On blogging and obligation

I’m a bit confused about how I feel about blogging.

I started this blog because I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like to, and I think this is largely perfectionism: I have lots of ideas I want to write about, but high standards for what I post online publicly, and I rarely have the time to write up these ideas to that standard. So I end up not writing at all. I think I’d be better off posting more regularly and posting less well-polished things, but I’m scared: scared that will mean the quality of my ideas and writing will start to deteriorate, and people will think worse of me for it, or something. This is probably an irrational – or at least over the top – fear, but there it is.

I started this blog because I wanted to get in the habit of posting less-than-perfect things, and writing more regularly, in an online venue where anyone could technically read it, but where I was expecting very few people to actually do so (at the time I’m writing, I have shared the link to this page with exactly one person. That may change, but I’m going to be very cautious about it.) I figured that a large part of the benefit of blogging to me is simply that it forces me to articulate thoughts clearly, and think more and in different ways. I do like feedback and recognition from others, and I hope some of the things I write are useful to others, but a lot of that feels more like vanity than anything else. So while the part of me that cares a lot about her self-image keeps feeling an urge to share this with people, I’m trying to restrain that for now (because it’s that same part of me that will stop blogging once she realises people might actually judge her negatively.)

This worked really well at first. But then, towards the end of last week, I realised that blogging had started to feel more like something I should do than something I wanted to do. I’d made a fairly weak commitment to try and blog every other day, ideally every day, and suddenly I was struggling to keep it. The last proper post I wrote felt rushed and forced – written at the end of a long day when my brain just wanted to switch off (ironic that it was about overcommitment.) There’s a subtle difference between writing and posting something you know is imperfect, but which you think still says something interesting or was useful to write – and something that just feels forced and not quite right. And that’s what blogging was beginning to feel like.

So I took the weekend off (despite the fact I just said I was going to post ‘filler’ posts to flag days I wasn’t blogging – even this felt too much.) What was surprising was that, once I’d decided that I didn’t have to blog, it didn’t take very long at all until I started feeling I wanted to start blogging again. While last week I’d felt stuck for anything I really wanted to write about, suddenly I was coming up with all kinds of ideas, almost too many.

I find this kind of pattern happens a lot, actually: I start off genuinely wanting to do something, but somehow that wanting turns into a should in my mind, and the thing starts to feel aversive. I don’t think I yet totally understand why this happens, but it seems like a really unproductive and unhelpful pattern. Part of it is just that I have competing desires, and I might want to do something all things considered – like going to the gym – but in the moment, the most salient considerations (like the warmth of my bed) push in the other direction. This can create a feeling of “should” around going to the gym, even though in some sense I actually do want to go. But in the blogging case, and a few other situations, I think there’s something a bit different going on.

It feels like I start out genuinely wanting to do something, and somehow my brain ends up turning that want into a feeling of obligation – slowly, sneakily, before I can realise what’s going on. It feels almost like I don’t trust I can motivate myself without that “should” – and so once I decide I want to do something, I feel like I need to create a sense of obligation to ensure I actually do the thing I want to do. But what if I just trusted that, if I really want to do something, I’ll do it? I feel like a similar issue arises with a lot of my work – I genuinely want to do a lot of the research and writing for my PhD, find it interesting – but it quickly becomes a feeling of obligation, I quickly start focusing on what I’m not doing and feeling guilty, and so lose sight of that original “want.”

It seems like blogging might be a good way to explore this subtle dynamic between wants and obligations, now I think of it. Even more than my PhD, blogging really isn’t something I need to do or should do in any sense – any blogging I do is totally a bonus. So I’m going to see if I can actually avoid getting into a mindset of obligation here, or at least pay attention to what seems to provoke it – by only blogging when I really feel like I want to. No promises, no expectations, no obligations.

(side note: this post felt a bit unsatisfactory, because I essentially raised a problem – wants turning into obligations – and feel like I didn’t get anywhere near to trying to resolve or figure it out. If this were a post I was being perfectionist about, I wouldn’t have posted anything until I had a much better model of the problem, at least some better hypotheses about what’s going on. But that just feels like too much cognitive energy for how I’m feeling right now, so I’m trying to be ok with just raising an issue and not even beginning to resolve it. It does feel uncomfortable though.)

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Not really a blog post

I wrote a lot of words for my PhD today, and I now have a (very very sketchy) draft of a paper I’ve been putting off for a while. Woo! I think I’m done with writing, and my laptop, and I’m going to get outside and switch my analytical brain off for a bit (see this – I am going to go not achieve things for a while.) So this is not really a blog post, not today.

But from now on I’m also going to try and post these kind of “stand-in” posts, with brief explanations, on days where I don’t actually blog properly – to discourage me from just slacking. 🙂

On (over)commitment

Commitment is something I seem to find particularly difficult at the moment, in two different ways:

  1. I feel unable to properly, psychologically commit to “big” things: any specific career path; certain kinds of relationship; living in one place for more than a year.
  2. I also struggle to make and uphold commitments on a smaller, day-to-day level: arranging to do social things in advance being the main one.

It feels like these two kinds of difficulty committing stem from different things, but I also wonder if there’s some similarity between them.

I think I’m struggling with “big” commitments largely because I’m afraid of ending up committed to – and therefore constrained by – the “wrong” thing. I’m afraid of getting stuck in the wrong career path and not being able to turn back, of closing off certain options, for example. Similarly, I’m scared of ending up in a relationship that I feel constrained by, and scared of being restricted to one place and not getting to explore other possible places I could be living. In all these cases – career, relationships, where I live – the fear of commitment is in large part driven by the feeling I haven’t explored and experienced enough yet, and that I really don’t want to settle or satisfice.

With smaller commitments, the problem is slightly different – I have difficulty committing to social things in advance because I have difficulty predicting how I’m going to feel about them when it comes to it. I think this largely arises because I fail to properly simulate a lot of small details that might affect how I feel in a week’s time, say – if I’ve had a lot on the previous day or been away over the weekend then I’m likely to want a night in, for example. And sometimes it’s just hard to predict in advance things that might make me feel less like socialising. I’ve gotten better at this – largely by making fewer commitments. But I still feel like I’m treading this very delicate balance between not committing to anything (and therefore feeling bored and/or lonely), and overcommitting (and therefore ending up overwhelmed, tired, and often unreliable.)

The common thread here is that in both cases I generally err towards overcommitment: getting myself into situations where I’m committed to “big” things that my heart isn’t fully in, and committing to way more small things than I actually end up wanting to do. And I think the reason I end up doing this may have something to do with not really, properly thinking about how I feel or what I want. When I commit to big things and then feel trapped by them, I look back and it feels like there was a part of me that was scared of the commitment even at the very beginning – a part which I basically ignored. When I overcommit socially, it feels like there’s often a tiny, quiet voice screaming “this is too much!” which gets shoved down.

Of course, it’s really tricky to know what to do with these voices – vague doubts that something isn’t quite right, fear that something might be too much. Sometimes ignoring these voices can be the right thing to do, I think – if I listened to every time my gut felt something was too much, I’d never get out of my comfort zone, never try anything new. I haven’t totally figured out when to pay attention to these hesitant gut-voices and when not to. But for now – given I seem to end up in too many commitments that I feel constrained by – it might be sensible to pay them a little more attention.

Struggles, gratitude, and pride

(Apparently I like 3-word blog titles now.)

In a post the other day I suggested writing/thinking about what you’re currently struggling with, and what you’re currently grateful for, at the same time. The idea behind this was that it can be useful to acknowledge what’s going on that’s difficult for us -but we want to be careful to avoid over-indulging our own suffering. Similarly, we want to appreciate the things we have that are good, without feeling like we therefore must be happy. Doing struggle-journalling and gratitude-journalling in tandem seems like it might help avoid these problems, by sort of balancing each other out.

So here are some of the things I’ve been struggling with, and some of the things I’ve been particularly grateful for, recently. I’m also going to add on some things I feel particularly good about or proud of, just because I like this as an alternative/additional way of framing the gratitude exercise.

Struggles

  • I’ve been struggling to muster much motivation to work at the moment. I think some of this has to do with becoming overwhelmed by all this negative pressure I’m putting on myself, as I talked about previously.
  • More specifically, I’m trying to write a lot of stuff for my PhD but feel quite anxious/quite a lot of self-doubt around it, which means I procrastinate so I don’t have to face those feelings, which only makes me feel worse about it…
  • I’ve also had a bit too much social stuff over the last few days, and a bit too much travel – which while a lot of fun, has meant less work and less sleep. This means I feel more easily upset and overwhelmed by things, and generally doesn’t help with the first couple of things.
  • I’ve been trying to make a few fairly big life decisions, and feeling stressed about that. I’ve only just started to realise the extent to which I’m (perhaps irrationally) afraid of making the “wrong” decision, and how that creates a lot of emotional struggle around decision making. I’m feeling a bit better having realised this though.
  • I still feel a lot of stress around all the small things I’m not doing, all the ways I’m not on top of my life.
  • I haven’t quite figured out how to get the right kind and right balance of social interaction in my life without getting overwhelmed by it.

Gratitude

  • I have the freedom to basically work as, when and where I like – something I’ve realised over the past year is really important to me. I love that everything I decide to do during the day I’m doing because on some level I’ve decided I want to, not because I have someone else telling me to.
  • For all my stresses about my work, I generally get to do work I think is both interesting and important, and I have a lot of options for potentially exciting things to do in the future. (In fact, it’s this abundance of great options that causes a lot of the stress around decisions, which makes me feel extra-bad about struggling with that…)
  • I have a lot of amazing, thoughtful, supportive friends all over the world.
  • (related to above) Skype (and similar). Skype is awesome.
  • I live right next to a big park, with a lake, where I can go for a walk whenever I want a break.
  • Coffee. And coffee shops. All the nice coffee shops near my house make me happy (even if a lot of them are a little pretentious – at least they have delicious coffee.)
  • I enjoy exercising. I know so many people struggle to get themselves to do this thing that’s really good for you, and I basically have no difficulty doing it. Partly because I’ve built a good exercise habit, but partly just because I think I naturally enjoy it more than average.

Pride

  • Yesterday, I roasted a whole cauliflower, and it was awesome. And I’m about to eat the second half of it now.
  • I’ve been fully vegan for several months now.
  • I’m writing this blog, and feeling like I’m getting a lot out of it.
  • This weekend I sorted out a bunch of bill and admin-related things I’d been procrastinating on for ages.
  • I recently started going to improv classes, which has been on my list of “things to do that are outside of my comfort zone but would probably be really good for me to do” for ages, and have been really enjoying it.
  • Today I worked on the thing that felt kind of aversive (because it was a piece of work I’d left for ages and am not currently super proud of), rather than the easy thing (e.g. reading papers), and feel like I made some good progress.

I don’t know how this will read to someone else (my worry would be that it seems overly self-indulgent at the negative end, and like boasting at the positive end) but it felt good for me personally – and like it helped me to strike a good balance between recognising the things I find difficult, and appreciating what I have and the things that are going well in my life.

Indecision, regret and guilt

Two self-observations that seem slightly contradictory to me:

  1. I often struggle making decisions – big and small – and can agonise for a long time, in fear of making the “wrong decision.”
  2. I basically never experience regret: if I look back on my life and try to think of a decision I really wish I’d made differently, I struggle to come up with examples.

This seems kind of strange. If I know, based on past experience, I’m very unlikely to end up regretting whatever decision I make, it doesn’t make much sense for me to stress so much over deciding. The main reason I should be worried about making the “wrong decision”, surely, is that I might later regret it? I think there are a few possible explanations for what’s going on here:

  • On some rational level, I know that I’m unlikely to regret my decision either way, but yet for some reason my gut isn’t convinced, can’t learn from my experience, and is still terrified every time it has the chance to get something wrong;
  • The reason I never regret things is that I actually just make really good decisions, in virtue of the fact I spend so damn long on each one;
  • The reason I never regret things is that I’m really good at rationalising my past decisions, and telling myself a plausible story on which it was a good decision (even if in fact it wasn’t in any objective sense.) The fact I spend so long agonising over decisions means I’m even more prone to do this – because my brain has plenty of time and incentive to justify the decision as a good one.

I think the first explanation is playing some role – often, the hardest decisions are difficult precisely because there’s not much between the options, making it unlikely I’ll experience extreme regret later. I know this rationally, and so in some sense know I’m unlikely to experience regret, but on a gut level I’m still sort of terrified of making the wrong decision.

The second would be a nicer, more charitable explanation than the third. But it seems unlikely: unlikely that the reason I never experience regret is that all of my decisions are perfect, that I never make any mistakes. Instead, I think the third explanation is actually more likely to describe what’s going on: I don’t experience much regret because I’m very good at focusing on the positive aspects of decisions once I’ve made them, and telling myself a story whereby it was the right decision. There’s a kind of confirmation bias here. I’m thinking about all of the reasons why the decision I made was a good one, and hardly considering why it might have been a mistake or some alternative could have been better.

I’ve always felt this tendency to not experience regret was a good thing, adaptive: what’s the point in dwelling on past decisions, when you can’t change them? But I’m starting to question this a bit more. One obvious benefit of experiencing regret is that, though it can’t change the past, it might highlight specific mistakes which I can learn from in future. And so by not allowing myself to recognise that I might have made a mistake, I might be missing out on opportunities to learn from mistakes.

Beyond this, I worry that not experiencing regret might stem from, and perhaps perpetuate, my fear of making mistakes. Perhaps I don’t allow myself to experience regret because in my mind, to admit having made a mistake would mean something really awful. I think I’m catastrophising here – my brain seems to think that if I make a bad decision this will somehow mean something awful or that I’m a terrible person. And this is why I can find it so difficult to make decisions. If instead I could sometimes admit mistakes to myself, even acknowledge that I might have made the wrong decision – without concluding that I’m somehow a terrible person as a result – it might reduce the fear, and so help with my indecisiveness. I wonder whether this ability to experience regret, not seeing it as something to be afraid of, might actually be really important for good decision-making.

Another emotion which seems to play a similar role to regret – in helping us recognise mistakes – is guilt. (It seems like the difference between regret and guilt is something to do with whether my mistake just affects me – in which case what I feel is better described as regret – or whether it has negative consequences for others, too – in which case I feel guilty.) And similarly, I have a lot of difficulty acknowledging that I feel guilt – perhaps even more so than with regret – because to do so feels like it would mean admitting I am a bad person. Until fairly recently, I would have also told you that I didn’t really experience guilt either. But interestingly, I’ve started to realise that on some level I was feeling a lot of guilt about all kinds of things in my life – and somehow failing to acknowledge the emotion, because doing so felt far too scary. Beginning to allow myself to feel guilt without it necessarily meaning I’m an awful person feels important and useful.

 

For years I told myself that I just didn’t feel these emotions, and that was good, because they weren’t useful. But it seems now like I was somehow “not allowing” myself to feel regret and guilt, because I was afraid of what doing so might mean – and that blocking these emotions might have been doing me damage. Generally, it seems useful to notice telling yourself or others, “I don’t really experience emotion y” – and perhaps question whether you might actually be afraid to experience it for some reason.

 

Sharing without complaining, acknowledging without over-indulging

I often think it would be good if people shared their struggles more. I mean all kinds of struggles: from getting stressed out about small everyday things to more serious mental illness, from battling with procrastination to not having a clue what you’re doing with your life. Hearing about the ways that other people find life difficult can be surprisingly reassuring, especially if you’re having a tough day yourself. It’s so easy to get caught up believing you’re the only one who finds things hard, that everyone else has it totally together, which only makes you feel worse. Then not only are you struggling, but you’re layering self-judgement on top of it: feeling you shouldn’t feel the way you do, wishing you could handle things like other people do, wondering what’s wrong with you.

When I hear or see someone else share some way in which they’ve been struggling, I generally feel two things. First, relief that it’s not just me – even if I can’t identify with the specific thing they’re talking about, simply being reminded that life is hard for everyone feels hugely reassuring. And second, I feel empathy and closer to the person who is sharing: even if they’re not sharing directly with me (e.g. in an open Facebook post or blog post), even if I don’t know them that well.

I think people should share their struggles more. But… there’s a very subtle distinction between (a) being open about your struggles in a way that helps others to admit their own and (b) self-indulgent complaining. There’s a very fine line between coming across as saying “I’m going to admit that I find this thing hard, and hopefully this will help others to see that this is normal”, and “I’m telling you how difficult I have things because I want you to feel sorry for me.” A large part of the reason I don’t share more of the things I find difficult is that I’m afraid of seeming self-absorbed, and/or like I’m complaining (when really I know that I have things amazingly good).

A related but slightly different worry is of over-indulging our own suffering even just in how we think about them ourselves. I think being aware of and accepting all kinds of suffering can be incredibly useful and psychologically healthy – I’m not a fan of overdoing the positive thinking. But it can definitely go too far in the other direction – spending too much time wrapped up in your own struggles can not only alienate other people, but also just lead to an unhealthy state of “feeling sorry for yourself.” There’s a very delicate balance to be struck between the benefits of acknowledging your struggles, both to yourself and others, while keeping in mind the broader perspective and appreciating the ways you’re fortunate.

I don’t think there’s any clear way to ensure we strike the right balance in either case, but a few things that seem like they might help:

  • Explicitly flagging that you are sharing something because you suspect that others feel it too and hope that talking about it might help them;
  • Focusing less on the specifics of your difficulties and more on the general problem and how it might be solved – less “this is why I personally find life so hard” and more “life seems to be hard in this specific way, in mine and others experiences, I wonder what we can do about it?”;
  • Having an setup with a friend where you both agree to call the other out if they start to seem like they’re over-indulging their difficulties, and not being appreciative enough;
  • With regards to just how you think about this yourself, perhaps an interesting exercise would be to combine acknowledging difficulties with gratitude – e.g. spending ten minutes writing about the things you’re finding difficult, followed by ten minutes writing about all the things you’re appreciative of right now. (I might try this right now, actually!);
  • Explicitly designating spaces for talking about this kind of thing, where it’s agreed upon in advance that talking about your struggles will not be seen as complaining (unless you like, totally dominate the space or something.) For example, I was talking to someone recently about their experience with AA meetings, and how at least if you find the right group, it’s a wonderfully supportive community and experience: providing a space for people to share far more than just their struggles with alcoholism, but their struggles with life more generally. This sounded amazing to me – and I wish there was a more natural forum for this kind of thing.

Going meta

I have this astounding tendency to go “meta” with things. For example, my thinking on my PhD, especially over the last couple of months, has gone something like this:

How do we reduce confirmation bias?

– How do we even measure confirmation bias?

–Wait, what does confirmation bias even mean, exactly?

—Does confirmation bias even exist?!

—-What’s a bias? What does it mean to be rational?

—–Can we even say we should be trying to improve rationality, or fix biases, at all?

——What does “should” mean?????

Ok, that last one was slightly (though actually not entirely) in jest – I am a philosopher at heart, after all. But other than that, I’m not even exaggerating – this is exactly where my head has gone, starting with the first question. And it’s not like the first question was exactly super-concrete to begin with – really, as a PhD student I should be thinking about something much more narrow, like “Is it possible to reduce confirmation bias in people’s beliefs about specific topic x using particular intervention y?”

Why do I have such trouble staying concrete, or narrowing down? And to what extent is this a problem?

It feels to me like the progression of questions described above is a fairly natural one, and to some extent useful: at each stage, I realise there’s a meta-issue that I don’t fully understand, and I feel like I need to understand that issue in order to properly answer the initial question. So, for example, I started thinking about how to reduce confirmation bias, but in doing so, realised that a lot of the ways we measure bias actually aren’t good enough for this purpose. And as I started thinking about the problems with these measures, I felt that part of the problem was there was some confusion about what they were proposing to measure, about what we even mean by “confirmation bias.” Exploring this, I ended up coming across a bunch of literature suggesting that many of the cases that seem to demonstrate confirmation bias might in fact be reinterpreted in rational terms given certain assumptions – casting doubt on the very existence of the bias, or at least on the quality of the evidence we have it. Which in turn led me to re-examine and question the concept of bias more generally, leading to a questioning of when and whether we should be trying to fix biases, which of course requires us to really know what we mean by “should”…

Each step in this chain makes sense. But I seem inclined to continue further, and therefore end up down a deeper rabbit hole, than many. I think part of this is a lack of willingness to make assumptions – to just take certain things for granted, even temporarily. What’s good about this is I end up questioning things that others take for granted, and really get to the bottom of problems. It’s also a good exercise for reminding myself why I really care about a problem – I care about confirmation bias because I care about improving human reasoning, because I think that will improve the world – not necessarily for its own sake.

The risk is that I keep going so far down the rabbit hole that I never end up answering the question at the top – or any questions at all, if I keep going. So the challenge, I think, is knowing where to stop. Being able to see the trail down the rabbit hole without getting sucked down to the bottom. Being able to, at least temporarily, set aside the question of what “should” means, to accept some assumptions about this for the time being. Because if we don’t make any assumptions about the world at all, we’ll never get anywhere.

I say this, and yet I’m still sitting here writing about the second-to-last question on that list. But not the last one, at least…