Don’t Make Your Problems Hide

I’ve seen a wor­ry­ing trend in peo­ple who’ve learned in­tro­spec­tion and self-im­prove­ment meth­ods from CFAR, or analo­gous ones from CBT. They make bet­ter life de­ci­sions, they calm their emo­tions in the mo­ment. But they still look just as stressed as ever. They stamp out ev­ery in­ter­nal con­flict they can see, but it seems like there are more of them be­yond the hori­zon of their self-aware­ness.

(I may have ex­pe­rienced this my­self.)

One rea­son for this is that there’s a dan­ger with learn­ing how to con­sciously no­tice and in­ter­act with one’s sub­con­scious thoughts/​feel­ings/​de­sires/​fears: the con­scious mind may not like what it sees, and try to edit the sub­con­scious mind into one that pleases it.

The con­scious mind might try, that is, but the sub­con­scious is stronger. So, what ac­tu­ally hap­pens?

The sub­con­scious de­vel­ops defense mechanisms.

Sup­pressed de­sires dis­guise them­selves as be­ing about other things, or they just over­whelm the con­scious mind’s willpower ev­ery now and then (and maybe fulfill them­selves in a less healthy way than could oth­er­wise be man­aged).

Sup­pressed thoughts be­come stealthy bi­ases; cer­tain con­scious ideas or nar­ra­tives get re­in­forced un­til they are prac­ti­cally un­ques­tion­able. So too with fears; a sup­pressed so­cial fear is a good way to get a loud alarm that never stops.

Sup­pressed feel­ings hide them­selves more thor­oughly from the search­light, so that one never con­sciously no­tices their mean­ing any­more, one just feels sad or an­gry or scared “for no rea­son” in cer­tain situ­a­tions.

At its worst, the con­scious mind tries ever-harder to push back against these, fur­ther burn­ing its rap­port with the sub­con­scious. I think of pas­tors who sup­press their gay de­sires so hard that they vi­gor­ously de­nounce ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and then sneak out for gay sex. They’d have been liv­ing such a hap­pier life if they’d given up and ac­knowl­edged who they are, and what they want, years ago.

Now, some­times peo­ple do have a strong de­sire that can’t be satis­fied in any healthy way. And that’s just a bru­tal kind of life to life. But they would still do bet­ter by ac­knowl­edg­ing that de­sire openly to them­selves, than by try­ing to quash it and only hid­ing it.

How can we be­come more in­te­grated be­tween con­scious and un­con­scious parts, and undo any dam­age we’ve already caused?

In my talk about the elephant and rider, I sug­gested (or ges­tured at) a few rele­vant things:

  • Pur­sue ba­sic hap­piness alongside your con­scious goals (and make sure that’s hap­piness for you, not just e.g. keep­ing your friends happy by do­ing the things they like)

  • Use pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment on your­self rather than pun­ish­ment—it’s es­pe­cially im­por­tant not to pun­ish your­self for notic­ing the “wrong” thoughts/​feel­ings/​de­sires/​fears. Re­ward the notic­ing, even with just an in­ter­nal “thank you for sur­fac­ing this”.

  • Treat the con­tent of these thoughts/​feel­ings/​de­sires/​fears with re­spect. You might think of them as a friend open­ing up to you, and imag­ine the com­pas­sion you’d have when try­ing to figure out a way for­ward where both of you can flour­ish.

It’s im­por­tant to be gen­tle, to be cu­ri­ous, and to be pa­tient. You don’t have to re­solve the whole thing; just ac­knowl­edg­ing it re­spect­fully can help the re­la­tion­ship grow.

There are other ap­proaches too. Many peo­ple be­lieve in us­ing med­i­ta­tion to bet­ter in­te­grate their thoughts and feel­ings and de­sires, for in­stance.

When you do some­thing that you thought you didn’t want to do, or when you’re notic­ing an un­ex­pected feel­ing, it’s an op­por­tu­nity for you. Don’t push it away.