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I hope this time it last for ever. Kaj <3

It's good to see stories like this.

The notes about the impact on your sexuality are interesting. For a while I've been modelling fetishes as expressions of needs that've been displaced to fantasies and basal drives, unable to manifest in higher-minded consciously orchestrated virtue aspirations. They're the needs we find hard to admit to, problems we can't imagine finding a realistic solution to anywhere in the world (like we literally don't know what it would look like, it seems impossible, or, when we try to imagine it, the solution seems deeply undesirable). But they're deep needs, deep hungers. They wont go away. So the system shoves them into another place, a place where they can thrive as just fantasies, to keep them alive, to keep our attention on them, to keep us from giving up on them completely, however long it takes us to find our way to a realistic solution.

Your experiences seem to agree with that model. It has an interesting implication: fetishes are supposed to go away once the needs have been fulfilled, as they're mostly just a reflection of an unhealthy relationship with one's hungers. We've both experienced that. Heal the relationship, learn to perceive the solution in a healthy way, you can no longer exploit the displacement for pleasure. If instead you sustain the indulgence, that may make you very comfortable with retaining the neurosis, staying blind to the solution.

An example of where I would expect that to happen very easily is... Join a large, thriving, relatively long-lived community of people who harbor a memeplex that is exceptionally good at maintaining and amplifying your particular displaced hunger, maintaining the solution's indulgent, fantastical displacement. That is, join a kink community. It's not hard to imagine that there's a risk there, that they will have a cultural parasite for you, a culture that has feeds on and propagates through only people who are profoundly stuck in the neurotic conceptualization, something that will have been optimized to prevent you from getting to a place where you can see the solution in a realistic way. If it didn't defend its constituents from coming to recognize their cure, they would have spread it around among themselves, and the culture would have died. So, inevitably, we will be left only with...

Your post got me thinking about some stuff I've been dealing with, and I think helped me make some progress on it almost instantly. I don't think the mechanisms are quite the same, but thinking about your experience induced me to have useful realizations about myself. I'll share in case it's useful to someone else:

It sounds like your self-concept issue was rooted in "having a negative model of yourself deeply ingrained", which induced neuroses in your thoughts/behaviors that attempted to compensate for it / search around for ways to convince yourself it wasn't true. And that the 'fix', sorta, was revisiting where that model came from and studying it and realizing that it wasn't fair or accurate and that the memories in which it was rooted could be reinterpreted or argued against.

I thought about this for a while, and couldn't quite fit my own issues into the model. So instead I zoomed out a bit and tried this approach: it seems like the sensation of shame, especially when no one else is around, must be rooted in something else, and when I feel shame I ought to look closer and figure out why, as it's a huge >>LOOK RIGHT HERE<< to a destructive loop of thoughts (destructive because, well, if I'm feeling shame about the same thing for years on end, and yet it's not changing, clearly it's not helping me in any way to feel that way -- so I ought, for my health, to either fix it or stop feeling it).

[Aside: in my experience, the hallmark thought pattern of depression is loops: spirals of thoughts that are negative and cause anxiety / self-loathing, but don't provide a fix and have no mechanism for 'going away', so they just continue to spiral, negatively affecting mood and self-esteem etc, and probably causing destructive behaviors that give you more to feel anxious / hateful about. And I've observed that it's very hard to go through rational calculations with regard to yourself in private, for me at least, and so talking to people (therapists, friends, strangers, whatever) and being forced to vocalize and answer questions about your thought spirals can cause you to see logical ways to 'step out of them' that never seem clear when you're just thinking by yourself. Or whatever -- I could probably write about how this works for hours.]

So I looked closer at where my shame from, and found that it wasn't that I had a negative self-concept on its own (something like "I am X", where X is negative), but rather that it was that I was constantly seeing in my world reminders of someone I felt like I should have been, in a sense. I felt like I had been an extremely smart, high-potential kid growing up, but at some point, video game addiction + sleep deprivation + irresponsibility + depression had diverted me off that path, and ever since I have been constantly reminded of that fact and feel shame for not being that person. So I guess I had (have) a self-concept of 'being a failed version of who I could have been', or 'having never reached my potential'.

For some concrete examples:

  1. When I saw my reflection in things, I would criticize myself for seeming not-normal, goofy, or not.. like.. masculine enough? for a mid-20s male. not that I wanted to be, like, buff, but I want to be a person who wouldn't strike others as goofy looking, but I always see my bad posture from computer use and my haircut that I'm never happy with, and get stuck in loops looking at myself in the mirror and trying to figure out what I need to work on to fix it (work out this or that muscle, do yoga, figure out how to maintain a beard, whatever).
  2. A lot of times when I read really brilliant essays, on LW or other blogs or etc, about subjects I'm into, especially by autodidact/polymath types, I'd feel really bad because I felt like I could have been one of those people, but had failed to materialize. So I'd be reminded that I need to study more math, and write more, and read more books, and all these others things, in order to get there.

These are thoughts I have been having dozens of times a day.

The second big realization: that motivation borne out of shame is almost completely useless. Seeing your flaws and wanting to change them causes negative emotions in the moment, but it doesn't really lead to action, ever. A person who feels bad about being lanky doesn't often go to the gym, because that's not coming from a positive place and the whole action is closely coupled to negativity and self-loathing. And a person feeling bad for not being a clever polymath doesn't.. become one.. from negativity; that takes years of obsession and other behaviors that you can't curate through self-loathing.

(Well, it's possible that shame can induce motivation for immediate fixes, but I'm sure it doesn't cause long-term changes. I suspect that requires a desire to change that comes from a positive, empowered mindset.)

I'm not entirely sure what the 'permanent' fix for this is -- it doesn't seem to be as simple as redefining my self-concept to not want to be these people. But realizing this was going on in this way seemed like a huge eye-opening realization and almost immediately changed how I was looking at my neurotic behaviors / shames, and I think it's going to lead to progress. The next step, for now, I think, is focusing on mindfulness in an effort to become more able to control and ignore these neurotic shame feelings, now that I've convinced myself that I understand where they're coming from, and that they're unfair and irrational.


  1. feelings of shame / neurotic spirals = places to look closely at in your psyche. They're probably directly related to self-concept issues.
  2. it's possible for negativity to come, rather than directly from your self-concept, from your concept of who you 'should have' or 'could have been'.
  3. shame-induced motivation is essentially useless. For me, at least. I've been trying to channel it into lifestyle changes for years to essentially 0 results.

The connection between neuroses and memories was something that made me think a lot. I've been trying to provoke myself into some kind of "transformation" for about 10 years, with some limited successes and a lot of failures for a want of insight. Information like this is really valuable so thank you for sharing your experience.

Did anybody else immediately start trying to think of how to munchkin/minmax this technique?

What definition of munchkin/minmax are you referring to? I've heard the terms before but this usage isn't clear and seems pretty specific

For example, I immediately copied over the list of positive affects that it's theoretically possible to have toward yourself and started planning how to systematically install all of them, one by one.

Something like that should be possible and indeed the book devotes time to discussing ways of creating new positive self-concepts; there's also discussion about taking existing positive concepts and making them stronger.

That said, something one may consider is that the claim is that concepts also create behavior - so if there is any concept that you think has positive affect but which you wouldn't necessarily want to actively be like, you may want to be cautious about installing it. (especially since it may conflict with existing self-concepts; there's a bit of discussion about "congruence checks" you might want to do before changing your concepts. When I was thinking of inserting the memory with the ring into a self-concept of kindness, there was that initial resistance - a failed congruence check suggesting I should fix the existing conflicting content first)

That makes sense. I can see how a deep felt certainty that you're already awesome and perfect exactly as you are could have pathological consequences. I'll be careful. =)

Based on my reading of the book, I guess the main suggestions that I'd make to anyone interested in playing around with creating new self-concepts would be:

  • Use lots of diverse examples. E.g. if you're creating a self-concept of kindness, look for memories of both large and small acts of kindness. The memories contained within your self-concept serve as kind of templates to match various experiences against; the more diverse the database of templates, the more likely it is that different actions will be correctly identified. (Machine learning folks might say that this avoids overfitting.)
    • You can try to explicitly include memories from different years of life, as well as covering both short and long time periods (e.g. if you hold the door open to someone, that's an act of kindness lasting for a few seconds; if you have a friend who you've been helping with their troubles for the last several years, that can be thought of either as a big set of short acts or a single long-lasting act).
  • See if you can include counterexamples as well, maybe doing a negative-positive reframe to turn them into examples, or including qualifiers with them. Again the template matching thing: if your self-concept for a quality contains instances of occasions when you failed to act according to the quality, then that allows you to recognize future occasions when you're not acting in accordance to the quality. This helps avoid unrealistic overconfidence in the quality.

(And for anyone interested in doing this seriously, I much recommend the book for lots and lots of practical examples and tips.)

Where did you find this list?

Near the bottom of the article Kaj links in his post.

Here's the list: curious, gentle, playful, healthy, balanced, funny, sensual, witty, honest, steadfast, scintillating, courageous, thoughtful, flirtatious, organized, loyal, creative, wise, kind, loving, deep, impeccable, social, considerate, centered, thorough, useful, responsive, adventurous, passionate.

Obviously there are others you could think of, but that seemed like a pretty good starting point to me.

I am concerned that keeping lots of identities - be them good or bad is a problem. If you have no choice but to have them obviously have the ones you prefer. But otherwise keep your identity small?

For example generous/careful are two identities that have different optimums in different situations.

Another conflict might be deep/thoughtful and adventurous/social. If you hold these identities too strong they become your prison.

Something that's very strongly implied - if not necessarily ever explicitly stated - by the book is that identities drive motivation and behavior. So if you do keep your identity small, you might not have a very strong motivation to actually ever do anything. Worse, trying to keep your identity small might cause you to define yourself through what you're not (e.g. "I'm not the kind of a person who would have a strong identity"), which is a self-concept by itself: but one which predominantly guides you to avoid taking specific actions, but it doesn't guide you to take any actions in particular.

I've long suspected (even before reading the book) that the desire of many rationalists to keep their identity small, is directly linked to the seemingly high levels of akrasia among rationalists.

That said, it's true that different identities may conflict with each other (which was what I pointed out), but on the other hand, "if you hold these identities too strong they become your prison" sounds like the kind of a thing that could be avoided by having lots of identities rather than few ones? The more identities you have, the more freely you can choose between them to find one that's a good match for the situation that you're in.

So if you do keep your identity small, you might not have a very strong motivation to actually ever do anything.

This is true, but on the other hand, if you actually succeed in keeping it small, as opposed to thinking wishfully about doing that, you will also actually not mind not doing anything.

I'm skeptical of whether this is a particularly common outcome in practice. I suspect that if you're not an expert Buddhist meditator and basically living in a monastery, you'll just fail at this, and you'd have a much easier time achieving happiness by actually having a strong identity.

I agree it is not a common outcome in practice, although that is largely because people identify as "someone who does things," or at least as "someone who ought to do things," without identifying as something else that would actually drive them to do things. That is a recipe for making yourself miserable. It may be, too, that "someone who ought to do things" is enough of a natural identity, so to speak, that it is very hard for someone not to identify in that way, even if they think they are not doing so.

I suspect that if you're not an expert Buddhist meditator and basically living in a monastery, you'll just fail at this

This is probably right. Fortunately for me, that is not too far off from describing my life.

largely because people identify as "someone who does things," or at least as "someone who ought to do things,"

(either that, or people identify as "someone who doesn't do things", and find that to be a concept with negative value)

Right, I don't think this is all too different. Saying that it is bad to be someone who doesn't do things means that one ought to be doing things.

The book has tips on that too. :-) (though I was more interested in fixing my problems rather than going for yet another self-improvement thing, so didn't pay them very much attention)

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