Misery Pits

post by Alicorn · 2018-03-10T23:50:37.820Z · score: 97 (35 votes) · LW · GW · 23 comments

This is an attempt at a description, more intensional than extensional, of a phenomenon that can adversely affect communities. I'm trying to avoid having anyone specific (especially specific-and-local) in mind while I write it; I just mean to define the phenomenon as a reference point and wave tentatively at some possible modes of address. Content warning: exercise caution if prone to psychological spirals about your value as a person.

Some people are needy. Really, really needy. Not so much in a "loan me fifty bucks" sense, although that can be an inconvenient comorbidity. More in the "stay up until 3am reassuring me that I have value... four times a week" way. In the "sudden escalation to romantic advances at tiny to negligible signs of openness" way. In the "every life setback is a catastrophic trigger leading to a monthlong mental health crisis" way. And this neediness directly reduces how rewarding it is to provide reassurance, romance, or crisis support. And if the needy person finds a source anyway, they're unlikely to improve much before the source is burned out and has to abandon them out of self-preservation.

I've taken to calling the class "misery pits", because you can throw enormous amounts of help and companionship and unconditional valuation into them and they look as deep as ever, but in general it's not paradigmatically manipulative. The need is genuine. They're really suffering! They actually need the things they ask for! It's just that they need insane amounts of upfront investment, amounts that individual humans can virtually never muster and would generally be ill-advised to try to scrape together, before they become able to do normal-person self-maintenance tasks so that any support can stick, let alone before they're able to provide normal-person friendship contributions*. They are not, typically, suited to being paired off in mutually beneficial codependence; they just don't have the resources or skills.

Non-misery-pit humans have a wide range of susceptibility to the desperation of nearby misery pits. Some people can't resist them, or certain instances of them, and pour their lives into trying to help a misery pit; they're so sad. (This is most of the adverse effect on communities I mentioned.) Some people find them repellently pathetic and avoid them altogether. (The effects of this on large social webs are some more of the adverse effect.) Some people are good enough at setting boundaries to avoid throwing anything they can't afford to lose into the pit and can maintain healthy contact with misery pits for extended periods of time. Some people just take a long time to determine that someone is needier than they can handle, and make bad investments and cut their new misery pit friend off after they've come to be relied on. (This is the rest of the adverse effect.)

Misery-pit-hood is not necessarily permanent. It often responds to a change in life circumstances (leaving an abusive household; finding a (usually) girlfriend, who has more love than the pit has depth; the straightforward clinical abatement of a depressive episode). I tentatively hypothesize that at least some could respond to coordinated lovebombing from multiple people each individually contributing sustainable amounts of energy, but have never seen it tried. Failing a way to fill in the pit, teaching people not to dump anything they're going to need back into such a pit seems like the next best thing.

*Some otherwise-misery-pit-shaped people manage social reciprocity more or less competently, but I think they tend to do it in a weird way - more service-provision ("I'll do your dishes") than social ("I'll be intrinsically fun to hang out with").

23 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ozymandias · 2018-03-11T01:27:36.082Z · score: 86 (25 votes) · LW · GW

I'd like to add the caution that not all depressed, romantically unsuccessful, or crisis-prone people are misery pits, particularly since many such people are likely to assume they themselves are. If you have friendships that extend for longer than a year or two, you are almost certainly not a misery pit.

From the perspective of a person who might be a misery pit: one key is to avoid overburdening any single person. Cycling between three or four support people can be helpful. For validation-seeking, I've found social media works well, since liking a sadpost is usually less stressful for most people than comforting a sad person. It's also helpful to prioritize learning how to create value for others. Try to have pleasant interactions with your support people (fandom, gaming, sharing jokes, talking politics, doing a hobby together, whatever) more often than you call on them for help. Consider learning a service-provision skill, such as cooking.

comment by cousin_it · 2018-03-11T07:39:06.353Z · score: 68 (22 votes) · LW · GW

Don't know what will work for others, but my fix for neediness was to hole up in the attic of my parents' house, shut myself in for a few weeks and concentrate hard on the idea that nobody owes me anything. I tried to make it sink in as deep as I could.

At first it felt pretty bad. A world where people didn't owe me stuff didn't seem worth living in. But after a week or two of this intense concentration for hours every day, it started feeling more normal. And shortly after that, I began to realize (just as deeply) that I don't owe people stuff either, and this new world offered hella opportunities for fun.

That's when I left the attic. Very quickly I discovered that I had magical new superpowers, like telling someone "no" and laughing in their face. My old problems got replaced with exciting new ones, like some girl's boyfriend calling me up and threatening to "find me". At some point I threw away my old phone and contact list, got a new one and it filled up with surprising speed. Some of the new people were annoying, so my blacklist started growing as well. I'd never needed a blacklist before.

comment by TurnTrout · 2018-03-11T14:29:37.285Z · score: 17 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I’d be interested in a more in-depth post about this!

comment by cousin_it · 2018-03-11T18:18:55.637Z · score: 51 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Not sure it'll work for anyone besides me, so I'll just do a comment.

The story went like this. Several nasty things happened in one week: we split up with my first gf after a 7 year relationship (mostly due to my neediness), the company I worked at went bankrupt, I lost my apartment, and my grandmother died in the hospice as I watched. That wouldn't bother a stable person much, but 23 year old me also wasn't a very stable person. When my mind started giving me persistent thoughts about self-harm, I said "nope" and decided to try self-modification first. The idea that external people/events are responsible for my well-being seemed like the obvious culprit, so I set about changing that. I holed up in my parents' attic and spent hours every day reading books and formulating phrases, then more hours painstakingly holding these phrases in my mind. "Nobody owes you anything" was an especially strong phrase. "Never guilt trip anyone" was also important.

I didn't have any guidelines for the whole procedure, it felt weird and dangerous, but somehow right. Anyway, after a few weeks I finished it with no ill effects. My needy behavior went away for good (this was 12 years ago). I also lost almost all sense of fear for awhile. Eventually it came back, but in the meantime (3-4 years) I got enough "young fun" to last a few lifetimes and set up the perfect social life for myself. At 35, I think my 23 year old self did a surprisingly good job.

Of course it could've gone badly. Any such procedure comes with a large risk of self-harm. But my mind gave me a choice between that or certain self-harm. If your situation is less dire, don't try this!

comment by alkjash · 2018-03-11T20:05:22.819Z · score: 55 (15 votes) · LW · GW
Several nasty things happened in one week: we split up with my first gf after a 7 year relationship (mostly due to my neediness), the company I worked at went bankrupt, I lost my apartment, and my grandmother died in the hospice as I watched. That wouldn't bother a stable person much, but 23 year old me also wasn't a very stable person.

Jesus, whoever these "stable people" you speak of are, I'd like to meet them. I don't think I know a single person who wouldn't crack in such a situation.

comment by sarahconstantin · 2018-03-13T06:09:38.409Z · score: 50 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Things I've learned over the years related to this:

  1. If someone argues with great force and convincingness that you shouldn't help them because they'll never get better, believe them.
  2. Never, ever hire someone for a job they can't do as a "favor." This causes more trouble than simply giving them money.
  3. You can be friends with someone who has serious life problems. (It would be awful and callous if you couldn't.) But you need to both acknowledge that you probably won't be able to singlehandedly fix their whole life, and you need to spend some of your time just about enjoying each other's company, independently from you trying to help them.
  4. You probably can't, in the long term, be totally dependent on others to take care of you, if you're an adult; people will eventually just refuse to do that. This includes depending on emotional handholding. Even if you have a persistent problem like a lifelong mental illness that does require long-term help, you're eventually going to have to transition to "managing your problem responsibly" rather than being a perpetual damsel in distress. It's ultimately in your interest to become good at coping with life, despite how much better it can feel in the moment to be rescued.
comment by Vanessa Kosoy (vanessa-kosoy) · 2018-03-11T06:56:31.844Z · score: 33 (12 votes) · LW · GW

This is the sort of essay that, IMHO, should come with some strong disclaimers. My feeling is that some people will read that and go "Oh no, I'm a misery pit! I'm a burden on all of my friends and harmful to the entire community!! I'm a worthless parody of a human being who should immediately cut emself off from everyone and probably throw emself under the nearest bus!!!" Moreover, it sounds likely that most of the people who will think that are not even "real misery pits".

This is especially dangerous coming from a very high status member of the community. So, while the problem described here might be a real problem, I feel that discussing it requires a very delicate approach.

comment by ozymandias · 2018-03-11T07:08:39.014Z · score: 21 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I want to be clear that my comment was not intended to be a criticism of Alicorn or of this post.

comment by Vanessa Kosoy (vanessa-kosoy) · 2018-03-11T07:49:31.328Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I deleted the mention of your comment to avoid unintentionally ascribing meanings to your words that was not there. I also want to note that, I'm sure that Alicorn is speaking in good faith and did not mean to imply otherwise or attack eir character, in case it somehow came across that way.

comment by Alicorn · 2018-03-11T20:41:20.251Z · score: 17 (5 votes) · LW · GW

What disclaimers exactly? I can't diagnose misery-pit-hood of article readers as a group, so I can't say "if you're reading this you aren't a misery pit". I suppose I could... say that I'm not trying to get anyone to commit suicide...? I just don't understand how this problem could be solved by disclaimers.

comment by Raemon · 2018-03-11T22:27:39.159Z · score: 36 (11 votes) · LW · GW

So, I have some concrete answers to the "what disclaimers would help?" thing, but having slept on it I'm generally pretty uncomfortable with the way this post is currently written and disclaimers feel more like a band-aid than a solution.

This post seems to be aiming for a purely descriptive look at the problem, but... well first of all, "Misery Pit" just isn't a neutral descriptive word. (It's evocative and clearly communicates the phenomenon, but this is a phenomenon that's highly triggering to many people who are still grappling with it and I don't think "evocative" is the best criteria).

It's also very essentialist that lends itself to binary division of humans into misery-pit and non-misery-pit status (followed by arguments about what counts). You could solve this by trying to say "Misery-pit-ness is a spectrum, not a binary", but even this seems to frame the question in an anti-helpful way.

The relevant question is not "how misery-pit-ish am I?" or "how misery pit-ish is this person I interact with?" It's "can I improve my current strategies for getting my needs met? What skills should I work to gain next?".

I can imagine some people who need/want lots of reassurance finding this post to be a useful gut punch that motivates them to solve it. But I can much more easily imagine lots of people who either need something different from this post to help them, or who have already mostly solved this issue but for whom bringing up the way it's discussed here to be a deeply unpleasant experience. (I've run into one such person already)

I'm not sure if there was a specific intended target audience here, but what comes across to me is more "people who don't struggle with this, watch out for people who want lots of reassurance" as opposed to "people who want lots of reassurance, here are some strategies that are better than asking for reassurance a lot and here's why asking for reassurance a lot isn't very workable."

And I think those are both important conversation to have, but I think the first conversation basically comes for free if you write the second post, whereas the second conversation doesn't necessarily come for free with the first one.

(I'd also personally prefer a version of the post that's making a stronger effort to be kind/empathetic, but expect people to vary a lot on what exactly that means and whether they think that matters and a bunch of worldview stuff that everyone here probably isn't on the same page about, and am not sure how to think about that)

But, as a concrete answer for useful disclaimers:

  1. This post is literally the sort of thing trigger warnings were invented for. You sort of imply one with the first paragraph but it could be way more explicit.
  2. I think this post presupposes that either you don't struggle with this currently, or that you have prerequisite skills such that "directly engage with the 'constantly ask for reassurance'" is the best next-action (and that the framing in this post is the best framing). In it's current form, I think it could either use explicit disclaimers about what state or skills you need to have in order for this post to be useful.
comment by cousin_it · 2018-03-11T23:07:59.299Z · score: 48 (12 votes) · LW · GW
can I improve my current strategies for getting my needs met?

Sorry, I don't mean to argue against your comment in any way, but can I just latch on to this to make an unrelated point?

Kaj had a great post some days ago about how you can't meditate your way out of suffering, because meditation is trying to abstract away from a part of you, and you can't do that if your reasons for doing that are coming from the same part of you. Something similar is going on here.

"How do I get my needs met?" is certainly the most pressing question to a needy person. But it's a wrong question, because it's a restatement of neediness. Any action coming from it will be colored with neediness. It's like trying to escape a swamp by pulling on your own hair.

The right question is: assuming as an immutable fact that my needs aren't met, how do I minimize my own self-harm? That's a heartbreaking question, because even asking it seems to imply you'll never get warmth from people again. But at least this question isn't colored with neediness, it doesn't sabotage itself. You can make progress on it.

comment by Hazard · 2018-03-14T00:03:41.173Z · score: 20 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A similar re-framing hugely helped me in the past. There was a time when I genuinely did not expect to feel happy or pleasant feelings again. For some reason or another, the approach I ended up taking was, "Given that I'll never be happy again, how should I act?"

I don't feel confident suggesting this sort of re-framing to someone in general. I can easily imagine someone being overwhelmed by the idea of never being happy again or never having their needs met by others, and possibly doing something drastic. Though something does feel more complete about this approach. Like cousin_it said, it's a sort of "break out of the old frame" move.

comment by Raemon · 2018-03-14T00:11:02.048Z · score: 12 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, that does seem like a fair point. I think which question is most useful depends on individual circumstance, and I'm not sure the "how to get needs met" question necessarily causes the framing problem you mention, but I can definitely imagine cases where your reframe seems more helpful.

comment by gjm · 2018-03-13T14:02:43.918Z · score: 33 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Relatedly, I'm not keen on the framing of this as "a phenomenon that can adversely affect communities".

Imagine an article that begins "This is an attempt to describe a phenomenon that can adversely affect communities. Sometimes some of the cells in a person's body will start dividing uncontrollably and refusing to die. This can make them very sick and require a lot of expensive treatment, and typically they die anyway. It can cost a community a hell of a lot of money."

That wouldn't be incorrect but, to me, it would feel somehow indecent, as if the primary thing that's bad about someone getting an incurable cancer is the cost to other people.

And it seems to me that there's something similar about writing as if the primary thing that's bad about some people being persistently wretched in ways that don't improve much when others try to help them is the cost to those other people.

And then the label you attach to these persistently wretched people -- "misery pit" -- is one that on the face of it clearly describes an inanimate thing rather than a person. (At one point there's even a contrast between "non-misery-pit humans" and "misery pits"; note no "humans" in the latter.)

Again, none of this is exactly incorrect. If some people in your community are unfixably miserable, that is indeed bad for the community. It may be helpful: perhaps "keep away from unfixably miserable people", which is implicitly the recommendation here, is the best advice that can actually be given. But, still, something about it feels indecent to me, as if there ought to be another way of expressing the thing that gives the same advice but doesn't quite so insistently dehumanize the people it's talking about.

comment by Alicorn · 2018-03-11T22:59:46.981Z · score: 31 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I do think there are intermediate stages of misery-pit-ness.

The target audience was "people like the people I've talked to about this before who find this model/framing helpful to them in their efforts to set and enforce boundaries before, not after, they are harmed by taking on too much responsibility for other people". I don't have any really useful advice for misery pits themselves that isn't implicitly in the post. The second conversation doesn't come free with the first because it requires more content which I don't happen to have.

I've added a content warning but I noticed as I was composing it I wasn't really sure what to say, so I'm low-confidence that it's anything like what you had in mind.

The second suggestion seems to me inapplicable - it's a definition post, not a strategy post. I don't think you need to be in any specific state to potentially want vocabulary.

comment by Raemon · 2018-03-11T08:17:11.802Z · score: 6 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This was roughly my take.

comment by tempus · 2018-03-11T19:55:25.056Z · score: -35 (8 votes) · LW · GW
This is the sort of essay that, IMHO, should come with some strong disclaimers. My feeling is that some people will read that and go "Oh no, I'm a misery pit! I'm a burden on all of my friends and harmful to the entire community!! I'm a worthless parody of a human being who should immediately cut emself off from everyone and probably throw emself under the nearest bus!!!"

And this is a bad thing because? I think this is a case where the Litany of Tarski applies.

comment by query · 2018-03-11T20:07:18.226Z · score: 15 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Some reasons this is bad:

  1. It's false or not-even-wrong ("worthless parody of a human" is not something that I imagine epistemically applies to any human ever.)
  2. It's mixing epistemics and shoulds -- even if you categorized yourself as a misery pit, this does not come close to meaning you should throw yourself under a bus.
  3. Misery pits are a false framework, that may be useful for modeling phenomena, but may not be a useful model for people who would tend to identity themselves a misery pits. For instance, if they were likely to think the quoted thought, they'd be committing a lot of bucket errors.

I also dislike this comment because I think it's too glib.

comment by alkjash · 2018-03-11T01:05:21.197Z · score: 21 (10 votes) · LW · GW

This is a very important consideration. I would phrase the actionable portion as: for any relationship between a pair of people A worse off than B, A is as likely to drag B down as the other way around. Do not go around assuming you have what it takes to help people just because you're better off than them (even in situations where it's obvious from both sides who is better off).

in general it's not paradigmatically manipulative

My priors disagree with this, having been somewhat needy and pathetic in the past. In such a state I have been, for example, gripped by destructive rage when my friends succeed more than I imagine they deserve. Zizek likes to say poverty is a moral crisis as well as a humanitarian one - suffering brings the worst out of people, and the worst part of a human being is plenty bad.

I think it's right to treat people as if they have good intentions, because people generally have both good and bad intentions and play tit-for-tat in life. But we shouldn't confuse this with actually believing that most people only have good intentions.

comment by Alicorn · 2018-03-11T01:33:39.764Z · score: 21 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Being gripped by destructive rage when your friends succeed sounds like not a central case of the thing I was trying to describe.

comment by Dagon · 2018-03-11T14:52:30.429Z · score: 29 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect alkjash's description is the same phenomenon, just somewhat less visible to your social group (because your group rewards/tolerates misery and sympathy demands, but rejects overt anger). There're a lot of variants of "uncontroll[ed|able] bad feelings"; Anger and sadness are fairly common to find together in the pathologies you're talking about.

It's not obvious to me that this topic is much different than any other human suffering - the vast majority of cases are emotionally distant enough that I'm not able/willing to make the sacrifices that would significantly help. I haven't found many charities that seem likely to be effective for this kind of suffering, but I'm open to suggestions.

comment by norswap · 2018-03-11T01:50:27.009Z · score: 12 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Feels real and definitely reminds of me of some dynamics in which I've participated or that I have observed.

This is what causes people like Robert Greene (The 48 Laws of Power) to have a law that says "Infection: Avoid The Unhappy & Unlucky". Of course this is very cynical and I do not endorse it. Nevertheless, it seems like avoiding misery pits is a good idea, and I think one can tell after observing a person for a little while.

Tells: (1) Does the person make efforts? Are these efforts designed to make a change, or just for show? -- It can sometimes be hard to tell, but when you break it down into simpler and simpler directives, it may become very clear. I once had a person who would not follow simple instructions that a 5 years old could follow, that would have helped her to solve a class problem.

(2) Attitude. Does the person always make excuses for her failings? Or worse, non-excuses: self-flagellation, "I'm like this". Does she always have a reason why it won't work? Again, hard to tell. Sometimes, very much, if the person simply has a very different worldview. I do not recommend using this heuristic in general, but for potential misery pits it can be quite telling if the person has tons of problems and if for all of them there is learned helplessness.

That being said... take everything with a grain of salt (as you should always). For contrast, I was (and I guess still am) deeply in love with a misery pit who ended up leaving me after two years spent together. There is something there I don't quite understand, but I like to think that her redeeming qualities make up for the misery pit quality. But when all is said and done, I'm happy I didn't take Robert Greene's advice. But this was also not "another stranger on the internet".

comment by Dagon · 2018-03-12T17:24:20.839Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thinking on some defensive (perhaps appropriately) reactions to this, I worry that it makes an attribution error in describing how some people are, as opposed to what some people do or some behaviors that have unintended impacts.

I don't honestly know if it's a helpful model, even purely descriptively, to say "some people are needy." In my experience, some people have more propensity than others to attention- and validation-seeking behaviors, but it varies a lot both contextually and over time for most cases I've seen.

Framing it instead as "some people seek more emotional validation than you're willing/able to give" may or may not be more correct, but it does have the advantage of highlighting similarities with other types of suffering and poverty (including the similarity that it's very hard to distinguish environment vs agency in the victims).

comment by ozymandias · 2018-03-21T03:30:01.009Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Cognitive biases exist. Depressed people often feel like they have no value even though they obviously do. This and similar distortions are the premise of CBT.

comment by tempus · 2018-03-11T19:58:42.273Z · score: -37 (10 votes) · LW · GW
More in the "stay up until 3am reassuring me that I have value... four times a week" way.

Frankly, if you need someone to stay up until 3am four times a week to reassure you that you have value, you probably don't have value.