Black hole narratives

by Alexei5 min read7th Jul 201911 comments



Related to: Self-consciousness wants to make everything about itself (by jessicata), UNIVERSAL LOVE, SAID THE CACTUS PERSON (by SSC) and Ms. Blue, meet Mr. Green

Edit (Jul 17, 2019): The concept I'm describing is basically cognitive fusion.

There's an idea that I think is really important to understand and to try to communicate. I think Jessica in her post touched on it a little, but that touch inspired me to give it a shot myself. However, instead of focusing on social dynamics, I'm going to focus on an individual's internal world and interpretation.

Here are a few examples of mental narratives that I'm going to dissect. (I borrowed a few from Jessica's post and a few from the SSC post.) See if you can find the ones that happen to you. Or see if you can understand the pattern to find ones that are not on the list.

1. This thing that's happening is bad. I wish it wouldn't happen.

2. Am I a bad person for participating in this? I think something's wrong with me.

3. I'm not a bad person! I'm definitely in the right here.

4. I'm feeling attacked. I feel like people are against me.

5. I don't feel safe here. I think they'll hurt me.

6. I feel like I'm the odd one out. I don't think I belong here.

7. I don't understand this at all. What am I missing? There's a clue here somewhere. If I can find it, then I'll understand it.


To try to understand the pattern and what to do with it, I'll provide four different lenses.

Physical sensations

What does it feel like to experience these narratives? Look and see.

For me, it feels constraining. It feels like sensing a wall and then pushing away from it. Or pushing into it. It feels like a river that has hit the bank and has to turn. My body feels tighter. My awareness feels more narrow or disappears entirely. The thought grows bigger in my mind until it dominates. Until, just for a moment, it feels like my entire mental reality is described by the circumstance. By how I feel attacked. Or by how I feel like I don't belong. It stops being a thought and becomes reality.

So how does it feel when the narrative ends? To me it feels like someone was hugging me super tight and then let go. It feels like a release. An expansion. An exhale. It feels like freedom. Freedom to reconsider. To review. To remember other sides of the problem. Freedom to forget. Freedom to move on.


We can also think of those narratives as serving a particular purpose. Like other TAPs, they were installed there for some reason, probably a long time. Probably because someone told us. Or probably because a "bad" thing happened to us and we really wanted for it to not happen again.

Each narrative has many triggers. But once triggered, the action is pretty straight forward. And it's usually always the same: recount the narrative and listen to it. Just like when Revolio Clockberg Jr. hears about Gear Wars, he has to tell you all about it. And once he starts, there's no stopping it. Like clockwork.


One of the best ways to talk about narratives is to talk about stories and movies. Movies are compelling. They draw us in. When we're in a middle of a good film, we forget who we are. We feel wholeheartedly the emotion, the action, the tension. Where is all of this going? Well... we know. It's going where the movie going. There's only one track.

And for a great movie, that's a fun track to be on. But for the narratives I've described, that's not a fun track at all. You've seen some of them thousands of times already. Do you want to see it again? All it costs is a few seconds of your time and a few drops of your sanity.

"I'm feeling attacked. Like people are against me." is a movie. It's a lousy, poorly written, utterly predictable movie. And you know exactly where it's heading. "Me against the world." Or "Look at me, I'm so independent. I don't need anyone." Or "Hah! They're all against me, but look who is winning now!" And, honestly, even that is giving that movie too much credit. Because 99.9% of the time the only place that movie is taking you to is: "I'm feeling attacked. Like people are against me. This sucks. This sucks. This sucks."


When you're gripped by one of such narratives, you're in the car. When you aren't, you're free. Get out of the car and stay out!

Q: I'm experiencing all these mental narratives. What do I do? What's the skill I need to learn to avoid them?

A: Note how that question itself is an example of the narrative / car you're trying to avoid. Drop it.

Q: I was trying hard to avoid all the mental narratives you described. But then I ran into one head first. Where and how should I put up more walls so that this wouldn't happen?

A: Stop putting up walls. Stop seeing walls. Stop trying to avoid them by creating more walls. When you're not in the car, there are no walls and there are no roads.

"Then I can’t get out of the car. I want to get out of the car. But I need help. And the first step to getting help is for you to factor my number." is being in the car. It's watching a movie about how you're stuck and how you're missing something. It's running a TAP that says: IF I don't understand something THEN I'm unsafe until I do. It's screaming at the cactus person, demanding an answer.

As long as you think there's a car or that you have something to do about it, you can't get out of it. Stop trying to get out of the car and get out of the car.

The invitation

The invitation is to notice when these narratives arise. Just notice. You don't have to do anything about them. You don't have to stop them or avoid them. Just notice when one starts. Notice when you're in it. Notice when it ends. Notice when it's not there.

And if on one of those occasions you decide to pull over that car and get out... well, I promise you the car is not going to be upset.


11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:25 PM
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It's screaming at the cactus person, demanding an answer.

The cactus person is unable to assist the enquirer because it is stuck in its own car, a narrative that says that all you can do to help someone get out of the car is tell them to get out of the car. The cactus person insists that it must work, despite the observation that it doesn't work, and the more that it doesn't work, the more they insist that it must, the louder they scream "GET OUT OF THE CAR!", and the more they blame the other for not getting out of the car.

But there is, in fact, an answer that can be given. There is something that can be taught and learned, techniques of dismembering these narratives, finding their origins, verifying their truth or falsity (spoiler: they're usually made of lies), and responding to situations as they are, instead of being driven by internal stories about "I must—", "I have to—", "I shouldn't—", "I must be—" and so on. None of these techniques involve telling anyone to get out of the car. They acknowledge that there is a car, that they are in it, and teach how to notice the car and how to get out of it, without mystification or woo. My experience is that it works.

However, while I may have learned a little of this sort of thing, I am not going to attempt to teach it, because I am absolutely unqualified to do so, and anyway it's an experience to be had, not a book to read. I prefer to do no more than link to an old comment of mine where I mention the organisation whose courses I have taken. I hope that dropping its name twice in eight years will not be seen as proselytising. Possibly it is not the only one that does something along these lines, but it is one I have experience of and have found valuable, and I think there cannot be many others.

I basically agree. Hence this post, which I hope says more than just "get out of the car," but provides additional tools.

There's a sort of egging on that I think is going on when people keep repeating "get out of the car." And I think it works. It's something like... trying to get the person frustrated enough to look outside of the space of the solutions they've looked at already. Or, may be more accurately, reexamine more of their assumptions than they have so far. I think it works for people who already want to "get out of the car". But I also agree that it has a bit of the higher-than-thou tone. Some people respond to that, some people find it off putting. I tried to do both, but who knows how well that turned out.

This is basically the core idea behind zen.

Somewhat relevant here is a recent shortform post I wrote: Communal Buckets.

But I can see a way in which being wrong/making mistakes (and being called out for this) is upsetting even if you personally aren't making a bucket error. The issue is that you might fear that other people have the two variables collapsed into one. Even if you might realize that making a mistake doesn't inherently make you a bad person, you're afraid that other people are now going to think you are a bad person because they are making that bucket error.
The issue isn't your own buckets, it's that you have a model of the shared "communal buckets" and how other people are going to interpret whatever just occured. What if the community/social reality only has a single bucket here?

(Epistemic status: snowclone in the style of Scott Alexander) “Haters gonna hate,” said Taylor, Swiftly

I'm not sure I have a name for it, but I often feel like I'm being tricked into agreeing to more than I do. Out-debated? Like someone is trying to motte-and-bailey me, in a way that I don't have the knowledge/energy/whatever to identify fully.

"agree to these obvious things, and I'll be forced to agree with a non-obvious thing that seems to follow from them (but is generally much more complicated, so hard to prove or disprove, and even hard to argue about the causality), but with which I don't agree".

I sympathize. And I don't know what else to say. If someone is trying to get you to agree that "2+2=4", you know it'll end with you buying into the whole algebra thing and then math and then who knows what else. Every piece of information you take in sets you up to learn / update on other information in a different way.

My most charitable interpretation (and please correct me if I'm wrong) of your comment is something like: "Hmm, this sounds interesting, but, man oh man, I'm not sure where this guy is trying to lead me. What will happen to my mind / to my behavior / to me if I start doing this? Or if I just start thinking about this?"

And if my interpretation is correct, then the only thing I can say is: look at the people who are pointing this way. And see if you want to be more or less like them. See if they have happy / successful lives. Which parts of them do you like and want to emulate? Which parts seem off? I don't think we know each other, but you can probably find other people in your life who would make a decent substitute.

(Epistemic status: improvising wildly)

You are being outdebated because you are arguing with a memeplex evolved for dragging people into paroxysms of ambiguous guilt. (More prosaically, you can be outargued by, say, a car salesman; if they have convinced you to spend much more money than you intended and there is this really good offer available right now, this means they are better at this than you, which is their job).

I suspect the ambiguity is important. As Said said, equivocation; Motte and Bailey is similar.

My problem with all this: sometimes intense guilt IS the appropriate response. There may be an aspect from which your behaviour is, in fact, reprehensible! This seems to rule out hard and fast “well, don’t let people make you feel guilty” heuristics.

In passing, taboo “narrative”. It has least two distinct meanings: a particular story (usually linear), or something more like a worldview, ideology or doctrine.

In my post I mean neither of those definitions. I’m taking about the thing your mind does during recounting a particular story.

In that case, I have completely misunderstood.

From the other side, agreement is often not real. People agree out of politeness, or agree with a distorted (perhaps more salient but less relevant to the discussion) version of a claim, without ensuring it's not a bucket error. There's some use in keeping beliefs unchanged, but not in failing to understand the meaning of the claim under discussion (when it has one). So agreement (especially your own, as it's easier to fix) should be treated with scepticism.