Unraveling the Failure's Try

post by LeoHolman · 2018-06-09T14:34:55.543Z · score: 12 (5 votes) · LW · GW · 11 comments

I'm sure this idea exists somewhere else, but I haven't found it yet. (Probably my fault, I've only been on here for a few weeks and I'm still working through the core sequences.)

The failure's try is a seemingly earnest attempt to overcome a challenge, but the challenger lacks the fundamental belief that they can surmount the challenge, and accept the challenge inevitably as evidence to their failure. That is to say, you put in an honest effort without believing you can do it so you can turn around and say it was impossible all along.

I think this is a readily identifiable symptom of cognitive bias, of unevenness of evidence because one starts with the conclusion and works backwards. The belief "I'm a failure" or at least "this task is impossible (for me)" exists somewhere in System 1, and subtly gravitates behavior toward manifesting itself.

I am well aware that I do this, and I'm not sure how to correct it. Somewhere in my belief network rests this idea that I am insufficient, a node of impostor syndrome, and biased evaluation. I got a 96 on my Chinese final, something I certainly would not have been able to do when I first arrived in China, but my reaction is not "I've progressed so much, I've learned all this material and tested well." It's... Well. Empty. Like I hadn't done anything at all. Like I didn't believe it happened. I've been working hard at learning this language for years, it's very important to me, and yet when faced with seemingly undeniable evidence that I've made substantial progress, I don't interpret success.

I think this node manifests in another area as well. I feel like I /must/ become useful in as many aspects as possible. After reflecting for a long while on this, I think it's because I believe otherwise people won't want anything to do with me. I fundamentally doubt the idea that my presence alone is something that can be enjoyed, I feel that I must constantly be raising my ability to help others before they could accept me.

So my question is, now that I am aware of the node, how do I unravel it? My understanding of counter-conditioning relies on specific, actionable behaviors. "Every time I want to eat ice cream I will think about my fitness goal, and instead work out, with enough time and careful planning, my desire for ice cream will be overpowered by my working out habit and I will (virtually) no longer struggle with my desire to eat ice cream." I've had success updating and adjusting other habits with this form, but I'm struggling to apply it to this problem. I fear it's the nature of the problem itself. "Even my strongest counter-conditioning strategy is too weak to deal with how pathetic I am."

I'm hoping for some insight. Thank you!

11 comments

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comment by jimmy · 2018-06-09T22:00:29.504Z · score: 21 (4 votes) · LW · GW
So my question is, now that I am aware of the node, how do I unravel it? My understanding of counter-conditioning relies on specific, actionable behaviors. "Every time I want to eat ice cream I will think about my fitness goal, and instead work out, with enough time and careful planning, my desire for ice cream will be overpowered by my working out habit and I will (virtually) no longer struggle with my desire to eat ice cream." I've had success updating and adjusting other habits with this form, but I'm struggling to apply it to this problem. I fear it's the nature of the problem itself. "Even my strongest counter-conditioning strategy is too weak to deal with how pathetic I am."

It looks like the issue is that you want to use your "apply the solution" techniques before you know what the solution is.

If you could know that the fear is silly, then you simply apply the ice cream fix. "Every time I feel myself fearing this, I will remember all the reasons it's not true and I will feel better". The reason you haven't been able to apply that technique seems to be that you're not actually convinced that the fear is wrong. You say "I fear this" and you state the fear in quotes rather than outright saying it, but you also haven't said "and I know this is wrong because X". It sounds like that fear is still just sitting there unaddressed either way.

Generally, the first thing I ask myself in situations like these is "is it true?". Are my strongest counter-conditioning strategies too weak to deal with how pathetic I am? Must I become useful in as many aspects as possible? Will people really not want anything to do with me if I don't? Can my presence alone actually be enjoyed, or do I have to constantly raise your ability to help others before they can accept me?

These questions can be kinda hard to answer sometimes, because -- especially when phrased this way -- it can seem like things are "not allowed" to be one way, and when you're not allowed to think "no", then it's really hard to verify when it's "yes". For example, maybe I really don't want to accept (as more than just "a fear") that I'm fundamentally not good enough for others acceptance unless I keep leveling up. In that case I'm likely to flinch away from looking at the answer to that question, and that makes it hard to really see and accept when others do accept me.

Rather than trying to force yourself to look at the answers anyway or force yourself to believe what you think is right, I'd focus on leaving yourself a line of retreat to help make it more okay if not everyone wants to spend time with you unless you get better at whatever it is. "Okay, so I don't know whether it's true or not, but if it were true that I need to level up before people could accept me, then what would I want to do". "Get better" probably. Okay, so get better. What else?

Maybe it get's a bit more complicated. "But I don't know how to get better if even my strongest counter-conditioning strategies aren't good enough for my situation?". Okay, so what's the line of retreat there? If they aren't, then what do you do? I dunno, maybe post on LW to see if anyone has any useful input.

Nate Soares has a really good post related to this kind of thing, and is well worth reading. As he says, at some point you do have to bottom out and say "yeah, if I'm that far gone, then I fail and die". Until that point though, there are a hell of a lot of things you can do to prepare for the various possibilities, and once you map them out the mapping can take the place of the anxieties.

And once the anxieties are gone, you'll be back to knowing what you want to do, and just having to remember to do it.

comment by LeoHolman · 2018-06-11T19:18:47.176Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The question "is it true" is exactly what informs me when I say "I know this fear to be irrational". I've seen situations in which one person is little more than a burden on another, and is still accepted and even taken care of much like one would do with any given loved one regardless of their practical worth. The failure I'm pointing to is that I can completely understand that line of reason, but my intuitive belief seems to be unaffected by it. The update in information created by this test didn't cascade down into my intuition, which I think is because my intuition is holding a piece (or set) of stronger beliefs that conflict with this anticipation. There is something arguing a "Yes, but..." where the 'but' is still more convincing than the 'yes'.

I'm not sure I follow you on the idea of lines of retreat. It seems like it a 'line of retreat' is moving around an obstacle deemed to difficult rather than through it. It would be useful to accept the obstacle as insurmountable without rigorous testing if you need to move forward before you can complete the testing. But my issue is that if this obstacle is too long, then I'm constantly skirting a more optimal path. It's like walking around a forest instead of through it because you don't trust yourself how to survive in the forest. What I'm after right now is how to survive in the forest because I think it will be faster and better in the long term to learn this skill than to become really good at skirting the forest.

I hadn't heard Confidence All The Way Up as a name but I'm familiar with the concept, in some places I have this, and more often than not other people had called it a weakness. That I would too readily dismiss other people's ideas as "not aligned with the evidence" because I was spending more time developing my own theory than I was about thinking about the implications of the statements of others. Part of me would think "So now I'm selfish because I don't care about things that are easily disproven?" and part of me would think "Maybe I didn't understand what they actually meant." The second part recently started winning (probably due to a deterioration of a key relationship and not necessarily based on evidence in the strictest sense) and so I've been purposefully suppressing Confidence All The Way Up and trying to be a better listener. But I think he has a point that this is a useful way to function, and I would do well to apply it here. I don't think I've sunk into hopelessness, so much as I've gotten stuck.

comment by jimmy · 2018-07-20T21:22:04.233Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I missed this response because I hadn't found the "someone has replied to your comment" indicator

The question "is it true" is exactly what informs me when I say "I know this fear to be irrational". I've seen situations in which one person is little more than a burden on another, and is still accepted and even taken care of much like one would do with any given loved one regardless of their practical worth. The failure I'm pointing to is that I can completely understand that line of reason, but my intuitive belief seems to be unaffected by it. The update in information created by this test didn't cascade down into my intuition, which I think is because my intuition is holding a piece (or set) of stronger beliefs that conflict with this anticipation. There is something arguing a "Yes, but..." where the 'but' is still more convincing than the 'yes'.

Is it that the information "didn't cascade down" to your intuition, or is it just that your intuition doesn't find that piece of information as convincing as you think it ought to be?

In general, when you get a "yes, but" (and *especially* when the "but" is explicitly more convincing than the "yes"), focus on the "but". But what? Yes, you understand that you've seen situations where one person sure seems to be little more than a burden and is still accepted, but that part of you still isn't convinced. Why not? What's in the "but"?

If I had to take a guess, you probably don't *want* to be little more than a burden on someone else, even if they still accept you (maybe they *shouldn't*, even). I know that's the case with other people, and if you feel the same way it would make sense that "but they'll accept me anyway" doesn't feel like it changes anything, no?

I'm not sure I follow you on the idea of lines of retreat. It seems like it a 'line of retreat' is moving around an obstacle deemed to difficult rather than through it. It would be useful to accept the obstacle as insurmountable without rigorous testing if you need to move forward before you can complete the testing. But my issue is that if this obstacle is too long, then I'm constantly skirting a more optimal path. It's like walking around a forest instead of through it because you don't trust yourself how to survive in the forest. What I'm after right now is how to survive in the forest because I think it will be faster and better in the long term to learn this skill than to become really good at skirting the forest.

I'm not sure I follow you either. Are you saying that you'd rather go forward with convincing yourself of something that you think is true rather than "going around" by making a line of retreat? If so, that's not really what I'm getting at. I'm not saying "go around instead", I'm saying "*even if* you want to go forward, the best way to do that when stuck is to open up the option of going around".

I'll give you an example. I recently had a client that wanted me to hypnotize him to forget something. I pointed out to him that what he wants is to *believe differently* he actually doesn't know for sure that the thing he's asking to forget actually happened -- after all it's possible that I hypnotized him to think it was real to prove a point. He was "yeah, but"ing me by saying stuff like "yeah, I mean, I guess that's possible, but I don't think it's very likely" -- and then not taking the idea seriously at all. I picked apart his reasoning and let him know that doing that kind of thing to prove a point is *exactly* the kind of thing I'd do, and that I have indeed done it in the past. Eventually it got down to "yeah, I mean, everything you're saying makes sense, but I just don't believe it".

Seems irrational, no? Like, if you aren't going to open your mind to evidence, then how do you expect to learn when you're wrong. If I had doubled down on the wrongness of this decision, it would have pushed him to agreeing with what I'm saying, yet being unable to actually experience the uncertainty that I was pointing him towards. Instead, what I said was "while that may *seem* silly, that's actually a really good strategy to keep yourself from being manipulated by tricky hypnotists". I was giving him a line of retreat by saying "we don't have to do this", and putting to words his reluctance to let me inspire doubt on such seemingly fundamental things. I didn't do it because I thought he should *take* it, but because I knew giving him the option would keep him from getting hung up and stuck on it *regardless* of which he felt was the better option. Reminding him that don't *have to* keep going forward turned out to be a *really quick* way of getting him to accept his passage through the forest. It reminded him that he *wanted* to get his perspective manipulated by me, that his is why he was there, and so he admitted that it really was a serious possibility and took it appropriately seriously and we were back on track.

I hadn't heard Confidence All The Way Up as a name but I'm familiar with the concept, in some places I have this, and more often than not other people had called it a weakness. That I would too readily dismiss other people's ideas as "not aligned with the evidence" because I was spending more time developing my own theory than I was about thinking about the implications of the statements of others. >Part of me would think "So now I'm selfish because I don't care about things that are easily disproven?" and part of me would think "Maybe I didn't understand what they actually meant." The second part recently started winning (probably due to a deterioration of a key relationship and not necessarily based on evidence in the strictest sense) and so I've been purposefully suppressing Confidence All The Way Up and trying to be a better listener. But I think he has a point that this is a useful way to function, and I would do well to apply it here. I don't think I've sunk into hopelessness, so much as I've gotten stuck.

The weakness isn't "being confident", it's in "dismissing the ideas of people who he wants to continue relating to before they agree that he would be right to".

The question is "does the fact that their ideas are not aligned with the evidence as I see it mean that I should dismiss their views?", and I think the answer is a pretty strong "no", in general. You don't have to object that people's views aren't aligned with the evidence just because (in your view) they are not. You don't have to squash your feeling of confidence to listen once you realize that you can listen for reasons other than "I'm likely wrong". You can still listen out of a desire to understand where they're coming from *regardless* of whether they turn out to be righter than you had known. You can refrain from objecting simply be realizing that they don't (yet) want to hear what you think.

Maybe you *didn't* understand what they actually meant. Maybe you did, and they just didn't recognize how much freaking thought you put into making sure you're right, and taking into account what other people think. I've had both happen. Listen because they don't see eye to eye with you, and you want to figure out how to get there.

comment by jimrandomh · 2018-06-10T00:16:20.591Z · score: 14 (4 votes) · LW · GW
"Every time I want to eat ice cream I will think about my fitness goal, and instead work out, with enough time and careful planning, my desire for ice cream will be overpowered by my working out habit and I will (virtually) no longer struggle with my desire to eat ice cream."

A common pattern with "willpower failure" is that part of you thinks the thing you're trying to make yourself do is actually bad, and the solution is to listen to it. I think this is particularly common with food and exercise. Most people who have "willpower failure" that causes them to eat are actually just hungry, and successfully using willpower to prevent themselves from eating would hurt them.

comment by LeoHolman · 2018-06-11T19:21:17.787Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So in my context, the belief that is the limiting belief may be a line of reasoning in which believing that I am successful and others will accept me even if I'm not is actually a bad thing?

I think there's something to that. I think I'm afraid of complacency, but if I have success and acceptance, then am I really being complacent?

This was helpful, thank you.

comment by TurnTrout · 2018-06-09T15:03:13.540Z · score: 10 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Good observations, and welcome! This is indeed somewhat covered later in the Sequences: Challenging the Difficult [LW · GW].

There's also a MtG author who famously wrote about self-sabotage, but I can't quite remember the name.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-06-09T17:55:17.597Z · score: 12 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Stuck In The Middle With Bruce

Edit: Damn, Aiyen beat me to it [LW · GW].

Edit 2: But here’s a Less Wrong post/discussion about it [LW · GW].

comment by norswap · 2018-06-10T13:12:53.145Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It did indeed exist (more or less) before: http://mindingourway.com/stop-trying-to-try-and-try/

In fact this whole series (Replacing Guilt) might very well be exactly what you are looking for: http://mindingourway.com/guilt/

Very recommended.

comment by Raemon · 2018-06-11T19:42:03.050Z · score: 9 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Seconding the recommendation here.

comment by Aiyen · 2018-06-09T15:33:01.852Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The MtG article is called Stuck in the Middle With Bruce by John Rizzo. Not sure how to link, but it's

http://www.starcitygames.com/magic/misc/2005_Stuck_In_The_Middle_With_Bruce.html

The article is worth your time, but if you want a summary-there appears to be a part of many people's minds that wants to lose. And often winning is as much a matter of overcoming this part of you (which the article terms Bruce) as it is overcoming the challenges in front of you.

comment by LeoHolman · 2018-06-11T20:22:33.984Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is an interesting article. I wrote out some thoughts on it [LW · GW].

I think Bruce is not the part of you that needs to lose, but rather the part of you that cares more about your place in society than your own goals.

This is helpful to me, because if I take Bruce to be an agent keeping me in line with my beliefs about society, then if Bruce is keeping me down it's because I believe I'm part of the losing class. I'm doing a good citizen's duty of being walked on so that others may stand taller.