Emotional regulation, Part I: a problem summary

post by Swimmer963 · 2012-03-05T23:10:11.172Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 38 comments

I have a problem with emotions.

I’ve known this for a long time. It’s a very specific problem, one that only affects me a small percentage of the time: most people I know don’t describe me as an emotional person. I’m lucky enough to have been born with the sort of brain that keeps my overall mood on an even keel, no matter how many annoying things I force myself to do.

From my (less than rigorous) comparisons between myself and other people, I think that have good luminosity: almost all of the time, I can trace back the reasons why I feel a certain way and explain it to others in a way that is consistent with my behaviour. I think I know myself pretty well-I don’t like unpredictable situations, I have sucky reaction times, and my brain does not operate at full capacity when under pressure and tends to succumb to the most obvious biases when making decisions. I like to please people, even though I try to give off an impression of not caring what other people think. I have an overactive conscience, and in order to be happy with myself, I need to at least feel like I’m working harder than average. The flip side of my sometimes-rigidity is that I’m not at all impulsive. I may be awful at changing plans in the heat of the moment, but I’m very good at deliberating on my long-term life plan and then carrying it out. Etc. 

I suspect that the reason I’m not considered an emotional person is that my moment-to-moment emotional experience isn’t (usually) very intense. I feel annoyance and frustration, even anger, but not strongly enough to alter already made plans or cause me to do something I’ll later regret. I like analyzing myself, and so most of my basic emotions are accompanied by thoughts about those emotions, and I suspect that this process of deliberate analysis causes the actual emotions to be less intense. I don’t experience joy that often, or that strongly, but most of the time I’m experiencing satisfaction with my life, or thinking about things I find interesting, or taking pleasure in what I’m doing at the moment or what I anticipate doing in the near future.

But there’s one exception to the rule, one area where my emotions are anything but muted, and where years of introspection have failed to help me. It’s like a switch flips in my brain, and I’m pretty familiar now with what specific inputs will flip that switch...but being aware of it doesn’t stop it, meta-analysis of the process makes it worse, and although I can prevent almost all incidents by not doing the things that trigger it, many of those things I would otherwise want to do. Avoidance works in the short term, and I’ve used it in the past, but I don’t want to be the kind of person who has to avoid scary things.

The usual characteristics of this switch-flip are the following: a deep sense of despair, helplessness, and lack of control, accompanied by the knowledge that I’m helpless and out of control because I’m not good enough, because I’m incapable of things that other people find easy, etc. My usual method for dealing with emotions, i.e. a detailed analysis, fails because it triggers a feedback loop of negativity. More recently, I’m often aware during one of these episodes that the ‘evidence’ does not indicate all the bad things I’m thinking about myself, and that my thinking it does is a temporary state (usually lasting only a few minutes), but I can’t force myself out of the state. The best I can do is stop thinking about it...but as I’m sure most of you know, deliberately not thinking about something is easier said than done.


The usual causes of the switch-flip: some kind of competition pressure. Any situation where I want to or am expected to win against other people, rather than just meeting a certain standard, is likely to be a trigger. Failing at something, or letting someone down, is another trigger. My thoughts very quickly escalade into “it’s not fair that I’m worse than everyone else at X” and “I’m never going to be the sort of person that I want to be, because I’m bad at X,” and then my brain goes into a feedback loop of coming up with examples why I’m worse than everyone else X, intensifying the initial despair, which then makes it easier to think of examples.

The other condition, which is necessary to go from a state of silent suffering to one of full-on meltdown, is any kind of social pressure for me not to have a meltdown. Not wanting to embarrass myself, especially if it’s in front of people whose opinions I care about, has almost always had the opposite effect. Being asked to justify why I’m upset makes me more upset, because once in this state I literally can’t explain, usually just because crying gets in the way of talking.

Nowadays, once the state wears off, it has pretty much no effect on me. In hindsight, I’m perfectly aware that I was being silly. Having had a meltdown doesn’t leave me with an aversion to the context that caused it, or cause any particular anxiety about putting myself in that circumstance again. There’s a small aversive effect of having embarrassed myself and not wanting to look stupid again, but I’m pretty stubborn about not letting myself care what others think, so the simple fact of having meltdowns doesn’t nowadays stop me from doing any given activity.

However, in the past the aversive effect was much stronger. My emotional outbursts are the main reason that I left competitive swimming. There was too much cognitive dissonance involved between wanting to meet my coaches’ expectations and knowing that I simply wasn’t physically talented enough to get any faster, and having that dissonance in my head all the time meant a lot of meltdowns. I left swimming in a very negative mental state, and to this day I can’t think clearly about it–I get pulled back under a mild cloud of despair. 

In this case, I allowed my emotions to make my decisions for me. Had I been making the same decision now, I don’t think I would have quit. I had plenty of good reasons to swim other than wanting to make the Olympic team: it kept me fit, involved spending time with people I liked, provided me with endorphins after practice, etc. The only time I’ve come close to being depressed was the year I quit swimming and was faced with sudden exercise withdrawal. I would have liked to have been still fast enough to make the university swim team, whether or not I could expect to win a lot of races for them. Etc. 

Since starting taekwondo nine months ago, the first sport I've attempted since leaving swimming, I’ve had one running-out-of-the-room-in-tears meltdown, one occasion that I remember when I started crying but didn’t run away, and a few other times where my ‘switch’ flipped but where I managed to stick to silent suffering. I find this a huge improvement over my swim team experience. My instructor thinks that it’s my biggest problem. About a month ago, after one particularly silly episode (after an already frustrating class, I had missed the 8:10 bus because class ended at about 8:11, and I had to wait another forty minutes for the next one, which seemed like an incredibly big deal at the time), he gave me a lecture. This made it worse by forcing me to keep my attention focused on the meltdown for twenty straight minutes rather than letting it wear off naturally. He also taught me a meditation breathing exercise, which has been unhelpful so far–again, it keeps my attention focused on ‘I’m doing a breathing exercise right now because I’m about to burst into tears otherwise’, and makes it more likely that sooner or later I'll notice all the people looking at me and I will burst into tears. Giving him a more detailed description of my problem afterwards, when I was in a state that allowed me to talk, failed to elicit any more specific suggestions. My brain, concluding that “obviously he has no idea what he’s talking about,” got ready to move on.

On the bus ride home, though, when I could safely think about dangerous topics in the privacy of my jacket hood, I was forced to conclude that my instructor not knowing how to teach me not to have meltdowns is not actually a full-on excuse to stop searching. Even if my problem is specific, rather than a general lack of emotion-management skills, it’s still going to limit me in some things. (For example, it was a problem for the first four months or so of my current relationship). And there probably is a way out there to solve it.

In spirit of the virtue of scholarship, I’m in the process of doing the most thorough research project that I’ve ever done ‘for fun’. It may end up being more extensive than anything I’ve done for school, too. I’ve already started, but I’m posting this basic description in order to get recommendations for sources I should consult. So far I’ve searched a couple of online databases available through my university library, using keywords such as ‘emotional regulation’, ‘emotional control’, ‘stress management’, and various combinations. I’ve come up with several dozen articles, which I am working my way through to summarize. If there’s anything else I should look for, or if there are any books that I might find useful to consult, please let me know. Likewise, if anyone has ever experienced something similar, I'll take your advice on how you ended up dealing with it. 

Part II will be coming in a few weeks, hopefully, depending on how extensive my research ends up being. 



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comment by Airedale · 2012-03-06T00:54:37.337Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would personally prefer to see this in Discussion. Your personal story is interesting (and I recognize some of it in myself), but I don't think the personal background (plus your brief request for recommended literature, plan for Part II, etc.) is a sufficiently fleshed out idea at this point given that you aren't yet at the point of offering any guidance on solving the problem. Of course, Part II's literature review/recommendations may be of more benefit to the community and be a better fit for Main.

Replies from: Swimmer963, HungryTurtle
comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-03-06T01:12:28.224Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're probably right. I think that the underlying thought running through my head was "it would be weird to put Part I in discussion but Part II in main." (I was originally planning to post everything together, but deciding that a) it would be too long, and b) I wanted feedback in order to continue with my research.)

Do you think it would be a good idea to move it to discussion at this point? I think you can do that by going back to 'edit'.

Replies from: Airedale, Vaniver
comment by Airedale · 2012-03-06T15:35:40.738Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know that moving it is necessary at this point, but it's something to keep in mind for the future. It's not like there's a brightline rule, it just struck me as more appropriate for Discussion.

Also, on substance, one possible book to take a look at is The Inner Game of Tennis. Since you have a background in sports, and sports competition seems to be one of the areas where you've had this problem most often, that and/or other sports psychology books might be an interesting way for you to get into the issues. I haven't read it in years, and I'm not sure that it addresses your situation precisely, but I recall it as an interesting and useful read, even if some of it was a little psychobabbly.

edited to add - I also wonder if bringing in some anecdotes from pro/elite athletes who have struggled with emotional issues on the court/field, etc. might be a good way to add interest and also make it somewhat more universal beyond your particular situation.

comment by Vaniver · 2012-03-06T20:30:41.069Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that the underlying thought running through my head was "it would be weird to put Part I in discussion but Part II in main."

This is often recommended, especially if the first post is to test the waters.

comment by HungryTurtle · 2012-03-06T17:40:48.613Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aristotle was an advocate of what he called practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is knowing when it is appropriate to break the rules. I understand and personally agree with your statement, but I also believe that when someone has the courage to share a personal problem the priority should be showing support to your community member.to your community member.

comment by HungryTurtle · 2012-03-06T19:06:44.281Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’m lucky enough to have been born with the sort of brain that keeps my overall mood on an even keel, no matter how many annoying things I force myself to do.

From my understanding of emotional ranges I would say this statement places too much importance on a biological type. There are definitely people who are born with chemical imbalances that result in fluctuating, diminished, or exaggerated emotional ranges, but for the majority, it is more accurate to say that emotional response habitually and cognitively shaped. I would suggest that this statement is more accurate of your situation:

I like analyzing myself, and so most of my basic emotions are accompanied by thoughts about those emotions, and I suspect that this process of deliberate analysis causes the actual emotions to be less intense.

You have developed a belief system that has led to a pattern of habituation that dampens and redirects your emotional outputs.

Strong belief in rational/other ideology -> pursuing certain actions -> overtime actions become habitualized-> actions develop new cognitive and emotional responses that result in dampening and redirecting strong emotional output.

I would suggest that when you are faced with situations that contradict your ideological base it questions the entire system. You are a cognitively gifted person, so if you encounter one of these situations your mind goes into overdrive reanalyzing all previous evaluations. The result is all the "little annoying things that you have forced yourself to do" over the past months lose their rationale causing a huge flood of negative/doubtful emotions. I have experienced this myself, in my mind I think of it as the over thinkers equivalent of anger management issues.

People who have anger management do not know how to deal with little things that make them mad. Their anger is improperly managed and slowly builds up into a giant torrent of emotions, until the time comes when they explode.

My advice would be a better balance between growth and fortification. Growth comes from pushing yourself to reach new limits; however, if you do not give yourself a break every now and then it is dangerous. Fortification is dealing with the immediate protection of happiness and stability. The majority is excessive in their fortifications and lacks an impetus for growth. You are the minority in your incredibly strong impetus for growth. Just tone it down sometimes. If you like something sometimes you need to do it regardless of rationale. If you don’t like something, sometimes you need a break from it, regardless of rationale. If the majority of your day is spent justifying doing things you find to be annoying, you might want to rethink some of your routines.

Best of luck.

Replies from: None, Swimmer963
comment by [deleted] · 2012-03-06T21:37:07.265Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: HungryTurtle
comment by HungryTurtle · 2012-03-06T22:12:51.961Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But IME one's early to mid-twenties are for self-flagellation

I am guessing IME means (in my experience?). I agree that the early twenties of a person's life should ideally be a time of exploration where unhindered by health, career, or familial obligations a person is able to be critical of their chosen course. That said, in my opinion, self-flagellation is taking it too far. What's more, while I do believe that this period of self-criticism and path seeking has an endpoint, I do not think you have accurately placed it.

it starts to peter out around 28 or so.

What was your rationale for making this claim? I hope you do not take offense at this, but I am guessing that your reasoning is due to the fact that you are somewhere around 28-32 and currently feeling very confident/happy with your life navigation in relation to your earlier twenties? I don’t think broad generalizations about the end of a stage in life should be made purely from personal experience, especially when you are still culturally young.

I would suggest that there might still be dimensions of your strengths and weakness that have yet to be explored, and to not give up on the self-flagelating yet.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-03-06T22:34:29.426Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: None, HungryTurtle
comment by [deleted] · 2012-03-08T15:01:54.377Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First world kids who have the luxury of setting high expectations for themselves tend to beat themselves up most when they are in the midst of discovering whether or not they can actually meet those expectations.

I would like to say that this explanation you've put together manages to sum up the most recent period of my life perfectly. (I'm 27 and 9 months, even the age range fits well.)

Considering the cognitive load I was under earlier this morning trying to resolve problems related to exactly this, The feeling that I'm left with is the one Eliezer mentioned in http://lesswrong.com/lw/of/dissolving_the_question/ where all of the unexplained bits and pieces that I was going crazy over are just gone.

I even thought "But wait, what if there is something I missed that would make this a bad explanation that I'm letting myself get fast talked into." (mental review) "Can't find a thing, it really does fit every bit of evidence I can think of."


Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-03-08T16:45:17.704Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by HungryTurtle · 2012-03-07T00:14:24.508Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I completely misread self-flagellation as a hyperbole for self-criticism. Thanks for substituting it with self-abuse to help me out. I really do apologize if my tone or words came off as hostile or aggressive. I really like your idea

first world kids who have the luxury of setting high expectations for themselves tend to beat themselves up most when they are in the midst of discovering whether or not they can actually meet those expectations.

It is exciting finding something you have never thought of yourself. I think it is a good idea, but I still do not agree that 28-29 is the endpoint. I think you are correct in calling it a threshold, but not a final threshold.

I am a runner. When I first started running I could barely run 2 miles. It was hell. I kept trying to push myself to do it faster, which ultimately was self-abuse. My muscles were not ready, my heart was not ready, my bones were not ready, and mentally I was not ready. After about a month of running 2 miles on the weekdays and 3-4 miles on Saturday, I finally found myself able to run at a speed I liked without killing myself. I find this to be analogous to you at 28-29 being able to manage your time where you were able to be competent without self-abuse. My point though is after breaking that threshold my body was ready to undertake a new threshold. I then began running 5 miles every weekday and 7 on the weekend. The first time I did this it felt exactly the same as two miles, hell again. However, my adjustment to running 5 miles only took 2 weeks, instead of the month it had taken me to get used to 2 miles. When I transitioned to 7 miles daily it still took about two weeks to get used to it without any pain, but the pain was significantly less than my starting pains. I know this is an analogy, but I believe to some extent this applies to life navigation as well. It is probably a much slower process, but I think it is possible to reach new competency thresholds until somewhere between 40-60. I apologize for the large range; this is a hypothesis that I have yet to have the means or method to verify. The idea though is that there is some point in age where you cease to be able to learn radically new systems of thought, habit, or emotion.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-03-07T22:35:15.351Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Strong belief in rational/other ideology -> pursuing certain actions -> overtime actions become habitualized-> actions develop new cognitive and emotional responses that result in dampening and redirecting strong emotional output... I would suggest that when you are faced with situations that contradict your ideological base it questions the entire system.

When I ask myself the question "is this actually true about me?", it seems plausible. Based on my reactions to events, I think that a lot of my energy, motivation, and self-esteem is tied up in long-term plans. Anything that makes me question "is this really what I should be doing with this period of my life?" makes me very uncomfortable. I don't like rethinking my plans, because I've invested so much in them, but I've trained myself that I have to do the things that make me most uncomfortable, that making-me-uncomfortable or being painful to think about is a sign that I absolutely have to rethink something.

I don't know how much effect this has on my emotional outbursts, though. They're more an automatic reflex to frustration.

The majority is excessive in their fortifications and lacks an impetus for growth. You are the minority in your incredibly strong impetus for growth.

This comes across as one of those things that would sound too nice if it were true about me. I want to be that kind of person, so I can't trust my judgement on whether or not I am that kind of person. I do think a lot about personal growth, though, and my justification is that I have a more rigid than average personality, that I'm more uncomfortable in new situations than most people, etc. In order to combat this, I have to work harder than the average person.

comment by aelephant · 2012-03-07T02:19:31.704Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can address the intellectual part of this, but it won't solve the emotional part. You can even eliminate the intellectual part (by stopping your internal dialogue) but it will keep coming up again so long as the emotional issue underlying it is still lingering and unprocessed.

From your description, it sounds like you are doing a lot of things in attempt to suppress the emotion. Have you tried the opposite approach? Try to feel the emotion as fully and completely as you can. Preferably do it somewhere safe where you can be alone. You might find yourself crying, screaming, shaking, curling up into a ball... whatever your body feels like doing to really magnify and intensify the emotion is good. Sometimes it can take a long time to process the emotion completely, maybe up to 40 minutes to an hour. Try it and see how it works.

Replies from: Swimmer963
comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-03-07T03:14:30.330Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Preferably do it somewhere safe where you can be alone. You might find yourself crying, screaming, shaking, curling up into a ball... whatever your body feels like doing to really magnify and intensify the emotion is good.

I have no problem with doing this in private...in fact, letting out strong emotions is a process I find almost pleasurable. What I wish I had is control over when the process is triggered, since right now most of the triggers are in social situations, and I can't "turn it off" and then turn it back on later.

comment by DuncanS · 2012-03-06T21:38:59.442Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing that helped me with this from an intellectual point of view was realising that this problem centers around an unprovable proposition. The proposition? That I am not a moron.

The problem's straightforward. Suppose I come up with an argument that purports to show that I'm not such a moron after all. Who's going to evaluate whether the argument is valid or not? Well, if it's not me, the moron - the idiot who doesn't know how to get stuff right. What am I doing trusting him?

Suppose instead someone else comes along and reassures me that I'm not a moron. Well, that's nice, but someone has to validate whether or not they mean what they say, or whether they have good reason to be right about that or not. Who's going to do that? You're right - it's me, the moron who has no idea.

So logically I can reach no answer regardless of whether I come up with a reason, or someone else does. Hey, if I'm a moron, I'm going to be wrong about this, aren't I?

Nowadays, when I see the moron argument, I recognise it and say to myself - yes, yes - the moron argument. I know I can't logically solve that - it's insoluble. And I stop trying to think about it.

This of course doesn't mean that I don't sometimes do things that make me want the floor to swallow me up. Everybody does those things, and learning something when it happens is wise. But falling into the moron argument afterwards is - unhelpful - a known waste of CPU cycles better spent elsewhere.

There is an analogous situation that occurs with social status - perhaps I could call it the 'loser' argument. The same problem applies - once you wonder if you're too much of a loser to know how much of a loser you are, you have a logically impossible problem to solve, and the only way to win that argument is to acknowledge that logic is powerless against it, smile and walk away.

Replies from: Swimmer963, ryjm
comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-03-07T22:25:51.883Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't say so much that the problem is logically insoluble...it's more a matter of negative biasing, where the very act of thinking about a negative-laden topic like "am I a moron?" will color all of your thoughts darker. Therefore it's unlikely that you'll actually be able to solve the problem through logic, since the more you ponder on it, the more your cognition will be unreliable.

comment by ryjm · 2012-03-07T05:14:20.224Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you can't trust your evaluation of the moron argument, how can you trust your evaluation of the argument that your moron argument is logically insoluble; or, for that matter, any argument at all?

I agree that it would be better to realize the low utility in thinking about these types of arguments and file them away to a dusty box in a tiny little nook in the back of your mind. However, I wouldn't go as far as dusting it off and smacking a "logically insoluble" tag on it; it just seems like an attempt to rationalize with a pseudo logical hack.

And I would consider a test of my "moron"-ness to be very useful if I didn't deem the argument to be a useless waste of thought, just as any other indicator of new knowledge would be useful. If it turns out I'm a moron, then I'm a moron; wait a minute, now I'm even less of a moron because now I know more than before! But saying it's impossible to know because logic is a little iffy.


Robert: You're gonna be okay.

Catherine: I am?

Robert: Yes. I promise you. The simple fact that we can talk about this together is a good sign.

Catherine: A good sign?

Robert: Yeah.

Catherine: How could it be a good sign?

Robert: Because crazy people don't sit around wondering if they're nuts.

Catherine: They don't?

Robert: No. They've got better things to do. Take it from me. A very good sign that you're crazy is an inability to ask the question, "Am I crazy?"

Catherine: Even if the answer is yes?

Robert: Crazy people don't ask, you see?

Catherine: Huh.

-- Proof (movie)

Replies from: handoflixue
comment by handoflixue · 2012-03-23T19:51:24.742Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I ask myself if I'm crazy all the time. This trait does not go away when I'm having actual serious impairment.

In a manic episode, the answer is "Ahahaha, I'm not crazy, I'm finally seeing everything clearly! It's BEAUTIFUL".

During a schizophrenic episode, the question usually doesn't make any sense - "how can you even define crazy? I just say I'm crazy because that OTHER self disagrees with me. Well, what if NOW is when I'm seeing clearly? But what if she really IS my friend, and I'm just hallucinating that she's trying to kill me? I don't want to wake up and find out I killed my best friend in a fit of paranoid schizophrenia O.O"

Depressive episodes, the answer is "yep, I'm a horrible insane broken shell that can't do anything right. Might as well give up. World would be better off without me."

When I'm actually feeling sane, the answer is a nice, calm "of course I'm sane. I'm calm about the question and not attaching any particular importance to it".

One can read a lot in to that last answer, vis-a-vis the above dialogue...

Replies from: ryjm
comment by ryjm · 2012-03-26T04:54:18.107Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Apologies, I should have thought about the about possible interpretations of such a dialogue; I meant it more as a "feel good" kind of thing rather than a factual assessment about the nature of mentally unstable people. Thinking about it, "crazy" definitely does not map easily into "moron", and my usage of the above dialogue was intended to convey the notion that logically thinking about whether or not you are a moron is a good sign that you are probably not a moron.

But I think your comment brings up another interesting point. Would it be right to say that your emotional states are changing your definition of "crazy"? That, when you are in a different mental state, "crazy" is referencing an entirely different object? That when you are asking the question "am I crazy" you are actually asking an entirely different question? I would think that if you keep entering these manic states of mind, your normal cached version of "crazy" would slowly be chipped away and eventually you wouldn't even be able to access it anymore. Then you really have the inability to ask the question.

I'm not defending the use of the above dialogue though. It's clear to me that it's usefulness is outweighed by the possible negative interpretations.

Replies from: handoflixue
comment by handoflixue · 2012-03-26T20:25:24.478Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Would it be right to say that your emotional states are changing your definition of "crazy"?

No. Each emotional state has it's own separate definition of "crazy", which doesn't seem very prone to change (i.e. much as calm-self would love to rewrite manic-self to view traffic as dangerous, my manic self still feels it is invincible)

However, I can pass along information and algorithms between selves. My calm self has an algorithm that says "If you are tempted to walk in to traffic for any reason, you are probably not sane." My manic self can run this algorithm, and she will go "huh, calm self views this as a crazy idea, even though I am invincible. There's a small chance calm self is right, so I'll avoid traffic. Plus, it will make calm-self happier with me, and I like it when calm-self can relax and not try to kill me with drugs."

comment by aliciaparr · 2012-03-08T12:47:45.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can relate to the emotional patterns the author describes. I have found that naming the emotional response out loud prior to it spiraling into high intensity tends to break the amplification cycle. That may, in part, be due to the mild embarrassment of admitting an unproductive emotion to others. Pairing this technique with practiced self-acceptance that sometimes we have non-productive emotions also has the side effect of the practitioner appearing more "human" to those who consider themselves "more emotional."

comment by juliawise · 2012-03-08T03:42:01.466Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is difficult work - congratulations on having the courage to start it.

Look into CBT and {DBT}(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_behavior_therapy). These are best done with a therapist (someone with an outside view, training, and experience), but I've gotten some use out of reading materials on my own. You've already done the first part, which is identifying the thoughts that trigger meltdowns. The next steps are figuring out what thoughts are more accurate and helpful, and then training yourself to habitually have those thoughts instead.

Note that DBT was developed for people with borderline personality disorder, which sounds scary if that's not you, but can be useful to anybody with emotional regulation problems.

comment by CronoDAS · 2012-03-06T22:07:38.855Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmmm... this sounds like something I go through at times as well, although (immediate) social pressure doesn't seem to have anything to do with my own depressive episodes. Unfortunately, I don't have any useful advice to give.

Replies from: Swimmer963
comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-03-07T22:22:46.413Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do your episodes tend to happen when you're alone and brooding about something that happened during the day? This used to happen to me when I was around 14-15 years old. I have more leeway in distracting myself when I'm alone, though, so I tend to be better at defusing those episodes now...and if I do burst into tears when I'm alone, who cares?

Replies from: CronoDAS
comment by CronoDAS · 2012-03-08T02:57:37.576Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've noticed a few specific things that make it more likely to happen.

One of them is going on a losing streak in Magic. I have FAR too much of my self-esteem wrapped up in that game, and I take losing pretty hard. My Magic skills are one of the few things I can say I'm honestly proud of. My success in school was years ago, and it wasn't something I chose to undertake on my own - whenever I tried to stop, I got taken to psychiatrists. Being a 29 year old male who's supported by his parents isn't exactly good for my social status, and most people aren't going to be impressed for very long when I tell them I've completed Battletoads or Nethack. If I can win at Magic, then I can be happy with my identity as a good Magic player. If I can't, then I'm stuck with the image of myself as an unemployed loser who can't even pass the test of wanting to have a job in the first place and therefore less worthy of respect than the guy who pumps gas at the local gas station. (I do occasionally wonder what will happen to me when my parents retire and eventually run out of money, but I've done my best to stop caring.)

Another is forgetting to take my medication - I'm more vulnerable to shocks when I've missed a dose of venlafaxine.

Replies from: Swimmer963
comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-03-09T20:41:00.277Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm.. it sounds like your "depressive episodes have a lot to do with your immediate situation in life ("then I'm stuck with the image of myself as an unemployed loser...") and maybe somewhat with brain chemistry, too ("I'm more vulnerable to shocks when I've missed a dose of venlafaxine.").

I think the immediate situational causes for me are almos the exact opposite of yours. I place a huge importance on my long term goals, and on being satisfied with where I am in life and how well I'm doing. In comparison, I put hardly any weight on doing things that are pleasurable at the time, and I get a big guilt response if I spend too much time doing fun but "unproductive" activities, especially if akrasia causes me to do them at the cost of doing less of my long-term-goal-facilitating activities.

Unsurprisingly, I'm quite satisfied with my current position in life (in terms of finances, friendships, love life, fitness, etc), and I can get a big happiness boost by thinking about it. But a lot of my long-term-goal-related activites are annoying or frustrating-my healthy bank balance has resulted from a LOT of hours of boring work at the pool, my good grades and scholarship come from working hard in classes I often don't find interesting, and juggling all this means that I'm often tired and don't have time to do fun but time-wasting stuff. Swim team work ethic = "short term pain for long term gain", so I swallow my frustration and plow through and then occasionally have a completely out-of-proportion reaction to a mildly frustrating or upsetting situation because I can't handle it anymore.

It sounds like you put a higher weight on short-term doing pleasurable things and avoiding unpleasant things, which has its benefits but also comes with its tradeoffs.

Replies from: CronoDAS
comment by CronoDAS · 2012-03-10T00:58:19.095Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like you put a higher weight on short-term doing pleasurable things and avoiding unpleasant things, which has its benefits but also comes with its tradeoffs.


Reading your other comments, I think that there are more differences than similarities between my "depressive episodes" and your meltdowns. My episodes come on gradually and tend to last for a couple of hours, eventually going away gradually as well. During them I tend to disappear into my room and sulk, thinking about how useless I am and sometimes banging my head against the wall in frustration. Listening to music that I like for about fifteen minutes is one of the few things that consistently brings me out of them.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2012-03-07T01:29:20.210Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I generally feel less anxious about my own ability when I give honest compliments about others'. Inversely, if I'm critical of others, I really feel badly when I fail (whether or not it's evident to others that I failed).

This has lead me to wonder if I'm being really obnoxious when I praise people while playing some sport I'm just picking up (e.g. soccer). Who am I, the guy who tells everyone whether they did well or not? :)

Wanting to be good at things can be an obstacle. Most often it leads people to sour-grapes away any hope of expanding their blob of competence. In your case it sounds like you instead gird yourself with discipline and it sometimes blows up.

If you're at all concerned with whether people think you think you're better than you really are, you're on the wrong path :) I don't believe that people fail in contests because they feel socially inferior, but being concerned with social relationships in the midst of a contest isn't helpful (if you want to win, or at least learn). Just try not to be obnoxious or needy in how you express your pleasure or disappointment in the outcome.

Replies from: Swimmer963
comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-03-07T22:21:17.775Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Inversely, if I'm critical of others, I really feel badly when I fail (whether or not it's evident to others that I failed).

This happens to me too-I think it's based on the "setting yourself up as an expert" effect-you're giving off the impression that if you know enough to criticize someone about X, you must be good at X, and then you're showing everyone that actually you aren't, meaning the advice you gave is useless.

That being said, I know that I'm sometimes better at teaching skills than doing them. If I'm watching someone else in my taekwondo class do a move that I have a lot of trouble with (example: spin hook kick), I can usually still tell what they're doing wrong. I can see their whole body as they move, whereas they can't, and often I know what I'm doing wrong, too...I just don't have perfect enough control of my muscles to fix it. (This goes for first aid, too. I can watch a kid in one of my classes going through a first aid scenario and know exactly what they're forgetting, but put me in the exact same scenario and I might well forget it, too. Adrenaline does the weirdest things to my brain.)

comment by Rhwawn · 2012-03-05T23:15:57.378Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This article relies much too strongly on personal anecdote. This seems to be an ongoing problem with many of your articles, Swimmer.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz, HungryTurtle, Alex_Altair, handoflixue, AspiringRationalist, Crux
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-03-05T23:57:30.289Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Relies on personal experience much too strongly for what?

comment by HungryTurtle · 2012-03-06T17:42:48.977Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


I am new to this community, so perhaps you can help me understand why you think a personal anecdote weakens/detracts from an essay.

comment by Alex_Altair · 2012-03-08T06:10:43.472Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I enjoy any articles that feature people trying.

comment by handoflixue · 2012-03-23T19:43:16.554Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Funny, I like Swimmer's articles for exactly that reason - they've very relate-able and demonstrate techniques of framing and analyzing a problem. There's also a certain helpfulness that comes from simply going "hey, someone else shares this trait with me! Clearly I can have this trait and still succeed at rationality, since she's doing it".

comment by AspiringRationalist · 2012-03-22T16:53:32.381Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps adding an "anecdote" tag can address this issue. That way, those of us (myself included) who find this sort of post useful can read them, and those who do not can avoid them.

Replies from: Rhwawn
comment by Rhwawn · 2012-04-06T19:43:47.189Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, that'd be helpful, I think. Sort the men from the boys, as it were.

comment by Crux · 2012-03-23T19:58:25.831Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You've certainly pointed out a trend, but I too would disagree about it being a problem.

It's uncommon to find somebody who's both willing to be very open about the sort of things she writes about, and at the same time capable of deep introspection and self-reflection. I find her articles very useful and interesting.