Re-interpreting meanings

After I made my last breakup post, siderea left me with some excellent thoughts about it. While there were a lot of good points, these were the parts that resonated the most. She started by describing the reaction that many people have to her:
… a lot of people, male, female and otherwise, fall “in like” with me very quickly, because for a lot of them, I “make” them feel good – put more accurately, the way I comport myself in the world is more comfortable to be around than they usually find themselves feeling. They feel – like you describe feeling for the woman you fell for – safe from humiliation or rejection when self-disclosing to me, like they can be more authentically themselves, which is a delicious feeling.
Here’s the first confusion: confusing how they feel with me for how they feel about me. It is one of the commonest human errors to decide that because one feels good with someone that they are good.
This is problematic first and most obviously because it’s how serial predators of all sorts groom victims: making the victims feel good so that the victims trust the perp to be good. Not pertinent to your case, except to bear in mind how dangerous an error that can be.
Less obvious and more pertinent is how that conflation confuses the one doing the conflating as to how much they actually know about the one they are so judging. The confusion of one’s own good feelings for the goodness of the person one attributes those good feelings to obscures what is often a concommitant fact: one doesn’t actually know much about the person who makes one feel good, except that they make one feel good. […]
You say, “What was so special was the almost instant feeling of connection” as if that feeling existed independently of any one specific human to have it. Feelings aren’t facts: that feeling of connection was had by you. It was a feeling you were having. That doesn’t mean there “was a connection” in some objective way. Further, saying that the feeling you had was “of connection” is just a projection of a meaning those feelings had. The words “a feeling of connection” don’t actually have any meaning. They’re a handwave that posits that the feelings – which probably all have names, like “adoration”, “pleasure”, “affection”, “delight”, “surprise” – indicate this hazy concept, “connection”.
Some of the main lessons I took away from this comment:
Part of my pain was in the feeling that I’d had a unique, almost mystical “connection” with someone, that we’d then lost. But as siderea pointed out, “a connection” doesn’t actually mean anything: it was just a way how I interpreted the feelings I had in the presence of my ex, as well as the feelings that I thought she had in my presence.
Going from “there was a unique and magical connection” to “there was a person who happened to fall into some kind of mental schema of a ‘safe person’ based on relatively superficial information, and thus made me feel safe, and at some moments there seemed to be mutuality in this” changes one’s perspective a lot.
For one, I had been feeling like it was a personal failure, telling of some deeper fundamental flaw in me, that I had screwed things up and “ruined” that connection. With the new perspective, it’s more like… Well, there were some moments when those feelings arose and others when they didn’t, and that had more to do with the quirks of our individual psychologies than anything else.
And as several people commenting on my last post implied, my side of the “connection” being primarily an emotion that *I* had suggests that recapturing that feeling doesn’t necessarily require finding someone who’s magical and rare and unique in some sense. Rather, it may be much more useful to just work on myself and my own emotions, to make it easier for me to achieve that feeling around people in general. (to use psych terms, this is a major inwards shift of the locus of control)
In the few days after reading siderea’s comment, painful memories of various kinds about this relationship kept popping up. It wasn’t very pleasant, but at the same time there was a sense of… my mind pulling up those memories so that it could reinterpret the meaning it had given them, and to then reconsolidate the version of the memory with the updated meaning.
Yesterday evening I noticed that I was feeling much less of an urge to go back and “make things right again”, but I still had a compelling need to have my ex think well of me, to fix any respect that might have been lost.
I asked myself: why do I feel that this is so important? It made sense to have this desire back when there was still a chance to fix our relationship, but what would fulfilling that desire do now?
No answer came back. Instead, the feeling seemed to weaken.
This night I had a dream where I was hanging out with my ex, and completely forgetting to think about what she thought of me, just getting absorbed in whatever activity it was that we were doing together.
And today I’ve been feeling pretty okay about that whole relationship and breakup thing.

On perceived connections

Writing about this seems to be useful, both for me and some other people, so more on breakup pain:

The fact is that I don’t have very much experience of long relationships, and that I haven’t had many deep friendships either. At this moment I feel like I only have one really deep friendship, and I don’t get to see that person nearly as often as I’d like. I’ve long had a deep feeling of loneliness and being alone.

When I started hanging out with this person… she was unique. Now, of course when you get infatuated with someone new, they always seem unique and perfect and special. But even looking back at it with more objective eyes now, it still feels unique. Even before I’d really developed any strong crush, even when my attitude was still just “I like this person and they seem like there could be some potential”, on our first date there was already something magical.

We shared interests and values, but that’s true for a lot of people. What was so special was the almost instant feeling of connection. I can with confidence say that I have never in my life had any interaction with anyone go that smoothly and pleasantly.

On that first date, there was never a moment of awkwardness or being unsure of what to say; not the slightest feeling of unease. It felt completely, utterly, entirely safe; I confessed to some private things which I had intended to leave until later, because it felt entirely inconceivable to my intuition that she would react badly to them (and she didn’t). Conversation seemed to flow completely smoothly and naturally, the topics moving from sex to religion, from religion to the subjective nature of reality, from there to the academic study of gaming, from there to the probability of two people sharing a birthday.

I’ve never felt such a feeling of understanding and being understood, of everything just… clicking. And if this was just the first date, how deep and rich could our relationship yet become?

It – and several other early interactions – were enough that I was ready to move to an unfamiliar town and leave basically my entire existing social circle behind in order to have that on a regular basis. It was enough that, if there would have been any other incompatibilities, I would have been ready to put in practically any amount of work in order to smooth them out.

And I thought that this feeling of already being totally committed to it – despite how little time had passed – and being ready to invest practically anything in it to make it work and maintain that magic smoothness, was mutual.

That mistaken assumption on my part ended up shaping – and damaging – much of our interaction when things started going less well.

By the time the relationship was practically over already, I heard her characterize it as “a brief thing of a few months”, not worth putting inordinate amounts of energy into if it looked like things weren’t going very well.

Not that magic, unique thing that I – maybe foolishly – had thought it was.

And now the next pain and fear that I need to process is the fact that it took me 30 years to find a person with whom there seemed to be the potential for such a deep and rich friendship, even if just for an instant. How much longer will it take to find somebody else like that? Let alone someone with whom that feeling of a genuinely unique connection would be mutual?

And is there any reason to assume that the answer to that question isn’t “longer than my remaining lifetime”?

I genuinely don’t know.

Letting go – but not *too* much

Dealing with breakup pain, part twenty million:

I mentioned in a previous post that dealing with loss seems to come in stages. Grief is not grieving after one thing: rather there are many different things one has to come to terms with, all tangled up with each other.

The most recent pain I had in the last few days involved repeatedly recalling various good moments we had. It felt unclear to me what it was that I needed to do in order to absorb and integrate this pain: accept the fact that those moments were gone? But that didn’t seem to be it, and besides that was something that I felt I had processed already.

It turned out that it was kind of the opposite.

It was as if previously some part of my mind had come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t have these kinds of moments with this person again. Now another part was saying something like “these moments were precious to us; and even though we are not going to have them with this person again, we wish to remember how good they were, and make sure that one day we’ll find something similar with some other person”.

The thing that the pain was calling my attention to, was in effect a reminder to not go too far in accepting my loss. A reminder to keep to thinking about the good moments and cherish them, lest I abandon the hope of finding something similar again.

And now that particular pain seems to be gone, the lesson having been learned and its message integrated to the rest of my mind.

No, I don’t think we need more existential terror

There’s a popular narrative that goes roughly like this: most of human history has been dangerous and uncertain, and that’s the kind of environment our minds work the best in. The reason why so many people these days are bored and depressed is because we’ve made the world *too* safe, we would actually be healthier and happier if the world was somewhat more dangerous and not so regular and boring.

I think that this narrative is intuitive, convincing, and mostly wrong, though it does have *some* truth to it.

Here’s a comment I wrote in response to an article which was arguing the above narrative, talking about a need for “mild existential terror”:

I think it’s worth distinguishing between two different possibilities: one, that mild existential terror makes us better off by itself. Two, that mild existential terror doesn’t actually contribute to well-being, but our work to protect against it historically did, and it’s us not needing that work anymore that’s the real culprit.

To take as an example one important component of well-being: meaningful relationships (not necessarily romantic). Hunting that tiger required working closely together, and being able to trust others in your hunting party – literally trusting them with your life. This facilitated – forced – the creation of very deep and intense bonds.

In contrast, these days it’s all too easy to drift through life without *needing* to form a close bond with anyone, because there are few existential terrors that we need to protect ourselves against by bonding together. But it’s not the existential terror, by itself, that causes the bonding. Inject some existential terror to the life of someone lonely and all you’ve done is make them even more miserable. Psychological research on people’s well-being finds the number and quality of close relationships to be one of the most important factors in well-being, not the amount of fear in their lives.

People can form bonds even without that terror, even quickly like with the “fast friends protocol” of just going through a series of increasing personal questions. Arguably the fast friends protocol, too, evokes a *bit* of fear by making people vulnerable to each other. But this is a mild enough fear that I wouldn’t put it in the same category.

Also, look at children: kids raised in healthy, loving homes, who’ve experienced the least amount of fear in their lives, tend to be pretty happy and content until they start getting thrown in unhealthy social environments (e.g. school) where they start developing worries and reasons for self-censorship and feelings that they’ll need to conform in order to fit in.

It’s the sudden appearance of existential fear that makes them worse off, not the lack of it.

When I was the most depressed, the problem was never “boredom”. The problem was feeling like I’d never achieve anything I wanted to, like I’d live in constant financial stress, like I’d never have a place where I’d feel I’d belong, like nobody would want me as a romantic partner. Again it was various kinds of existential fear that were hurting me, not the lack of them.

As I’ve started to recover, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that “being bored about life” isn’t really about having too few challenges. If you find things interesting, you’ll always discover new fascinating challenges. Rather the problem is in demanding too much of yourself, thinking that you need to self-censor in order to fit in, feeling ashamed about parts of yourself and wanting to suppress them. All things which cause you to (consciously or subconsciously) suppress your natural urges and your natural motivation to do things, and then you end up bored because you are not letting yourself be interested in any of the things that you are actually authentically interested in.

That, too, comes from a form of mild existential terror, the terror of not belonging unless you fit the mold X.

See also some interesting discussion on this on Facebook.