I know a fair number of people who put in a lot of effort into things like emotional healing, digging up and dealing with buried trauma, meditative and therapy practices, and so on. (I count myself in this category.)

And I think that there’s a thing that sometimes happens when other people see all of this, which is that it all seems kinda fake. I say this because even I have this thought sometimes. The core of the thought is something like, “if all of this stuff really worked, shouldn’t you be finished sometime? You claim that practice X was really beneficial, so why have you now been talking about the way that practice Y is great – is any of them really that good if you keep jumping between them?”

And there is something to this suspicion. I do think that jumping from thing to thing, each time claiming that you have found something amazing and transformative while you are actually only deluding yourself, is definitely a thing that sometimes happens. I can say this because I’ve been that person, too.

But it’s not the only possibility. Sometimes the moving from thing to thing does mean that you are getting genuine value out of each, and you work on each until you hit diminishing returns, and then you move on to the next practice to help deal with the issues that the previous one didn’t address.

And it’s worth noting that to the skeptical mind, the opposite pattern can be suspicious too. Sometimes someone does stick with just one practice – a particular style of meditation, say – for years, maybe decades. And keeps talking about how great and healing it is. And again the person who keeps hearing this starts wondering, okay, if it’s so healing, why are you not totally healed yet?

And again, there is something to that suspicion. Sometimes people do stick to one thing and think that it is amazing, even if it is not really delivering them any results, and they would be better off switching to something else.

But then sometimes it really _is_ the case that their practice just is that good, and they keep getting consistent results.

I think that the major issue here is that “healing” isn’t quite the right metaphor. Yes, much of what these practices do could be considered healing, in that they can help you resolve old stuff, possibly for good.

But the way we usually conceive of healing is that you have some specific sickness or injury, then it’s healed, and then you are healthy and don’t need to do any more healing until you get sick again. And that’s not quite the right model for these kinds of practices.

I think that a better model would be physical exercise. Just like the emotional practices, exercise can be useful for healing – I am counting physiotherapy as a form of physical exercise here, though obviously exercise can help heal even if it is not explicitly physiotherapy. But even though healing is one of the things that exercise does, that’s not its only purpose.

If someone said that they had maintained a jogging habit every day for the last twenty years and that it made them feel consistently amazing, nobody would find that particularly suspicious.

And if someone said that they had done yoga for flexibility a while, then taken up running for the cardio, injured themselves and done physiotherapy for a while, and then started doing weightlifting for the sake of muscle, and each of those had been exactly the right thing to do, then that wouldn’t be very suspicious either.

A simple “healthy/unhealthy” model isn’t any better for mental and emotional well-being than it is for physical shape. There are things that count as genuine injuries and diseases, yes, but there are also things which require active maintenance, as well as different subareas that you may want to focus on. You might stick with the same practices for a long time, your whole life even, if they seem particularly effective. And you may also want to switch practices from time to time, because you no longer need an old one, or in response to new needs from changed circumstances, or just for the sake of variety.


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Resharing and expanding on a comment I left on this on Facebook.

In Zen, cleaning is used as a metaphor for the incompleteness of practice. This is very familiar to Zen practitioners because one of the main things we do during work practice is clean the practice space, and as anyone who has cleaned anything knows, you can wipe away all the dirt, but more will appear and you'll have to clean again.

This seems relevant as an alternative metaphor that can be used instead of healing or exercise.

"Emotional work is endless boring cleaning" doesn't sound as attractive as either healing or exercise, though. :-)

Strange, I find cleaning a pleasing activity.

And if someone said that they had done yoga for flexibility a while, then taken up running for the cardio, injured themselves and done physiotherapy for a while, and then started doing weightlifting for the sake of muscle, and each of those had been exactly the right thing to do, then that wouldn’t be very suspicious either.

To clarify, at the end, are they still doing yoga and/or running and/or physiotherapy?

If so, then this doesn't seem like a great analogy, since you mention "jumping from thing to thing".

But if not, this seems like an overstatement. (Which, to be clear, I consider just a minor criticism that doesn't reflect badly on the post as a whole.)

If we mentally change "exactly the right thing to do" with "a perfectly sensible thing to do" then I have no objection.

But if we take "exactly the right thing to do" at face value, then this does seem suspicious to me. Not out of the question, but implausible. I'd have questions like:

  • Presumably you aren't going to maintain your levels of flexibility or cardio, now that you've stopped those exercises. Why were those historically the right things to exercise, but now the right thing to exercise is muscle? Are you sure there's no wasted motion here?

  • Were you running with poor form, or did you just get unlucky? Or is running just something where you have a decently high chance of injury no matter how well you do it?

  • Why did you stop running after your injury, instead of going back to it for a time? Like, is it just a coincidence that the right time to switch to muscle was after your injury, or is there some causal relationship here? (An obvious possibility is that you may not have healed fully. If so, is that the expected outcome of running injuries; and if that's the case, are you really sure you should have been running?)

These questions could potentially have good answers. But by default, yeah, I'd expect that "exactly the right thing to do" is an overstatement.

When people say something helped them a lot, how much did it actually help?

My guess is that people are likely to overestimate this. Like, imagine that life has 1000 different aspects you need to get in order, and one day you find something that makes you better at one of them by 10%.

From your perspective at the moment, it probably feels like a lot. You probably spent a lot of time in the past practicing this thing, with mixed success... and suddenly it improves by 10% almost overnight? That's wonderful! And because you are focusing on this thing at the moment, it feels like a very important thing.

Globally, increasing one of 1000 things by 10% means improving your life by 0.01%. That's practically invisible from outside. Yeah, you are now better in one thing, but the other 999 things remained the same.

And you don't have the same success every day, so an improvement by 0.01% in a day doesn't translate into a 3% improvement in a year. You probably can't even repeat the same success in the same thing, because you get diminishing returns.

Numbers obviously made up to illustrate the point.

So when people say something helps them a lot (whether it is the same thing for years, or a different thing every week), I expect something like this to happen. Maybe it feels like a huge change from inside, at the moment when they are focusing on the one thing that improved. But from outside, I don't expect to see a dramatic change soon.

And it's not just when other people tell me about their successes. It took me a few dozen epiphanies to realize that even a few dozen epiphanies won't turn me into a superman. One epiphany achieves even less.

To make an analogy with exercise, what helps is actually doing the exercise over and over again, several times a week, for years. Just one afternoon spent exercising hard changes nothing.

Miracles are cheap, integrating them into your daily routine is hard?

If those things are multiplicative rather than additive, then improving one of them by 10% does make your whole life 10% better.

Obviously real life is more complicated than either a simple additive model or a simple multiplicative model. But I'd expect there to be things that operate multiplicatively. E.g., suppose you have a vitamin deficiency that means your energy levels are perpetually low; that might mean that you're doing literally everything in your life 10% worse than if that problem were solved.

(Obvious conclusion if the above is anything like right: it's worth putting some effort into figuring out which problems you have affect everything else so that making them 10% better makes everything 10% better, and which are independent of everything else so that making them 10% better makes everything 0.01% better.)

Yeah, I was specifically thinking about persistent ongoing work more than occasional epiphanies, though of course sometimes the epiphanies can actually be transforming too, and ongoing work is likely to eventually produce them.

[-][anonymous]3y 3

On the topic of persistent ongoing work vs occasional epiphanies, I highly recommend "The Holy Sh!t Moment" by James Fell. It's a bit poppy for my taste, but it dives deeper into that aspect of things and ties really well into the model presented in Unlocking the Emotional Brain.