How I found & fixed a major cause of my depression and anxiety

EDIT Dec 18, 2018: For a followup of how the changes in this post have lasted, see “18-month followup on my self-concept work“.

EDIT Aug 7th, 2022: As a five-year follow-up: the above followup is still roughly correct, in that this did represent a major and significant change for the better, and at the same time there were also other causes of depression and anxiety that would eventually resurface. This post described split self-concepts as a “root cause” for my issues, but looking back, I should probably have realized to ask the question of why I had such split root causes in the first place. There were, in fact, deeper root causes which I have been working on healing afterwards.

Still, it’s clear that the changes described here made lots of things better, and e.g. the thing about being constantly concerned about possibly feeling like a bad person at any moment is still gone.

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.

For a followup of how the changes in this post have lasted, see “18-month followup on my self-concept work“.

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.)

Edit Aug 16 2020: Some people who read Transforming Your Self as a result of this post have described it as being hard to apply. In retrospect, this post describes a special case of so-called memory reconsolidation, described in the book Unlocking the Emotional Brain. My review of UtEB might be helpful if you are trying to make something similar work for you. 


  1. Hi. I found some of the insights here terrific. Have you ever heard of codependency or codependent behavior? The feelings that you described after finding the ring are common for co-dependents. (many, many times I asked myself what more could I have done after doing already too much for a person in need)
    Also, most of them feel selfish or uneasy about themselves and need so much external validation.
    ps: Your writing is just amazing, keep up the good work.

    • Kaj Sotala

      Thanks! Yeah, I haven’t read very much about codependence, but from what little I know, have definitely noticed some codependent traits in myself before. Hopefully they’re fixed now, we’ll see :)

  2. Some of this really felt familar. Thank you so much. I will read it again.

  3. For the last two memories, “in the future I won’t make that mistake again”. Or “at the time I did the best I could with the knowledge that I had” can also work. You might like the concept of “the stories we tell ourselves” and the book by the same name. But I don’t know if you would have been receptive to the idea if you hadn’t already now figured it out.

  4. |”So I took those negative memories and integrated them together with the positive ones… 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.”|

    For the meat of your article, this sounds a little too much like *insert magic here*. Would a more detailed description look something like “hold the positive and negative memories together in awareness and make the mental movements necessary to resolve any conflicts that arise between them.” (I’m using awareness in the same sense Culadasa does here.) I’m curious if what you did is analogous to Folding by Mark Lippmann. Have your read Folding?

    • For the meat of your article, this sounds a little too much like *insert magic here*.

      I know. :( I’d love to provide a more detailed explanation of what to do, but even I am pretty unsure of just how exactly I do it in practice. I just do it, somehow. And I’m a little wary of trying to describe it: this seems like the kind of a thing that’s very susceptible to some kind of verbal overshadowing, where I provide a description of what to do which doesn’t actually reflect what to do… but then it causes me to also think that this is what I used to do, and then I start having difficulties doing it anymore as well.

      Though all of this is why I included the link to the book, since it had excellent concrete instructions, descriptions and examples. I don’t think I can describe anything of it better than the book already did.

      Would a more detailed description look something like “hold the positive and negative memories together in awareness and make the mental movements necessary to resolve any conflicts that arise between them.”

      Maybe? That sounds very magic-y to me as well. :)

      I haven’t read Folding.

      • That’s super sensible. I’m really happy for you Kaj, I hope this change is a permanent shift. :) Thank you for sharing aswell, I expect to get a lot of value out of it.

  5. [Feel free to not reply.] May the fact that it is a summer in Finland play a significant role in your getting better? I, for one, feel a little better in summers (unless they’re too hot..) and revert fully to my chronic misery elsewhen

    • It’s a fair question. And in fact, summer has made me feel better before; as have some other things, such as antidepressants.

      A big factor in why I don’t think this is it, is that by now I recognize what it feels like. Such episodes typically make me _feel good_; this time there’s no sense of feeling particularly good or motivated about anything, just not feeling terrible anymore, for an overall neutral mood.

      Also, during previous “feelgood” my motivations were still basically unchanged. I still craved other people’s acceptance and validation and didn’t believe that it was enough to be myself – I was just temporarily more enthusiastic about my ability to win over such acceptance and validation. Whereas here, while my mood remains pretty neutral, it’s the thought patterns of “I ultimately need X to be happy” that are changing.

      So if previous summer/medicine/etc. episodes were that I felt great but had the same motivations as before, then this feels like the opposite of that.

      I do expect that I’ll feel somewhat worse again in the fall, when there’s less sunlight; but that will be something more like ordinary SAD, rather than despair from these thought processes.

  6. I bought “Transforming Your Self” and I am working my way through it, but I have come up against the obstacle that I seem to have a rather poor autobiographical memory. Even with qualities that I’m confident I have, I have a hard time coming up with actual memories that are examples of the quality. I struggle to think of even three actual experiences that are examples. I was shocked to read in the book about others coming up with 30+ example memories of some quality they have.

    I do remember that I have done certain concrete things, but I don’t remember what it was like to be doing them. I may remember that I felt certain feelings about an event, but I don’t really have an experiential memory of feeling those feelings. My experiential memories are limited to brief, intense moments, typically times of increased adrenaline, and therefore mostly unpleasant memories (a few of these intense moments are pleasant, but not many).

    I’ve read that this may be linked with aphantasia but I actually do have a pretty vivid imagination and “mind’s eye”. I daydream a lot! But my autobiographical memory is weak, mostly not vivid, and quite chronologically disorganized.

    Do you have any idea what I can do to still be able to make this technique work for me?

    • Very glad to hear that you’re reading the book! Thank you for letting me know; I really hope that it’ll be of use to you.

      I’m guessing that you should probably be fine. I found the mentions about easily coming up with 30+ examples pretty bizarre as well! I also typically had a harder time coming up with a lot of examples right away, and feel like I probably have a weaker autobiographical memory than average.

      I did develop a few tricks for that, when I wanted to build a more robust self-concept for something and needed more examples than the couple that would come to mind automatically. One was to consciously think about each year, or at least period in my life: to explicitly go them through one year or age at a time (it feels easier to think about my childhood in terms of “when I was 7”, and about adulthood in terms of “in 2010”), think about what the conditions of my life were like then, and try to consider in what situations a quality might have manifested. What were my daily routines like, would there have been an opportunity to manifest this quality for any of them. For the more recent past, looking at my calendar to get a reminder of what I’ve been doing and then trying to consciously think about how I behaved during those events, was useful. As was thinking about my normal daily routines on e.g. a workday, weekend and vacation.

      Another thing that I’ve done has been to decide on a quality, then try to keep that quality in mind throughout the day and see if I notice anything that could serve as an example. Here it’s also valuable to keep in mind the book’s advice about remembering small examples as well as big ones: e.g. if you’re going for a quality like “kind”, just something like remembering to say “thank you” to a waiter still counts as an example of that quality, even though it’s a small and simple thing. Then if, during the day, you notice yourself doing some small act of kindness (for example), you can try use that as inspiration to think back of other examples when you either might have done the same, or when you had done something different that was similar in spirit.

      You mentioned that your autobiographical memory tends to be quite chronologically disorganized. You might think of the first technique as an attempt to artificially impose some additional chronological organization, and the other as an attempt to tap into an alternative method of organization (organization through similarity to a present situation, rather than through time). If you can think of some other principle that your memory is more organized by, you can try to see if you could adapt that as well.

      This seems to get easier with practice, as your mind learns what exactly it is that it should be looking for. Even though I still don’t know if I could get up to 30 examples, that’s just a crazy amount. :-)

  7. This was a wonderful blog post which shows how you overcome your own hero’s journey. Steve did an Audio course which is called Recreating Yourself which is based on his book and many people may enjoy as an alternative to the book.

  8. aNeopuritan

    Congratulations, and thanks. I doubt, though, that I’m the only person with similar feelings that thinks “complete acceptance” would be … the opposite of what is wanted.

  9. This is very useful. Thank you. And thanks for pinning the tweet, that’s how I found this.

  10. How it looks now, after 4 months? Can you say that this techniques are still working?

    • Kaj Sotala

      For the most part, yes. Though I’ve discovered a new problem, in that while the fixes in this post had the effect that I no longer actively feel bad, I still seem to have difficulties finding anything would make me feel good, either. And if I go for a long enough time without feeling particularly good, that starts feeling bad.

      But then, before I used to feel actively bad and not have anything that would have made me feel good; now I only need to figure out how to deal with the latter problem. That’s still progress, and doesn’t negate the improvements I discussed in this post.

  11. Found your post very useful ,thanks for sharing!
    In return here’s one piece of contructive feedback: get to the fucking point already. Too much bla around your actual nuggets, of course, some readers may enjoy just this.

  12. Pumpkin Pie

    Very well written and I totally relate with all of what you said.

  13. I read the whole post, and I at least partly found myself in it. Just when I clicked the link to the book or the excerpt from it and saw the word NLP, my internal alert started to get loud. I just don’t know how to reconcile your self-report with the second paragraph here:

    • Before reading this book and a few others, I also had the impression that NLP was debunked pseudoscience. But there was very little stuff in the books that would directly contradict any existing science that I’d know of, some of their theory was drawing on work that’s respectable within standard cognitive science (Transforming Your Self references George Lakoff’s work, and its sequel, Six Blind Elephants, draws even more strongly on Lakoff), and some of the concepts have clear resemblances to things in more mainstream theories (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, mental contrasting).

      Later I found this post by Steve Andreas, which makes for interesting reading; excerpts:

      > Most of the research directly on NLP concepts was done in the 1980s and 1990s; little or no research has been done directly on NLP in the last decade or so. The vast majority of studies that were done earlier addressed […] a teaching tool […] that […] was a deliberate and gross oversimplification, only somewhat true in a particular problem context. Despite this, the bulk of research, supposedly “on NLP” at that time was done in an attempt to verify or disconfirm this concept. […]

      > It’s also worth noting that the studies themselves were often full of research errors. […] To summarize, the research that has been done was on the wrong questions, by people who did not understand what they were trying to measure, ignoring linguistic and behavioral confounding variables, so of course the results were negative or inconclusive. […]

      > Although little or no research is currently being done directly on NLP processes, there is quite a lot of academic research that supports NLP indirectly. NLP methods and principles are being “rediscovered” in bits and pieces in a wide variety of research studies. Following are a few examples. […]

      > Treating PTSD and trauma using dissociation […] Timelines […] Motivation, specific outcomes and behavioral change […] Nonverbal rapport and empathy […] Negative reframing […] Synesthesias […] Self-control and submodalities […]

      > This is only a very small sampling of current research studies that support various aspects of NLP practice and methodology, and more appear each week. There is a lot of research that supports NLP principles, but it is not identified as such. If all these studies were collected into a review article, it would provide quite impressive support.

      So my impression is that NLP has been developed by people doing practical work, who’ve been more interested in validating their results by seeing clients improve than putting in the large effort needed to validate their results in a scientifically respectable manner. I have no doubt that _some_ of it has indeed been false and correctly debunked, but it also seems like there’s quite a lot which simply hasn’t been tested scientifically, or which has been tested wrong.

      Which, of course, means that one should be cautious about NLP’s claims: no doubt a lot of it is wrong, as it hasn’t been rigorously tested. But at the same time, craftsmen who’ve learned by experience do often know a lot for which there isn’t scientific evidence: so if something from NLP seems promising and there’s a low cost for testing it in one’s personal life, it’s probably worth a shot.

  14. Really great work explaining the problem, the work, the solution, the aftermath, and continuing to provide updates.

    The most significant improvements in my life have come from being exposed to concepts that allowed me to recognize and challenge behaviors that I wasn’t aware of and did me great harm. For example, being vs doing, feeling vs thinking, codependency, and now this self-concept model of self-esteem. So, my sincere thanks for the effort you’ve made in this post. I’m looking forward to doing the work.


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