On insecurity as a friend

post by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-10-09T18:30:03.782Z · score: 36 (18 votes) · LW · GW · 17 comments

There’s a common narrative about confidence that says that confidence is good, insecurity is bad. It’s better to develop your confidence than to be insecure. There’s an obvious truth to this.

But what that narrative does not acknowledge, and what both a person struggling with insecurity and their well-meaning friends might miss, is that that insecurity may be in place for a reason.

You might not notice it online, but I’ve usually been pretty timid and insecure in real life. But this wasn’t always the case. There were occasions earlier in my life when I was less insecure, more confident in myself.

I was also pretty horrible at things like reading social nuance and figuring out when and why someone might be offended. So I was given, repeatedly, the feedback that my behavior was bad and inappropriate.

Eventually a part of me internalized that as “I’m very likely to accidentally offend the people around me, so I should be very cautious about what I say, ideally saying nothing at all”.

This was, I think, the correct lesson to internalize at that point! It shifted me more into an observer mode, allowing me to just watch social situations and learn more about their dynamics that way. I still don’t think that I’m great at reading social nuance, but I’m at least better at it than I used to be.

And there have been times since then when I’ve decided that I should act with more confidence, and just get rid of the part that generates the insecurity. I’ve been about to do something, felt a sense of insecurity, and walked over the feeling and done the thing anyway.

Sometimes this has had good results. But often it has also led to things blowing up in my face, with me inadvertently hurting someone and leaving me feeling guilty for months afterwards.

Turns out, that feeling of insecurity wasn’t a purely bad thing. It was throwing up important alarms which I chose to ignore, alarms which were sounding because it recognized my behavior as matching previous behavior which had had poor consequences.

Yes, on many occasions that part of me makes me way too cautious. And it would be good to moderate that caution a little. But the same part which generates the feelings of insecurity is the same part which is constantly working to model other people and their experience, their reactions to me. The part that is doing its hardest to make other people feel safe and comfortable around me, to avoid doing things that would make them feel needlessly hurt or upset or unsafe, and to actively let them know that I’m doing this.

Just carving out that part would be a mistake. A moral wrong, even.

The answer is not to get rid of it. The answer is to integrate its cautions better, to keep it with me as a trusted friend and ally – one which feels safe enough about getting its warnings listened to, that it will not scream all the time just to be heard.

17 comments

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comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-10-09T19:07:14.654Z · score: 32 (21 votes) · LW · GW

I cannot express too strongly my utter opposition to the thesis of this post.

Your story, Kaj, is very familiar to me. Parts of it read like descriptions of parts of my life. I will not presume to dispute your experiences or your interpretations of them; so, though I will quote parts of your post for reference, take my comments to refer to my own experiences, and my interpretations.

I was also pretty horrible at things like reading social nuance and figuring out when and why someone might be offended. So I was given, repeatedly, the feedback that my behavior was bad and inappropriate.

Likewise…

Eventually a part of me internalized that as “I’m very likely to accidentally offend the people around me, so I should be very cautious about what I say, ideally saying nothing at all”.

I, too, came to believe something similar to this…

This was, I think, the correct lesson to internalize at that point! It shifted me more into an observer mode, allowing me to just watch social situations and learn more about their dynamics that way.

And this is where we diverge entirely.

Because while I did indeed “realize” that I am likely to accidentally offend people, or to mis-perceive social nuance, etc. (scare quotes because it isn’t much of a realization when one’s whole life has been like that), what I—thankfully, blessedly, fortunately—also eventually realized, is that, almost without fail, the people giving the aforesaid “feedback” were manipulative sociopaths (or close to it), whose purpose was to use my social naïeveté, and my natural desire to get along with people, and unwillingness to hurt anyone, to position themselves as “helpful” “advisors” who would “honestly” point out my failings. In fact, this sort of thing is nothing more than cynical manipulation of the weak and vulnerable, and the people who do it do not have your best interests at heart—to put it mildly.

What, then, is the solution?

It’s simple, really (in an “easy to say, hard to do” sort of way). Indeed, it is good—personally prudent, and socially beneficial—to try to understand, as much as possible, the “social facts” of reality. Certainly, it is sensible, and often vital, to be as keen an observer of that social reality as you can be. These things are true, and I would not dispute them. (And I must say that the journey from ignorance of how social reality works, to some small, though always growing, measure of understanding, has been as fascinating and rewarding as any other intellectual journey I have taken.)

At the same time, that is no reason at all to be, or to act, insecure. It is no reason to curb your confidence.

Yes, on many occasions that part of me makes me way too cautious. And it would be good to moderate that caution a little. But the same part which generates the feelings of insecurity is the same part which is constantly working to model other people and their experience, their reactions to me. The part that is doing its hardest to make other people feel safe and comfortable around me, to avoid doing things that would make them feel needlessly hurt or upset or unsafe, and to actively let them know that I’m doing this.

Just carving out that part would be a mistake. A moral wrong, even.

“[M]ake other people feel safe and comfortable around me, to avoid doing things that would make them feel needlessly hurt or upset or unsafe, and to actively let them know that I’m doing this” is weakness and self-sabotage. It is willing self-sacrifice of your potential to cynical manipulators and sociopaths. Not only to engage in such behavior oneself, but to promote it to othersthat is the moral wrong.

It is wrong to deliberately hurt innocent others, for one’s own benefit.

It is wrong to accidentally hurt innocent others, due to negligence where one has an obligation of knowledge.

It is wrong to knowingly avoid knowledge which would reveal one’s obligation or one’s culpability.

It is wrong to cultivate ignorance, where understanding is possible.

It is good to gain understanding—of social reality as of everything else. It is good to be cooperative, where doing so is in accord with one’s principles; and greater understanding helps achieve this.

But when some oh-so-helpful other comes to you and says (their voice concerned, though stern) that you have, through your bumbling and blundering, been harming people, with your words, and your confidence, and really, you should not do things like that, or… well, really, you just shouldn’t do things—you get things wrong so often… better just to watch, and be quiet, and be more pliable, and pay more attention to us when we tell you to do this, or not do that… you don’t want to hurt people, do you…?

Tell them to go to hell.

comment by Viliam · 2018-10-10T23:29:12.843Z · score: 26 (8 votes) · LW · GW
I cannot express too strongly my utter opposition to the thesis of this post.

And I enjoyed reading both the article and this reply.

Perhaps the Law of Equal and Opposite Advice applies here; depending on how much of your actual feelings of insecurity is just an awareness of your actual lack of skills, and how much is a result of manipulation by others. Manipulators exist, but lack of skills exists, too.

(In my opinion, going ahead and trying stuff is better than listening to your insecurity: maybe you are right, maybe you are wrong, once in a while you break something, but you will learn something in either case. But I can imagine a person/situation for whom the balance could be the other way round.)

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-10-14T09:46:32.490Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW · GW
In my opinion, going ahead and trying stuff is better than listening to your insecurity

Part of what I was trying to say was that these are not mutually exclusive. You can listen to your insecurity, note that it's giving you a warning signal, and then act and see whether the signal was in fact correct or whether it was just oversensitive.

"Listening to your insecurity" means "don't throw away data that your system 1 is giving you; take seriously the possibility that it's picking up on something real". But you can acknowledge the data while also integrating other data sources to your final decision, or test the data to see when it seems to be reliable. If you do that, then you will become better calibrated over time, your insecurity warning you in precisely those situations where you would in fact be making a mistake.

But if you try to just ignore the warning signal and disregard it completely, then there's a good chance that this will be actively harmful for the goal of going ahead and trying stuff. Worst case, as social failures accumulate, your system 1 will ramp up the intensity of the warning signal to ensure that it must be heard - even if that means making it so overwhelmingly loud that acknowledging it and trying stuff anyway ceases to be an option.

comment by Jacobian · 2018-10-09T20:22:04.408Z · score: 22 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Said, I hope take comment below as positive, because that is how I mean it. I am trying to honestly communicate my own experience, not pass judgment. This is 100% sincere and unironic.

Said, I have seen a lot of your comments on LW, on my posts and the posts of others. They are, by my standards, high on criticism and low on niceness. I personally formed an impression of you as disagreeable. Even though I have argued myself that LW should optimize for honesty over niceness, still the impression of you disagreeableness was colored negatively in my mind.

But now that you've stated that you're disagreeable on purpose, the negative effect flipped entirely to become positive. Instead of you being disagreeable by accident, it's intentional. I like diversity, and I support people who are on a mission to bring a new flavor to the community. Knowing this also makes it easier to take criticism from you - it's not that you hate me or what I write, it's just that you don't care if someone thinks you hate them and their writing. The Bayesian update in the two cases is very different!

This isn't to say that Kaj is wrong in being more cautious, or that you are wrong in not being cautious. Do your own thing, and own it.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-10-09T20:38:09.224Z · score: 21 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you for the kind words. Your characterization of my attitude is also accurate, which I appreciate.

The one quibble I would make—and it really is a quibble—is with this bit:

it’s not that you hate me or what I write, it’s just that you don’t care if someone thinks you hate them and their writing

Well, I don’t want anyone[1] to think that I hate them. Certainly, if someone comes away from my comments with the impression that I have a personal dislike of them, that is regrettable. Where possible, I try to correct any such mistaken impression. I certainly don’t deliberately try to make anyone think I hate them; that would be silly and without purpose.

It’s just that this is not regrettable enough to take any costly[2] pre-emptive steps to avoid (a necessity for such steps being a practical disincentive to contribution), or—critically—to sacrifice honesty, clarity, etc., to the goal of avoiding such an impression.

That aside, I find little to disagree in what you say.

[1] With some exceptions, I suppose? At least, in principle. In any case, I don’t, to my knowledge, hate anyone who posts on Less Wrong.

[2] Non-costly steps being such things as “avoid gratuitous insults”, “don’t use ad personam arguments”, “avoid foul language”, etc.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-10-10T07:37:17.479Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW
“[M]ake other people feel safe and comfortable around me, to avoid doing things that would make them feel needlessly hurt or upset or unsafe, and to actively let them know that I’m doing this” is weakness and self-sabotage. It is willing self-sacrifice of your potential to cynical manipulators and sociopaths. Not only to engage in such behavior oneself, but to promote it to othersthat is the moral wrong.

Hmm. I'm not sure why you feel that trying to model others and making an effort to ensure that they're not needlessly upset, necessarily sacrifices one's potential? (Note the word needlessly in that sentence; I'm definitely not saying that it would be a good goal to never upset others. Certainly upsetting people is sometimes the right thing to do. I just don't want to do it accidentally and without any good reason, just because I failed to anticipate what the consequences of my actions might be.)

I have pretty strong evidence that rather than being a sacrifice of my potential, it's actually using my potential: people feeling safe around me means that they like me more and are more inclined to consider me an ally. I don't think I'd have nearly as many fulfilling friendships if I didn't have the ability to make others feel comfortable around me to the extent that I do.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-10-10T08:41:53.037Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · LW · GW

trying to model others and making an effort to ensure that they’re not needlessly upset

It so happens that this topic has been discussed before [LW · GW], on Less Wrong. Vladimir_M’s comment [LW · GW] (and follow-up [LW · GW]) is, in my view, the definitive response. (See also Scott’s response [LW · GW], in which he explicitly concedes the point.)

people feeling safe around me means that they like me more and are more inclined to consider me an ally

There are many things I could say to this.

I could say that “liking” and “respecting” are not the same thing (nor are either of them the same as “trusting”—which itself is not monolithic).

I could say that once we have begun to speak of being an “ally”, we have left behind the domain of human relationships which I am interested in having. One needs allies in war, after all. Am I at war? Should I be? With whom? (It need hardly be said that attempts to convince us that we are at war, that we’re in a struggle for survival, that we battle against an implacable enemy, and you’re either with us—an ally—or you’re against us… are an age-old, and painfully common, method of cynical manipulation and exploitation.) In peacetime, it is not allies which are called for, but partners, collaborators, or simply fellow citizens. And—always, whether in peace or in war—what one needs, above all else, is friends. Friendship is very, very different from alliance.

I could say that people who conflate disagreement with hostility, and who tell you that your criticism, your opposition, your speaking up, makes them feel unsafe, are toxic; and that making it impossible to disagree, without thereby causing offense—making a difference of opinion into a transgression—is another all-too-common pattern of manipulation and abuse.

All these things, you may, perhaps, dispute. Take my word, then, for this: my friendships, and my experience with people in general, became tremendously more fulfilling once I stopped worrying so much about making other people feel comfortable and un-offended.

comment by Bucky · 2018-10-10T11:35:26.251Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for linking those comments, I think I understand your thinking better now.

My understanding of Vladimir_M's comments is that Scott's proposed approach falls down if used indiscriminately rather than saying that it should never be used.

Here are 4 scenarios where I might modify my behaviour based on claims of harm (in descending order of likelihood of me modifying):

1= Someone I trust tells me that I have offended a 3rd party (without the 3rd party complaining about offence)

1= At least 2 people from different friendship groups (no cross-contamination) tell me I've offended them in a similar way

3. Multiple people from a single friendship group tell me I've offended them

4. Someone I trust tells me that I have offended them

Would you suggest that some/all of these should definitely not result in modification? Or is it that you think that generally people modify too easily and you want to encourage people to modify significantly less often?

I'm genuinely curious because if anything I suspect I do err on the side of being too accommodating.

P.S. I think the link to Scott's concession goes to the wrong comment, it's here [LW · GW] if anyone is looking for it.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-10-10T12:46:59.943Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · LW · GW
Vladimir_M’s comment [LW · GW] (and follow-up [LW · GW]) is, in my view, the definitive response.

Vladimir says that if you only use "the discomfort to me versus the discomfort to the other person" as your only decision criteria, then you are incentivizing others to experience discomfort in order to manipulate you.

I agree with this point; and I also acknowledge that I have, in fact, fallen victim to such manipulation in the past. Just a naive comparison of discomforts should definitely not be your only decision criteria.

But I don't think that falling victim to this behavior is an inevitable consequence of trying to make others feel comfortable. You can still set your own boundaries, and say: this is the length to which I'm prepared to go to make others feel comfortable, but I'm not willing to go beyond that. And you can say: these are the kinds of reactions which I consider reasonable and which I'm willing to accommodate, and these others I refuse to consider.

I think that there's a thing here that's kind of similar to type I and type II errors, in that it's easy to reduce one type of mistake by drastically increasing the probability for another type of mistake, and vice versa. In this case it's about two different kinds of discomfort:

  • The kind of discomfort which results from (conscious or subconscious) motives to have more influence. Caring about the discomfort of others may cause more of this to come into being, as it incentivizes people to experience more of this.
  • The kind of discomfort which results from something else and would exist even in the absence of any external incentive for it. Caring about the discomfort of others may actively help reduce it, either because this directly makes people feel less of it, or indirectly as people who feel safe have an easier time working through whatever issues that cause it.

One may show too much caring about others and spend all of their time trying to manage other people's feelings, and in so doing just end up totally useless. But like Bucky suggests in the other comment, I don't think that Vladimir_M's comment establishes that one shouldn't care about the feelings of others at all. Rather, it would be better to care about those feelings which are made better by having others care about them, and disregard the feelings which are made worse by having others care about them.

I could say that once we have begun to speak of being an “ally”, we have left behind the domain of human relationships which I am interested in having.

I think we mean very different things by "ally", so let's taboo [LW · GW] that word. I meant "someone who (to at least some extent) values my well-being and the satisfaction of my desires for their own sake". This definitely includes friendship: I wouldn't call a relationship a friendship if both people involved didn't care for their friend's well-being at all.

I could say that people who conflate disagreement with hostility, and who tell you that your criticism, your opposition, your speaking up, makes them feel unsafe, are toxic; and that making it impossible to disagree, without thereby causing offense—making a difference of opinion into a transgression—is another all-too-common pattern of manipulation and abuse.

I mostly agree with this, with the caveat that feeling unsafe due to disagreement doesn't necessarily make a person toxic: some people will say that but also acknowledge it as an emotional reaction which isn't necessarily justified. But if it was impossible to disagree with some person without causing offense, then I would generally put that in the previously-mentioned category of behaviors which I refuse to accommodate.

Edited to add:

Take my word, then, for this: my friendships, and my experience with people in general, became tremendously more fulfilling once I stopped worrying so much about making other people feel comfortable and un-offended.

I have, historically, definitely been putting too much weight on making other people feel comfortable and un-offended. And I do think that I should correct in the other direction. But that's a different thing from stopping to care about it at all; if I did, I would end up doing the things which you yourself said are wrong:

It is wrong to deliberately hurt innocent others, for one’s own benefit.
It is wrong to accidentally hurt innocent others, due to negligence where one has an obligation of knowledge.
comment by cousin_it · 2018-10-14T10:19:23.373Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Tell them to go to hell.

Or solemnly promise that you won't do it again, and then...

comment by Pattern · 2018-10-14T00:15:16.340Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

EDIT: On second thought, the last version of this didn't say anything new.

Being quieter is easier, you make less mistakes. But you might not learn as much, nearly as fast. The difference between the things I'm good at, and the things I'm not, is probably practice. I feel like I'm good at math, because I was never self-conscious about it. It was easy to get discouraged about writing, and art, because it's too easy to compare your work, with masterpieces.

comment by Elo · 2018-10-09T19:52:55.809Z · score: -6 (5 votes) · LW · GW

All the feelings are part of you like guests in the house. Welcome them all.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-10-09T20:41:11.537Z · score: 8 (7 votes) · LW · GW

This is an odd analogy. Not all houseguests are welcome, nor should be!

comment by Elo · 2018-10-10T01:48:13.052Z · score: -7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I have good news for you.

You get to live and feel and experience being the unwanted guest because you are the one having the insecurity, the one being insecure. If you were the unwanted guest, would you leave faster when validated or when invalidated?

Keeping on invalidating feelings are going to lead to a bad time. Just the same as if I ignored and invalidated you as a person too.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-10-10T04:15:19.783Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you were the unwanted guest, would you leave faster when validated or when invalidated?

Uh, second one, definitely. Obviously. (Haven’t you ever been an unwanted guest? Like, in real life?)

You get to live and feel and experience being the unwanted guest because you are the one having the insecurity, the one being insecure.

This isn’t really how feelings work.

comment by Elo · 2018-10-10T04:31:40.906Z · score: -11 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You say that but people do keep mentioning they don't like your commenting on lw. It doesn't seem to make you leave.

Yes this is how feelings work. But don't take my word for it. Check for yourself?

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-10-10T07:43:43.848Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes this is how feelings work. But don’t take my word for it. Check for yourself?

I don’t really know what this means. Could you elaborate? What does it mean to “check for myself”?