The muted signal hypothesis of online outrage

Everyone, it sometimes seems, has their own pet theory of why social media and the Internet often seem like so unpleasant and toxic places. Let me add one more.

People want to feel respected, loved, appreciated, etc. When we interact physically, you can easily experience subtle forms of these feelings. For instance, even if you just hang out in the same physical space with a bunch of other people and don’t really interact with them, you often get some positive feelings regardless. Just the fact that other people are comfortable having you around, is a subtle signal that you belong and are accepted.

Similarly, if you’re physically in the same space with someone, there are a lot of subtle nonverbal things that people can do to signal interest and respect. Meeting each other’s gaze, nodding or making small encouraging noises when somebody is talking, generally giving people your attention. This kind of thing tends to happen automatically when we are in each other’s physical presence.

Online, most of these messages are gone: a thousand people might read your message, but if nobody reacts to it, then you don’t get any signal indicating that you were seen. Even getting a hundred likes and a bunch of comments on a status, can feel more abstract and less emotionally salient than just a single person nodding at you and giving you an approving look when you’re talking.

So there’s a combination of two things going on. First, many of the signals that make us feel good “in the physical world” are relatively subtle. Second, online interaction mutes the intensity of signals, so that subtle ones barely even register.

Depending on how sensitive you are, and how good you are generally feeling, you may still feel the positive signals online as well. But if your ability to feel good things is already muted, because of something like depression or just being generally in a bad mood, you may not experience the good things online at all. So if you want to consistently feel anything, you may need to ramp up the intensity of the signals.

Anger and outrage are emotional reactions with a very strong intensity, strong enough that you can actually feel them even in online interactions. They are signals that can consistently get similar-minded people rallied on your side. Anger can also cause people to make sufficiently strongly-worded comments supporting your anger that those comments will register emotionally. A shared sense of outrage isn’t the most pleasant way of getting a sense of belonging, but if you otherwise have none, it’s still better than nothing.

And if it’s the only way of getting that belonging, then the habit of getting enraged will keep reinforcing itself, as it will give all of the haters some of what they’re after: pleasant emotions to fill an emotional void.

So to recap:

When interacting physically, we don’t actually need to do or experience much in order to experience positive feelings. Someone nonverbally acknowledging our presence or indicating that they’re listening to us, already feels good. And we can earn the liking and respect of others, by doing things that are as small as giving them nonverbal signals of liking and respect.

Online, all of that is gone. While things such as “likes” or positive comments serve some of the same function, they often fail to produce much of a reaction. Only sufficiently strong signals can consistently break through and make us feel like others care about us, and outrage is one of the strongest emotional reactions around, so many people will learn to engage in more and more of it.

The parliamentary model as the correct ethical model

In 2009, Nick Bostrom brought up the possibility of dealing with moral uncertainty with a “parliamentary model” of morality. Suppose that you assign (say) 40% probability to some form particular of utilitarianism being correct, and 20% probability to some other form of utilitarianism being correct, and 20% probability to some form of deontology being true. Then in the parliamentary model, you imagine yourself as having a “parliament” that decides on what to do, with the first utilitarian theory having 40% of the delegates, the other form having 20% of the delegates, and the deontological theory having 20% of the delegates. The various delegates then bargain with each other and vote on different decisions. Bostrom explained:

The idea here is that moral theories get more influence the more probable they are; yet even a relatively weak theory can still get its way on some issues that the theory think are extremely important by sacrificing its influence on other issues that other theories deem more important. For example, suppose you assign 10% probability to total utilitarianism and 90% to moral egoism (just to illustrate the principle). Then the Parliament would mostly take actions that maximize egoistic satisfaction; however it would make some concessions to utilitarianism on issues that utilitarianism thinks is especially important. In this example, the person might donate some portion of their income to existential risks research and otherwise live completely selfishly.

As I noted, the model was proposed for dealing with a situation where you’re not sure of which ethical theory is correct. I view this somewhat differently. I lean towards the theory that the parliamentary model itself is the most correct ethical theory, as the brain seems to contain multiple different valuation systems that get activated in different situations, as well as multiple competing subsystems that feed inputs to these higher-level systems. (E.g. there exist both systems that tend to produce more deontological judgments, and systems that tend to produce more consequentialist judgments.)

Over time, I’ve settled upon something like a parliamentary model for my own decision-making. Different parts of me clearly tend towards different kinds of ethical frameworks, and rather than collapse into constant infighting, the best approach seems to go for a compromise where the most dominant parts get their desires most of the time, but less dominant parts also get their desires on issues that they care particularly strongly about. For example, a few days back I was considering the issue of whether I want to have children; several parts of my mind subscribed to various ethical theories which felt that the idea of having them felt a little iffy. But then a part of my mind piped up that clearly cared very strongly about the issue, and which had a strong position of “YES. KIDS”. Given that the remaining parts of my mind only had ambivalent or weak preferences on the issue, they decided to let the part with the strongest preference to have its way, in order to get its support on other issues.

There was a time when I had a strong utilitarian faction in my mind which did not want to follow a democratic process and tried to force its will on all the other factions. This did not work very well, and I’ve felt much better after it was eventually overthrown.

Confidence and patience don’t feel like anything in particular

After doing my self-concept work, I’ve been expecting to feel confident in social situations. And observing myself in them or after them, I have been more confident. But I haven’t felt particularly confident.

The thing is, being confident doesn’t feel like much in particular. I was pretty confident in my ability to open my laptop and write this post. I’m also confident in my ability to go to the shower and wash my hair, and I’m confident in my ability to go to the grocery store to buy stuff.

But writing this, or washing my hair, or going to the grocery store, aren’t things that would fill me with any particular “feeling of confidence”. They’re just things that I do, without thinking about them too much.

Similarly, being confident in a social situation doesn’t mean you’d actually have any strong feeling of confidence. It just means you don’t have any feeling of unconfidence.

Which is obvious when I think about it. So why did I expect otherwise?

I think the explanation is, the only times when I have previously paid conscious attention to my confidence, have been in situations where I’ve felt unconfident. And if you lack confidence, you try to psych yourself up. You try to summon some *other* emotion to flood your mind and push the feeling of unconfidence away.

If you are successfully suppressing your lack of confidence with some other emotion, you do “feel confident”. You are feeling whatever the other emotion is, that’s temporarily allowing you to be confident.

But if you don’t have any uncertainties that are actively surfacing, you don’t need to summon any other emotion to temporarily suppress them. Just those uncertainties not being around, is enough by itself. And something that’s just not around, doesn’t feel like anything.

Another similar thing is “patience”. If we feel impatient with someone, we might struggle to “try to be patient”. But if you actually are patient with someone, it usually doesn’t feel like anything in particular. You don’t have a glow of patience as you think about how badly the other person is getting on your nerves but how you withstand it anyway; rather the other person’s behavior just doesn’t bother you very much in the first place.

Edited to add: somebody pointed out that there exists good feeling of “you’ve got this” that one can feel. That’s true, and I agree that this could sensibly be called “confidence”. What I was trying to say was less “there’s no sensation that could reasonably be called confidence” but more “most everyday confidence doesn’t feel like anything in particular”. Paradoxically, even if confidence wouldn’t usually feel like anything, the lack of a feel can make you unconfident if you think that you should feel something to be confident. Somebody else mentioned that they do also have an actual feeling of patience; I’m not sure if I’ve experienced this myself, but the same thing applies.

How I found & fixed the root problem behind my depression and anxiety after 20+ years

I was nine years old and about to soon turn ten, when I announced to my parents that I didn’t want any birthday presents, because I didn’t think that I’d done anything to deserve them.

This left my parents more than a little puzzled and upset, especially when I later also insisted I didn’t want presents for other birthdays – nor for Christmas, for that matter. I didn’t even know myself where exactly I’d gotten that notion from. I just had a sense of, well, such special attention being undeserved.

I’ve previously written about my depression and burnouts; usually I’ve said that my problems started during the second year of my university studies, when I tried to take on too many courses at once and burned out for the first time.

But that raises the question of why I drove myself to burnout in the first place. The real root problem was something much deeper, and older: a hard-to-describe feeling of emptiness and being insufficient, and a desperate desire to feel better somehow.

Since school had been the one area in my life where I felt I had excelled, it was natural to try to satisfy that desire by studying hard. But, successful or not, just studying a lot wasn’t going to solve the root problem of feeling unworthy.

This post is about how I finally managed to isolate and solve that root problem, what past problems I can now trace back to it, and how that has affected me.

Why am I so confident that the problem really has been solved? First, I’ve mostly kept quiet about this change for five weeks, to see whether the improvements would last. They have lasted. While I’ve previously used a number of self-help techniques that just mysteriously stopped working at some point, none of those short-lived successes lasted this long before. Second, as I’m about to describe, the effects have been getting stronger over time: it feels like they set in motion a process of my psyche reorganizing itself.

And third, well, the changes have been just so massive that it’s hard to imagine this being just a temporary thing.

[EDITED TO ADD: A few people have asked whether I can be confident that this has really been sufficient to cure my depression, so I should clarify: I believe that this taken care of the original reason why I had feelings of insecurity, insufficiency etc., feelings which then drove me to do various things that led to burnout and depression. Whether the original cause of those behaviors and feelings has been dealt with, is a distinct question from whether the depression that they caused has been dealt with. After all, depression can cause various changes to the brain that linger long after the original cause is gone. I don’t know whether the depression will come back or not, but I do expect that many of the factors that originally caused it and maintained it have now been fixed; still, there may be others.]

Finding the root cause: self-concept

Last spring, things felt like they were going pretty well. After a painful breakup and a few other challenges, I had taken time off from work and decided that I would focus on getting my mental health in order. I had focused a lot on themes of self-compassion and made progress on that front, and I’d also found and started applying a powerful technique for fixing emotional problems. I’d also resumed my meditation practice, with good results.

So, things were going pretty well… until my money was starting to run out and I went back to work. And then much of the depression that I thought I had beaten, came back.

For some reason, my job felt utterly demotivating. I wasn’t quite sure of the exact reasons, but there was a strong sense of the work feeling pointless and sucking up all of my time, and none of the techniques for emotional healing seemed to make a dent in that. I made the following post on Facebook:

I think the main problem with my life is that I’ve very rarely had the feeling that my existence would matter.

(At this point I expect that a bunch of people are thinking about commenting something like “your existence does matter to me” – which is appreciated, but doesn’t actually help. This is more about the day-to-day experience, which isn’t much affected by individual events.)

All of my jobs have been ones where basically nobody would have noticed if I’d just slacked off for the whole week, or in some cases whether I showed up at work at all. Occasionally I produce something that people notice and comment on, but those moments are pretty far between, since mostly the things that I work on take an extended time before there’s a point in showing them to anyone.

If I keep making an active effort, I can have a pretty active social life… But as soon as I don’t, I don’t. There was one whole month when I only left home to get groceries, and aside for maybe one person who later commented about not having seen me for a while, it didn’t seem like anyone even noticed me not having been around.

Intellectually, I know that my existence isn’t *totally* irrelevant. But when the day-to-day experience is that 90% of the time, my physical presence or absence goes basically unnoticed, it’s hard to really believe in that on an emotional level.

And then… Matt Goldenberg suggested that the problem might be with my self-concepts and linked an article about self-concepts. The article was an excerpt from a book called Transforming Your Self, which I proceeded to buy.

The model presented in the book is that self-esteem is composed of self-concepts: we might think of ourselves as having qualities like “smart”, or “kind”, or “thoughtful” – or, for that matter, “stupid” or “cruel”. Whether a quality is perceived as good or bad depends on the kinds of cultural messages we’ve internalized. Somebody growing up in a relatively sheltered Western culture might think of “cruel” as a negative concept, whereas somebody who grew up in a war zone where you have to be able to kill others in order to survive, might think of “cruel” as a positive concept. If you have lots of robust, positive-valued self-concepts, you’ll have a good self-esteem; if you have lots of negative-valued self-concepts, you’ll have bad self-esteem.

While self-esteem is composed of self-concepts with different valuations, the self-concepts themselves are also composed of more fine-grained parts. More specifically, they’re composed of individual memories which serve as examples of the concept. So if you have a self-concept of being kind, you have at least one memory – typically more – of a situation where you acted in a kind way.

(You can try this out. Pick some quality like honest, or kind, or intelligent, or sociable – something that you are sure is both true of you, and which you like. When you have found one, consider how you know that you have this quality. The exact way in which qualities are represented varies between people: do you have a mental picture of being that, or is it a feeling or an internal voice that tells it to you? There should be at least one memory associated with your quality – which memory is it?)

The article that Matt linked gave the example of somebody creating an entirely new self-concept, of being lovable. The man in the example – Peter – did have individual memories of being lovable, but they had never been organized under a coherent concept before. When someone called him lovable, he was just nonplussed, drawing a total blank. “Lovable” just wasn’t how he thought of himself.

After Peter consciously searched for memories which might fit the description, and organized them together to form a new self-concept, his behavior changed. He started liking himself more, and he became kinder in his interactions with others.

Matt suggested that my sense of life being meaningless was about me not having a self-concept of “meaning”. Which sounded interesting… but not quite right. It felt more like my problem was something like with Peter, of having a missing self-concept around “lovable”, or something like that.

I poked around that thought, got the book, read the book, tried to see if I could create such a self-concept…

But there was also a sense that this wasn’t just a missing self-concept, but rather there was an existing negative one.

And then as I was about to go bed, 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. But because I had been instinctively trying to avoid thinking about it, I had never stopped to analyze it.


In the book’s model, besides examples, a self-concept also has counterexamples. These are memories of cases where you failed to uphold the quality that the self-concept represents. For instance, if we are talking about kindness, then nobody is kind literally all the time. Maybe you’re generally kind, but grumpy and irritable when you’re hungry. In that case, besides having memories of times when you were kind, your self-concept would also have memories about being hungry and irritable and not being particularly kind at that time.

In a healthy, robust self-concept, both examples and counterexamples form an integrated whole: the examples tell you what you generally are, and the counterexamples outline the caveats and exceptions. That way, knowing the limits of your quality, you can pay special attention to taking those limits into account. For instance, you might warn your kids in advance that you’re hungry so you are going to be grumpy, or you could make sure to eat before you start snapping at them.

That’s how a self-concept works if it’s healthy. But it’s also possible for your counterexamples to be split off from your examples. This leads to an unstable and uncertain self-concept: either your attention is (on a subconscious level) focused on the examples and totally ignores the counterexamples, in which case you feel good and kind, or it swings to the counterexamples and totally ignores the examples, in which case you feel like a terrible horrible person with no redeeming qualities.

Even if your attention is on the examples, there’s always an underlying insecurity, a sense of unease from the fact that anything might cause your attention to swing back to the counterexamples. You need a constant stream of external validation and evidence in order to keep your attention anchored on the examples; the moment it ceases, your attention risks swinging to the counterexamples again.

A sense of unease about your thoughts going to something that might cause you to feel bad… that was a lot like that vague sense of shame I realized I was experiencing. So I looked at that sense of shame, poked at it in my mind.

And some early memories came up. Memories of feeling like I’d been selfish – really old memories, back from when I was maybe 7 years old. In retrospect, they were about some pretty trivial incidents. A few fights that I’d had with my mom – probably pretty typical fights for a kid of 7 – and a general sense that I could get her to do a lot of things for me and that I was selfish in exploiting that to the full (as likely any kid would have, given the opportunity).

But there was an aura of shame and guilt around them; a feeling which I could now feel had been around in many other incidents after that, but which had first manifested itself in these particular memories.

Fixing the root problem

Early on in the book, there’s this excerpt:

For a long time, people have realized that our beliefs about others and our surroundings are often self-fulfilling. Someone who believes that the world is a dangerous and threatening place finds a world filled with fear, unhappiness, and disappointment. Someone who believes that the world is filled with vast opportunities and wonders to be experienced finds the very same world filled with endless variety, richness, and satisfaction.

Even more important than these beliefs are the beliefs that you have about yourself, because your self-concept goes with you everywhere, and affects everything that you experience. If you believe that others are mean and stupid, you can retreat to the solitude of nature and be nourished. But if you believe that you yourself are mean and stupid, there is no escape-except the temporary ones of overwhelming stimulation, mind-numbing drugs, or sleep. On the other hand, if you believe in your own kindness and intelligence, these beliefs can sustain and support you, even when events and people around you are very difficult.

That rang a bell. A very familiar bell. Back in 2014, I wrote about having a constant 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.

Exactly what was it that I was trying to escape from? The fact that, on some subconscious level, I disliked myself and wanted to get away from myself.

Those early memories of being selfish, that I had – they had never been properly integrated with later memories of doing unselfish things. I had desperately tried to do all kinds of stuff to prove to myself that I wasn’t an entirely worthless person, but no matter how many positive examples I accumulated, it didn’t entirely solve the problem. As long as the negative memories were split off into their own unit, my attention might always swing to them, even if I had a lot of positive memories on the other side.

So I took those negative memories and integrated them together with the positive ones.

It’s a little hard to describe how exactly I did this. The book contained several exercises and explanations of how to consciously inspect and manipulate the content of your self-concepts. What happened seems to largely have been that I read the descriptions, did some of the exercises, and then asked my subconscious to do whatever it needed to do in order to integrate the memories that served as counterexamples to the “being a fundamentally good person” self-concept. It feels like there was a lot of stuff that happened “in the background”, beyond conscious awareness, though I can remember two reframing tricks from the book that I consciously used:

* Adding qualifiers to the counterexamples. I previously mentioned that if you have memories of being unkind when hungry, you can use those memories to define the limits of your quality: “I’m kind, except when I’m sufficiently hungry”. In general, if you recognize a common context in a set of counterexamples, you can add that context as a qualifier to them. I did this to my childhood memories: “when I was a kid, and my executive control wasn’t as developed, I didn’t always act as kindly as I could have”.

* Turning a negative into a positive. The reason why those childhood memories bothered me was that I felt bad about my behavior. But if I didn’t have some quality of kindness, then I wouldn’t have felt bad about unkind behavior, now would I? So I mentally reframed those counterexamples to actually be examples: I knew that I had to exhibit some kind quality, because I had felt over 20 years feeling bad over some trivial fight with my mom that I’d had when I was 7.

There were also a few more recent, adulthood memories that had served as particularly prominent counterexamples: I did similar things to those memories as well. And then I worked to explicitly recall various instances of situations when I had been kind, to counterbalance the bad memories and make the counterexamples less prominent among all the examples.

In the next few days, a few other counterexamples came to mind, and I dealt with those in a similar manner; I also found a few other ambivalent self-concepts (two of them being “intelligent” and “the kind of a person anyone would want to be romantically involved with”), and applied similar fixes, resulting in stronger and more resilient self-concepts – and also less anxiety.

And that – a few simple changes over a period of a few days – seems to largely have fixed the core problem that had stuck with me for over 20 years.

Changes to my work

Let’s look at some ways that my mind has changed since.

In terms of practical benefit, the biggest change has been that I feel like I’m capable of actually holding a job. 

All of my previous jobs have exhibited the same pattern. Initially I’d be enthusiastic about them, but soon my motivation would fall, and they would start feeling increasingly pointless and soul-crushing. I had many times tried to analyze and introspect on my lack of motivation, applying tools like the procrastination equation and aversion factoring to figure out why exactly the jobs felt so depressing, but never quite figured it out. The closest that I had gotten to the true reason was the Facebook post I shared above, of having a feeling that the work made no real difference at all.

I now think that the root cause for the despair was that my mind’s overriding first priority was to feel better about myself. That is, it wanted to fix the split in my self-concept that was making me feel ashamed of myself. But no job could fix that, so I would start feeling trapped and hopeless and like I should try something else.

After the change, I’ve come to actually enjoy my job. I still don’t know if it’s the most enjoyable thing that I could be doing, but it’s enjoyable enough to do long term. It’s even gotten to the point that I can feel slightly annoyed about having social events in the evening, because those social events prevent me from just focusing uninterrupted on work!

Previously I had constant financial anxiety, because I could only force myself to work the very minimum amount that was enough to cover my living expenses. Now I’m getting more work done than ever before, and my bank account balance looks better than it has looked in years.

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.

Changes to my emotional landscape

Another big thing, and one of the first things that I noticed, was that my sexuality changed.

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.

After I’d implemented those changes, the emotional appeal of most of those fantasies just largely… vanished. The paraphilia got relegated from being at the core of my sexuality, to being a mild extra spice.

There’s a very curious thing that happens when an emotional wound disappears: previously, there were various thoughts and fantasies that gave you a taste of that emotion or feeling you were so desperately seeking. When you no longer lack it, those thoughts stop giving you pleasure.

It’s kind of like, if you had lived in poverty and been constantly hungry, any time when you did get something to eat, it would have felt really good. You might have spent a lot of time fantasizing about food. But if you were then transformed into an android that was powered by a nuclear battery and never needed to eat, suddenly you’d no longer experience that constant hunger – but neither would you experience the satisfaction from eating, nor of fantasizing about food.

But even though the fantasies stop being rewarding, that doesn’t mean that you’ll instantly stop trying to enjoy them. They have given you pleasure and emotional relief for most of your life, so you’ll have some strong mental habits related to them. There will still be a lot of cues around that activate the old habit, and make you automatically indulge in a fantasy…

But while you can still imagine the thing, the usual emotional payoff just… isn’t there. There’s a weird feeling, an expectation mismatch where you assumed you would feel a little bit of enjoyment, but instead you get nothing. And you go “huh”, and feel a little confused.

Each time this happens, you notice, and become a little more aware of just how many of those thought patterns you had, focused on chasing small bits of satisfaction to fulfill a deep-seated emotional need. How pervasive the emotional wound must have been, that the chasing behavior was so omnipresent.

On some level, you feel sad for not having that enjoyment anymore. But overall, it’s still better than feeling predominantly bad.

And while you are observing this, those old mental habits gradually start to just die away.

Disappearance of many negative emotions

Mental habits related to old sources of pleasure are not the only ones to change. There are also mental habits related to old sources of pain, and it’s rewarding to see those change.

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.

Previously, if someone thought bad things about me, I would feel bad – because it triggered the negative aspects of my self-concept. More recently, when I have gone into social situations, I still frequently feel a bit of anxiety, because my mind is expecting something in the situation to trigger an insecurity and cause a negative emotional reaction. It’s a kind of a secondary pain, arising from the anticipation of primary pain. (Dirty pain created by clean pain, to use the terminology from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.)

But then that anticipated primary pain never manifests, and gradually the anticipation lessens and there’s less of the secondary pain as well. And the anxiety of being in a social situation lessens.

More generally, this kind of a thing is starting to have the effect that I feel free to think about anything.

This is probably hard to explain if you haven’t experienced anything similar, but previously I was – without realizing it – always a little afraid that if I thought of the wrong thing, that would trigger a memory that would make me feel bad or guilty or ashamed. On some level I was always regulating my thoughts, trying to avoid thinking about the kinds of thoughts that would cause bad emotional reactions. Always slightly on an edge about the possibility of having such a thought.

Now I’ve even had moments when I’ve gotten so excited about the lack of negative emotional reactions that I’ve started poking around those previously dark places, intentionally searching for anything that would cause such a reaction of shame. And finding lots of places in my head where I expect to get a negative reaction… but it’s just that, the expectation and anxiety of secondary pain, with little primary pain to be found.

A little while back, I happened to see a few strangers on the Internet, discussing something that I’d written and dismissing it as pretentious nonsense, while also making a few digs at my character. Previously I’d have felt very bad about this.

Now I just… kind of smiled, amused by some of their sneer comments. “Sounds like it was written by somebody who has never felt pain in his life”. I couldn’t help but to be amused by how totally off the mark that comment was, and that was the only reaction I had. No defensiveness, no pain, no nothing. Just head-shaking amusement.

(Expected) changes to relationship patterns

The model in the book was that different self-concept qualities can be experienced as either good or bad, depending on what message the world gives us. That would suggest that if you have a quality which you feel bad about, then you have two possible options: you can try to change your quality, or you can try to change how you feel about having that quality. Because how you feel about a quality is largely determined by what others think of that quality, the latter option can manifest itself in behaviors that try to make others say good things about the quality.

In retrospect, this explains some of my old relationship behaviors. 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.

For instance, I’ve felt like I’m bad with “practical stuff”, which includes things like basically not knowing how to cook. In past relationships, when this came up, I would try to actively highlight it and try to justify it, with the underlying hope that my partner would explicitly signal that they were okay with it. If they didn’t, things typically wouldn’t go very well.

In other words, as soon as I would be in a relationship, I would end up actively highlighting some of my worse qualities to my partner, just as we were still getting to know each other.

In this light, it’s probably not very surprising that my relationships have tended to be pretty short-lasting.

And of course, 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. Apparently they too had been ways of trying to deal with my emotional wounds: if you’re uncertain of whether you’re at heart a terrible person that nobody will like, fantasies of mutual complete acceptance feel really powerful.

Afterwards, I still feel like I’d want to be in a relationship, but my idea of what exactly I’d want from a relationship has been a lot less clear. I guess I’ll have to find out.

What now?

So, after having read all of that, you might wonder how I feel overall. Do I feel happy now?

Well, not exactly, though I’m not unhappy either. More like content. Okay.

The mind quickly gets used to changes. I’m not gloriously happy for feeling better, because I’m quickly forgetting how I even felt like before. Already some things which I’ve discussed in this essay, I might not have recalled if I hadn’t written them down earlier.

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.

That’s how it kinda was for a while for me. But I feel like my mind has been gradually recalibrating itself to the new emotional landscape.

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. Now it’s starting to become easier to actually do things for the sake of intrinsic enjoyment.

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. Now it’s more like, things are basically fine with me, so I might as well try to help others who aren’t as well off.

Of course, I haven’t magically solved all of my problems: I still have periods of feeling lonely, I easily get bored and listless if I’m alone and without anything to do, and I still have some insecurities which seem to be rational – I’m genuinely uncertain of something about myself, and this seems like the correct epistemic state to be in, given my available information.

So there’s still work to be done. Recent progress that I’ve been making in meditation has already been useful for dealing with some of that work; and there are some old promising techniques which I before got to work for a while, but which then stopped working because some pain overwhelmed them. Slices of joy, for instance. I want to re-adopt that habit.

That said, I used to read a lot of self-help books; I now notice that I’m rapidly losing the interest. I kept reading them, until I finally found the solution to my problems that I had been looking for; now they’ve fulfilled their purpose. That isn’t to say that I would have lost interest in self-improvement, but by this point it’s more useful to stop accumulating information. It’s time to go out to the world and do stuff, which in a very real sense wasn’t possible before.

Self-concept work: possibly not entirely finished

A couple of days before I wrote and posted this essay, I was at a house party. Near the end, as I was about to leave, I found somebody’s ring on the floor. I brought the ring to one of the hosts, and he said that he’d take a picture of it and post it on the party’s Facebook event.

I then headed to leave, but noticed that I felt an odd sense of guilt over that – as if I should have done more. There was a sense of, what if the ring was important to whoever had lost it? Even if they’d get it back, they could still get dreadfully worried over not finding it in the meanwhile.

But feeling guilty about that was pretty clearly absurd – what else could I have done?

I tried taking that sense of worry and reframing it as a positive indication of my character, to insert it into a self-concept as something positive.

There was a sense of resistance, a feeling of wrongness; something resisting the notion of me having a self-concept as a caring person. Saying that I didn’t deserve that.

Curious. A self-concept I hadn’t fixed yet?

As I left the party, small, senseless worries kept coming up. Was I being terribly rude in just leaving, rather than first saying goodbye to literally everyone I had spoken with during the party? Or had I committed some other terrible faux pas during the event?

Reason said that these were pointless worries. But still, they bothered me.

There was definitely something up with some self-concept.

Walking towards the nearest bus stop, I asked myself where those worries were coming from. Almost instantly, two specific memories jumped to mind. They were relatively small incidents, but still ones where I’d committed some faux pas in the past. Ones that made me feel bad.


I considered what to do with them. I thought about adding some situational modifier to them, something like “when I was young, I did mistakes like this”… but that didn’t feel right. They were kinda old, but still clearly from adulthood. It wouldn’t have felt right to just give them a caveat that would nullify their meaning entirely. I still wanted to have them as a part of my self-concept, as templates of a potential mistake to match against my actions, to warn me if I was about to do something similar in the future.

I wanted to keep them. The issue wasn’t that they would be totally irrelevant for me now, the way that evidence of me having been selfish as a first-grader were. The issue was that their meaning was wrong: they had been honest mistakes. My motives weren’t in question, just my social skills at the time.

I waited until I was in the bus to properly work on them. Then I did the negative-positive reframe: if I had kept feeling guilty about these mistakes, then that should be evidence of me actually being a caring person.

It felt good. And I noticed that the good feeling was experienced specifically in my lower back – at the exact location where I had used to experience a sense of a gaping hole, up until just some months back.

Then I went back to the memory of finding the ring, found the moment when I’d given the ring to the host. I inserted that memory into my self-concept as well: not a big thing, but a small example of a positive character, of having taken the time to bring the ring to somebody who’d be in a better position to return it.

This time, the memory went smoothly into the self-concept, almost like it was sliding down to fill a hole just the right size.

There was a slight, soft smile on my lips as I stepped out of the bus and walked the remaining way home.

The book that allowed me to do all of this self-concept work is Transforming Your Self by Steve Andreas. If this article seemed valuable to you, I suggest getting the book and trying out its exercises to see whether you might find them useful. It has concrete and specific instructions for working with your self-concepts, that are much better than any instructions I could have included in this article. (I’m in no way affiliated with the author, receive no commission etc.)