18-month follow-up on my self-concept work

About eigh­teen months ago, I found Steve An­dreas’s book Trans­form­ing Your Self, and ap­plied its tech­niques to fix­ing a num­ber of is­sues in my self-con­cepts which had con­tributed to my de­pres­sion and anx­iety. Six weeks af­ter those changes, I posted a re­port called “How I found & fixed the root prob­lem be­hind my de­pres­sion and anx­iety af­ter 20+ years”. I figured that by now it would be time for a fol­low-up on how those effects have lasted.

Over­all sum­mary and gen­eral con­sid­er­a­tions

Look­ing back, this was definitely a ma­jor mile­stone in im­prov­ing my men­tal health. I feel like since 2014, I have been on­go­ing a pro­cess of com­pletely trans­form­ing my­self from the de­pres­sion- and anx­iety-rid­den per­son who was con­vinced that he had no other op­tion than be­com­ing a to­tal failure, to some­one calmly con­fi­dent who has the op­tion of con­struct­ing his life to his taste. I don’t claim to be there yet, but I feel like I’m con­stantly get­ting closer. I feel like the self-con­cept work dis­cussed in my post, was one of the largest en­g­ines pow­er­ing this tran­si­tion. (Other ma­jor ones be­ing me get­ting an­tide­pres­sants, chang­ing how I thought about ethics, and learn­ing a new mind­set from CFAR in 2014, prop­erly learn­ing Fo­cus­ing and Core Trans­for­ma­tion as well as start­ing to med­i­tate ac­cord­ing to The Mind Illu­mi­nated sys­tem in 2017, and start­ing to ap­ply In­ter­nal Fam­ily Sys­tems this year.)

There are two difficul­ties eval­u­at­ing my self-con­cept post af­ter­wards. First is that I have a poor emo­tional mem­ory, so it’s a lit­tle hard for me to re­mem­ber what I felt be­fore these changes. The sec­ond is that af­ter do­ing self-con­cept work, I’ve also done plenty of other things, such as med­i­ta­tion and mov­ing to­gether with some house­mates, which have also had a definite im­pact on my men­tal health. I can’t know how well the self-con­cept work would have stuck around, if I hadn’t also im­ple­mented those other changes. It’s pos­si­ble and even likely that some of my cur­rent re­sults are be­cause of those other changes in­stead.

At the same time, the self-con­cept work is also not in­de­pen­dent from ev­ery­thing that I’ve done later. For in­stance, I think that be­ing able to elimi­nate the feel­ings of pointless shame has been a ma­jor rea­son why I’ve been able to live with house­mates and find them a definite net pos­i­tive. Pre­vi­ously the feel­ings of shame would have made it too drain­ing to have to en­gage in so­cial in­ter­ac­tion in my home on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, whereas now so­cial in­ter­ac­tion has tended to be much more en­er­giz­ing than it did in the past. But then again, there are also other skills which have made so­cial fa­tigue less of an is­sue than some­time in the past, and which I’ve also been grad­u­ally train­ing up.

But still, at least I can re­port on the var­i­ous things in the post, and on how they’ve held up.

Things that seem to have been fixed for good

Gen­er­al­ized feel­ings of shame; be­ing afraid of think­ing that thoughts that might trig­ger feel­ings of shame; need­ing con­stant val­i­da­tion in or­der to avoid feel­ings of shame. I de­scribed the fol­low­ing in my post from last year:

I re­al­ized that I had a sense of un­ease, a vague feel­ing of shame… as if there was some­thing shame­ful about me that I knew, but was try­ing to avoid think­ing about. And I knew that I had felt this same vague shame many times be­fore, of­ten par­tic­u­larly when I was tired. […]

… there’s always an un­der­ly­ing in­se­cu­rity, a sense of un­ease from the fact that any­thing might cause your at­ten­tion to swing back to the [mem­o­ries of be­ing a ter­rible per­son]. You need a con­stant stream of ex­ter­nal val­i­da­tion and ev­i­dence in or­der to keep your at­ten­tion an­chored on the ex­am­ples [of be­ing a good per­son]; the mo­ment it ceases, your at­ten­tion risks swing­ing to the [mem­o­ries of be­ing a ter­rible per­son] again.

As far as I can tell, this kind of thing sim­ply doesn’t hap­pen any­more. I still get feel­ings of guilt, if I have screwed up in some way, but there’s no shame or feel­ing of be­ing a hor­rible per­son. Nor is there any need for ex­ter­nal val­i­da­tion in this re­gard. I just know that I’m always do­ing the best that I can, and if I make a mis­take that I need to learn from, then I feel the amount of guilt that’s nec­es­sary to mo­ti­vate me to make amends and/​or re­mem­ber to act differ­ently in the fu­ture. And that’s that.

Be­ing mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to prove to my­self that I’m a good per­son. Pre­vi­ously I was try­ing to do a lot of things, but ba­si­cally ev­ery­thing was strongly driven by a mo­ti­va­tion to feel bet­ter about my­self, and when­ever it looked like some­thing wasn’t likely to help with that goal, I would get de­mo­ti­vated. […] Pre­vi­ously when I was try­ing to do things to “save the world”, there was a strong com­po­nent of do­ing it for the sake of guilt, feel­ing bad, or try­ing to win re­spect or sta­tus from oth­ers.

Ba­si­cally fixed; this caused a pe­riod of read­just­ment, in that I had been do­ing things which had been op­ti­mized for look­ing good in the eyes of peo­ple that I ad­mired, even when I per­son­ally hadn’t felt on a gut level that they made much sense. It took a while to read­just and find things which felt worth do­ing, but now I mostly feel like I’m do­ing things be­cause they are gen­uinely de­rived from my val­ues, rather than to avoid shame.

I still oc­ca­sion­ally have some­thing-like-guilt as a fac­tor in think­ing about what I want to do, but it mostly pops up when I no­tice that I’m not satis­fy­ing all of my own val­ues and ne­glect­ing some­thing that I ac­tu­ally care about. I’m no longer do­ing things “for the sake of guilt”, in the sense that I would do some­thing and then keep feel­ing guilty re­gard­less. If you find your­self reg­u­larly ex­pe­rienc­ing guilt, then you are us­ing guilt in­cor­rectly; in this re­spect as well, I’m us­ing guilt much more cor­rectly now.

Inse­cu­rity in re­la­tion­ships and with ro­man­tic part­ners; very de­tailed es­capist ro­man­tic fan­tasies. If I was in a re­la­tion­ship, I would tend to very strongly high­light some qual­ities that I felt I had and which I felt bad about, in an at­tempt to get my part­ner to ex­plic­itly ex­press be­ing okay with them. […]

… much of my de­sire and need to be in a re­la­tion­ship was an­other way of try­ing to look for ex­ter­nal val­i­da­tion, some kind of ev­i­dence that there was some­body who would ac­cept me and would want to be with me. I used to have a lot of pretty de­tailed ro­man­tic fan­tasies; a lot of them lost their ap­peal af­ter I fixed my self-con­cept.

Eval­u­at­ing this is slightly harder since I haven’t ac­tu­ally been in a re­la­tion­ship since writ­ing that post. How­ever, judg­ing from the way that I’ve felt to­wards and in­ter­acted with po­ten­tial ro­man­tic part­ners as well as women I’ve been in­ti­mate friends with, and how I’ve felt about re­la­tion­ships in gen­eral, this feels ba­si­cally fixed. Be­ing sin­gle is far from my ideal prefer­ence, but it’s not par­tic­u­larly ter­rible ei­ther, and I don’t spend much time ab­sorbed in de­tailed fan­tasies when I could be do­ing some­thing else. I’m also much more com­fortable with in­ti­mate friend­ships which are am­bigu­ous about whether or not they might turn more ro­man­tic; I can be gen­uinely happy ei­ther way.

Mostly fixed, might still pop up a bit

Ob­ses­sive sex­ual fan­tasies. Without go­ing into too much de­tail, pre­vi­ously my sex­u­al­ity and fan­tasies had been very strongly en­twined around a few para­philias, which pro­vided a great deal of emo­tional com­fort. A lot of those fan­tasies were ob­ses­sive to the point of be­ing both­er­some.

At the time of writ­ing my post, I re­ported that these ba­si­cally dis­ap­peared. They re­mained gone for a while, but even­tu­ally some (not all) of them came back, though con­sid­er­ably trans­formed. They are fun to en­gage with oc­ca­sion­ally, and they might get a bit both­er­some if I think about them too much. But when­ever they start get­ting that mildly ob­ses­sive fla­vor, it tends to act as a nat­u­ral dis­in­cen­tive for me to con­tinue think­ing about them, and then they quiet down again.

Par­tially fixed, but with other causes as well

Feel­ings of anx­iety and a need to es­cape. It feels that, large parts of the time, my mind is con­stantly look­ing for an es­cape, though I’m not en­tirely sure what ex­actly it is try­ing to es­cape from. But it wants to get away from the cur­rent situ­a­tion, what­ever the cur­rent situ­a­tion hap­pens to be. To be­come so en­grossed in some­thing that it for­gets about ev­ery­thing else.

Un­for­tu­nately, this of­ten leads to the op­po­site re­sult. My mind wants that en­gross­ment right now, and if it can’t get it, it will flinch away from what­ever I’m do­ing and into what­ever pro­vides an im­me­di­ate re­ward. Face­book, fo­rums, IRC, what­ever gives that quick dopamine burst. That means that I have difficulty get­ting into books, TV shows, com­puter games: if they don’t grab me right away, I’ll start grow­ing restless and be un­able to fo­cus on them. Even more so with stud­ies or work, which usu­ally re­quire an even longer “warm-up” pe­riod be­fore one gets into flow.

This kind of a thing still hap­pens; ap­par­ently the anx­iety from poor self-con­cepts was only one of its causes. I now think that it’s more of an ex­ec­u­tive dys­func­tion symp­tom, in that var­i­ous causes of stress or feel­ing bad can trig­ger a self-re­in­forc­ing loop of feel­ing bad, try­ing to es­cape that bad­ness, feel­ing even more bad for failing to es­cape it, etc. My feel­ings of shame were definitely one cause, but many other things can also trig­ger it. Med­i­ta­tion and Fo­cus­ing /​ IFS work have been a ma­jor aid in fix­ing sev­eral other causes.

Inse­cu­ri­ties based on shame vs. in­stru­men­tal con­sid­er­a­tions. Sup­pose that you have an un­sta­ble self-con­cept around “be­ing a good per­son”, and you com­mit some kind of a faux pas. Or even if you haven’t ac­tu­ally com­mit­ted one, you might just be gen­er­ally un­sure of whether oth­ers are get­ting a bad im­pres­sion of you or not. Now, there are four lev­els on which you might feel bad about the real or imag­ined mis­take:

  1. Feel­ing bad be­cause you think you’re an in­trin­si­cally bad person

  2. Feel­ing bad be­cause you sus­pect oth­ers think bad of you and that this is in­trin­si­cally bad (if other peo­ple think bad of you, that’s ter­rible, for its own sake)

  3. Feel­ing bad be­cause you sus­pect oth­ers think bad of you and that this is in­stru­men­tally bad (other peo­ple think­ing bad of you can be bad for var­i­ous so­cial rea­sons)

  4. Feel­ing bad be­cause you might have hurt or up­set some­one, and you care about what oth­ers feel

Out of these, #3 and #4 are rea­son­able, #1 and #2 less so. When I fixed my self-con­cept, re­ac­tion #1 mostly van­ished. But in­ter­est­ingly, re­ac­tion #2 stuck around for a while… or at least, a fear of #2 stuck around for a while.

#1 and #2 seem to in­deed have dis­ap­peared; how­ever, I’ve still con­tinued to ex­pe­rience in­se­cu­ri­ties which have taken the forms of what seems like ex­ces­sive wor­ries of #3 and #4 (think­ing that I’ve dis­pleased some­one in a way which will make them like me less, as well as wor­ry­ing that some­one might have felt up­set over some­thing that they in all like­li­hood won’t even re­mem­ber). Th­ese seem to be the kinds of is­sues that can’t be fixed by in­ter­nal work alone, since they are about the ex­ter­nal world: in or­der to eval­u­ate how jus­tified these are, I need to ac­tu­ally test the ex­tent to which some­thing e.g. makes other peo­ple dis­like me.

This work is still on­go­ing, but I’ve been mak­ing progress. Ma­jor con­trib­u­tors to cur­rent progress are the skills of in­te­grat­ing the cau­tions from my in­se­cu­ri­ties and ten­ta­tively con­sid­er­ing emo­tional sto­ries. Th­ese seem to have the effect that parts of my mind which have long held ex­treme be­liefs about how cau­tious I should be, get listened to in a fairer way, caus­ing them to up­date their be­liefs to less ex­treme ones.

Difficul­ties in self-mo­ti­va­tion. Be­sides be­ing able to work at all, I’m also able to con­sis­tently work from home. This was of­ten ba­si­cally im­pos­si­ble: the im­pulse to es­cape was just too strong, and I needed to go el­se­where, prefer­ably co-work with some­body else. Now I’ve cut down on co-work­ing a lot, be­cause leav­ing my home would take time, and I get more done if I don’t need to spend that time on travel.

This varies; im­ple­ment­ing these fixes seems to have pro­vided a tem­po­rary mo­ti­va­tional boost al­low­ing me to get a lot of work done with just the re­ward of fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity. When I find things to do that I’m sig­nifi­cantly mo­ti­vated by, then I seem to be able to work on them pretty well, even from home. How­ever, any­thing that I’m not sig­nifi­cantly mo­ti­vated by still re­quires a lot of ex­ter­nal struc­ture for me to get any­thing done. Again, this seems like a man­i­fes­ta­tion of ex­ec­u­tive dys­func­tion is­sues more gen­er­ally.

My ini­tial mo­ti­va­tion boost ex­pired for a while, and I soon ran into new prob­lems (I’ll dis­cuss these be­low). It has taken a while to find promis­ing new di­rec­tions and figure out my new mo­ti­va­tions so that I can do work more con­sis­tently, but (again thanks to med­i­ta­tion and Fo­cus­ing /​ IFS work) in the last few months I’ve been start­ing to feel more con­sis­tently self-mo­ti­vated.

In progress of be­ing fixed af­ter be­ing made worse by the self-con­cept work

Lack of mo­ti­va­tion once es­cap­ing the pain was no longer as mo­ti­vat­ing. For a while, there was a sense that my life had got­ten more bor­ing. Re­mem­ber that anal­ogy about be­ing hun­gry all the time and fo­cus­ing all your en­er­gies on food, and then be­ing trans­formed into an an­droid which didn’t need to eat? Your pre­vi­ous over­rid­ing pri­or­ity of find­ing food be­ing gone, you wouldn’t know what to do any­more. You’d feel okay, and it would be a steady okay – no lows, but also no par­tic­u­lar highs.

The fixes in the post had the prob­lem that I no longer felt ac­tively bad; but even­tu­ally I started to no­tice that, hav­ing largely struc­tured my life, habits and brain around es­cap­ing the bad­ness, I didn’t have any par­tic­u­larly whole­some ways of feel­ing good. Even though I had fixed a ma­jor cause be­hind my de­pres­sion and burnouts, they had still left pretty deep marks in my brain. After a while, I started to feel acutely an­he­do­nic – limited in my abil­ity to get plea­sure from any­thing. The fact that many of my pre­vi­ous ob­ses­sive fan­tasies had been elimi­nated prob­a­bly made this worse, since they had at least been a source of plea­sure and mo­ti­va­tion.

But this is still a good de­vel­op­ment. The goal of life isn’t to be free of prob­lems; it’s to have more in­ter­est­ing prob­lems, and this is definitely a much more in­ter­est­ing prob­lem. I’ve been try­ing new things, from go­ing to mu­se­ums to gen­er­ally be­ing more open to stuff. I’m work­ing on fix­ing the re­main­ing men­tal blocks that are keep­ing me in place rather than ex­pe­rienc­ing stuff.

I’m grad­u­ally re­learn­ing to gen­uinely en­joy things. And that feels good: I feel like I’m just get­ting started in the pro­cess of re­build­ing my­self.

Can’t wait to see where I’ll be in a few year’s time.