was dealing with some pretty heavy stuff in my personal life that week, and cons are always a bit of a risky proposition for an introvert. I’m not sure I’ve ever had quite so pronounced an experience of the nature of my introversion than I got this year at con.

What I like about cons is that it’s a chance to be surrounded by people who are like me. People who are thoughtful critical thinkers, and interested in science and the world’s big questions and who are able to keep up with my own thoughts about such things. Being surrounded by people like that can be its own special type of intoxicating.

The biggest problem with cons for me is that they are designed around group interactions, which is something that I can only do in small doses. I very much enjoy talking to most of the people that I meet at conferences, but what I really enjoy are the one-on-one interactions. Group interactions with more than three or four people tend to paralyze my brain. You could predict my mood at any given time at the conference pretty reliably by looking at the amount of group versus one-on-one conversation I had had in the previous hour. A lot of group interaction and my mood would be pretty low. A lot of one-on-one conversation, and my mood would be pretty fucking good.

I’m not sure what this means for me for future conferences. I do love the people at conferences, but conferences aren’t designed for the types of interaction that I really enjoy having with people, and I would imagine that most people who go to conferences are better suited to group interaction than I am, and may be actively looking for more of that type of interaction.

Sometimes I think of the distinction between one-on-one versus group interaction in terms of operating serially or in parallel. I don’t much like parallel social interaction most of the time, but I do serial social interaction very well.

This reality leaves me in a position of not having a lot of control over whether or not I have a good time at conferences — either a lot of group interaction happens and I end up anxious, on edge, and at risk for a period of increased symptoms of depression, or I chance upon enough interesting, person-to-person conversations that things are awesome.

I don’t know if there’s any good way to control which of those possibilities actually happens, which means conference experiences in general are a coin flip, and at times a coin flip that is potentially dangerous for my mental health.

This is a broader problem for my life in general. Most group interactions feel, to me, like a period of waiting to get to the good part. The good part is the part where you have the chance to stop operating in parallel. The good part is plugging your brain into someone else’s brain and watching your ideas refract through the media of their ideas, and their ideas through yours, and seeing things entirely new come out the other end.

The difficulty, in my experience, in strongly preferring one-on-one interaction, is that it is much harder to find ways to have it happen passively. If I want to interact with someone one-on-one, generally, it happens by chance or it happens by intention – e.g. I call someone up. If I want to interact with or meet people in a group setting, I can go somewhere where there are groups of people. I can go to a party or a conference or a meetup and be interacting with a group of people just like that. All I need to do is be in a place where there is a group of people and those interactions, by default, start to happen. And I hope that at some point we’ll get to the good part.

Dance is the best way I’ve found to operate in serial for a while, but, for the moment, it’s a risky proposition for me, physically. I’m becoming more and more aware, though, that I very much need to find some better ways to have one-on-one interactions with people that can happen relatively passively. I don’t think most people have quite as strong a preference for it as I do, and it gets frustrating quickly when I feel like I have to put an enormous amount of energy into making it happen whenever I want to make it happen.

I think it creates a certain amount of frustration for me in my friendships as well. To an extent, my brain doesn’t interpret group interaction with friends as “real” time spent with friends. It doesn’t feel, to me, like the type of time spent with people that builds a sense of interpersonal intimacy — which is generally what I like to do in friendships — so some of my friendships end up feeling very different from my side versus the other person’s side, because the other person may be able to experience a sense of building history and intimacy from group interactions that I will not experience. This may lead to my feeling like people are less interested in my time and friendship than they actually are, because to me the expression of that interest is in large part defined by the amount of time they try to find with me one-on-one, and for others it may not be defined that way.

At this point I’m just throwing out hypotheses. This whole thing is a complicated issue for me, and I feel like I need to understand it better before I’ll be able to come up with good, actionable solutions to the problems.

So, the questions are:

How do I find a way to have a good time at conferences in spite of my issues with group interaction, or how do I find a different way to interact meaningfully with the kinds of people that I love to interact with conferences?

How do I find a way to feel valued and balanced in friendships with people who may express and experience friendship in ways that don’t line up very well with the ways I do?

How do I find less effortful means to experience the types of interactions that make me happy?

Is there a way to manage to get less anxiety and more satisfaction out of interacting with people in groups?

Here’s hoping I stumble upon some solutions.