Learning from painful experiences

A model that I’ve found very useful is that pain is an attention signal. If there’s a memory or thing that you find painful, that’s an indication that there’s something important in that memory that your mind is trying to draw your attention to. Once you properly internalize the lesson in question, the pain will go away.

That’s a good principle, but often hard to apply in practice. In particular, several months ago there was a social situation that I screwed up big time, and which was quite painful to think of afterwards. And I couldn’t figure out just what the useful lesson was there. Trying to focus on it just made me feel like a terrible person with no social skills, which didn’t seem particularly useful.

Yesterday evening I again discussed it a bit with someone who’d been there, which helped relieve the pain a bit, enough that the memory wasn’t quite as aversive to look at. Which made it possible for me to imagine myself back in that situation and ask, what kinds of mental motions would have made it possible to salvage the situation? When I first saw the shocked expressions of the people in question, instead of locking up and reflexively withdrawing to an emotional shell, what kind of an algorithm might have allowed me to salvage the situation?

Answer to that question: when you see people expressing shock in response to something that you’ve said or done, realize that they’re interpreting your actions way differently than you intended them. Starting from the assumption that they’re viewing your action as bad, quickly pivot to figuring out why they might feel that way. Explain what your actual intentions were and that you didn’t intend harm, apologize for any hurt you did cause, use your guess of why they’re reacting badly to acknowledge your mistake and own up to your failure to take that into account. If it turns out that your guess was incorrect, let them correct you and then repeat the previous step.

That’s the answer in general terms, but I didn’t actually generate that answer by thinking in general terms. I generated it by imagining myself back in the situation, looking for the correct mental motions that might have helped out, and imagining myself carrying them out, saying the words, imagining their reaction. So that the next time that I’d be in a similar situation, it’d be associated with a memory of the correct procedure for salvaging it. Not just with a verbal knowledge of what to do in abstract terms, but with a procedural memory of actually doing it.

That was a painful experience to simulate.

But it helped. The memory hurts less now.

One comment

  1. That’s a neat way to think about it. I’m glad you shared the experience of putting that principle into practice, I have a much clearer idea of how I’d do so myself now.

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