My “2.9 trauma limit”

Here is how I think about trauma.

It’s packaged in a language intended to be accessible to people who are skeptical of trauma-narratives. It kinda skips over all the actually hard parts because I don’t feel like dealing with that today, and many of them are sort of private and involve other people. I realize that makes it fairly abstract and maybe hard follow. Tough nuts?

I suppose worth saying explicitly: I think my experience with trauma was relatively simple, and I expect people with more complicated and long-lived trauma experiences to need pretty different frameworks. YMMV.

But if you’re skeptical that “trauma” is a useful pointer for “what sort of things are going wrong?”, I think this may give you some useful hooks for thinking about whether it applies to you.

Trauma Advocates circa 2019

Around 2018-2019, there was a fairly common set of memes in my local social group around processing trauma. There were some people who had noticed:

  • They (and many people they talked to), felt very stuck, demotivated, unhappy or unproductive in mysterious ways.

  • They eventually came to believe that this was downstream of trauma they had experienced awhile ago (often in childhood), in ways that shaped what stories they felt allowed to tell themselves, and what sort of motivations they were allowed to have. Their motivations were a series of spaghetti code built on top of said trauma.

  • Notably, it had not been salient to them that they were experiencing trauma for most of their adult life. But they eventually hit on a realization that they’d been ignoring their emotions, while thinking they were awesome at emotions. Unlocking this realization made them happier and more fulfilled.

  • They observed at least some other people for whom the above story was clearly true.

  • They observed that many rationalists-in-their-neighborhood seemed to have at least some things in common with the story (i.e. mysteriously unmotivated, anxious, etc).

  • They went around diagnosing people as traumatized. Such as me.

And I reflected a bit, and I was like “I… I dunno man. I’ve thought about it a bunch. I just… really don’t seem very traumatized?”

One argument about this resulted in my blogpost Strategies for Personal Growth. I noticed me and a friend were talking past each other a bunch about self-improvement, and I kept talking in the frame of “what skills can I gain and how can I gain them?” and they kept talking in the frame of “how can I heal?”. It took me awhile to understand that we were coming at this from two frames, and this made sense because we were in different life-trajectories where (AFAICT) it really did make sense for me to be focused on gaining skills at the time, and it really made sense for them to be focused on healing.

Then, the pandemic happened.

Trauma from the perspective of the Robot Utilitarians

And everyone I know suddenly had to deal with many important pillars of their life getting ripped out at once, and having to make very stressful negotiations with their roommates and coworkers where people had different needs, different epistemics on “how dangerous is covid?” and different preferences on how to resolve disagreements on covid policy.

I had a really intense experience with this. A few months into the pandemic, I found myself waking up once a week crying in the middle of the night. And eventually I was like


“this is a trauma. I did not have A Trauma before, but I got one now.”

And I queried my Spirit of Humanity shoulder advisor and was like “hey I seem traumatized now. What do I do?” and the Spirit of Humanity said “obviously seems pretty important to work through your trauma so you can be healthy and happy and whole.”

And I was like “ugh, that seems like a lot of work.” and then I queried my Spirit of Robot Utilitarianism shoulder advisor and was like “hey Spirit of the Robot Utilitarians, what do you think about me having A Trauma? What if I just ignored it and powered through?”

And the Spirit of the Robot Utilitarians said “If you don’t process your trauma, you could bury it deep inside and just focus on getting work done. But, if you ever got a total of three traumas, you’d probably become a broken shell of a person and then you wouldn’t be able to serve the Glory of Great Robot Utilitaria. So, maybe prioritize processing and dealing with it before two more traumas happen and you end up tying yourself in a knot you can’t untangle?”

Hmm, good point, Spirit of The Robot Utilitarians.

So, I worked on processing my trauma, which involved talking through it with friends and figuring out what I was upset about. I did some focusing, and eventually found a felt sense about what felt so awful, and articulated it, and then once I articulated it clearly it became fairly natural to grieve and let it go. Sorta.

I think I approximately half-way processed that trauma, such that I was down to .5 traumas. So I could afford to get 2.4 more traumas without becoming a broken shell of a person.

The rest of the pandemic passed without further trauma-related-stuff.

2.9 Traumas

Then the pandemic ended, and it came time to a) integrate back into the rest of the world, b) figure out what the LessWrong team was supposed to do and how to orient to a changing world with dangerous x-risks, and c) figure out what community was supposed to mean, since a lot of my previous thoughts on community felt like they had turned out to be incoherent.

Somehow in the process of dealing with all that I gained 2.4 traumas. The exact nature of those traumas is bigger than I feel like getting into right now, and maybe they were idiosyncratic to me. It involved reconciling a part of me that really wanted to just have a nice village, and be a humble village priest who helped their local community be nice. And a part of me that felt “man, the village is not safe. I can’t in good conscience just stay here having a nice life. The spirit of the village compels me to leave the village and figure out how to help protect the broader world.

“But, man, something about that feels really sad/​bad.”

I came into work Monday morning and say “Hey, Oliver Habryka, I now I have 2.9 traumas, and I have an intuition that if I gain a total of 3 traumas I will become a broken shell of a person. So, uh, be aware that might suddenly happen?”

Five days later, there was some minor fight on the LessWrong team about how to build a piece of software, and I gained .1 traumas from it, and then I became a broken shell of a person.

And then I spent all weekend crying in the bathtub, trying to understand what was going on inside me and how to fix it. And I processed it back down to 2.9 traumas, and came back in the next Monday and said “Okay, I hit 3 traumas last Friday, I processed them back down to 2.9 and I’m functional now, but, I think now my primary priority for quite awhile needs to be processing stuff and disentangling all my conflicting motivations and relationships.”

A thing that was salient to me as I went about this was...

...some of those other people who got really into Processing Trauma seemed to… end up falling into a Process Trauma Hole and never come out. They seemed (to me) to get addicted to little microepiphanies, and processing emotions for the sake of processing emotions.

So a thing I decided fairly early on in this process was that I would maintain a day-job. I might take a couple weeks to focus heavily on emotional work, but would be trying to stay connected to my object-level goals and also generally being a productive member of society. (I basically think this worked out)

Traumas vs Knots-in-Heart

In my personal ontology, a trauma is a particular subspecies of “knot in heart.”

A trauma is an instance where something hurts you, and you develop coping mechanisms to route around the hurt, but the coping mechanisms limit your action space, blind you to some things, and distort your thinking a bit.

A knot-in-heart is… a more general thing where something is distorted inside you that you have to route around and distort your thinking around, but isn’t necessarily about “you were hurt and are trying not to get hurt again.” An example of a non-trauma-lump-in-heart is a friendship that you know you probably should end, or a job you should probably quit, but it’s too awkward to think about and you kinda bury it down so you can continue interacting in your social scene or day-job.

Prior to the pandemic, I had been carrying around one particular knot-in-my-heart. I had made a fairly conscious choice of “you know, I think I can deal with this knot in my heart later. It clearly affects me when I think about certain types of things, but I mostly just don’t think about those types of things and that seems fine?”

(I think this was not fine, but mostly for other people’s sake rather than mine)

But post-pandemic, I suddenly ended up with ~5 knot in my heart, 3 of which were traumas, and all of them were kinda interconnected.

I ended up deciding to unravel all of them at once, even though this was pretty exhausting and scary and involved unmooring myself from almost all of my existing life-narratives at once. (This included “which humans am I close with?”, “what does the rationality community mean to me?”, “what do I think of myself as being obligated to do?”, “who am I, fundamentally?”)

Deliberate Grieving and Emotional Inbox Zero

I spent 3 months solidly grieving things. About a month-and-a-half in, I thought “man, I’m so good at grieving now. I should write a blogpost about deliberate grieving.”

I had previously read’s ”Emotional Processing” post, which basically advocated treating all emotions as something you were supposed to react to /​ deal with in some way. Treat your emotional inbox like a productive employee treats their email inbox and try to maintain emotional inbox-zero.

That had seemed sort of sensible, but also a pretty big project.

After the pandemic, since I was processing everything at once, I thought “You know, I think I will actually end up hitting emotional inbox zero in like 3 months. That’s pretty cool.”

It turned out to take more like 1.5 years to hit emotional inbox ~zero. It turns out processing the end of the world and a reconceptualization of my core identity takes more than 3 months. Who knew. (Most of the heavy lifting for me was done at three distinct events, that were all something close to a formalized ritual with other people. I processed my feelings about x-risk at two small winter solstice gatherings (one at the end of 2021, one at the end of 2022). I processed some other feelings about other stuff with an in-person conversation with someone who had a lot of context and was there to be really supportive of me.

I eventually wrote the blogpost on Deliberate Grieving but felt kinda embarrassed about how confident the first draft sounded.

The moral of the story?

I dunno.

Trauma is a useful frame, but, don’t follow it off a cliff.

You can fix your emotional problems/​confusions, but it’ll take awhile.

Interleave your emotional processing with other stuff. It seems healthier to me, although to be fair I didn’t really compare/​contrast this with other approaches.