How feeling more secure feels different than I expected

by Kaj_SotalaKajSotala.fi4 min read17th Sep 202115 comments

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This year, I’ve been feeling more emotionally secure, thanks to various kinds of internal and external work (the stuff at https://attachmentrepair.com/ being one notable example).

The effect of this doesn’t always feel like I expected it to feel.

I once thought that in order to not worry so much about whether people like me, I would need to become convinced that they do like me. Or at least I’d need to convince myself that at least some people like me, strongly enough that it would reassure me in general.

That does play a certain role. I probably wouldn’t feel the way I do now, if I hadn’t managed to internalize evidence about some people actually liking me quite a bit. And if I ended up in a conversation where it was obvious that someone hated me, yeah, that wouldn’t be fun.

But my actual internal experience of feeling more secure in interacting with other people, isn’t necessarily that I put a higher probability on the other person liking me than I did before. Often it’s more like noticing that thinking about how much the other person likes me, isn’t a particularly rewarding frame of mind to be in. And that it’s possible to sometimes at least drop that frame and let a more rewarding frame arise.

If I had to verbalize it, there’s sometimes a shift in stances that’s accompanied by a thought that goes along the lines of “it’s possible that I’m secretly annoying this person and they totally hate me without telling me that and I’m doing nothing to deny that possibility, but I’m going to get more out of this interaction if I just focus on something more rewarding – such as the general flow of this conversation – unless I get a clear indication that I’m doing something wrong”.

Except that that’s not quite right, because what I do then isn’t me trying to focus on something more rewarding. Nor is it an attempt to suppress the analysis about what the other person’s opinion about me is. Rather it’s just a remembering to inhibit the part of me that’s about to start focusing on that analysis, and then letting something else arise from that space on its own.

And that’s becoming more automatic, so that I don’t necessarily even need to do that anymore. If the thought of “it’s possible that this person secretly hates me” crosses my mind at all, it may do so very quickly and then be gone.

(I originally wrote large parts of this a month ago, for the forum of Michael Ashcroft’s Alexander Technique course; if I had written it from scratch now, I’m not sure I’d have been able to verbalize that shift in stances anymore, because it has become automatic/subtle enough to miss.)

All of this is not to say that I wouldn’t still feel significantly anxious in some social situations that happen to trigger that. Just that there are increasingly situations where I don’t, where I previously did.

I recall a conversation I once had with someone, when I was still a lot more worried about this kind of thing. When I said I was worried about what other people think of me, she said “but you can’t actually know what others think of you, so why focus on that?”

From where I’m at now, I can understand her confusion.

If you’re feeling secure, what others think of you is just a question like any other, such as “I wonder what they had for breakfast today”. You can choose to think about it, but it’s not intrinsically compelling. If it feels like an unanswerable question that it doesn’t give you any benefit to think about, you can just… not think about it. Why wouldn’t you think about something else? There are lots of more fun things to think about!

But if you’re feeling insecure, you can’t just choose not to think about it. Someone not liking you, or even possibly not liking you, feels on a deep emotional level like danger. It’s much more like “is my partner going to abandon me” than it’s “what did these people have for breakfast”. Because you’re so sensitive to rejection that even a stranger disliking you feels a little bit like being abandoned by a loved one, like nobody will ever love you.

From that frame of mind, my friend’s question of “you can’t know, so why care” felt incomprehensible. There was a sense of “yeah I can’t know, and that’s exactly what’s horrifying and it’s why I have to keep worrying about it”.

Because “you can’t know what other people think of you” felt, on some emotional level, a little bit like “you can’t know whether anyone will ever truly care about you”.

So from that frame, I thought that when I’d get to the point of feeling more secure, it would feel like putting a higher probability on “the people who I’m currently interacting with like me”. Since emotionally “other people liking me” and “I’m worthy of love” felt like the same thing, even if I intellectually understood that this doesn’t make sense.

But while feeling more secure does also somewhat involve putting a higher probability on other people liking me, it also involves that question becoming separate from the feeling of “I’m worthy of love”. A lower probability on being liked, doesn’t necessarily imply lower worth.

And that’s something that I might have been able to understand intellectually before, but I wouldn’t have been able to imagine what the actual experience of it feels like.

Crossposts: Facebook, Twitter.

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You are worthy of love.

And also (separately), I like you. 

(I mean, I've never met you; but I have read a lot of what you write around here, and I like your reasoning, your tone, and what you choose to write about in general.)

 

"And if I ended up in a conversation where it was obvious that someone hated me, yeah, that wouldn’t be fun."

That sounds just about right. I strive to have accurate feelings: Being actively disliked isn't supposed to be fun. But also, it's not supposed to threaten the very core of my sense of self-worth. 

 

Thank you for writing this. You're not the only one working on it.

I greatly appreciate posts that describe when different flavors of self work (or different kinds of problems) don't feel like how one expected. A somewhat reversed example for me, for some years I didn't notice the intense judgement I had within me that would occasionally point at others and myself, largely because I had a particular stereotype of what "being judgemental" looked like. I correctly determined I didn't do the stereotypically judgemental thing, and stopped hunting.

Insecurity and shame feel to me like having a high probability on being disliked or in the wrong, and of this having high consequences. This leads to a "reasonable suspicion" standard of jurisprudence, and a sort of stop-and-frisk approach to self-policing.

Security feels like moving to a "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. If I get worried about being disliked or in the wrong, then if I can construct an argument for why this might not be so, or that it doesn't matter, then I'm "free to go."

As a result, I think my inner prosecutor has realized that it shouldn't waste so much time with needless accusations and investigations. It has a lower probability of success, so it comes at me less often. Even when it does bring frivolous lawsuits, my inner defender feels more confident that they're nothing to be truly afraid of, even as it does the work to mount a defense.

I think this might also operate in social relationships, not just personal psychology. If I think you experience a lot of insecurity or shame, then I might tend to coddle you. It feels uncomfortable to be coddled, at least to me, and so if somebody treated me that way, I think it might reinforce my insecurity and create a positive feedback loop.

What parts of https://attachmentrepair.com/ did you get value out of in particular?

Any other specific methods of internal work that you recommend for this kind of self-work?

(This whole area is my main special interest for hobby study, though I still have a long ways to go in my own personal progress, so I will eagerly look into any number of resources that come recommended from people who got real value out of them)

I got the most value out of their previous courses / resources on something called "Ideal Parent Figure Protocol", though they're no longer offering that, since there was apparently some kind of a copyright dispute with the person who created that protocol. Archive.org still has their old "resources" page with some guided IPF meditations; I got quite a lot of value from just repeatedly listening to some on a daily basis.

They have a revised Attachment Repair course that uses a somewhat different sort of guided meditation instead, while trying to stick to similar principles; I've heard that some people consider the new meditation even better than the old one, but I haven't tried it personally.

Doing (some facilitated, some on my own) Internal Family Systems and Bio-Emotive Framework sessions were also useful for me for working through specific hang-ups and issues.

Here's what I wrote about IPF back in January; I've been intending to do a longer writeup of it, but haven't gotten around that:

Attachment theory says that young children develop a subconscious emotional model of how they should react to their caregivers in order for the caregivers to treat them well. In the best case the children learn a model saying that it's safe to just feel whatever they feel and that they are basically safe, but if their caregivers are un- or overresponsive then the children may develop emotional models that imply behaviors such as "best not to ask too much" or "need to be careful not to upset my caregiver by having the wrong emotions or needs".

Those models then form the basic template of how to relate to people other than your caregiver - feeling basically safe and confident and relating to other people in a healthy way that's neither clingy nor too obsessively independent, or not. And that basic foundation has a big impact on how things such as one's self-esteem, concern about what others think of you, ability to set boundaries, and romantic relationships develop later on.

Now attachment repair is aimed at reprogramming insecure learning that one may have picked up at a young age, by leaning into the fact that the emotional brain that the programming is located in can't reliably distinguish imagined experiences from real ones. So if you imagine yourself as a young child having the kinds of parents that are ideal from the perspective of developing a secure attachment bond, then this reprograms that original learning and can become as good as having had such a safe foundation all along, also helping you fix the kinds of issues that have developed later on due to not having a sufficiently secure attachment foundation.

Standard talk therapy typically cannot fully access this emotional learning, because much of it is laid down at the age of 6-24 months, so exists in a pre-verbal form. The attachment repair people claim that this technique can reprogram it, and that seems plausible at least based on my experience so far. [EDIT: I'm not totally bought into the precise claims about what age range IPF covers. It seems plausible to me that while it's more capable of tapping into very early life experiences better than other therapies, it does also affect insecure conditioning developed somewhat later in childhood; I've had stuff come up while doing it going up to at least age 7 or so.]

I took Cedric's earlier retreat on this and have been doing daily Ideal Parent Figure (IPF) practice afterwards. I've felt definite changes towards the better, with improved self-esteem, more of a sense of lightness in relating to other people, a sense of some early sexual hang-ups sorting themselves out, more thoroughly reprocessing and healing traumatic experiences which I thought I had processed already but which had still left lingering traces, and a general feeling of increased background safety that makes issues in general easier to handle. (Also a lot of other things but properly documenting all of it would require A Proper Big Writeup and I want to make sure that the changes stick before doing one.) Part of all of that is no doubt also due to unrelated inner work that I had been doing just before the retreat, but it's also obvious that doing the IPF continues to produce additional healing.

If you have done something like Internal Family Systems before, then it feels like IPF acts as a super-charger to it. When I'm doing IFS alone, it can often be hard to unblend from parts with an agenda in order to have genuine sympathy towards specific parts. In IPF, you don't really need to unblend, as it's not your job to solve the problem, but rather it's the task of the ideal parents. Your job is just to be a child and feel whatever it is that you feel and let them take care of any problems.

In theory I guess you shouldn't need this course / practice if you are already securely attached. In practice I expect everyone to have some insecure attachment conditioning, though of course if you don't have very much of it, then fixing it will be less useful than if you have a lot of it.

Transform Your Self by Steve Andreas is good for working on self-concepts. Kaj worked with it a while with personal improvements that were visible to coworkers and then we (some rationalists in Berlin) had a reading group for it. 

To give you one example of what it did for me personally, in 1-2 hours I adopted the self belief of "I'm attractive" that I previously didn't hold. 

To give you one example of what it did for me personally, in 1-2 hours I adopted the self belief of "I'm attractive" that I previously didn't hold. 

I hadn't heard of that (that I recall), happy to hear that. :) 

Yeah, the self-concept work was really useful earlier on. But it's worth noting that the self-concept work was still anchored in a paradigm of "my sense of emotional security is dependent on what probability I assign to other people liking me"; you can see this in my original writeup, where I said:

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.

And then, in my later follow-up to the work, I wrote:

#1 and #2 seem to indeed have disappeared; however, I’ve still continued to experience insecurities which have taken the forms of what seems like excessive worries of #3 and #4 (thinking that I’ve displeased someone in a way which will make them like me less, as well as worrying that someone might have felt upset over something that they in all likelihood won’t even remember). These seem to be the kinds of issues that can’t be fixed by internal work alone, since they are about the external world: in order to evaluate how justified these are, I need to actually test the extent to which something e.g. makes other people dislike me.

Self-concept work was basically about assembling evidence for me having some particular trait, such as "I'm likeable". But there was a sense in which that approach, while helpful in many ways, was still buying into a deeper insecure emotional schema of "I need to accumulate enough evidence for people in any given interaction actively liking me", rather than seeing the possibility that it's possible to achieve deeper changes where the whole question becomes less important.

Reading your other post it seems like IPF is for solving the issues causing problems that are learned before the second birthday and self-concept issues are problems that arrise later then that. 

I would expect that for many people both kind of issues are important to resolve. 

Yeah, though I should probably add to my other comment (I'll go edit it in) that I'm not totally bought into the precise claims about what age range IPF covers. It seems plausible to me that while it's more capable of tapping into very early life experiences better than other therapies, it does also affect insecure conditioning developed somewhat later in childhood.

But I agree with your general point that self-concept work and IPF seem complementary. (I've actually also been going back to self-concept work a bit more in the very last week, since it feels like the possibility of having more strongly positive self-concepts has gotten more "unlocked" after IPF/IFS/Coherence Therapy work.)

It's possible that I'm completely missing the point here, but... the idea of

you can’t actually know what others think of you, so why focus on that?

Seems deeply confused to me.

I think that if I admit that I can't "know" what others think of me, I'd have to say I also can't "know" whether they're sentient, or whether they're likely to have a good time if they come over for dinner, or whether they're about to inflict physical violence on me. And these are all questions I care about the answer to, in that I might change my plans if I learned the answer; and two of them are questions I've focused on at times and endorse having done so. So this doesn't seem like an argument against focusing on it.

And in a more normal sense, of course I can know what others think of me, on some level. The guy who, frequently when we spoke, we were kind of hostile towards each other; and when he met my partner, he told them I was a bellend? Pretty sure he didn't like me. The partner who's slept by my side most nights for five years even though I sometimes snore, looked after me when I've been sick, cheered me up when I've felt down, and frequently gives me random compliments? Pretty sure they do like me. These are fairly extreme examples, but suffice it to say that I think I'm capable of picking up on smaller quantities of evidence, too.

And of course it matters what someone thinks of me, because it affects questions like "are they likely to invite me to their next party" and "will they say yes if I ask them on a date" and "if I ask them to mediate a dispute with someone else, will they be biased against me" and "are their friends likely to become my friends".

Obviously it's possible to focus too much on the question. But the right amount of focus probably isn't "zero, ever", and this specific argument for not focusing doesn't hold.

But the right amount of focus probably isn't "zero, ever", 

I agree! And I'm not saying that anyone should spend zero amount of focus on the question. Sometimes it is a relevant question to be thinking about.

But just as the right amount of focus probably isn't zero ever, the right amount of focus is probably also not "keep obsessing over it all the time". As you said, it's possible to focus too much on it. What I'm describing is a shift where it becomes possible to drop the question in the kinds of situations where it isn't useful, as opposed to being compelled to constantly run a (rather stressful) analysis about it, regardless of whether that's going to produce any useful information or not.

I agree (and I expect the person who originally asked this question to agree) that you can know what other people think about you on some level. With the experience that I call "being secure", you are content with having a sense of what other people think of you on that kind of a rough level, and also okay with the fact that in most cases you should have reasonably wide error bars on that estimate. With the experience that I call "being insecure", having reasonably wide error bars does not feel okay, and you are trying to get a much more narrow estimate than is usually realistic to extract from the available data, with the general consequence that you become oversensitive to noise.

What happened in your life that made you feel more secure?

Besides some very important internal work, there were a few external events that made me feel generally more secure.

Probably the most important one was that I've tended to often have the experience of growing close to a friend and spending a lot of time with them, only for their life to then head to a different direction where they couldn't spend as much time with me anymore. E.g. one of my close friends had a child and had to focus on family obligations, while another moved to the US to study. Combined with a series of unsuccessful romantic relationships, I had a sense of "I can't trust anyone I care about to stay in my life".

Now a few years back I moved to a small group house and grew close to someone who also lived there, until eventually she moved out to live together with her boyfriend. Now you might think that this would have reinforced my "everyone I care about keeps leaving me" schema, but it turned out to have the opposite effect, because she has very clearly and obviously wanted to stay in touch and continue to hang out even now that we're no longer living together. That gave me evidence that someone's priorities making them more distant from me doesn't necessarily mean that they'll practically disappear from my life, after all.