April 2018: I am a college student, studying business (in general) and accounting, more specifically. Evidence seems to suggest that I'm also highly empathetic, rather sensitive, deeply brave and adventurous. I love traveling, and being under just enough temporary pressure and hardship that I fully wake up for a while in order to take it on. I am Canadian by birth and upbringing, and am planning to move to Ireland this year to pursue both romance and further education.
It is very much validation seeking. The point I'm trying to make is that the validation I get in response needs, itself, to be valid or it won't do anything for me, because I am very, very good at seeing reasons why comforting words might be said in order to comfort me even if they are false. The truth, however, is entangled with reality. There should be evidence to support it. I would rather be given reassurance that includes references to the evidence. A lot of the time, I'm freaking out partly because I have temporarily forgotten about the evidence that supports confidence and trust.
Once, I went on a gondola ride at a fair with my boyfriend at the time, a young man who had experience dealing with my anxiety. I am afraid of heights. Or more accurately, as it is sometimes said, afraid of falling. I kept looking at the little overhand hook that attached the gondola to the wire, and the ground so far under us, and thinking that if we were to bounce in the car, or if some force were to hit it from underneath (not that there was anything that would), it could come right off and crash down, and we could both die. The reassurance my boyfriend gave me that actually worked was this: "Look at all the other cars. You see them?" Mhm. "How many are there?" I wasn't sure, but there were quite a few. "How many have fallen down?" It took one or two seconds for me to smile and hug him, because that genuinely was reassuring. It might be possible, and 'Nothing bad is going to happen to us' probably would have sounded to me like famous last words, but a visual demonstration of the consistency of the ride, and the reminder that freak accidents at fairgrounds would draw a lot of attention and are extremely rare... That helped me to calm down and start enjoying the view.
This example isn't about social anxiety, so it's a lot easier to describe, and demonstrates the point neatly. Evidence that supports social confidence is generally a lot more messy and subjective, because there are more layers of interaction and my fear can be a part of the problem itself. This can make it more difficult to come up with acceptably solid reasons to believe that my friends genuinely like to be around me, but if they can tell me about things like happy memories we've had together, or good things I have done or continue to do for them (such as that they like the way I get excited about things, or my home cooking, or playing video games with me), it helps a great deal. Gives me something positive I hadn't been thinking about but do know exists, to hold onto through my panic attack. Only, you see, I don't want someone to tell me they enjoy my cooking if they don't.
There is a degree to which this is absolutely the case. You read me as an anxious person, to irritating degrees, and it's quite true. This is a monkey that's been on my back since I was a toddler and I've been wrestling with it for many years. Recently, I seem to be winning much more often, I am grateful to report.
There's a weird fine line in the middle of the whole idea of caring about what other people think, and it kind of bothers me that to the best of my knowledge we don't have two seperate words for the different sides.
On the one side, there is the tendency to overreact. The panic spirals, the anxiety, the fear of rejection. I have that. I consider it a form of damage, something to work on healing. It is not useful and it is not virtuous, it just messes with my capacity to control my own life.
On the other side lies consideration. It should matter to me if I say or do something that upsets someone else, or that could predictably upset someone else. I don't want to hurt other people, and when I am behaving in ways that increase the chances of doing that, I want to find ways to change my behaviour so that that happens less. Harm is on a scale, of course, and 'temporarily offended' is waaaay down on the unimportant end of the scale, but even so it matters to me and is something I want to reduce where possible.
I am a considerate person, and want to continue to be a considerate and thoughtful person sensitive to the needs and reactions of others. I consider it virtuous and helpful. This involves caring what other people think and feel.
I am also an anxious person with a history of rejection and traumatic responses to it. I am working on combating and changing this. It also involves caring what other people think and feel. The way these two concepts can conflate together is an extreme nuisance and I suspect I am far from being the only one who has delayed on their journey to recovery and better effectiveness because it took me so long to tear them apart from one another.
It's not as easy as it sometimes seems to recognize that they are in fact two different things and not caring as much what other people think in terms of not going into panic spirals about it does NOT mean I have to stop caring in terms of no longer looking out for them and acting with consideration.
Yes. Those are very good examples of the sort of thing that would, in most cases, bring some comfort to my brain and an awkward, self-conscious smile to my face, because I had been being 'silly'. They give me a look into someone else's perspective that sounds believable and real to me in a way that "no, everything's fine" doesn't.
Oh, absolutely. That's why I work so hard to try to reward those people I can trust to tell me the truth. To mitigate all the messages of high-stress that I can't help but put out when I encounter something unexpected and distressing as well as I know how; asking for a moment to decompress, using distractions to calm down until I can deal with it more directly, and all-importantly remembering to thank and affirm the behaviour even when it's stressing me out, and afterwards at other times when it isn't. I say things like "it's important that you're able to talk to me about these things" and "it would be so much worse if you didn't tell me and then it blew up later". They are vital mantras to me, not only to reassure my friends but also to remind myself.
I tell my trusted friends that I love them and trust them because I don't have to worrywort over everything they say, and I can ask them to remind me of the comforting truths as well as alerting me to the uncomfortable ones and they seem to be alright with that. Because it's true. Because it's helping me to recover some of my paranoia and deal with relationships in which I don't have that openness by being able to reliably turn to ones in which I do.
Sometimes I still get stuck in a panic spiral about the negative reinforcement stimuli that I know I'm putting out. But recently, my honest friends have been quick to reassure me on that front. I notice it far more than they do, because I care so much about noticing it, for exactly the reasons you give.
It turns out, the question of what I will believe now came up much sooner than anticipated, and I have a long written follow-up to report. If it seems that this would stand better as its own post, tell me.
After school today, I stopped at home briefly to empty my backpack and then head out to the grocery store in order to pick up some drinks, and in order to take the time to walk and think. My friend had confessed to me that they were caught in an anxiety spiral, fearing that they might be a burden on me by tending to approach me when they were in need of help, and asked me to help them unpack why they were prone to this kind of problem. I had given them some quick emotional reassurances and promised to try to address their concerns more thoroughly later.
I was thinking about that, trying to compose in my head a further reassurance that might help alleviate their anxiety about imposing costs on me, an anxiety I know far too well, by explaining the benefits that come along with it. I was thinking in terms of a 'prison' scenario I'd written about which I knew they had already read, and also in terms of some symbols from HPMoR which I also knew they had already read. One of the comparisons I had thought of that I was particularly happy with was to compare the comfort I get out of being able to actually help them to the healing effect of the song of the phoenix, and I had also considered other phoenix-imagery, like the way it makes me feel strong to be there for them filling me with phoenix fire.
I paused, at about this point, and looked up for a moment to decide where I was walking. I had turned down a road that I could follow to a grocery store I liked to shop at, but I had also already passed the grocery I usually shop at. I took a brief moment to measure how much I wanted to keep walking, against how much I wanted to get home faster and start writing down my explanations to give to my friend. After a moment of indecision, I turned back the way I had come and progressed towards the store I had already passed.
There was one intersection I had to cross to get there, and at that intersection I encountered a man, a woman and a very big dog, who seemed friendly. I was in a good mood, and held out my hand cautiously to the dog, who didn't immediately seem to take an interest.
"May I pat him?" I asked.
"Sure," the man said, and I did. Then, "Sit down, Phoenix."
"His name is Phoenix?"
"Yep, Phoenix is his name."
"I... was just thinking about phoenixes," I told him with an awkward little smile, and patted the dog for a moment more, before my light turned green and I crossed the road.
A part of me turned to me and asked myself,
Am I allowed to start counting that as evidence yet?
I will from this point call this internal voice Serp1, and distinguish it from a second voice, Serp2.
Serp2: Um... I don't know.
This next part of the conversation (indented) was not actually expressed in words, but I will do my best to translate it accurately into them.
Serp2: I went through all that work to distance myself from the mysticism thing. I don't want to give that all away.
Serp1: You want to hold onto the points you've earned with your rationalist friends for coming to a conclusion that looks rational, and sticking to it. I understand that, but that wasn't what we agreed to. Our analysis and genuine challenge of mysticism was undertaken to seek truth, and that means weighing and judging the evidence FOR mysticism as well as the evidence against it. We agreed to start fresh and ignore past evidence, but we are not just walking away from this entire question as though it doesn't matter to us. And we are especially not doing it to conform to an in-group.
Serp2: It hasn't even been one full day since I actually published that post!
Serp1: Yeah. It kind of sucks that we didn't have more time to practice looking at the world assuming the null hypothesis first, but I am not going to sit by and let you ignore what just happened if it's legitimate evidence that ought to inform our beliefs.
Serp2: Okay fine. Let me think about this...
Serp2: Alright. What just happened does seem like it should be a piece of evidence, the way I understand it. Weak evidence, that could have happened in a world with no magic, but it seems much less likely that it would.
Oh, geez. Now what am I supposed to do with that again?
... There's a neat little feeling that I observed here, which reminds me of this quote: "Her mind skipped gears, ground against itself, and spat back the instructions for doing a science investigation project" (Hermione being tested, HPMoR chapter 8). That is an almost perfect description of it. A feeling of cognitive drain, and then a result popping out.
Serp2: We're supposed to try to predict the priors of that happening in the case of a world without magic. Ummm... How the hell do I quantify that?
[Cognitive drain, memory search result.]
Serp1: What are the odds of an observation that would seem at least that weird in a way that seems to suggest that reality is responding to my thoughts, or my thoughts are responding to reality, without recourse to any of the normal, reasonable modes of entanglement, arising just as background noise? What are the chances of seeing an event that favours the mysticism hypothesis as much as this one does?
Serp2: Buh. I don't know... One in twenty? No... I can't put a useful number to it, the question isn't bounded enough. One in twenty what, random things I think about? In that case it would be happening all the time. And I'm just pulling a number out of my ass anyway. The number doesn't really mean anything. My actual assessment, my gut-check, is that it seems very unlikely for that to happen as a result of pure background coincidence. It seems unlikely enough that it felt uncanny, like getting a sideways glimpse of a little light showing between the seams of the universe. Not the kind of coincidence I can easily shrug off.
Serp2, a little bit pointedly: Unlikely enough that it's pushing me into this confrontation with myself even though I didn't want to have it yet.
Serp1: We'll just have to accept that as an answer for now. What next?
[Cognitive drain, memory search result.]
Serp2: Quantify the amount more likely it should be to see this result under the mysticism hypothesis. I don't know how to put numbers to that, either, and even if I did, my ass is not well enough calibrated at the moment that my numbers would be likely to mean anything.
Serp1: Crap. Well, what do we do now then?
[Cognitive drain, memory search result.]
"Lady Rationality carries a notebook. She writes down all the evidence, not just the evidence for or against one side..."
Serp1: We have a notebook in our backpack, don't we? We can actually write this down. We don't need to actually assign the numbers right now, just make a list of all the factors that we would want to assign numbers to.
Serp2: That... sounds like a great idea actually. It's an almost completely fresh notebook, too. I could try to keep a record of all the things that register as potentially important evidence regarding whether or not to believe in mysticism, right here in this special book. As long as I capture the essential points, assigning numbers to them should be something I can do later...
And so I paused in my grocery shopping, and took out my notebook, and I wrote down the following list and notes (expanded a bit out of point form for better clarity):
(+ factor supports mysticism; - factor limits impact of support)
: + the observation followed the thought, with a delay of about 1-2 minutes, max, between them
: + the same word, Phoenix, was fully and specifically articulated in both
: + observation was preceded by and depended on an unanticipated, sudden and whimsical change of plans (I would not have met the dog if I had not paused to choose my path and decided to turn around)
: - Phoenix is not an especially unlikely name for a dog to have
: - questioning my mysticism and thinking about it a lot within the last day is something that might elicit a confirming response under the mysticism hypothesis, but, I am not permitting it to add evidential weight, because questioning mysticism and the nature of reality is not a particularly unusual state of mind for me to be in
Note: it will be harder to collect negative evidential results effectively. BEWARE POSITIVITY BIAS!
Set Requirement: must establish decent success rate when ACTUALLY LOOKING, in order to count, permit and track negative results.
By that I mean, in order for the mysticism hypothesis to earn back a status resembling or surpassing its former privilege, it isn't enough to notice surprising positive results where I hadn't been expecting to see them crop up. I will need to actually take steps in which I intentionally try to evoke it, and see it work then, while also tracking any attempts I make to evoke it that fail. Deciding what kind of success rate qualifies as "decent" is a complicated affair I will have to address later. This has already been a lot of writing, and I still have a friend to help.
However... as I put my notebook back in my bag and turned for home, I felt... proud. I think this is the right approach. I'm not being cowed or awed by my ignorance, I'm... I'm actually constructing ways of doing research on magic. And finally practicing the methods myself. Cool.
Also, I consider the phrase "making beliefs pay rent" and I find myself feeling that I have just handed this belief an eviction notice... but a conditional one. A warning to either pay up or get out, but I'm open to either one.
I would also like to thank Eneasz Brodski, without whose wonderful podcast project of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality and other selected works, I don't think I would have come across "The Sword of Good".
Thank you for this.
I think I've had a Pat Modesto on my back pretty much my entire life, and it's very frustrating and also self-defeating. I do already know this, but you've given me another lens through which to see it, and a language in which other people who care about this kind of thing and want to make use of my potential even though it's largely unproven so far can tell me...
You're listening to Pat Modesto (in your head). Knock it off.
In fact, that's literally what brought me here. I came to read the article so I could understand what they were talking about. And now I do.
I would usually pay attention to the actual lesson unless it was review over what we'd already been assigned to read or otherwise not new information. At that point, and otherwise when question and answer or assignment writing was going on and I was finished the assignment, I would mostly tune out the teacher and spend my time drawing on the backs and margins of my worksheets. I never in any other period of my life did as much artwork as I did while bored or distracted in high school, and I think it's because for many reasons I don't bother with well enough to control I am usually tired, and prefer to piss away my time with small "entertainments" like YouTube videos which are almost always available than invest my time in things which require more of an energy commitment despite also being more rewarding.
Or I would nap on my desk. Got in trouble for it surprisingly rarely.
Also I'd like to comment that the "Do I look fat in this" question is an example I quite like. It's a fantastic example of the sort of question that has a stereotypical negative response so strong that many people will just assume, even the first time, that you don't ever say yes to that question.
And also, I had an ex boyfriend that I got to participate with me in an exercise to help me get over my own fat shame. I asked him outright to call me fat, and to do it with a smile so that I could practice associating "fat" with anything other than ugly and shameful. He agreed, and sometimes we would just call each other fat while cuddling and being flirty, in an attempt to disarm the word's cultural baggage.
It's also a pretty terribly phrased question, but it can still be answered honestly and positively. An honest fashionista friend might do well to comment, "Darling, it's too small and it's squeezing your hips in a way that looks terribly uncomfortable; try a different cut or a larger size." Or someone else might reply as most of my exes have done, "I have no idea, I don't do fashion." This response is a bit disappointing sometimes because it offers no useful feedback, but has never offended me.