First Dispatch from Camp: Um?

Hey everyone :).

Um…

Off to an illustrious start already :). However, I’m keeping it as my intro because it captures a good part of what I’m feeling right now: confusion. Two weeks ago I attended a Center for Applied Rationality Workshop—what I’ve been calling Rationality Camp. I have no idea if it made me more rational, but it gave me some tweaked perspectives on how to see the world.

I don’t know how to summarize my experience, and I feel like I’ll forever be describing the bits and pieces that break off as coherent stories. For every story that I construct, it feels like I’m leaving off so many other ways of interpreting the data—and while this philosophy of course applies to most of life, it feels more significant to me in this instance. Nothing to be done, though: here’s my story of the night :).

One of the ideas that struck me about this workshop was the idea of being “self-aligned”. A friend defined it as follows: “doing things deliberately, not out of habit”. I’m calling the most extreme version of this “having a coherent life philosophy”. There were quite a few ideas the workshop pushed on us, but this one stuck out to me because it’s a trait that I’ve coveted before.

As part of doing things deliberately, apparently one needs to have access to one’s emotions. This was a surprise to me—I expected Rationality Camp to be about math and cognitive science, not emotions—but it’s a perhaps obvious perspective: in order to take actions deliberately, one should probably know what one wants, which is indicated by emotions. (Emotions stemming from terribly inexact meat-brain hardware, of course. Ah well, at least I have one :)).

Thus “figuring out what you want, and doing it deliberately” was an important message for me to get out of the workshop. There was also quite a bit of information on how to achieve what you want once you understand what you want, but I was actually pretty set on the “set plans in motion” part of the workshop. I seem to be uncommonly good at making myself do stuff (e.g. self-motivation and putting systems in place), especially if people I respect want me to do them. That last part though—“people I respect want me to do them”—is a major part of what I’m wrestling with. I rely a lot on feedback from other people, and in some cases I felt that I wasn’t able to defend myself with regards to what I wanted compared to what other people think is best for me.

This doesn’t mean that I’m not going to listen to feedback—on the contrary, I seem to have gone the other direction, and have been collecting as much feedback from as many people as possible in the wake of my confusion. (This was pointed out to me, and I frustratingly can’t remember who— Them: “So you were emotionally worn out, and you immediately went and scheduled meetings in with everyone?” Soft laughter.  Me, clueless: “What?” Them: “It’s just that other people might have not talked about it, and recovered…” To be fair, I did take 2-3 days of not talking to many people right after the workshop. But it is telling that upon realizing that I need to figure out what I want, I immediately went and asked everyone else about it :)).

All of this friend-asking (friends, you are all the best, thank you so much) has led to some wonderful results: data. So much data. Data, and a lot of emotions attached to it, so that I know where to start. There are a lot of personal traits and habits that I can target here, but it seems like this is a good place to begin: anything that upsets me, anything that other people find strange about me, and especially the intersection.

It turns out that a lot of the actions patterns that upset me, and that set me apart according to my friends, are pervasive traits that emerge across many areas of my thinking and behavior. The fact that my thinking patterns aren’t isolatable to specific circumstances is what’s leaving me so generally confused. There are a few core ideas here—my relationship with feedback from others, openness to experience, emotional accessibility, others—that keep on appearing all over the place, and this means that whenever I try to write this, my thoughts go in about five different directions trying to figure out what example I want to lead with. Part of my purpose for writing this down is to find the threads. Part of it’s also because a friend told me that having opinions and then having them argued with is a good way to figure out when you’re wrong, which seems reasonable. Regardless, I’d love if anyone wants to tell me a thread they spotted, or has arguments against whatever I eventually get around to arguing ;P.

But I’ll start out with two easy, self-contained examples, and then go onto a more confusing third :).

Here’s a first, relatively well-contained place to start. Example one: insecurity.

Recently, I was lucky enough to be sitting in a circle where a friend was telling everyone who asked “the advice they most needed to hear”. (…My landlord asked me what time I got back that night, and I said 3am. I told him the party was awesome and involved a lot of sitting around on couches trying to figure out how to improve ourselves.) The advice that I was given from him was:

Stop feeling insecure about being cool and just be cool.

Ha :). Here’s some background on that—this particular person wants to be my friend (he has told me this) and I keep on pushing back because I consider him too impressive to be a friend. That’s a specific case, but this comment was actually getting at a long-term habit of mine of being really deferential around people who I admire. I do this kind of thing all the time, and it can get pretty embarrassing depending on how nervous I’m being. It can also be hurtful, because if I’m feeling self-conscious I’ll often not acknowledge people, in waiting for them to do it first.

In any case, though, this was very much in my face: apparently I’m fine, I should just be confident, and not being confident is actually annoying. Given that upon review of similar instances in the past, I can observe this behavior being unnecessary, occasionally hurtful, and now annoying, I think it’s high time for a policy-change of my behavior.

Excellent, I told myself, now you’re going to stop being insecure about this. One idea they teach you at Rationality Camp, though, is to simulate the new actions, and figure out the reason why the change might not work. Emotions are apparently important for determining if there was actually a good reason why you weren’t doing the obvious thing, and sometimes when you probe, you can figure out that there’s an underlying useful reason why I was doing the “sub-optimal” behavior in the first place.

In this case, I ran into the following argument in my head: you can’t stop being insecure, that would make you less interesting.

And I thought: …Huh. Well, I certainly didn’t know that I had that thought in my head.

Turns out, I’m mildly obsessed with being interesting. This is in large part because I don’t know what being “interesting” or “cool” means, so I’m having a hard time knowing what character traits to push in this direction. I ask people about this as often as I can get away with without fishing ridiculously obviously, and many friends have been very kind on this front. Unfortunately, the fact remains that I’m still pretty confused about it, and I’ve put it on my list of “emotional and also one of the things my friends think is different about me” to think about and work through. (Future blog post?)

(What I know: upon arriving at graduate school, I suddenly became “interesting” to a subset of people. I was interesting to people before graduate school, but not nearly to the extent that I’m hearing people tell me about it here. I think “interesting” relates to: how I process information, social analysis, weird habits that I execute without any regard to normalcy, drive for learning and growth, positivity, openness to experience, and possibly that I don’t know how I work. My being interesting also seems to correlate with attraction to some extent, but I’m leaving the directionality of that correlation (i.e., which variable causes the other) well alone. I haven’t changed that much, so I conclude that it must be something about the type of person I’m hanging out with here, which I concur is different from my previous populations.)

(I also find it funny how I’m now getting “interesting” as my adjective instead of “weird”. If we say the two are equivalent, then I suddenly have a much longer history of embodying this trait and less needs to be explained.)

In any case, though, I thought about the argument that my head seems to hold: that if I figure out how I work, I become less interesting. Possible, I concluded. Enough to compensate for being annoying / embarrassing yourself? I asked. Nope. Though we’re going to have to frame this right, and find something to substitute…

What I settled on was the following: being insecure was boring. Not knowing oneself was boring. Everyone’s insecure and doesn’t know themselves—that’s not anything special. Being insecure still may make me interesting, because it’s something for people to figure out (I’ve actively seen people try to work out this puzzle), but it’s the most boring form of interesting, and there are better ways to be interesting that would make me more interesting to myself.

Right. So if being insecure was boring, then I needed a new way of interesting, a way of interesting that I found interesting, so I could strive for that. Self-alignment seems interesting. I’d like to be self-aligned. That seems like a cool thing to be.

And that’s where the story ends on that one. Nice and self-contained, right? Drop the insecurity (with regards to being deferential at least), try to be self-aligned, maintain and improve my state of interestingness. So far, it hasn’t been not working. I’m aware of whenever I’m being deferential around people I admire, and I’ve been checking myself, since I’ve decided that this is something that is useless and non-desirable. It’s been more successful that I thought it could be, actually, given that this is a well-ingrained habit and I decided on this change, like, three days ago. I have no idea if it’ll last—I mean, this is why I started out this post with “um”—but I’m hopeful. First step towards self-alignment, and taking deliberate actions, tentatively on its way.

All right then, example two: vulnerability! This one is also relatively clean, though intersects a lot with how I feel about the blog, and how much I share.

I recently got stuck on the idea of whether I know how to be vulnerable or not. I talked about circling a while ago, in which I delivered a story about what I’d experienced and what I felt, and people told me they weren’t feeling particularly connected with me. At Rationality Camp, I tried this out with another participant, and he was willing to be my guinea pig while I practiced being “vulnerable”. My conclusion from that conversation: Good lord, THIS is what people feel like when they’re being vulnerable? This is terrible!

I’d come up with the following definition: being vulnerable involves being very uncomfortable sharing information, pausing a heck of a lot to check your emotions and try to bring them forward, and feeling like you’re about to cry. I then checked this with a few other people, and they said that that was a terrible definition.

Another participant gave me the following feedback: I felt just as “vulnerable” to him when I was telling him a sensitive story about what happened to me the day before in my usual voice, as when I told him a different story later in my “vulnerable” voice. I was simultaneously confused and pleased, because if I do vulnerability in my daily life (assuming I care about this trait because it’s reported to deepen connections between people), then I don’t need to change anything, which would be excellent.

More consulting has resulted in the new and improved definition: being vulnerable involves saying something where the other person can come in and pass judgment and hurt you, and sometimes seems to be associated with thinking about emotions online, rather than with pre-fabricated thoughts.

Which leads me to the following conclusion: either I’m constantly being vulnerable, or I’m never being vulnerable, because I express thoughts and emotions that I’m feeling and are important to me all the time. Someone asked me whether I was “fragile” the other day, which completely threw me for a loop. I think I answered something along the lines of: “Uh… not… really? I mean, but I do listen to people’s feedback and dwell on it.” Am I “fragile”, readers? That doesn’t feel right at all. Am I “vulnerable”? Um, sort of? If I have an ability to constantly be affected, but maybe less affected than other people, then I’m in this kind of twilight stage where I’m neither expressly vulnerable nor have the ability to move that around in either direction.

Actually, that doesn’t sound like a bad place to be. Vulnerable to everyone, to some extent, and yet not especially crushable. Sounds like something I don’t need to work on :).

And example three, the one that I was thinking of when I started this post. This one is far more messy, and ties in with vulnerability. I’m also quite uncertain on the conclusions. Example three: crying. Here we go!

Here’s the context: if you stress me out enough, and you’re telling me something I think I need to hear, I’m going to be sitting in front of you crying while you tell me what you want me to do.

This is a long-term habit of mine, and is 100% how I’m going to react if you’re telling me how I need to improve myself and it hurts. I’m not going to get mad if you are, I’m not going to leave the room, I’m going to sit there and listen, and if I’m at all in control of myself I’m going to thank you afterwards for your input. Depending on the circumstances, I’ll also seek you out for advice later.

When I tell these sorts of stories to people, people say that the advice-giver shouldn’t have pushed that hard. Recently, I got this response: “You shouldn’t let people bully you like that.”

… Say what?

There’s a general comment to be made here about victim-blaming, but this friend knows me well and the fact that he phrased it this way is what makes it interesting. Because the fact is, in this case the advice-giver had given me an out. He had looked at me crying, and said “maybe we should call it a night, try again tomorrow.”

And you know what I said?

“Pain is temporary, let’s keep going.”

So there you have it. I “let” him do whatever he was doing to me—telling advice or bullying, your pick. It’s the “let” terminology that’s driving me crazy, because I consider myself a generally strong person, and what I was doing feels a lot more active than a “let”.

Regardless, when I tell this story, a lot of people I’ve been hanging out with talk to me about “boundaries”. About how “it seems like you don’t know what’s going to hurt you” in one case, and another two people told me about the usefulness of setting up boundaries in general. Well, I thought to myself, letting people bully me certainly seems to be non-productive behavior. I should just stop all conversations if they get to the point where I’m about to cry.

And I thought: sure, let’s execute that, and then I simulated and thought …oh. Well, maybe not.

Turns out that my mind has lots of reasons why I actually like how I run things, in addition the fact that it’s a habit. Some of these have to do with the “let” and more active role I play, the specific circumstances in which I allow these sorts of situations to happen, and how I actually think that what I’m doing could just as well become “deliberate” for me.

Let’s start with arguments on the opposite side.

Tentative reasons why one shouldn’t sit there and cry while listening to someone telling you what’s wrong with you.

  • Short-term emotional pain. Most people don’t like getting to the emotional state where they’re crying. It’s not fun, per say.
  • Friends have to listen to you explain how you let this happen, and feel bad for you. (This one came up because if I’m going to be experiencing these crying jags, I’m going to be sharing them, and it seems kind of unfair to complain about events that I’m allowing to happen.)
  • Long-term indication of abusive relationships. This one’s worrying to me—I wouldn’t want to get into a cycle of behavior where I slipped into an abusive relationship.

Let’s take these one by one.

First, “short-term emotional pain”. I think I may have a higher tolerance for this than other people. When I made the comment “Pain is temporary, let’s keep going,” what that sentence was short for was this: “This passionate pain is temporary. What’s going to hurt a heck of a lot more is if I make this change that you want, and I have to wake up and execute it every coming day of my life. If you make me set up the systems and mental environment such that I correctly implement the change, and do it day after day after day, and live with it. That’s pain. This is temporary.”

There’s a second part of to that sentence too: “Pain is temporary, let’s keep going.” I’m not actually a glutton for punishment. What that “let’s keep going” comes from is the following reasoning (I surprised myself when I realized, but it feels exactly right): “I am feeling like crap right now, and I’m going to want to hear this information anyway, let’s just GET IT DONE so I can FEEL LIKE CRAP ALL AT ONCE and tomorrow it can be over and I can think about it reasonably.” I use this kind of reasoning all the time in my life—I daisy-chain stressful events so I don’t have to think about them, I try to keep emotional events to the smallest number of intense instances as possible. It’s a general life approach: I do things intensely, in small contained bursts.

So what you end up with is the following: if I respect you, and I feel like you have valuable information to offer me, and we happen to be in a situation where I’m overwhelmed and crying and you’re still talking to me, I’m going to encourage you to get it done so I can have it out of the way. This sort of thing does NOT cause long-term damage me if it only happens once. I am absolutely capable of recovering from one of these sessions, and I’ll tell friends about it but I’m going to be fine. I often consider them learning experiences. With a bunch of emotion.

In short, “short-term emotional pain” is not a good reason for me not to continue trying to collect information. These sorts of situations are always for information-gathering purposes, when I’m sitting with someone who has spent time analyzing me and is giving me their honest opinion. And getting information about myself and what I should do next is, for me, more important than short-term emotional pain.

Next argument! “Friends have to listen to you explain how you let this happen.” Um, sorry friends, but you’re just going to have to sit through it. Actually, if my friends did stop being willing to listen to me tell them this stuff and offer emotional support, I would be much more likely to stop doing it to myself, because I do need some measure of emotional support after these. So actually, this is a deal-breaker—if friends ever stop being willing to listen to me putting myself through a thing so I can hear an opinion, then I’ll be much more likely to stop doing it. But so far my friends have been awesome, and I don’t think it takes that much effort or emotion out of them, so I’m going to continue to ask for support until it stops being offered. (And very willing to offer in return :)).

Final argument, and this one’s the big one: “Long-term indication of abusive relationships.” Okay, so I don’t want to be thought of as someone who’s being bullied here. I don’t want to get into situations where I’m being an unwilling victim. I don’t want to be the kind of person who can’t set up boundaries, who lets other people push her around, who lets other people hurt her. I DO NOT WANT THAT.

So. What in my history indicates that I do or do not have this under control? Past behavior is often an indicator of future behavior :).

First. These situations, in which someone is telling me what to do with my life, do not occur very often. And, moreover, they only occur in very special circumstances. I have to respect the person giving me their opinion. I have to feel like they have some grasp of who I am. They have to be saying informative things, and they have to be well-meaning.

If someone is telling me things just to be mean, not informative, I’ll blow them off. If I don’t respect someone, I’ll blow them off. If someone has a reputation of being caustic, I’ll avoid them. If someone has a repeated history of making me upset in this way, I’ll avoid them. I have evidence in at least two instances for all of the above assertions.

The only circumstances where I’ll tolerate repeated cases of people informing me of how I should behave, if delivered in the above manner, is if I feel like I don’t feel like a choice. If I have a choice (and I almost always have a choice), I’ll try to extricate myself from that person. Sometimes I don’t really have a choice, in which case I’ll tolerate it and make friends listen to way too much of me.

I’m good with peer pressure. If I’m sure about where I stand on something, I’ll stand up for myself. Surprisingly, I’ve even had urges to stand up for other people these days, though I don’t have a lot of evidence for actual action there. So if I know where my boundaries are, then I’m confident in my ability to make something stop happening.

But what if I don’t know where my boundaries are? What if I don’t know how I can be hurt? I propose that I actually do know. That there are very specific circumstances in which I allow the above situation to happen, and it’s weighed against this massive benefit that I have labeled “getting information from people about how I should behave”. It only works if I have friends to support me, but I do, and it only works if I’m emotionally capable of handling it, which I am. I seem to take on a decent amount of emotional risk compared to other people. This seems to be an emotionally risky thing to do, but I propose that with people around me, I’ll be fine.

(Tangent: two of my friends disagree about whether I am actually as capable of handling emotions as I appear. One of my friends thinks I’m repressing a whole bunch of things, and the only reason why I can come off as well-balanced is because I’ve sorted all of my deeper emotions into boxes. One of my other friends was very suspicious that I was repressing everything, but upon later consideration thinks I’m actually aware of issues that I have and the fact that I work at all is miraculous but just as true as it appears on the surface. I’m leaning towards the latter hypothesis, just because I feel like I’m clear with people on what I’m feeling and where I’m sensitive. There aren’t many occasions where I’m suddenly struck with an emotion that’s unfamiliar in a context—I mainly know how I feel about things, and try to be clear and honest about those emotions. I’m not discounting the repression hypothesis, I’m just not sure where it is—where are these latent emotions that are going to come up unexpectedly one day? I have also noticed that people tend to be suspicious of happy people in general not being repressed. I am not sure why people’s priors are where they are with respect to this.)

A related point that could be worrying: I’m actually pretty comfortable being uncomfortable. I think this comes with the territory of being a naturally anxious person pushed to get over that. There are many situations in daily life where I feel / felt uncomfortable, which are either no longer uncomfortable due to the establishment of long-term habits, or because I will myself through them. This is where a lot of the discussion about boundaries comes from though: I seem to be willing to push myself further into uncomfortable than a lot of people, and that makes them uneasy, and me in turn uneasy. One of my friends recently labeled a specific situation in which I expressed that I was uncomfortable as “dangerous”, and that is definitely not good. She didn’t have the complete context of the situation, but it makes me want to carefully consider the situation, to make sure I really do have some sort of idea of what “too uncomfortable” is.

What’s the danger of being “too uncomfortable”? I think where it gets dangerous is if it causes long-term emotional damage, or, by her definition, overwhelms her enough that it’s hard for her to function. I’m not too worried about the latter at this point—for a few months in the middle there, I had plenty of emotions interrupting my day-to-day; I got used to it, and still consider the experience that sparked those emotions as valuable and worth having done. And that’s as bad as it gets for me—I don’t think that I’ve ever been out of it enough that I’ve not been able to work at all.

The next question is whether I’m capable of making myself uncomfortable enough to cause long-term emotional damage? Um… maybe, but it feels unlikely. I’m deeply confused on how being emotionally uncomfortable is going to hurt me. Okay, so if someone takes advantage when I don’t want them to take advantage and I let them do it, then I could see that as scarring, and that could instill a lifelong distrust in people. Hm, it seems to come down to the idea of someone pushing me further than I should be pushed, and the fact that I’d let them because I don’t mind being uncomfortable and generally think it’s good for me. The problem being that I wouldn’t know the “damage boundary” when it appeared, and wouldn’t stop the person. (Or the person wouldn’t stop regardless. That… I mean, I can only hope that that wouldn’t happen. I don’t think I actually have any control over that, besides making sure I pick the best people around me that I can, and I do do that; my friends are all very nice and great people.)

Other people around me seem to be trying to take care of this “damage boundary” for me, and seem to place it as substantially closer than where I put it. This could mean several things. 1) I’m naïve, and this is where the boundary should be placed and the reason I don’t place it there is because I haven’t gotten burned yet. 2) I’m different from other people for whatever reason, possibly relating to my intense desire for information and feedback from others combined with an unusual comfort with emotional vulnerability, whatever that means. So I’m willing to venture further into uncomfortableness than most people, and that’s perfectly fine and there is actually no disaster awaiting me if I go as far as I’d like. 3) Combination: my emotional boundary is further away than other people’s, but when I eventually push myself over there, it’ll turn out that I was still naïve and I’m going to get permanently damaged / burned.

I don’t know, readers. I don’t know, but I WANT to know, and it seems like the other way to figure out the difference between 2 and 3 (I’m doing 1 by default) is to just ignore the common consensus and try it. Try things, be uncomfortable, and see what happens. Of course, because I seem to be not in the norm on this, I should be extra cautious. I should check in with people if I get worried. I should also trust the boundaries that I DO have set up, and there are plenty of those, including only being around people I trust and people who seem to care about me.

And with regards to the above situation, of listening to someone tell me who to be, I think I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing, because I haven’t been long-term burned so far, at least in the case of single instances. Of course, we can ask the question: well, why don’t you avoid getting into situations where people are making you cry when telling you about who you should be in the first place, Monica? Why don’t you find people who can deliver information in a different kind of way?

I guess my answer to that is that sometimes delivery isn’t correlated with value of information. Often it is—the more emotional people are and the stronger they’re nailing down their point, the more I find they’re using something other than logic and an understanding how I think in their arguments. But a lesson I’ve learned is that even in passionate deliveries, there’s often important information even if every point doesn’t hit home. So while people who deliver feedback nicely are always nice, it doesn’t seem like I should rule out people who deliver information less nicely just because of delivery.

None of this addresses the issue that I’m still very oriented around feedback from people I respect. I’m very other-oriented in this regard, and I’m not sure of the cases in which I’m happy with this, and where I think I should try to dial it down a little. It stems a lot from a desire to learn about myself, via other people’s perspectives, and it seems like I should be able to introspect about myself rather than always having to look through the mirror of others. But other people are so INFORMATIVE, and they see things DIFFERENTLY than I do, and I should definitely be able to find some tradeoff here and should stop belaboring the point before I sit down and try to figure this one out. (This one’s going to be so hard… caring deeply about feedback from others, and updating my beliefs and actions appropriately, is very ingrained in who I am and how I make progress. It’s embedded in the insecurity and vulnerability parts of this post, and seems to be a highly salient running theme. But I don’t think it’s likely that what I’m doing now is going to be exactly how I want it to be in future Monica, Monica prime. Arg. Actually, um.)

Ah man, example 3. I feel like I worked out a few things for myself here, but I’m still very nervous that I’m being naïve. Luckily, that fits into one of the feelings I’ve been living for the past two weeks—unease, and worry that I’m wrong, but with an overlying sense of satisfaction that I can change, and whatever comes out of this will be growing. There’s also fear, that whatever declarations I made of this experience changing me won’t come to fruition and will make me inconsistent with myself (hm, this doesn’t seem useful, maybe try to discard this?). And there’s excitement, because I just met a ton of new people through the Rationality Camp and associated parties, and there are a ton of new people and ideas to explore. (Also, my rotation project is going well. I’m excited to start collecting data from participants finally!)

I’m going to end it here, with a huge label of “UM” and the reminder that I’m in information-gathering stages right now and am super ready to listen to any and all feedback, to be integrated into whatever changes I end up making.

Thank you so much as always for reading—I am impressed and grateful as per usual. Thanks especially go out to the friends and family who have been hanging out with me recently and providing input to the system—thanks so much for your time and caring :).

Best wishes to you all,

Monica

 

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