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

Link post

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.