This feels braggy, but I stopped having negative self-talk several years ago. I literally never have a "Andrew, you suck" sort of thought. I can be sad, angry, confused, or disappointed, but there is never any accompanying self-hatred. It's default-happy, kind of like how depressed people are default-sad. That is, until a few weeks ago, when I flipped back into my old state. It's okay, I figured out how to get back, and left me with a deep appreciation of what this Deep Okayness stuff actually is. This is a story about deep, persistent self-love.
Default bogged set-point
I have a couple theories as to what happened to pop me out of persistent self-love. There was an emotionally intense experience. I had also been taking a new (experimental, for me) medication that I suspect could have contributed. And perhaps holiday travel stress and poor diet contributed. I'm honestly not sure. This isn't a sob story, though. I want to share how I originally had found persistent self-love, and how I got it back.
There's three important concepts that are useful to understand what happened, two of which were actually just written (perhaps something is in the water?):
- Scott Alexander's Singing the blues
- Adam Mastroianni's So you wanna de-bog yourself
- Sasha Chapin's How I Attained Persistent Self-Love, or, I Demand Deep Okayness For Everyone
Go read those, because all three are wonderful writers, and they write about some of the core concepts that I want to build on. All credit to them for the cool analogies that I'll use. The core ideas I'll pull from:
Scott Alexander speculates that depression might be modeled as a low set-point for happiness, thus encouraging behaviors that continue the depression. For whatever reason, you "want" to be at a low level of happiness, so you do things—sit in dark rooms, avoid social contact, eat poorly, neglect activity, etc—that encourage this state. And for good measure, thoughts like "you suck" take the hidden implication that "you're too happy" and lower yourself down a peg.
I know this state very well. I spent many years in it. It was as if everything worked together, internally, to make sure I couldn't be happy. And everything good that happened was accompanied by guilt that I didn't deserve to be that happy.
Adam Mastroianni provides some of the most amazing insights into what this state is like: ultimate stuckness, where nothing seems to work. My favorite insight:
Some problems are like getting a diploma: you work at it for a while, and then you're done forever. Learning how to ride a bike is a classic diploma problem.
But most problems aren’t like that. They’re more like toothbrushing problems: you have to work at them forever until you die. You can’t, as far as I know, just brush your teeth really really well and then let ‘em ride forever.
When I had a skull full of poison, I assumed feeling good again was a diploma problem. I just had to find the right lever to pull and—yoink!—back to the good times forever. People warned me it wasn't going to be like this and I didn't believe them; I assumed they had simply failed to earn their diplomas.
I only started making progress when I realized I was facing a toothbrushing problem: feeling normal again would probably require me to do stuff every day for the rest of my life. I might get better at doing that stuff, just like when you first start brushing your teeth as a kid you get toothpaste everywhere and end up swallowing half of it, and eventually you learn not to do that. But even when you're a toothbrushing expert, it still takes you a couple minutes every day. You could be mad about that, but it won’t make your teeth any cleaner.
Finally, one of Sasha Chapin's most popular essays talks about a state called "deep okayness". It's kind of the opposite of default-depression or default-anxious. You're not depersonalized—this isn't "I'm transcended above all my troubles"—but also don't get upset at yourself when you fail. There's a background state of self-love, kind of how you wouldn't verbally beat up someone who you deeply love when they screw up.
Synthesizing: there are psychological set-points that are self-reenforcing; changing them can be tricky and nonintuitive; and there indeed is a high set point that's quite wonderful. Let's jump in.
I've been playing around with the idea of psychological attractor basins for a while. I talk about this concept a little bit here. Imagine a topographical map, with many high and low points. If you drop a ball, it'll roll towards "basins". Getting out of a basin requires putting in energy, and can be difficult if the basin is wide or deep. Handy picture, pulled from Cartographies of the mind: Generalization and relevance in cognitive landscapes:
Here's some crowd-sourced from some friends: sleep, love, compassion, anger, happiness, regularly exercising, seeking healthy food, the jhanas, and various other meditative states. These are all basins that seem to have attractive qualities, thus become self-reenforcing to some extent. Someone who eats healthy isn't constantly willing themselves to not eat junk. They, typically, don't have that battle. Similarly, all the ultra-marathon runners that I know don't stare begrudgingly at their running shoes and absolutely dread running on a local trail. Perhaps running isn't always fun, but the battle isn't there.
Sasha Chapin's Deep Okayness seems to be a very wide and stable basin for some people: once you're there, that kind of is your regular experience. Adam Mastroianni's seems to be smaller, and takes toothbrushing consistency to make sure he stays near it. For some people, depression is an incredibly deep and attractive basin. Once in, it feels near impossible to get out.
Popping into these states from the outside often has some external force so that your psychological "ball" rolls in. Perhaps it's a significant life event (death, birth, marriage, divorce), or other huge life change. Or, perhaps it's an accumulation of a lot of little things. No matter the cause, we find ourselves drawn to the basins that we're in.
Being default okay
Notice how some of these basins aren't forceable: you can create the conditions where they're more likely to occur, and they do or don't. You can't just be like "I want to always want to eat healthy foods", and then it becomes true. (Though, wanting that may be a solid and significant step to being in that state!)
My confession is that I don't know how I achieved deep okayness. It would be cool if this was a guide how to do the seven things I did, and for sure you'll be default wonderful. Frankly, I didn't will myself to hop out of the dark canyon, and boom, bang, presto, I did it. If you push me, I have guesses: I got married to someone who cares about me so deeply and accepts me as I am, had some professional success, meditated a lot, did more physical activity, had minimal life stress, and did some significant therapeutic self-work. So, I might be able to shrug towards what "worked" for me, but have no idea if they'd work for anyone else, or even which ones did it.
But the difference was almost unrecognizable. I had spent years and years with a hobby of beating myself up. Never good enough, never deserving. It feels foggy to remember, but my default mental state, when not actively working on a task, was to ruminate and be upset with myself. As if I had this low set point, and the poison in my head would do everything it could to make sure I didn't find happiness. It was so normal that I wasn't exactly sure what not-that would even be like.
The other side was basically the opposite. I literally never beat myself up. There was no "you failure, you don't deserve happiness", because my set-point became super high. It wasn't mania in any way, but I was basically default happy and default self-loving.
Weird, hidden self-secret flips
Here's the weird bit that confused me for a long time: I don't remember when it flipped. I can probably guess the year, but it wasn't like I woke up one day and realized I was happy. Before, things seemed normal. After, things seemed normal. But, this is incredibly strange! You'd think if my experience was so different, this would be one of the most obvious things.
I've talked to people about this flip, and one theme that comes up often is that moving from one attractor basin to another sometimes just happens. For some people, as Adam talks about, you have to work hard to line things up so that the thing you want to happen happens. Others just get lucky. I've heard of people who had some deep meditative insights without a regular meditation practice. But for nearly everyone, there's some series of events that makes it more likely.
In my experience, a bunch of stuff happened that probably was the "lining everything up so that it's more likely to happen", but it wasn't like I was trying to will myself to climb up the steep terrain of depression. As Scott Alexander points out, a defining characteristic is that my brain didn't actually want that. CGP Grey made a tongue-in-cheek video about this a few years ago:
The funny thing is that when I'm in the deep okayness state, I didn't really need to do all the toothbrushing tasks to make sure I stayed that way. My set point was high, and it would naturally stay up there, because I would do the sorts of things happy people do.
If you're in a basin that isn't useful, a good thing to do, as Adam points out, is line things up such that success is more likely, and hope that it flips. It's like falling asleep: I can't force myself to fall asleep. Trying harder literally won't help, because the thing that needs to happen is not solvable by the "trying harder" muscle. (Sasha has another wonderful recent post about trying harder.) Instead, I line things up such that I'm more likely to be successful: quiet and dark room, cool bed, no screens, etc. If I was having difficulty falling asleep, I'd continue trying to improve the conditions for sleep: perhaps try some supplements, wear blue-light blocking glasses, do a calming meditation, etc.
There's several meditative states that are similar. You line things up such that the state or insight can occur, and for many people, it eventually does. Trying harder doesn't help. In fact, trying less hard is often a useful meditation instruction.
My friend Ari likened this flip to the above picture: "If you see it, you see it, if you don't, you don't, and no amount of pointing out can guarantee that someone will see it."
Vajrayana plays with this idea:
This teaching is self-secret. You may not be able really to hear it or understand it because of your own trips, your speed, your confusion. That is a safety precaution that has already been developed. If you are not ready to hear such a thing, you don’t hear it. What I have to say becomes purely gibberish.
— The Lion's Roar
To someone who knows about deep okayness, it's self-evident and obvious. To someone who has never experienced it, this probably seems so foreign and impossible. It's not like I can just tell you to meditate, exercise, eat well, and do therapy to get to it. I mean, those might work, and perhaps you might want to try them. But, just as I didn't really choose to see the dog above, I am just guessing how I got there.
Fortunately, knowing about it can be incredibly helpful. This is sort of my model of MDMA therapy for PTSD: it's an existence proof that self-love, acceptance, and forgiveness is possible. Once someone sees that this state exists, it's enough to help flip out of their deep, painful attractor basin. If this is what's happening, it explains why it works so well (>80% effectiveness of PTSD), and why it doesn't have the same therapeutic effect within the rave/dance scene. Under therapeutic conditions, the user's intent is to experience this specific perspective of self-forgiveness and love in the context of their own trauma, and there's significant skilled therapeutic support to help guide someone towards that place, and integrate the perspectives afterwards.
Persistent self-love, again
I alluded to above that recently, I got knocked out of my deep okayness. I didn't feel getting knocked out, but when I noticed the long-ago-familiar patterns start to replay, whoaaaaa. I knew what had happened. In a weird way, it was fascinating. I didn't choose to flip back, but was solidly in the old attractor basin. I even had the thought, "well, while I'm here, I should stay and ruminate for a while to deal with everything that I need to deal with". Hah.
Fortunately I had this mental model of what was happening, a ton of tools to work with, and knew that it's best if I leave the warm, cozy cave of self-loathing.
I can't tell you what popped me out, because I can't force it. I have lots of ideas what might help, and could line everything up so that the hidden flip could happen — I had the benefit of knowing what seemed to work for me, even though as I was lining things up, I felt I didn't deserve to leave. Since Deep Okayness is a really wonderful attractor basin that I'm deeply familiar with, it flipped back quickly. It was a surprising way to conclude last year, yet a grateful way to start the new year.
If you know Deep Okayness, let's do our loved ones a favor and do our best to show an existence proof that it exists. For me, this was incredibly helpful — knowing that there is another default way of being that's way better. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, the best advice thing I can do is tell you about it (thanks for reading!), and provide warm encouragement and love. Just as external events can nudge us into attractor basins, getting out of particularly deep ones can take significant changes: a lot of toothbrushing, or even some big life changes. Try stuff, especially stuff that you enjoy. If something's working, do that a lot. Adam and Sasha's pieces suggest some things that worked for them, and I'd be happy to chat about my experiences with you as well.
Happy New Year, and may you all find wonderful self-love.