Psychological issues are often useful in the present

post by Chipmonk · 2024-06-10T23:39:40.697Z · LW · GW · 2 comments

This is a link post for


  1. Psychological issues are often useful in the present
  2. But very few people understand that.
  3. Taking the concept of trauma too seriously can lead to more trauma.
  What next?
  1. It can be extremely valuable to view psychological issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, insecurity, failure at work or in romance, muscle tension, chronic pain, etc.) as being useful in the present for avoiding fears or achieving unconscious goals
  2. But very few people seem to consider that, and instead most people assume that psychological issues are all bad.
  3. Unfortunately, taking the concept of trauma too seriously can lead to more trauma.

1. Psychological issues are often useful in the present

2022. I was depressed. There’s five months where I couldn’t tell you what I did. 

I remember wondering during that time, “Why am I so depressed? Why are my emotions so irrational? Why is my brain so dumb?

At the same time, my social interactions were not going as I wanted:

I was having trouble making close friends.

I would like a woman and then never hear from her again. This happened a few times.

Whenever I expressed any kind of disapproval, those around me seemed to get mad at me.

And I didn’t realize it consciously, but interacting with others felt emotionally unsafe.

Separately, something about me is that when I’m depressed and low energy, I don’t want to interact with other people. 

So, if interacting with other people was unsafe, then one way for me to be safe was to be depressed

Maybe I didn’t have a ‘dumb brain’ after all…

What if my depression wasn’t a problem? What if it was actually a solution to a different problem?

In which case, my problem wasn’t “being depressed” as I had thought. Instead, it was not knowing how to interact with other people in a way that felt emotionally safe

I was working with an excellent counselor at the time, and once we found this, we worked on making social interactions safe. Within a few weeks/sessions my fears were handled and I didn’t need to be depressed anymore. 

Also, while I was depressed I had moved to the middle of nowhere — conveniently far from almost anyone I might have wanted to talk to. But within three weeks of this shift I moved to a big city and had ten times as much social interaction. I have not needed to be depressed again in more than 1.5 years since.

Seeing my depression as potentially part of a helpful strategy in the present helped me grow.

Original post: Depression was useful?

Generalizing this idea:

It can be extremely valuable to view psychological issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, insecurity, failure at work or in romance, muscle tension, chronic pain, etc.) as being useful in the present for avoiding fears or achieving unconscious goals. (Psychological growth principles, #2)

I like to use the word “teleology” to describe this mindset (c.f., The Courage to be Disliked). “The explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they may arise.”

From the perspective of teleology, what is learned from an experience depends entirely on how it’s interpreted: how your predictions about the future change. And there are many ways to interpret any given experience, so any experience can’t be deterministically psychologically damaging. 

Besides, not everyone who goes through terrible experiences acquires sticky psychological neuroses, so there must be other factors at play.[1]

For the people I’ve facilitated psychological growth for, their psychological issues almost always turn out to be adaptive in a way that’s helping them now — as opposed to their problems just being residues from the past. My practice is about helping them intuit more effective strategies that require less suffering.

2. But very few people understand that.

Usually, when I tell someone I spent half a year being depressed, they tell me something like, “I’m so sorry to hear that!” Their first assumption is that my depression was a strictly bad thing — and they have little uncertainty that it might have actually been a useful (albeit unconscious) strategy that was actively serving me

(In my case, if I could’ve flicked a switch and not been depressed anymore, I would’ve started interacting with people a lot more and immediately felt hurt![2] As had happened many times. I was still emotionally insecure and seeking validation from others.)

I spoke to hundreds of people about psychology in the past year, and fewer than five consider teleological/strategic explanations of psychological issues before they consider trauma/causative explanations. I hear things like:

Then I tell them my story — or one of the dozens of other stories I’ve collected from clients and friends (chronic back pain, insomnia, social conflict, anxiety, procrastination, …) — and they’re dumbfounded! As if it had never occurred to them that something that looks like a psychological ‘issue’ might NOT be all bad.

To be clear, I’m not saying that psychological issues are always best treated teleologically, and I don’t doubt that sometimes the best treatments are more causal/biological mechanisms (e.g., addressing lead poisoning, micronutrient deficiencies, or infections).

But if your objective is psychological growth, then the present-moment utility of psychological issues can be extremely helpful to consider. But almost no one I know does this.

Note: It requires a lot of skill to diagnose teleology. In my case, I only became aware that my depression was helping me after working with an excellent counselor. Since then I’ve learned the skill for myself, and in my experience facilitating psychological growth for other people I can’t remember anyone who was able to do this on their own. (And if they could, they would’ve long solved their issue.)

3. Taking the concept of trauma too seriously can lead to more trauma.

If you believe that you were permanently damaged by something in your past, then you might not even try to grow, resulting in the ‘damage’ becoming permanent just as you feared. 

For example, just before my depression I also had a string of social failures. If I had interpreted these failures as trauma that caused my depression, then I might not have tried to improve my situation. After all, other people had caused my depression — so other people would have to stop it, right? Out of my hands!

But ultimately my depression was not solved by anyone else changing.

So I’m wary of the common trauma mindset. When taken to the extreme, it disqualifies the potential for personal agency. It can even help exacerbate psychological issues. 

The most psychologically unhealthy people I know tend to also believe that psychological growth will be slow and difficult. And maybe they’re actually right about their situation! But I find it very interesting that they don't believe “I just haven’t found the right combination of counselor and method [LW · GW] for me yet.”

If this is you: Would you like a different self-fulfilling prophecy?

The Courage to be Disliked infamously wrote “Trauma Does Not Exist”, and I can mostly see why now. Terrible phrasing though.

Thanks to Stag Lynn, Kaj Sotala, Damon Sasi, Claire Mingyuan Wang, Epistea Residency, CFAR, Anna Salamon, Alex Zhu, Max Langenkamp, Nolan Kent, and many others for mentorship and support.

What next?

You’ve read this post and you believe my theory. You want to grow psychologically, and you believe it’s possible. What next?

While my ultimate goal is to make psychological growth quick, easy, and scalable, my only recommendation for now is to work with an extraordinary counselor. Recommendations in a post on my blog soon.

Update: my practice is now live.

You can also maybe get 20% of the effect in two months of effort by reading and practicing Focusing and Already Free.

Related: rapid psychological growth [LW · GW

  1. ^

    Some people will read this and think “It’s genetics!” But how do you know?

  2. ^

    During the second month of my depression I wrote at length in my journal about “realizing that I can decide to be happy”. And then I forgot about this ability and never tried it again. Convenient, right?


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Steven Byrnes (steve2152) · 2024-06-11T02:37:52.068Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The book Feeling Great by David Burns is also big into noticing the many immediate benefits of negative thoughts. He calls it “positive reframing”. I put a quick summary + example in my book review here [LW · GW]. I agree that it’s wise.

Replies from: Chipmonk
comment by Chipmonk · 2024-06-11T16:42:47.357Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, the magic button does seem somewhat similar to teleology. (Though, after reading your summary, I think I disagree pretty hard with how I think he implements it in the session. Mainly: too cognitive.)