Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Saying No

Well, it's the 4th of July, and that means it's time for a post about freedom. This will conclude the posts on anxiety, so you can stop worrying about it.

(Hah.)

You can split the concept of "rights" and freedom into two main concepts. One is what you are expressly given the capacity to do, which is called a positive liberty. The other is a negative liberty, which is a description of what won't be done to you.

Simple example time. The positive liberty component of "you may go wherever you like" is granted by having the ability to go where you like. The negative liberty component is that other people don't stop you. You may have a negative liberty on going to space--the government shall not grab you by the shoulders and keep you from leaping into space--but that doesn't mean you have a positive liberty to do so, either because you skip leg day or you don't own a spaceship. Nobody is stopping you, you just can't. A government-granted positive liberty would look something like "all citizens have the right to free spaceship rides, which the government shall provide."

The short version is that negative liberty is freedom from, and positive liberty is freedom to.

I'm going to focus on negative liberty today. Specifically, I've been thinking about the concept of saying "no." So let's think about cell walls. The biological kind of cell.

The cells of your body have membranes in order to keep things from going in and out very easily. A completely impermeable membrane would not let anything in or out. As it becomes more and more permeable, more stuff can sneak in or leak out, until eventually you have a completely porous membrane... which is to say, no membrane at all. At that point there isn't a cell, there's just a bunch of stuff that floats next to each other until other stuff knocks them around or gobbles them up.

In Infinitum, I talked about how it feels like I can't stop myself from thinking about endless possibilities, different outcomes, different ways that I could do things better, or different ways that things could be wrong. Recently, it occurred to me that this is a bit like cell with a highly porous membrane. The inability to keep things out can get easily leave your mind filled with junk. There's a trade-off there, which is a completely impermeable membrane could not allow in things like nutrients, or get rid of toxic metabolic by-products. And after that, we get terms like "open-minded" and "closed-minded" and we can see how the extreme version of both is easily dangerous for the mind.

Well, your cells have boundaries--their membranes--for the sake of their health. In relationships, you set boundaries with other people for the sake of both your health and the relationship's health. So it is with your mind. Your mind needs boundaries, for the sake of its health. When it comes to cells, you have a phospholipid bilayer. When it comes to your mind, you have the word "no," and I've found myself relying on that word more and more.

"No" is negative liberty verbalized. "No, you don't get to do that to me." And in this case, it's freedom from the thoughts and ideas that abduct my mind without my say-so. My brain has a lot of imagination. It gets very quickly carried away with new chains of thought, new associations, new ideas, new possibilities, new everything, and I find that I can be rather bad at saying "no" to those things. This is where practicing mindfulness has proven useful; I hear the thoughts relatively quickly, which is what allows me to tell them "no" before they sap my energy or distract me from what I was supposed to be doing. "No," in this context, is freedom from distraction, freedom from having to manage an endless slew of self-invented variables, freedom from having so many thoughts running around my head that I don't know where to start or how I'll ever finish.

Or--especially during the summer without classes or homework to think about--there are many times where I'll find myself sitting around with spare time and wondering what I should do, and finding that I just can't pick. I can imagine myself doing too many different things. Just thinking about it tires me out before I even pick one. I can't answer the question "what do I want to do?" because then my brain goes "well, what about this instead?" It can find so many acceptable answers that it begins to devalue all of them.

This is where "no" becomes useful. For instance, today I wasn't sure if I wanted to stream something, write something, practice guitar, clean up, or... maybe something else? It was hard to say yes to anything. The thing that got me motivated was saying "no." Specifically, this particular blog post came to mind, and when I thought "do I want to write it?" I found other stuff competing with it in my brainspace. So instead of saying "I want to"--because I wanted to do other stuff too, and that wasn't narrowing it down any--I found inside myself a minor revulsion to the idea of leaving this post unwritten. So I said no, I don't want to do that. That shoved everything else aside, and now here we are.

I think an immediate potential objection to this is that focusing on the negative aspect--particularly when it comes to a question like "what do you want to do?" versus "what don't you want"--is that it seems like it leaves out the possibility for things like fun or enjoyment. So I'll conclude with an example where that turned out not to be the case.

Somewhat recently, I got a watch, and for the process of buying it, I decided I was going to be really picky. I had a few ideas in mind of what I wanted, but I felt a determination to say "no" to a lot of different watches, because they can get expensive and I was damn sure I wouldn't buy one that I didn't really like. I went out a few times, looked online, and tried on a lot of watches, and said "no" to just about all of them. Rather than focusing on the positives--because I can talk myself into anything--I focused on things about them that immediately bugged me, or that I immediately didn't like. Too big, too shiny, not quite the right font for the numbers on the face, or the color of the dial didn't contrast the background enough, whatever the objection, I said "no" and went looking for a different one.

During the process, I started to notice that as I focused on things I didn't like, it made the things I did like start to pop out more. I started to notice watches that made me say "ooooh" like I'd just found treasure. I began noticing what specifically was making me dislike and like the watches I was looking at. Long story short, I finally found the watch I wanted, and seven months later I still look at it and smile.

The thing is, narrowing down a single choice didn't just mean coming up with reasons why I might like the one I was looking at. Like I said, I've got a very active imagination. I can come up with lots of reasons, whether they turn out to be true or not. That was never going to help me pick. If I wanted to narrow down from the hundreds of watches that I looked at, I had to start saying "no." If I knew specifically why I was saying "no," even better, because it gave me a way to filter all the future examinations.

Choices come from thoughts, so why not apply the concept to as well? Your mind needs boundaries, after all. Say no, loudly and clearly, to the unhelpful and distracting ones. Give yourself negative liberty from them. Feel free!

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Anxiety, Part 2

Some time ago I said I would write a series of posts on stress and anxiety. Then I wrote one thing and didn’t finish any others. There’s an irony here, which is that the post I did write tried to express this constant worry of not being good enough. About my mind being able to generate endless possible ways in which I might be better, or do something better, or do something different, and thus overload myself via paralysis of analysis.

Well, guess what happened to the other posts on anxiety?

One of the reasons that I was able to stick to a constant upload schedule some time ago was because, I think, I made the update schedule more important than writing good blog posts. Just get something out, two times a week, and I stuck to it for--I think--at least a year. That was pretty good for me! Even though I read back on some posts and think “meh” or even “oh jeez that was dumb,” I don’t do that for as many as I’d expect.

But I get this way, where each time I do something well, I quickly update my expectation of how I’m going to do in the future, and I detest backsliding. “Do better every day.” If I write a post that some people seem to like, then I feel the pressure to follow it up with something even better. If I can’t think of something amazing, or I start writing it and it turns out blah, then I don’t write anything. I’m the kind of person who would rather get a zero on a homework assignment because I just don’t turn it in than get a 40% on an assignment I only partly completed. Somewhere, right now, my GPA is glaring at me.

There are times where that’s a useful attitude, and times where it isn’t. We know some people who just clock in, do their thing, and punch out, and they never seem to do anything better or do anything differently, and wonder why things aren't improving. You don't want to be that person, stuck on a grind like that. But neither you don’t want to be the person so obsessed with doing things perfectly that you don’t do anything at all. These ideas--be consistent even if it’s crappy, versus quality over quantity--are neither automatically good nor bad, but they do exert a balancing force on one another.

I think a key here is to figure out which one you tend to be, and correct in the other direction. Since you’re going to lean automatically one way, you want to use your conscious mind to overemphasize the one that you’re bad at, and let those automatic tendencies balance it out. One person can be overconfident and arrogant and another can have low-self esteem, and the advice for the two must be different if they are to end up in that sweet-spot of “trust yourself and stand up for yourself, but also listen to other people just in case you’re wrong.”

In my case, I’m obsessive over quality. I want to be at 100% all the time, and I want the meaning of that 100% to get better each time too. But is that possible? Experience has shown me it’s not, and I need to remember that this obsession with perfect output and constant improvement just shoots itself in the foot. In fact, it's proven to reduce my output and rate of improvement. The bright side here is that if I focus more on emphasizing consistency, then my automatic tendencies to stress about perfection kick in anyhow, and I'm rarely left with something that I honestly think sucks.

So I just sat down to write today with the determination that I would make this the next post in the anxiety series, whether I like it or not, and here we are.

*

Big tangent incoming, but don’t worry, it comes back around.

Dictionary.com defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

In talking about psychology, it’s important to remember that few things in and of themselves count as disorders, or even problems. It’s always about context. The question is whether an emotion, perception, or state of mind is pathological. Is it chronic? Is it disproportionate to the situation? Does it dominate your mind? Does something self-damaging act as your default state? Does it cause more problems than it actually solves?

The world itself contains threats and challenges. You try to remember the ones in the past so you can deal with the ones in the present, and prepare for ones in the future. Anxiety, worry, fear, stress, these are reasonable and useful responses! But only to an extent. Specifically, the extent that they are reasonable and useful.

Yes, that is a circular description, and not a very helpful one. Unfortunately, we get our understanding of what that extent is through experience and feedback, and that experience and feedback is filtered through our state of mind, which may currently be feeling things like anxiety, worry, fear, and stress. This biases you a bit, and it’s hard to escape that bias because it doesn’t feel like bias, it feels like reality. Challenging that reality feels foolish and insane from the inside, but if you could somehow see it from the outside, you might know it for what it is.

You know that situation in a story--TV show, book, comic, movie, whatever--where the one character comes into a screwed up situation from the outside, and sees how screwed up it is, and tries to tell another character that it’s all screwed up? But for that other character, the situation is consistent with their own worldview, and nothing appears contradictory? It takes some kind of dissonance, some contradiction, some little experience or evidence that just doesn’t sit right. Then there’s a crack in the facade, and then the character tries to figure out what is causing the crack, which leads to more cracks, and eventually the whole thing breaks apart. Or they refuse to pursue that little contradiction, and they deny it, and they stay locked in, and if you like that character, you sit in the audience like “COME ONNNNNNNNNN.”

I have this vague memory from a long time ago of seeing that trope and asking myself a question that was, more or less, “how would I persuade somebody that they were in a cult?” And then I thought a little bit, and realized a much harder question was “how would I know if I was in one?” Very normal-seeming people can end up in cults and do some really weird stuff while their brain tells them that everything is normal and correct! Everything has its neat little explanation, nothing is off, everything is fine. If you were in that position, you would have to use your mind to figure things out, but your mind is biased towards believing itself! My answer at the time was “question yourself constantly” and in retrospect, this line of thinking may have contributed to a long history of self-doubt and paranoia. I’ve become biased towards assuming that I’m always wrong, so I don’t know if it’s actually that healthy to question yourself as often as became my habit.

But if you ever do find yourself wondering, “hey, am I in a cult?” or “hey, do I hold a lot of highly inaccurate beliefs and live inside a mental bubble disconnected from the world?”, then the way you figure it out is “be annoying.” There’s a common rule that every cult has to keep its power, that every screwed up situation uses to keep you stuck inside, which is this: there are some things that you just don’t question. Those are the weak points in the whole system, and your willful ignorance is the armor that protects them. Ask too many inconvenient questions, and eventually you find the loose thread that unravels the whole thing. So if you ever get that little suspicion that something is off, be that annoying little kid that keeps asking “why” to everything. If people start to get unreasonably mad and they tell you to shut up and stop asking questions, the odds that something is fishy instantly go up.
Not always, mind you. There might be a good reason and they’re just crappy at explaining things, or the explanation is complicated and you won’t actually get it, or you just don’t accept it because you are the stubborn one. Sometimes you know something works, but you don’t know why; parents might not have PHDs in developmental biology and nutrition, but they do know that eating vegetables is generally good for you and you should do it and just please be quiet and eat your vegetables, it’s been a long day, why, because I said so. No, not a vegetable cult, nutrition is just complicated.

Where was I going with this? Right. Anxiety.

The thing about pathological fear and anxiety is that it just kind of hovers over you for no reason. You will have an automatic belief that situations are threatening and that you should be worried. This worry makes you interpret stuff as dangerous. After all, the world is full of ambiguity and noise and confusion, and we often have to make guesses about what things mean. So things don’t worry you because they’re scary, you see them as scary because you are always worried. In a different frame of mind, you might have brushed things off, but here and now, because you are worried, you put a filter over everything so that everything is worrisome. But some things are dangerous and some things are worth fearing. How do you get it right?

First answer, you don’t always. You just give it your best guess and sometimes you’re wrong, and you try to learn from things, and hopefully this means that when something turns out not so bad you worry a bit less, and when something does turn out bad, you trust a bit less. Hopefully, with experience, you get things wrong less often.

Second answer, you ask why. You chase the threads and you look for the cracks.

I have found that when I am in a default state of “things are scary, I’m worried, everything is a threat” that I don’t have very good answers to “wait, why am I worried about this?” I ask that question and then my initial answer is “because……. because!!!!!!” Just trust me, it will be awful. Of this I am certain, no more need be known. Stop asking questions and hit the fetal position.

If I’m not so stressed out that I notice this is kind of a crappy answer, then I ask “because what? What will be so terrible?” My brain, ready to provide but annoyed that I’m challenging its own terrified authority, might give me an answer. When I’m at my best, I ask why again. And again, and again, and look for more cracks in the armor. What’s interesting is that even if I end up with genuinely good answers, I notice myself also coming up with genuinely good actions to take care of them, and then I end up less afraid anyhow! Very cool.

The thing about pathological anxiety is that it starts as the default and uses its presence to prove itself. You start worried just because you always are, and then that worry makes things seem scary, and then you stay afraid because of all the scary things. It’s a seamless sleight of mind, an illusory masterwork, a suffocating tapestry of interlocked and self-corroborating assumptions. It’s a jerk, and an efficient jerk. What’s worse is that its whole goal is “keep you safe,” so it can cheat. It can say “see? If I hadn’t made you run, then who knows what would have happened to you?” It cites itself as its most credible source, and because you’re still panicked or worried, the story checks out, and grows stronger. You become both leader and follower in a cult of your own fear.

So ask why. You might have a good reason to be afraid, to be nervous, to feel stress, to worry, and so the answers will come, and that’s okay. It’s okay to be worried and afraid at times. It keeps you alive when there is danger.

But you might feel a voice, a panicked and angry voice inside of you that says “look I just AM okay!?” And so you keep asking. It might try to cough up reasons, and then you come up with a counterexample of why those reasons aren’t that great, to see if it can answer those, and it starts to stutter and stammer and flounder and dissipate. It will try to fall back on the weight of its own existence as its final authority. Don’t let it. Challenge it, and you may come to see that the fears are fog and mist, clouding your judgment but ultimately insubstantial. Hell, it might just ultimately admit “I don’t know.”

I’ve been there too. I’ve been worried and afraid and shaking and when I try to probe for an answer, I just don’t know, and even knowing that, I can’t shake that feeling. I take some deep breaths but I’m still on edge, I fidget to burn off the nervous energy and it doesn’t go away. This is the worst one to admit to, because it feels like quitting, like saying “I am afraid and quivering because deep down I’m like one of those tiny yipping dogs terrified by the unceasing pressure of existence all around me, can you just lay off?” Sometimes the questions just hit a dead end wall of panic that stubbornly refuses to vanish.

Still though. There is something about realizing that, knowing that the feeling is separate from the actual events of the world. If, in those moments, I can remember that I don’t always feel like that, and it will go away because it has in the past and will in the future, and that it’s not connected to something tangible around me… well, it doesn’t go away, but it loses some of the edge. I feel it disconnect, just a bit, and it frees me up to act, just a bit. I step outside of it a little, which can ease up the pressure and let me take a breath and slow down. Sometimes I hear my own panicked thoughts just thinking the phrase “I’m afraid,” and in the most comforting mental tone of voice I can muster, I respond with “I know man. I know.” When it just won’t go away, then sometimes you acknowledge--with a bit of compassion and comfort--that it’s there, and suddenly, in that moment, it becomes separate from you, and you can take a step forward.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Existing With Anger

This past Monday, I entered a Melee tournament for the first time in a hot minute. I had the cute idea of teaming with HomeMadeWaffles at Smash'n'Splash, the plan being that we will get top 8 in doubles and cast top 8 in singles. I only believe that one of those is actually going to happen, but we'll do our best.

Anyhow, the long story short is that I entered and got pissed. Again.

I decided I wouldn't want to compete anymore when I was at Frosty Faustings earlier this year. The thing is, I've been frustrated with my anger and competitive nature. I've always had this issue where if I focus on keeping my anger down, then the anger stays down... but then I am not paying attention to the game. If I focus entirely on the game, the anger creeps in.

It makes me feel like I'm not good at controlling my emotions. However, upon reflecting, I'm actually very good at controlling my anger! Sort of. I don't really control it. I just try to avoid feeling it.

This isn't necessarily a repression strategy, but more of a preventative one. I try to reframe the situation in my head constantly so that I can avoid getting angry at all. I will give myself different perspectives on what's happening, or I'll mentally zoom out to persuade myself that it--whatever it is--isn't worth getting angry over. Basically, I'm practicing emotional preventative medicine, not anger management.

The reason that it's not really anger management is that when I actually get angry, it's just as intense and dominant as it's ever been. I have become slightly better at distancing myself from situations when I become angry, and I have become a bit better at defusing intense anger without a destructive physical reaction. My more infamous blow-ups may belie that, but that's because when you control anger, people don't always know you were mad to begin with.

(I know it's not the best selling point of my own character to say "think of all the walls I didn't punch!" or "what about the times I didn't throw stuff!" but this blog is about honesty, not making me look good)

On this blog, I spend a lot of time writing about anxiety and depression, because I spend a lot of time feeling anxious and depressed. I can't always make those feelings go away very easily. Instead, I've had to learn to act around them. I have to learn how to remain effective without the depression or anxiety actually going away. This lets me not actually worry about being worried or depressed! If they show up, I am confident that I can deal with them. I'm almost too confident that I can work my way through it, because they still sneak up on me sometimes, but I don't feel this constant biting fear that they will catch me slipping. I implement my strategies and try to move on with my life.

There are certain emotions, however, that I still try very hard to avoid feeling, because I don't know how to function well in those states, or if I can. I've developed a huge array of tactics to avoid actually getting angry at all. But that's not really anger management, in the same way that you don't have "pain tolerance" just because you never get hurt. I can manage myself while depressed, I can manage myself while stressed and nervous. What I can't seem to do is manage myself well while angry. I just try to avoid getting to that point, because when it washes over me, my functioning drops like a rock.

The same is true with my general feelings of aggression and competitiveness. When they kick in, they kick in hard. It's difficult to shut them off, it's difficult not to let them take control. They synergize quite a bit with the anger, which makes them a nasty trio for me to deal with. Hence why I have wanted to stop competing entirely.

Monday night, I spent quite awhile before the tournament trying to run my normal mental routine to avoid getting upset and focus on learning and getting back into competing shape. But once I started making a few too many mistakes, I started trying to focus on correcting them, on trying to win. Aggravation kicked in. I started shaking my head, cussing semi-audibly, and biting my lip. I set my controller down after my first loss and walked away from it, just in case.

Given how easily I can get that angry, but how uncommon it is for me actually to fly off the handle anymore (relatively, that is), I kind of want to high five myself. I might not be giving myself enough credit here, because I've gotten much better over time. The internal element of it is what gets me the most, right now. It's distracting. It feels physically uncomfortable. And since we are talking about the game, it also affects my decision making and play for the worse, in a way that feeds into itself.

My go-to strategy for this inner struggle and conflict has been to avoid it completely. I do my best to avoid getting angry at all, avoid feeling aggressive or competitive at all, avoid getting riled up at all. Lately I've been wondering if this is actually the tack I should be taking.

It has definitely helped, don't get me wrong. In just about every life situation except for Smash, I don't actually feel anger that often, and I definitely don't think that's a bad thing! Not only that, very few things that I try to focus on are as fast-paced and mentally demanding as Smash, so if the feelings do arise, I often notice the anger while it's still in an infant state, and I correct my course. It's almost trivially easy, compared to managing myself in a competitive environment.

I don't want to sound like I'm angry about not getting angry. The issue that I find is that my anger, aggression, and competitiveness aren't healthy parts of me. They're things that I avoid because I cannot stand being in those states. The anger isn't just a stressful state, it generates meta-stress about being angry! I think things like "oh my GOD why are you still getting so MAD" and that just tilts me further. I'm worried about losing control, looking stupid, as well as an intense discomfort with the physical feeling.

I'm trying to figure out how to approach this. It's a bit like being tired, where you can't just drink coffee every time you get a bit tired, even if you have some work to do. You have to learn how to get work done when you're tired! You can't only do your workout when you're physically fresh, because strength and endurance are built when you are on the edge of exhaustion.

You become stronger and develop endurance so that you don't get exhausted, but you have to enter that kind of state and still function in order to actually build those qualities. If you stop the moment you're tired, you don't actually become stronger. That's not "exhaustion management," that's called "skipping half of your workout."

But what's the method here? Do I need to just... get angry more? I'm pretty strong at preventing myself from getting angry (well, in every circumstance but Smash, it seems), the problem is that when I finally do get angry, I no longer function well. I feel like I may need to let myself get angry more often, and then train myself to handle existing within that state. Not only by defusing the feeling every time it shows up, but by shaking hands with it, so to speak. Maybe if I can just have more experience feeling that way, rather than avoiding it, I'll get more comfortable with it, and that alone will let me exercise more control over the emotion.

I am not sure how much I want to do that though. I developed my anti-depressive and anti-anxiety tools as a result of spending a lot of time depressed and anxious. The tools work pretty well, but I really didn't enjoy the process though. Plus, if I only feel this anger when I play Smash, then there's a fairly obvious strategy available.

Something I've been thinking about lately though is that I didn't just get techniques out of that process. I also had to dissect the process in a way that I could repeat consciously, which meant learning how to describe it. One of the happiest feelings I have the pleasure of experiencing is when people tell me that my blog helped them with something. It's possible that it's up to me to go through my own anger and just keep writing things down, and maybe I'll have things to share about that, too.

So whether I like it or not, it feels like this is the next thing I have to focus on. Existing within my anger so that I can handle it being part of me, not using every mental resource I have shutting it down. Hopefully I'll have more to say on this subject soon.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 16, 2018

One Victory

Go figure, I’ve been writing and rewriting my anxiety posts because I want to get them exactly right. I also realized a little late that I missed my weekly scheduled post, and they aren’t quite done, so for this week I want to revisit a cognitive tool that helps me tremendously with regards to both anxiety and depression. I have mentioned it in a previous post before (which I can’t seem to find, otherwise I would link it), and I call it my “one victory” tool.

It’s pretty simple. When I am in my most depressive, most anti-productive moods, or my most anxious and overwhelmed moods, I basically give myself a simple deal. I will do a single thing, the smallest, most insignificant thing, and call it a victory. I only need to get one for the day. If, afterwards, I still feel crappy and depressive, or frustrated and overwhelmed, or all of those things and more… then I can stop. Just one victory for the day, no matter how minor.

There’s a trick here though, which is that it’s not a trick. I legitimately give myself that permission to do nothing else useful for the day. If my room looks like a pile of garbage because I had three exams in two days and I’m exhausted, and I look at it and just think “no, it’s too much,” then I give myself an honest choice. Do one thing, throw away one piece of trash or pick up one shirt and throw it in the hamper, literally a single thing, and I can stop after that if I want. I can go back and be a blob if I really want to.

I’ve tried to use cognitive tricks on myself in the past, and they don’t really work. I know I’m lying to myself, and thus they always short circuit. The thing is, this is not a trick. I know I will feel better if I’ve done something, no matter how insignificant, rather than nothing. That feeling will usually be the makings of a humble avalanche that gives me a little more energy to get a little more done. But if, for some reason, I am still truly exhausted and overwhelmed… well, okay. Back to being a blob. At least something got done, no matter how minor. Things are better. Most importantly, I kept my promise to myself, which means that I take that bargain in good faith in the future. Again, it’s not a trick, and I am not lying to myself, and no matter what happens, I feel a little better. Win-win.

If you want to stop reading there, go for it, but I’m going to explain a little why I think this works.

*

Something that’s interesting about anxiety and depression is that they are a little opposed to each other, yet they are also often comorbid. That’s the psych term for “disorders that occur together.” Anxiety can look like nervous energy, restlessness, and fear; depression can look like giving up and not moving at all. Why do the two seem to happen at the same time? Well, apart from the chemical reason (which is most easily described as “serotonin being weird and complicated, trust me, it’s wild”), the two lead into each other just as a matter of course.

If you are nervous and worried all the time, just because, then there is never any way that you can take care of every worry or every threat. It’s not that there’s always more to take care of, it’s that you are just always worried, whether there’s a reason or not. There’s always more to do and stress about if you look hard enough!

On the one hand, this looks like chronic stress, which weakens your immune system, makes you get worse sleep, have less energy, think less clearly, and have less time for things that are fun because you’re always trying to take care of threats. That looks a lot like depression. On the other hand, you can easily develop the feeling that things will never get better, that things won’t ever be solved, because there’s just always something else and the problems never seem to end. That can make you feel hopeless, and that looks like depression too.

Meanwhile, if you start with depression and have less energy and motivation to take care of things, tasks and responsibilities can pile up. You can develop the attitude that you never finish everything, which means that there is always something more that you’re missing… and sure enough, that looks like anxiety. You can develop the attitude that you always screw up and that you can’t do anything, and that means the threats will close in, make you nervous, worried, and then you just want to escape and hide.

The reason that I feel like the “one victory” trick works so well (for me, anyhow) is that I am constantly analyzing and assessing how things are going. I have a tough time logically believing “things are hopeless” if I literally just saw an improvement. Things can’t be hopeless forever--something just changed for the better! Sure it was minor, but it exists. You can’t make a logical assertion “everything sucks” and have it be true if I can point to something that doesn’t suck.

Another issue that I have is that I tend to imagine things in their entirety, and “one victory” takes me away from that. When I think “clean my room,” I look at all the stuff I have to do, and that might be an hour worth of effort. If I’m tired, then I don’t feel like an hour’s worth of effort is in me, and I don’t start. I get overwhelmed because I instantly begin imagining all the random crap I have to do. On the other hand, if I focus on a single manageable task, and I let myself stop after… what’s to get overwhelmed by? I can finish within twenty seconds, and be back in bed feeling terrible if I want to. If I don’t want to stop there, then the next victory is also just twenty seconds of effort. It transforms the whole thing into a lot of small steps, each of which I can complete with little effort, and the overwhelming feeling starts to dissipate.

There are days where I’ve kept that promise to myself, and gone back into bed after throwing away like, one candy wrapper or something. While that outcome is pretty rare, I don’t consider it a failure of the technique. After all, it got me out of bed, and improved my situation a little. A win is a win. Not a big win, no, but my alternative was “being in bed doing nothing, feeling terrible.” Now, my situation is “being in bed, having done one thing, feeling less terrible.” It’s an objective improvement. It is another piece of evidence in my brain that I can overcome that crappy feeling, even if only for a little bit, to make things better. Later, when I feel better, I might get another thing done, and another, and another… but even if it’s just one victory, it’s better than nothing.

Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next week.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Infinitum

The hardest moment for a writer is a blank page. We know too many words, too many ways to begin, that to pick just one from that space is nearly impossible. We find ourselves imagining “what if,” what if we had chosen something else? It could have been perfect, and this is not perfect at all, no, it could be so much more.

What if every moment you lived was a blank page? What if every second left you hanging in a space where an infinity of choices lay before you, knowing that no matter what you pick, somewhere out there is something better?

My imagination is too strong. I can account for too much. In a sentence, at least, each word narrows down what could make some measure of sense. Then I can go back, fix that first cursed word according to that same principle, find the right beginning having written the rest. I can burn the candle from both ends. I can reconstruct, rewrite, and redo. The anxiety of the blank page is nothing compared to the terror of a blank moment.

I can say anything, and only silence escapes me. I can choose anything, and choose to wait. I can be anything, and so I feel like nothing. I could have said more, done more, been more. I could have spoken better, done better, been better.

If only I could see less, if only less was possible. Moments do not shrink that endless space, they compound it. I pick my actions based on the world those actions may create, but from that world there is yet layer after layer of infinity. There is too much! How can I choose if I can’t see forward? And how can I choose when I can?

Always it has been my habit to look back and think, “what more could I have done, and what differently?” This has not made it better. It has made it worse. It is just another side to an endless shape, another facet to consider, another surface from which my mind’s light can reflect to blind me.

Questions, thoughts, ideas, words, choices, all flow in through every open pore of my attention, each one tinted with the fear of error and the threat of inadequacy. To dull the edge of that fear and to neutralize that threat, I know only three answers: I can shut down, through sleep or an effortful emptiness; I can ingest stimulants and render my mind as hot as a star-heart furnace, blazing through each and every thought as quickly as they come; and lastly, I can rush to fill the space myself, get there first with something simple, something clear, something obvious enough that resolution and success are possible. Those are my methods, all effective yet all insufficient to withstand the spectral infinity that assails me.

Moment by moment, second by second, a blank page of life stares at me, and I stare back, overflowing with answers yet vacant of a response.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Predictive Learning

I’m gonna start this post by bragging a bit. One of my greatest interests through my entire life has been learning. Not just “I want to be a lifelong learner,” but understanding the act and process of learning, getting better at it, refining it, etc. How do you jump into a new skill, possibly in some arena that you’ve never tried before, and acquire competence?

This is one reason that I’ve struggled to acquire real mastery over anything. “Competence” comes from knowing the principles of a skill and having some experience applying them. It allows you to reliably attain good outcomes. “Mastery,” on the other hand, comes from feeling the principles of a skill so deeply that you apply them automatically. Not only do you achieve good outcomes, but you see good outcomes where other people don’t, and you achieve them seemingly effortlessly.

Mastery demands time. No matter how quickly you acquire your competence, you will eventually hit a wall where the conscious application of your knowledge is not enough. It needs to be automatic, to let your mind be free to think about more and more difficult problems. Difficult concepts (or techniques, if you’re looking at a physical task) need to become simple for you, so that they can become the building blocks of even more intricate ideas. This lets you make hard things look easy while the impossible becomes possible. For us humans, in most cases mastery is a heck of a grind.

While the strongest imaginable learner could approach mastery quickly and easily, for most people, the objective of being a strong learner means approaching competence quickly. In this regard (brag incoming) I’m happy to say that I’ve become a relatively strong learner. I’ve been able to achieve competence at most things that I set my mind to, and the more I practice learning, the better I get at doing it. Especially when it has come to video games, I have achieved competence at certain games and genres that, in the past, I never thought I’d be able to. Not mastery by any stretch of the imagination, but competence.

What’s interesting to me is that I don’t feel particularly smart or talented. I make plenty of very stupid mistakes all the time. Even my strongest skills--verbal ones, specifically--are rooted in a lot of goofy failures and errors; I just got them out of the way when I was younger. What has helped me become “smarter”--a better learner, in other words--has been acquiring learning tools that I can consistently apply when learning things in new arenas.

Based on things I’ve been studying in machine learning, neuroscience, and based on my own experience, I’ve been thinking about one of the strongest tools in my learning toolkit, and I’ve realized just how damn strong it is. It’s the kind of thing that I would automatically do sometimes, forget to do other times, and not even realize it counted as a technique! The best name I can think of for it is “predictive learning,” and that’s the real topic of today’s post.

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The first thing to know is that your brain does not really “store” information. It’s not a big filing cabinet that just pulls up sheets of paper with information on them. It recreates information based on rules and past experiences.

Here’s what I mean. Imagine two video games playing two different cutscenes. The first game plays the exact same cutscene every time; it stores a video file and runs it when you trigger the cutscene. There is no way to change the cutscene unless you actually went in and screwed with the files in the game.

Now imagine the second video game recreates the cutscene every time. It grabs the current model of a bunch of characters, and then executes the cutscene according to a bunch of rules. If your character is wearing a different costume, then the cutscene runs with them wearing that costume. If it were an RPG, and your party could have different characters in it, then the cutscene runs with your different party members in the background.

The first game just stores the cutscene, and runs it when asked. The second one rebuilds it, every time, based on certain information and principles. Your brain works a lot more like the second game than the first one, and when you are learning how to do a skill, your brain is coming up with rules for how to do things. The brain is flexible though. It changes its rules when it learns that they aren’t quite getting the job done, and that’s the basis of learning.

Reread that last sentence. Your brain changes the rules based on how good of an outcome you get. However, you don’t just want to get good outcomes. You want your brain to be good at predicting what actually happens based on what it does. That’s a key distinction! When you get too focused on getting a “good” outcome, then you become satisfied with rules that don’t actually match reality. The heart of becoming a strong learner is not being satisfied with good outcomes, but striving for accurate predictions. You can get an outcome that you didn’t expect, but still succeed, and convince yourself that you knew what you were doing. Understanding this allows you to employ predictive learning to get better faster. It also has the benefit of making you look like a psychic genius, but that’s (probably) not your main goal here.

Initially, whatever you are learning about, you will start just by observing things. There’s not much point in trying to predict what will happen in a new situation when you have no rules for the system. You just start with nearly random inputs, or you start by watching other people. This phase gives you some correlations. It gives you some information on what to expect. At this phase, if somebody asks you what you think is going to happen, then your initial answer should be “I have no idea” or “here’s a wild guess but it’s probably wrong.”

If you are watching attentively, your brain will automatically start developing some rules for how the system works. It will start to say “based on what I saw, or what I know, this is what I think will happen.” Your brain has been doing this since you were a baby! You watched adults walking, and got an idea for the outcome that should happen. This is why kids will get themselves into the general walking posture; they know that it’s associated with walking. But without any information on how it felt to make the muscles do the job, all it could do was say “uh, get in this general position? I guess?” and then you tip over. Walking, it turns out, is actually really hard when you’ve never done it before.

That’s where the next phase comes in. The prediction phase. “If I do this, then THIS should happen.” Once you have some data, you will start to make active guesses about outcomes. Making these active guesses is super important. It forces you to take the rules inside your head and apply them to the system. It forces you to go through the steps of recreating the system in your head. It’s a test! Your goal is to get your rules to match up with reality. If I do X, then Y happens… yeah! That’s right! Now if I do A, then B should… no, it’s C. Hmm. Maybe… I do A, but a little more like this, and… yeah! It worked! You’re learning!

This is where predictive learning, however, gets trickier. You aren’t just trying to predict only the good outcomes. You are trying to develop an internal model of the system that is accurate all over. You want to get detailed. You want to get imaginative. This is what separates predictive learning from just memorizing. You don’t just say “this is how I get the good outcome,” but you can accurately answer the question “now what happens if I do things this way?” When you truly try to model the system that you’re learning, there are no trick questions. There is only the system and your inner model of it. You can predict the weird outcomes just as well as you can predict the normal ones. In fact, “weird” stops being a thing. If something is weird, it means that your inner rules aren’t accurate.

Let’s say I practice free-throws. I can “memorize” the free-throw, and I can get very good at it. But does that mean I will really understand the interactions between my body and the basketball? Does that mean I will be able to effectively take any other shot?

The short answer is no. Predictive learning, in its strongest form, means that you will do things like guess just how successful something will be. Or you guess where it will go wrong, how wrong, and to what extent. Predictive learning means you don’t just try to get a good result, it means that you try to model the end result, and you change your rules when your model is wrong. This is especially true the more and more detailed you try to get. You can apply predictive learning to your free-throw shot when you say “if I shoot like this, is that enough to get the ball to hit the backboard and sink?” Or “if I do this wrist movement, then the ball will bounce in if it hits the back rim… oh, no it, bounced out? I wonder why?” This keeps you from simply saying “okay I can sink my free throw shot all the time.” It means you understand, deep down, the interaction between the ball and your body, between the ball and the hoop. It lets you take those ideas and apply them elsewhere! It also lets you correct things when they start to go wrong; that day when you have a little tweak in your shoulder and your normal shot doesn’t work, you can work through the problem.

I want to be clear though, I actually don’t have anything against memorization. The free-throw shot is one you will probably have to take, on average, more than any other shot in basketball. It can pay off big time when you memorize the most common situations, especially if, in a given system, you can guarantee that those situations will occur. For example, you get your star player to practice free-throws all the time because they get fouled constantly to stop them from running wild on the court, and if they can sink all their free-throws then that means free points.

"Memorizing" in this case also just means "practice." Particularly when it comes to physical skills, there is exactly one way to get your body used to certain techniques, and that's to do them over and over again while comparing them against the ideal. Even when you aren't trying to become a master of something, as a human being this particular phase of learning can't be ignored, and I don't want you to think it can be. Complicated sequences of muscle interactions will demand that you grind and rehearse to get them perfect. Even while trying to employ predictive learning, if you want consistent performance then you need to develop consistent technique, and repetition is the cornerstone of that.

(Memorizing can also be useful to memorize certain things when you try your absolute hardest but just can’t seem to come up with the rules that cover everything. There’s this one thing that you have a habit of getting wrong… so you have your rules for everything else, and then you memorize that one weird case. It’s okay to admit that your inner model isn’t perfect. It’s a band-aid solution, and band-aids aren’t ideal but they’re better than bleeding everywhere)

The key here, however, is that you develop a strong inner model of the system you are learning. You constantly, actively try to guess how things will play out. Being wrong is a good thing, because it lets you improve your model. When other people’s rules have exceptions, but yours don’t, that means you have the real ones, the ones that account for the strange and the weird and the uncommon. That means that even the really wacky stuff just seems obvious to you, because that’s what your model says will happen… and then it turns out you’re right.

So don’t just watch, and don’t just try to force yourself towards memorizing how to secure a good outcome. Actively predict how things will turn out, and when you’re wrong, look for the thing you missed, or the thing that you paid too much attention to. When you are wrong, tweak yourself in the direction of being a better predictor. It takes a bit more effort, but it pays off.

Thanks for reading!