How can it be that I am surprised by the banality of our species when I was expecting it for all my adult life? Is the culprit Hope? Did her claws dig into my back, in her ecstasy or reverie I cannot be certain, sufficient to snatch my attention from what was my birthright? Can the boy who imagined a world of disappointment grow into a man who is disappointed in the world he finds himself within? One would think that I would have seen it coming, and yet somehow I’m surprised.
This is a story of sapience obstructed by sentience. It is of the mundane acting as a filter, a lens, or even Maya itself acting as a defense mechanism against the awful reality that stands at the core of whatever heavenly truths lay at our feet. God is dead, for sure, but so is Brahma. We have killed all the deities. And perhaps Nietzsche also saw that in doing so, we have killed our own imagination and creativity. For in being the creators of gods, who so graciously gave us our intellect, creativity, and our very souls, we have given dominion to the rules which we created to preserve the temples to our dead gods.
Has it ever occurred to you that we created laws? Rules too. In fact, all the various guiding stars of our world we put there, ostensibly, to make things better for us all. And, I suppose, there is some truth to this trope of culture. And yet, how often do the majority of us find ourselves bristling against such gilded ceilings. We gaze up at them, marveling at their complexity and staticity (oh but patience! We can change them if we work together! Vote!) and we are distracted by the fact that they hide the sky. I’m sorry; I am instructed to correct myself and say that they protect us from the elements, from nature red in tooth and claw.
This is precisely how I came to be caught pants-less with Hope, in delicto flagrante, hiding from my very own self. I found myself mesmerized by the this thin skin covering reality. The economic necessity of it makes this…error?–That is an open question—it makes this set of circumstances understandable.
But, if I haven’t made this completely clear, I was thinking about all of this. Decades of reading philosophy, talking people’s ears off about Nietzsche, spending a summer reading Foucault, writing long screeds that almost nobody reads….
All so that I find myself at middle age, surprised in an unexpected way. And my regurgitated thought keeps circling back to the obvious trope; this is what the crisis is. This psychological trauma is not just mine, even insofar as it is all mine at the very same time. This is the human condition. A condition that while universal, isn’t ubiquitous nor always perceivable.
A couple of weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine from school, Frankie Trataglia, died suddenly. As a person who was pretty well known around town, his memorial was well-attended, and the shock of it was obvious. This led to two separate, but related, things happening to me in particular. The first is the obvious reminder of mortality and its unpredictable timing for all of us. But the second was more impactful to me. You see, I’ve had social anxiety for as long as I can remember. And this led to some rather awkward relationships with the other kids in school. I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I was spacey, shy, and distant from most people, and insofar as the “cool kids” went, I seemed to be able to slide into their lives for brief intervals, and was never sure if the jokes were good-natured or not. My wager is a bit of both.
And seeing these kids, grown into adults with kids of their own, showed me that not much has changed. I still am not sure whether I’m in on the joke or I’m the joke. I was surprised to see that whatever confidence and certainty I can muster in my adult stage of life, I’m instantly thrown into my teenager’s self and soul as soon as I’m back in that world. And I can’t tell if it’s in my head or real. What’s the difference, right? I create the world, don’t I? You’re all just NPCs in my simulation. But what I didn’t and still don’t know is which type of NPC I am in their simulations. I only knew that the world was ugly and we are all stuck in our own simulations. And I also knew that a pretty unique and interesting simulation was gone, and that one day mine will be gone too.
And I knew this when I was 16.
And yet I am surprised.
I resigned from my job. I told my former supervisor, as I walked out of the office, that he’s an idiot. And in a set of (important?) ways, he is an idiot. My friend assures me it’s bad management. I might have been able to save my place there, albeit with some awkwardness, but I knew that it was time to go. So, not knowing what was next, without a plan, and during a time when I was already beleaguered by seasonal depression, I peaced out. It was simultaneously a decision which was absolutely necessary for my mental health and which may have terrifying consequences for the rest of my life. There is no regret, but there is a fair amount of uncertainty and fear, associated with this necessary decision.
When I did the necessary deed, the news of Frankie’s death had already reached me. It hadn’t yet cut into me, but it had a grip on me. It would be some days after leaving the office, the word ‘idiot’ ringing in my head, before the reunion of high school people (wordplay intended) wherein I would revisit old traumas, but the chemical reaction was already initiated. There was no way that I was going to make it out of this intact. Something had to change.
I can’t go back to working for some other corporation, can I? The dehumanization of it, the sterile, static, covering of it. Another Sistine chapel disguising the sky. It’s rules, policies, and culture stifling to creativity or nuance. It’s pay sufficient but uninspiring. It’s HR department never your friend.
And if corporations are people, they make a twisted and grimy culture of individuals, If I were to borrow from certain religious images (as I am apparently wont to do), I would say that Babylon is building its tower even yet, as the Lord descends his hand to destroy it. We have created a world of laws, rules, and institutions which were meant to protect and to guide us. And while ‘failure’ might be too strong a word, I think it’s appropriate to point out the displeasure that so many people have concerning the nature of this human project. The Structures aren’t going to hold as is. And yet we find ourselves mesmerized by the thin skin of this illusion—this Maya—of the protection we are supposedly under.
I don’t believe it. And I knew this when I was 16.
So, why am I so surprised? And, perhaps more importantly, by what specifically am I surprised?
I’m still working it all out, but I think I’m mostly surprised that I wasn’t able to dodge it. It’s not that I thought myself in some way superhuman (was I to expect I was one of the ubermenschen?), but that I thought that being aware of the problem might be enough to avoid at least some significant portion of it. But there is no avoiding it. You see, what I knew at 16 was that the world was awful and that too many awful people were in control. What I don’t think I was willing to admit, until fairly recently, is I don’t think there’s a fix.
There’s no fix because people aren’t evil. There’s no such thing as bad people or good people (although, perhaps there are important gradients), there is just the fact that we are all mesmerized by the skin of the cultures in which our minds were programmed. To solve the problem, we would have to be able to transcend that (I’m reading Rawls’ Theory of Justice, which introduced the idea of the “veil of ignorance”—a theoretical fantasy), and I don’t think anyone can. Not even me.
There is no Justice. Perhaps there can be justices, but there’s no fix. We’re all going to die, we’re going to disagree, condemn, and feel self-righteous at times, but all the tribes are run by people mesmerized by the thin skin of our cultural programmings, and we might as well burn it all down as enjoy our pretty ceilings.
Perhaps this is the depression talking, but I do remember some study demonstrating how depressed people have a more objective perspective. Doesn’t bode well.
I hope everyone is enjoying their gilded ceilings.
The blog has been quiet for a while. There are reasons for that, which are not relevant to the world, but I wanted to say a few words relevant to my own personal life.
Previously, I have written about Borderline Personality Disorder. It was a time when I was doing a lot of reading, thinking, and talking about what I perceived to be the closest diagnosis which fit what I was experiencing emotionally, behaviorally, etc. It started with a therapist I saw years ago, who suggested this as an explanation, and I sort of grabbed onto it as a part of my identity.
One of the criteria of BPD is a lack of solid self-identity, and this was something I had struggled with throughout my life (as, I believe, most of us have). Earlier in my life, I associated it with the concept of an existential crisis, and even wrote, recently, about how Sartre’s book Nausea always resonated with me in many ways. But in more recent years, I just piled it onto a diagnosis which helped define the emotional and behavioral struggles I have have to deal with much of my life. I started, in essence, to identify as a borderline.
That description sat as a place-holder for any real sense of self.
I’m in therapy again, and in talking about these issues and trying to find a set of strategies and concept to move forward with, I have been confronted with the fact that I, perhaps, have too closely associated with such a diagnosis. My therapist has said to me that he does not think I am a borderline, even if I have some borderline symptoms. The fact is that most of us have some symptoms consistent with all sorts of potential diagnoses, and that perhaps we are not best served by identifying with those potential diagnoses. It’s so easy to just lump yourself into a box than to struggle with the actual hard things in life on their own terms.
At this point, my best guess is that previous therapy, thinking, growing, etc have already moved me further away from being diagnoseable. I am different than I was 5 years ago. Hell, I’m different than I was a few months ago. At the same time, I do still have some real patterns of behavior which I need to struggle with towards becoming the person I want to be. That struggle will probably be one without end, as growth is a thing which must continue because life changes, our needs and desires change, and so the struggles change.
I am fearing that fact, that reality of change, less than ever before. Change, growth, and uncertainty are often terrifying realities, but these days I’m starting to understand their importance as well. There will be certain things about me which will probably always be true. I am still afraid of many things, and there are specific certainties which I will always want, but I very much want to stop making excuses for not being the human being I want to be.
And, in a strange way, thinking of myself as a borderline was just another excuse. It was a way to essentialize who I was, rather than see the particular issues as challenges to work through. My ultra criticism of myself bled onto my criticism of others; because I wasn’t good enough, I became frustrated by the imperfections in others. But it’s not about being good enough, and that critical nature blinded me to so many other things I could have been focusing on. And I rationalized it all as an essential person who could do no differently.
I am a person people like. I am a person worth knowing and being close to. I’m also not trying to convince you (dear reader) of those facts, those are things I’m trying to believe myself. Those beliefs will be more things that the person I want to be will have as attributes.
That person will not be weighed down by mistakes and traumas of the past, but will move forward and look at solutions. Those who have actively tried to make my life harder and demonize me will fail. Those who insist upon defining me by embellished and fabricated events from my past will have to seek a new target for their abuse, because I will not be limited by either the illusions of others or through my own fears. Instead, I will be motivated by what I can do, what I will do, and I will enjoy a life with people who care for me despite my flaws, and I will succeed one way or another.
I needed a swift kick in the ass, and now I have the bruises there to remind me that whenever I try to sit comfortably in the self I have grown complacent within, the need to get up and keep moving will become part of who I am, not who I want to be. The need to never receive such a kick again will compel me to remember that I don’t need to be perfect, better than others, nor even do I have to insist upon not resting for a while and see how far I have come.
Even the job of growing and learning needs a vacation for a little while, now and then. Otherwise, we risk burnout.
The illusion of perfection, feelings of superiority, and the need to never stop moving are all related. I’m glad that I know this, and I hope that such realizations are not forever bereft in others.
I think now, identifying as a borderline is too strong of a claim.
And so it’s time to move on from that part of my life, and be the person I want to be. Do or do not. There is no try.
In retrospect, I was trying to solve a lack of strong self identity by clinging to a diagnosis which wedded me to not having one. That was dumb.
With the Summer now really over, the days getting cooler (I’m already cold. I don’t want think about January), and the days getting shorter and shorter, I’m on the edge of the seasonal changes to mood that happens to me every Fall.
That, compounded by a recent loss of a relationship that was important to me means that I am on the verge of a depressive period which I am going to have to deal with. It’s like I’m feeling the first signs of the flu coming on, and while I know I’ll get through it (you know, probably) I know that for a little while I’m not going to be OK.
And I don’t know what to think about that. It all seemed so easy and clear when I was feeling great just a month (or so) ago. I was feeling confident, I had strong relationships, and the Summer was my playground. I was Ingressing all over the city, enjoying the warmth, and I was busy most nights with friends, lovers, and partners.
And now my motivation to be social is diminishing. I can feel it seeping from me like blood from a cut, slowly draining away my ability to stay attentive, engaged, and feeling fully alive. Yesterday, for the first time in many months, I spent an entire evening playing a video game. After the first half hour, I felt satisfied with gaming for the day. But rather than get up to do something else, I just sat there and played more. And then 3 hours went by, just like that.
Last Fall it was Skyrim. Soooo much Skyrim. What a great game, but there is definitely a point at which one is over-doing it.
And then I think about last Fall. Man, so much has changed in a year. I remembered how awful it was for me a year ago. With the exception of someone I had just started seeing then, I was mostly not doing well at all. I was in a long, arduous, unhappy funk all of last Fall. Everyone around me saw it. I was moody, non-communicative, and it led to things going badly between me and someone I deeply cared for, then. There were bright spots in there, but it was awful. And so I find myself thinking a lot about what to do about this. I cannot avoid it completely, but I can mitigate it, can’t I?
I know this gets better. I don’t know exactly when, but it will. You know, probably.
So, if you see me this Fall and I seem a bit more quiet and subdued than usual, then it’s probably because I’m feeling shitty. If you are inclined, come and give me a hug. Hugs always help.
But the most obvious piece of evidence that I’m not doing well? I have not even reached 500 words and I’m done writing.
Being a fan of RPGs (Role Playing Games, for all you n00bs), the concept of leveling up is very familiar to me. For the uninitiated, the basic idea is that when solving puzzles, slaying enemies, or using skills in the world (of the game, of course), your character eventually gains enough experience to go from one level to another. With the new level, comes new powers, attributes, and in many cases the ability to access new things.
In real life, we gain new experiences all the time. The quality of the lessons of those experiences depends, greatly, on how difficult the task was. Are you getting really good at remembering to put the trash on the curb on trash day? Are you learning the streets of your new neighborhood? Did that argument with your friend, partner, or family member teach you something about yourself or even them? Did surviving some trauma make you more resilient?
Obviously, in real life there are not quantifiable levels. I don’t gain more “hit points” as I get stronger, but I may have a noticeably improved ability to withstand criticism, manage difficult feelings, or even to allow myself to be increasingly vulnerable (thanks to a friend for recommending this book to me, it has been a good read so far). And after a particularly difficult ordeal, we may feel such a significant difference that we feel like we are, in some ways, new people. The difference after some growth can feel more than merely quantitative, and in some cases it can have a qualitative feeling. The best analogy I can think of is that it’s like leveling up.
Recently in my real life, I feel like I’ve leveled up.
But here’s the thing. Experience and growth can go in many different directions. We have many cultural tropes which I could pull from, to make my meaning clearer. Perhaps the most recognizable would be the distinction between Jedi and Sith, as in the Star Wars universe. I could also refer to the game Fable, which has you not only level up, but your actions move you along a continuum from more “good” to “evil.” In this game, if you steal something, kill someone innocent, etc then you lose points, and slide a little (or a lot) towards the “evil” side of the scale. The decisions you make in the story line determine what kind of character you are in the long run (I usually lean strongly towards the good side, in games like this).
Either way, you have the opportunity to become more powerful, effective, and you can win the game. You can win the game as an evil character.
(But at what cost! What about the children!!!)
I find this analogy simplistic, compared to real life, but as an image to use it is at least somewhat helpful so I’ll stick with it. In real life, the decisions we make do determine our character. But unlike the game Fable, turning evil will not make you look demonic nor will making good choices make you look more like a wise sage or saint. As with a saying which we get from Christian mythology (which Fable is obviously dependent upon), the devil may often appear to you in a pleasing shape, but it’s also true that the good may also not be easily recognizable. This is because in real life the experience of leveling up after an ordeal may indeed make you more powerful, but it will not necessarily make you better or healthier.
Power, in some sense, is neutral. Leveling up does not necessarily make us better people. If the attributes you work on making stronger are attributes which make you less compassionate, more defensive, etc, then you may be stronger, more capable of success in many situations, but perhaps your increased power will be more of a detriment, if not for yourself than maybe for other people. Many a sociopath has become very successful and powerful, after all. Also, many a sociopath can blend in to the crowd, getting away with all sorts of shenanigans unseen.
What attributes do you upgrade when you level up?
I’m a big fan of The Elder Scrolls games, especially Skyrim. I started playing again recently (although I simply can’t play more than an hour or so these days without wanting to rejoin reality, which I think is a good thing). In Skyrim, when you level up, you get to add points to one of many possible attributes, whether it is one-handed, speech, or smithing. What attributes you choose to upgrade will have implications for how successful you’ll be in making various decisions throughout the game.
So, if we were to try and stretch this analogy to real life, we could talk about what personal attributes we want to focus on improving, as we find ways to take lessons from events in our lives. Do we want to build a wall around ourselves, like armor? Do we want to improve our ability to communicate, like increasing persuasion? Do we want to add a point to archery, so we can do better damage to our opponents from a distance? (OK, the confusion between analogy and reality here makes me sound like I’m doing target practice in my basement, or something…). Do we want to improve our critical thinking skills, in order to tell the difference between truth and illusion? (This skeptic always says yes to this last one, but that attribute does not really come up in a world of magic, dragons, and gods like Skyrim, or Tamriel in general).
In any case, in real life it is the actual practice of said attributes which leads to the leveling up, I think, than the other way around. My ability to communicate my emotional needs better is a means to my becoming stronger. My ability to look self-critically at my mistakes and to work to learn about myself in order to not make those mistakes again have made me stronger. My ability to resist (for the most part) the desire to simply demonize and blame other people for succumbing to flaws which many of us share is a result of that increased strength.
But I could have gone down a different path. I could have taken the lesson that I should just keep more people at a distance, proclaim my superiority, and blamed everyone else while deflecting all accusations coming my way. I could have strengthened the all-too-human impulse to rationalize and defensively push away all culpability, and attack relentlessly anyone who would threaten the illusory shell that this move requires. I could have made attributes within me stronger which would indeed help me in the world, but they would not help me be a better person. Because sometimes protecting oneself is not one of strength. Sometimes armor makes us weaker. Sometimes maintaining the illusion of strength actually hurts us.
Sometimes, as I have learned over the years, exposing all of our vulnerabilities and standing naked to the world, with all of our scars and imperfections exposed, is the only way to become strong.
And you can’t be vulnerable when you spend so much effort on creating armor and weapons alone. In real life, strength comes from investing in inner strength. The more you hide, defend, and attack, the more you can be hurt. Over-committing to an attack puts you off balance, exposes the holes in your armor, and all that hiding can have only left you atrophied and weak under that armor.
I am stronger, today, than I was a year ago. I am better, today, than I was a year ago. But not all people are better then they were, having traversed the ordeals of time and space. Simply having been through something does not make them better, even if it does make them stronger. A strong sword arm, after all, can only hurt people.
A person can indeed hurt me if I willingly expose my vulnerabilities, but the fact that someone might actually try to do so is what causes me pain. It’s when we forget that we are also scared, vulnerable, and imperfect when we feel justified in attacking others or hurting them even if we don’t want to do so. I’d do better to resist such sets of behavior myself (so would we all), but I am less likely to stop calling out behavior when it is genuinely hurtful to me or people close to me. If anyone wants me, or anyone else, to stop talking about the pain which they have caused other people, then take responsibility for it, do the work to actually grow, and make yourself less likely to do it again. If not, we will have every right to keep calling those people on their shit and being critical of their behavior.
Same goes for me. If I’m not continuing to do the work I need to do, then I welcome compassionate criticism. I will hopefully be stronger in another year, and I will try to put my efforts into strengthening the attributes which will make me more compassionate, less afraid, and more vulnerable. I hope, deeply, that we all do the same to the best of our ability.
I’m a pretty stoic and self-reliant person, so those are hard words for me to say. I was telling a new love just recently the story of when my brother and I were waiting anxiously at the kitchen table, to hear whatever news had been making our mother cry that morning, and he asked how I could be so calm. I was calm then — I am calm usually — because I felt like I had to be. Too many people relied on me, growing up, for me to be able to melt down. I’m the person who holds it together in a crisis, who works the problem and saves my emotions for later, who’s always able to lay aside what I’m feeling and what I need this minute to take care of someone else. It’s a skill and quality I value in myself.
But sometimes I’m not okay, and that’s slowly becoming a thing I can say out loud. I’m learning that being not-okay today doesn’t mean I will be not-okay tomorrow. I’m learning that, instead of the entire world crumbling apart if I stop being okay because I am the last bastion of stability, when I’m not okay, other people will gather around and be okay for me. They will hold me and love me, and sometimes they’ll lay aside what they are feeling and what they need this minute to take care of me.
I’m not okay a lot these days, and my friends and lovers and metamours have been wonderful to me.
I loved Shaun’s post about family as ka-tet. Family, whether born or chosen, is such a powerful thing. It shapes us, changes us, tells us who we are and where we belong in the world. Like any powerful thing it can be incredibly destructive. It can hobble or cripple us, it can tell us that we are weak and bad and that where we belong is directly under someone else’s foot — and because it is family, those words will affect us no matter how hard we fight them. Like any powerful thing, it can be creative and uplifting and life-giving. It can give us support to stand when we tremble, it can tell us that we are strong and loved and believed, and that where we belong is out in the world, living joyfully and creating beauty.
I’m so thankful for the people who are family to me, whose lives are intimately bound up with mine and who have used their power to make me feel strong and loved and believed. I’m not okay a lot these days, but I’m also amazingly wonderful a lot these days, and while the ping-ponging is taking some getting used to, I feel safer than I ever have. I feel like I can sink into the depths of the not-okay when I need to, to work on and work through the stuff that’s down there, because I have a strong lifeline back to the surface.
Mental health and cognitive errors are the foundation upon which we struggle with interactions with groups, individuals, and ourselves. Whether we are diagnoseable in a mental health context or not and whether our cognitive biases are significantly problematic or not, how these types of factors interact with each other will influence how we understand ourselves and the world around us. These individual concerns will supervene into group dynamics, whether for good or bad, and if we are interested in any kind of cohesion, cooperation, or truth as any kind of group then we must pay primary attention to our personal tendencies towards cognitive errors and mental health concerns.
It’s pointless to merely defend our position with logical argumentation if our very position is subject to biases and potentially mentally unhealthy attitudes. Before we can be concerned about being right philosophically, we have to first be attentive to the effects of mental health, cognitive biases, and self-justification. Being a skeptic means first being skeptical of our own internal processes, because if an error lies there then that error will expand exponentially at every level of our argument, very likely. The very basis of motivated reasoning, self-justification, and rationalizations arise when we fail to recognize our own errors in forming opinions.
To trust ourselves or other people, we have to pay attention not only to our intentions and overt logical steps, but also to the emotional and cognitive foundations of our ideas. Thinking we are being rational, honest, and forthright is pointless if we don’t pay attention to the self-correcting steps we need to take in order to be truly authentic as feeling and thinking beings. Intention and honesty are not enough if we are blind to biases which lie under those intentions and our desire to be honest. Honesty is impotent if we’re wrong.
In terms of this, I agree mostly with Peter Boghossian in the following video:
Yes, we need to be forthright. But in addition to being forthright, we also need to be willing to be wrong, to self-correct, and to head off cognitive biases, whether they take the form of emotional or rational patterns. If we start out being unwilling to self-correct, this will have obvious ramifications for how we interact with the world, other people, and with our own internal concerns.
When I started writing in blog-like form more than 15 years ago (college newspaper columns mostly, but also some essays I wrote for various publications as well), I was writing almost exclusively about atheism. I was writing screeds against religion, “new atheist” style, back in the lat 1990’s. In college, I studied world religions, cultures, and some philosophy, and my senior thesis was about the philosophical and cultural influences of Greece/Rome on the development of the Catholic Church. I had heard all the apologetics (I have not heard anything really new in years), became fairly good at responding to them, and this helped me discover and become part of the atheist community in early 2002, when I started graduate school.
In talking with theists and other atheists, I had come to witness all sorts of rationalization, motivated thinking, and cognitive biases. I became fairly good at spotting when people are subject to these cognitive errors. I’m not immune to such things myself (none of us are), but I’m fairly good at noticing it during or at least shortly after doing so (especially with Ginny around to help point it out), and I try to correct it as best I can. The more emotional I am, the more likely I am to be subject to biases. But exposure and attention to these things has helped make me less prone to such things, even if I do occasionally find myself twisted up in logical rationalizations from time to time.
So, when I later started hanging around polyamorous people at meetups, private parties, etc, I started to utilize those tools which I had honed within the atheist community, and started to notice patterns of motivated reasoning, biases, and rationalizations there too. it’s not just theists (or atheists) who are subject to these concerns.
Most of the motivated reasoning, biases, and rationalizations I ran into was pretty low-level every day stuff, but occasionally I would spot a behavior which was really dug deep in self-justification. And over the years, I have gotten to know various levels of these types of cognitive errors in belief, behavior, and preferences which exist among polyamorous people.
What I have come to believe (tentatively, of course) is that we bring cognitive biases, rationalizations, and self-justification with us into whatever communal or social networks in which we spend significant time. Those cognitive concerns influence how we will interact with other people, how we will think about issues which come up, and will be the foundation of where we will stand in the case of any disagreements, rifts, or enmity. When things go bad, where you will be stand relative to an argument will be at least partially based upon what kinds of cognitive errors you are prone to.
Going back to the atheist community for a second, let us take a moment to recognize the various splits, rifts, and arguments which have raged over the last several years. A-plussers, slymepitters, and freethought blogs, oh my! Now, I have not seen any significantly complicated analyses of how things like cognitive biases, self-justification, and personal preferences determine where a person will lie on these battle lines, but I’d bet we would start seeing some correlations if we did (which says nothing about causation, I know).
We’re all subject to cognitive errors. We all have to be cautious with certainty, whether we err on the side of servility or arrogance. We all have to improve at making sure we are paying attention to how our cognitive biases and mental health issues help determine our opinions, behaviors, and relationships. All too often people will demonize another person out of a need for self-justification. We will idolize someone else for similar reasons.
We need to have the bravery to demand complete honesty, vulnerability, and willingness to be wrong (or right) when not only the facts support it, but also various perspectives on those facts support it. Because facts are also subject to bias. That is, they may seem like simple facts, but memory is subject to emotion and bias, and perhaps we don’t remember that “fact” correctly. When people disagree over events, I’m willing to bet that all sides are not only subject to memory fault, but also with their ability to think intersubjectively about the issues well enough. That is, even if the actual facts are not in dispute, certainly our values, preferences and biases will shade how we skew how those facts interact with the world.
And then all we have is arguments steeped in motivated reasoning, mental health issues conflicting into personality disputes, and rifts with people who do not understand each other. We can do better.
Concerning mental health, we have a similar problem at hand. The symptoms of mental health concerns are common among all of us, to varying degrees. Even if we are not diagnoseable per se, we may have behavior patterns, emotional issues, or cognitive impairments which cause us to miss seeing important influences on how we perceive and interact with the world. We should all be willing to recognize the symptoms of our behavior, how we are seen by people, and how we can improve.
If you suffer from symptoms consistent with anxiety, depression, or even a personality disorder, then you need to understand how those symptoms effect how you behave and think. You don’t have to be diagnoseable as a borderline to be subject to problems with emotional management, for example. You might not fall under 5 out of the 9 symptoms to learn something about yourself as a person, if you struggle with some of the symptoms.
Consider the difference between having to interact with a person who displays symptoms which cause conflicts but who is aware of them and is trying to solve them, rather than behave defensively and deny or rationalize their behavior as if nothing was wrong. I know that when I have been defensive and have rationalized my behavior, I have caused immense tension for other people. I care about that and I care about my mental health, so I work to overcome such struggles. Because I know I am capable of rationalization and self-justification, I have to check myself in order to see if I’m not just emotionally or cognitively compromised when I’m in conflict with someone else. Learning how to see past your own biases is perhaps one of the hardest things we have to do, as humans.
Watching someone who is in defensive denial about their behavior is among the most frustrating and powerless positions I have dealt with in my life. For a person to get better, they first have to admit there’s a problem. If they are not willing or able to see the problem, any conversation, criticism, or attempt to help is met with a wall, emotional reactions (feeling “attacked”), or a counter-attack. Combine this with with intelligence and you have a recipe for bullying, enmity, and potential abuse. I’ve seen both sides of this, and we can do better.
Please, be willing to look honestly and fully at yourself. Do not merely invite criticism, but hear it. Do not merely argue your case, but try to understand your interlocutor as well. Learn as much as you can about not only logical fallacies but also cognitive biases, memory, self justification, cognitive dissonance, and mental health. If we all do this more, there will be less drama in the world (wouldn’t that be nice!).
There are genuine causes for personal and cultural rifts. Sometimes, people are just harmful and wrong. But sometimes those narratives we tell ourselves about how terrible someone else is are based in cognitive errors and may be related to mental health concerns. Sometimes, when all sides are a little wrong, we can convince ourselves that it’s just them.
Own your mistakes, try and mitigate our blame of others’ mistakes, and do not allow tribal thinking, self-justification, and anger to shape how we interact with each other. Because even if you have reason to be angry with someone, there is often room to step back and realize why they are angry with you, and what you both might learn from each other if you just stop drowning in your own emotional and cognitive crap. If we fail to do so, we risk exacerbating conflicts rather than potentially solve them.
Of course, I don’t expect some people to hear or understand what I mean here. That might mean that I’m just wrong, but it could also mean that those people are just too biased to comprehend.
More likely, however, is the possibility that I’m a little wrong, and they are a little biased.
I have been reading and thinking about issues surrounding cultural narratives (of misogyny, for example), mental health, and personal responsibility a lot, lately. In the wake of the Elliot Roger mess, the blogosphere is rife with arguments about whether mental illness or misogyny are primarily to blame. Personally, I think that distinguishing these two, clearly, is not always an easy task. Destructive cultural narratives grab a hold of the parts of us consistent with mental disorder, and mental disorder exacerbates those cultural tropes.
I have not had enough motivation to dive in and add my thoughts, and so I have been doing a fair amount of lurking, rather than writing, on this topic. Luckily for me, Dan Fincke is here to help sort it out, because he does so much better than I could. Go and read the whole thing. It’s well written, thoughtful, and even touches some issues I’ve been thinking and writing about concerning mental health, recently.
Here’s a couple of samples that resonated with me:
We need to be much less interested in throwing people in bins of “rational” or “crazy” and deal much more with the complexities of real people’s brains. And the mentally ill and those with other disorders need treatment and compassion and accommodation so that they are as empowered to live as quality lives as possible. They don’t need demonizing and false mental links forged between homicidal rampages and their maladies.
I have been thinking about this myself, recently. Because no, our disorders are not excuses, but they are real phenomenon with causes and effects. When someone is struggling near you and you don’t make any effort to understand, empathize, and accommodate to some extent in order to create a safe, nurturing environment for them, then the struggles we have with mental illness will only be exasperated.
People with mental health concerns don’t need coddling, mere tough love, or demonization. We need empathy, support, truth and we need appropriate space to grow, heal, and thrive. In my experience, too many people are unable to give all of these things. To fail in this regard is to perpetuate the cultural failure of dealing with mental illness appropriately. Individual behavior supervenes into culture, both in terms of the families we create and the societies we share.
This is why Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative is so powerful (even if it is limited); if you want to act in a selfish way which does not make the world better, you are part of the problem. If you defend a philosophical position of selfishness (*cough* Ayn Rand *cough*) and are not willing to give of yourself, to accommodate to those near you,or to really listen, then you are part of the problem. If we seek a world with better mental health, more social justice, and one where groupthink, tribalism, and self-justification are minimized, we must be willing to be compassionate and, in some cases, accommodating.
I especially like Dan’s discussion about Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment in context to all of this.
The worst possible response to this is to suffer ressentiment as our reaction. As Nietzsche characterized the concept of “ressentiment” it’s when you cannot have something good and it makes you so envious and enraged that you attack its very value.
Especially this distinction:
What many men seem to fear in feminism is that it’s “bitter women who adopt a female supremacist ideology based on their bad experiences with a few men”. They accuse it of being an overcorrection based on a man-hating ressentiment. Hence the #notallmen meme. “Not all men are like that” doesn’t serve as a useful reminder not to pathologize all men and all of men’s sexuality in an overcorrection against predatory forms of it, which is a fine and important qualifier in criticisms. Instead “not all men” is often said in such a way as to say, “there is nothing wrong with our culture’s ideas about gender and there is nothing for me to introspect about, a few bad apples don’t spoil the bunch”. This conveniently would get almost all men off the hook from having to learn anything or do anything different in response to the complaints of women. (As an atheist critic of theistic religions, I constantly have to deal with the equivalent “get out of self-criticism free” card “Not all religious people are like that!” waved in my face all the time.)
Arguments against the word “feminism” are often coupled with declarations of egalitarianism. They are essentially saying, “we should just be concerned with equality and not with the needs of women in particular“. Yet, the reason feminists think there’s no contradiction in being focused on women as a means to equality is because there are a number of ways that women are specifically treated as unequal and subordinate socially, morally, and politically in our culture and around the world. There is special attention to women in particular because women’s equality is missing in particular.
which is similar to a point I was making a while back in response to this post by Evid3nc3, which I still disagree with.
And, of course, any time the Stoics are brought in, I swoon a bit. Because, well, I’m a nerd. Shut up!
As the Stoics rightly teach us it is only a source of misery to put our own feelings of self-worth up to the opinions of others to control. If you are dependent on other people liking you in order to like yourself, you’re making yourself vulnerable to something you cannot control. And no amount of raging and domineering towards the people you feel are withholding their approval from you will solve the problem. You need to focus on what true personal excellences look like and cultivate those.
This is especially relevant to my disorder, and this point is brought up repeatedly in writing about BPD. I will do what I can to take these words to heart. For me, a consistent self-worth is hard to maintain. I need to remind myself, every day, that people love me. In time, I will be able to do this on my own (and I will hope to receive it from others as well), but when times are tough, I rely on validation from others quite often.
And, of course, the payoff:
In a secular culture we need to take active responsibility for shaping our own norms and values rationally. We shouldn’t be deferring to common sense–it’s riddled with harmful prejudices. We shouldn’t be dangerously rehearsing outmoded and unfair biases. We should all feel ourselves to be actively responsible for exactly what values and norms we perpetuate. We should all scrutinize them for flaws and work to fix them. We all need to feel responsible to do this. We all need to feel responsible to have constructive discussions with other people we influence and who influence others. Yes, all men need to do this.
Overwhelming emotion has been a story of much of my life. From a bad temper as a child to the likelihood of anxiety and traumatic memories suddenly paralyzing me or causing dramatic behavior today, it is a thing I deal with most days. I can be calm one moment and in a minute I can be full of flurries of fear, hurt, and am shaking so much that it’s hard to type. This, in fact, happened to me while I was composing the draft of this blog post, because I received news that triggered fear, anxiety, and anger in me. I had to walk away from the post for several hours before continuing, knowing that had I continued as was, the post would have been full of anger. Parts may still contain a bit of that.
The neuroscience of BPD says that borderlines tend to have smaller amygdalas, and when a stressful stimuli occurs what happens in the parts of the brain responsible for emotional managements (amygdala included) is that it acts sort of like a small engine which revs up really fast, putting the person in a situation where they pass the appropriate level of emotion for that situation and often towards emergency levels of emotion. This, combined with the decreased activity in the pre-frontal cortex, where executive decision making, complex problem solving, and the ability to cognitively distinguish between nuanced ideas happens, causes a potentially explosive situation.
It’s like having the fight/flight reflex happen merely at hearing bad news. Wait, no, it’s not merely like that; that actually happens to me sometimes..
This state of affairs leads to a mood where impulses become much more problematic. For me, these impulses feel like swimming within an ocean of a new mood which I am drowning in. It’s like I was suddenly inundated with the waters of fear, anxiety, etc and the sudden desire to say something, do something, or hide in a corner alone is like being near something which is floating. To have the wherewithal to recognize that I’m not actually drowning and the floating thing is actually a hungry bear is a difficult challenge.
These sudden changes in the emotional environment within me may persist over an extended period of time, which for me is usually hours rather than days or longer (as with, for example, bipolarity, where the mood may last for weeks or longer.). Often, the mood will pass within minutes, depending on the severity and the cause. Adjusting to the emotion, allowing it to calm over time and through positive stimuli (affection usually helps), and preventing it from perpetuating via re-engaging the triggers all help avoid giving into the impulses.
Essentially, radical mood swings can sometimes mean going from calm to crazy in a few seconds. And because the parts of the brain responsible for emotional control and rational thinking are suddenly compromised, suddenly and often without much warning, one doesn’t always have time to prevent the emotion from taking over. The real strategy is to avoid triggering stimuli where you can, which can hard when sometimes that stimuli is a memory or a person (who might show up at any time at a social event, for example).
While there are medications which might help with this, for many borderlines the medication sometimes has little to no effect or the side effects may be worse. I am currently on no medication, and given my progress I am not convinced that I will need to start taking them. I will continue to monitor how mood shifts continue in the future, and re-evaluate whether I might want to consider medication in the future as that monitoring continues.
Stress, Anxiety, and Trauma
Being me, some days, is like walking around with a box full of fireworks in a warehouse partially on fire. If I pay enough attention, am diligent and careful, and if the fires around me are not too close, I will be fine. Triggers can range from specific people, being treated a certain way, having plans I was looking forward to cancelled, etc. One minute I’m fine, but hear some news, see a person, or am reminded of something painful. The next thing I know I’m (at worst) crying, alone, fighting of really strong impulses which will probably not end well, even if they are sometimes meant with the best intentions.
I don’t always succeed in resisting such impulses. Sometimes the radical mood shifts lead to dramatic behaviors. Sometimes it just leads to periods of depression punctuated by moments of intense hurt, unloving behavior towards people I genuinely care about, and further distance from everyone.
We all have things which cause anxiety, stress, and many of us have traumatic memories. I have lots of all of these. One specific traumatic event which happened shortly after college and involved a woman who I was engaged to, a daughter we had and gave up for adoption, and my finding out that my fiance had taken me for every cent I was worth and put me in massive debt was probably the major event that pushed me over the line of being diagnoseable (although it was years before I was diagnosed).
And as more traumatic life circumstances perpetuated, the amount of raw emotion present in my day-to-day life increased. Over the last few years of my life, I have dealt with being abandoned in a city where I knew almost nobody by someone I decided to trust. There was one bad living situation where Ginny and I were treating like servants, living in a basement and permitted to come upstairs only at allotted times. And while the events of a few years back still sting, they don’t have the potential, most of the time, to hijack my mood completely. More recent events of another unhealthy living situation are still quite fresh and have caused me a lot of trauma which have caused a variety of radical mood shifts over the last few months.
Those experiences existed alongside the many other complications of coming to grips with a diagnosis which excavates many deeply buried feelings, triggers, and memories. Much of the last few years have been a mine-field of sadness, trauma, and anger for me, especially very recently.
What I need from people close to me is some level of genuine consideration, and ideally care and love. (It’s fair to point out that this is also what I need to be giving, rather than allow the effects of these mood shifts to cause bad behavior on my part). And I get these things from many people, and my appreciation for that is immense.
But I cannot receive this from every direction, nor would it be rational to expect or hope that it would. We need to pay attention to where the love comes from, where the abuse comes from, and also that just because love or abuse came from somewhere it does not mean it will always come from there. People change, especially after formative events, and we should allow for the possibility that people will grow or that we had them wrong all along.
This is something I am constantly trying to remind myself of; the people that hurt me are not all evil nor will they necessarily always hurt me. I cannot lock in my view of a person for all time based purely on previous behavior and treatment, even if this is a significant or primary factor. I must also consider factors such as their willingness to change, their continued behavior to other people, and what they also did that was good towards me. Loss of trust, in other words, can be compared to how we think about prison; we can think of it as a pace to keep dangerous people away, or a place to give people a chance to be rehabilitated.
Because I recognize that I am a person who is capable of very good things but have also done terrible things, I have to accept the possibility that people who have hurt me might be equally capable of good, even towards me. Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic right now (where earlier I was much more cynical), but most of the time I want to give people an opportunity to surprise me and to prove my estimation of them wrong.
Of course, there is always a line beyond which forgiveness and opportunities is too far removed. I would not advocate for this mentality to be applied to all situations, and am not precisely sure where the line is. I do, however, believe that when trust is attached to pain, it rarely will grow back. When trust is attached to our ability to grow, it slowly heals pain.
Causes and Types of Mood Swings
On Monday (Memorial Day), Ginny and I were driving back from Delaware where we had been visiting my mom for the weekend. We had been doing holiday weekend beach-bumming and drinking happy hour drinks, and on that ride back we were listening to one of my favorite albums (Collective Soul’s Dosage, if you’re curious). This is relevant for two reasons.
One, this album always makes me feel good (just like Counting Crows’ August and Everything After and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, among a few others) so it is a good example of a trigger than can effect my mood. But in this case, it’s relevant because despite the previous reason, I was suddenly, while driving and listening, struck with some recent and painful memories which started to suck me into a hole of hurt, anger, and depression. I had to fight them off by singing along, which got easier as I forced myself to ignore those memories. I was in a tug of war with the sadness, hurt, and overwhelming sense of existential loneliness inside me as well as the music which I love surrounding me and with my lovely and amazing wife next to me.
Such juxtapositions are very common for me, and they can be confusing for people close to me. There may seem to be a contradiction about being surrounded by people who love you and feeling crappy anyway, but it happens. Close temporal proximity of moods with conflicting natures is just part and parcel of my borderline existence.
Music can be a trigger for emotions, sure, but what about other things?
Clutter, disorder, and mistakes (especially if I make them) are a big source of mood shift for me. Staying too long in a messy place has a visceral and powerful effect on my mood. I may appear calm and normal, but if the space I’m in is especially dirty or disorganized (and not in a minor way; it has to be pretty significant to bother me) then I will be fighting back feelings of discomfort and the constant struggle against such feelings will make me more susceptible to other kinds of triggers, since I’m already taxing my mind by managing strong feelings.
If I make a mistake, I often punish myself internally. I have been known to get really angry if I miss an exit on a highway, especially if it’s because I got distracted. Not rational or proportional, I know. Remember the emotional management part of the brain going from calm to crazy? Yeah, it’s that. What should be a minor annoyance at most turns into heightened anger at myself or others for minor issues.
Dismissal or inconsiderate behavior is another. The closer someone is to me, the more powerful any level of rejection will feel. If a girlfriend were to dismiss a a struggle of mine, a desire of mine, etc it would really hurt. Luckily for me, all of my partners are very unlikely to do such a thing, so this is not a major concern for me. If a close acquaintance perpetually ignores me or scoffs at me, this is also painful and can trigger all sorts of mood shifts, but usually hurt and anger. This also does not usually happen (anymore), so it is not an every day concern.
A person who is coldly indifferent to the needs, preferences, or desires of others is also a major trigger from me. It’s one of the reasons one of my values is attention and empathy.
What about every day things? Well, as Ginny can attest, any annoying problem with (for example) one of my computers, especially if it was just working, makes me hella cranky. If I’m writing, being interrupted also makes me cranky and I will more likely ignore or be rude to someone who does so. Also, if I’m thinking really hard about a problem I have not yet solved, being asked about it makes me (you guessed it) cranky.
Why? Well, in these cases it is because I have managed to avoid radical mood shifting events for a while, and have settled into a place of some peace, order, and productivity where I am capable of moving forward and creating something worthwhile. But one idiosyncratic aspect of my mind is that (for many complicated reasons) I can lose a whole idea very very easily. Ideas form in my head like holograms, the whole is in a part, and the parts contain the whole. If I lose a train of thought and lose an idea, I might not get it back. Losing that train is one of the most powerful triggers, day-to-day, which can cause me to feel a lack of control and brings forth feelings of incompetence and frustration.
So, given this, one would think that the best thing to do, if I look like I’m concentrating and alone, would be to leave me alone. But then theirs the other side of this.
If I’m feeling crappy, I’ll sometimes lose myself in a game (although not always a game) as a sort of escape from the pain for what’s getting to me. If I stay there too long then I don’t want to leave, due to the numbing effect of the escape. The problem is that from the outside, telling the difference between the two can be hard, and even Ginny does not often know the difference all the time. If depression and deep contemplation look the same, what is a partner to do?
Well, as I have told Ginny, if a person comes over to me and touches me affectionately in order to get my attention and I don’t respond in any way or I pull away, then something is wrong. If I respond, but make it calmly , lovingly, verbally clear I’m working on something, then I’m fine. When I’m not fine, however, I sometimes need a tug away from the funk I’m in. And here is where these mood shifts have always become a problem for relationships, especially if we’re cohabiting.
One of the easiest ways that I can reel towards unhealthy and abusive behavior is when I continue to not be fine for extended periods of time, and then when I finally pull myself up a little bit the mood has not lifted and I am, you guessed it, exceedingly cranky. Then any communication becomes hard, and my deep feelings surface in the form of lashing out. If I’m in the funk, my behavior becomes erratic, hurtful, and sometimes mean. And I hate that part of me. I need to stop hating that part of me because hating it only makes it worse.
I have so many horrible memories of being in deep funks of depression and having a loved one try and reach out to me for attention, affection, and time together only to have me push them away. This, over time, turns into a cycle of emotionally abusive treatment which I desperately want to avoid. The problem is one of lack of communication about how I’m hurting, and it is unacceptable and needs to stop. I may occasionally need a loved one to pull me out of a funk. but it’s my responsibility to communicate about feeling shitty before I get sucked into that funk in the first place.
Which means that I need to exist, most of the time, in an environment conducive to emotional openness and vulnerability. I need not to be scared, feel bullied, or out-right abused myself. And if I’m not feeling scared, bullied, and abused then I am much better at communicating and not treating partners badly due to a mood swing sinking me into a depressive funk. Depression will still happen, but so long as I can communicate on the way down and keep my loved ones close, walking out of it in a few hours will be easy and the ensuing communication will lead to more intimacy and closeness rather than distance, hurt, and damage to trust.
The Solution (a work continually in progress)
So, how can this mess be fixed? How can I, as a person who struggles with symptoms of a disorder which fills me with fear of abandonment, feelings of emptiness, has the potential to make relationships difficult, makes me impulsive, and which subjects me to radical mood shifts succeed in the environment of polyamory? How can I navigate these harsh seas without sinking the ship?
In many ways, it’s akin to writing a symphony. Or, since I’m not a composer, it’s akin to appreciating the complexities, inter-weavings, and beauty of a symphony. If you have an idea of a theme for a piece of music, you can both anticipate and be moved by it. It may not do exactly as you’d expect or like, and there may be moments when you yearn for a note or a phrasing which will either be left silent or returned to later in beautiful and often emotionally powerful ways.
Over here, we have a deep, trembling, emotional tone (perhaps of a cello) which demands patience but is also capable of providing a sense of grounding and power to the music. Over there is the dancing quickness of the violin (for example), capable of soaring to emotional heights of joy and depths of sadness, but it’s part is different from the low tones and can often grab a hold of your attention in order to drags you along with it. The people in our lives play different parts, in different ways. And sometimes, according to what piece of music you want to play, the bassoon, piano, or timpanis may not work where in another they would be an appropriate addition.
But more important is the fact that we are not any one piece of music. Perhaps today I’m a playful divertimento, but tomorrow I’ll be a morose requiem (I’m been listening to Mozart today). With each mood, comes a different kind of music, and different people can play different roles in these moments. The people who keep coming back to play parts in our lives are the people we will develop close ties with. They fit us in different ways, at different times, and they help fill out the whole of our lives. Each mood, even the unpleasant ones, have people who can play parts within them.
We are complicated beings. We are not one thing, and we cannot (and should not) be defined by a single ideal or goal. We have to learn to move freely between our selves, including our moods, because they will happen whether we like it or not. We will change as people, both in the short term ups and downs of mood as well as the slow progression of intellectual, emotional, and social growth over years. We will learn new things about ourselves frequently, and we have to become comfortable with the fact that we are not people defined by either our past (our mistakes or successes), our present (how we are currently feeling), or our future (our ideals or goals). We are in flux, a Heraclitean river unto ourselves.
I am not a borderline. My disorder, as it exists right now, does not define me in any ultimate or unchangeable way. My past mistakes do not define me. The mood I’m in now will not determine who I am, because I know that it will change and I will float through sadness, happiness, and all the spaces around from day to day. My future is not limited to neither the ideals I might hold nor the symptoms which seek to imprison me. Ideals and anxieties of the future are not reality, and they don’t have to become real.
As a person who does not believe in free will as a possible state of affairs, I must recognize that the deterministic processes around me are the ultimate choosers. At the same time, I cannot see all of what those factors are. My will is as much a part of that process as it is a result of it. I cannot know the future, so there is no difference, from my limited scope, from being free and being constrained by the laws and forces of a deterministic nature..
My disorder is not an excuse, it is not a definition, and it is no more permanent, in the larger frame of time of my life, than my mood is right now to the frame of time of this week. I have hurt people, I will likely hurt people in the future, and I have many regrets in my life. My goal is not to never hurt anyone again because that would be futile and the prophesy it’s own failure. My goal is to continue to be aware of the geography of my mental landscape and to find the people who will contribute to the many symphonies which I am capable of playing.
And when hard moments, days, weeks, and months come (and they will), I will hope to allow them to pain my heart the way that Beethoven does in his 7th symphony, second movement; it will ache, it will make me want throw myself to the fire, but when that next piece of music come son I’ll be ready to dance. Those moments of paralyzed distance, where I need to be pulled out by loved ones, need to be moments of perspective and opportunities for intimacy, not potential for lashing out. Where I’m hurting, I need to recognize that there are people close by who wish to see me dance as well.
What the world has to offer, whether self-centered jerks, beautiful creative people, or all the NPCs of our lives, will give us all sorts of boons and banes. But the jerks can’t always hurt us nor can the beautiful people always raise us up. And remember; sometimes the jerks and the beautiful people are interchangeable from year to year, month to month, and maybe day to day. We are, all of us, legion. They, like you and I, are not defined by their past, present, or future. There may be many parts of them unseen by us. Remember to allow people to surprise you and I will try the same..
In the end I will continue to be optimistic about the people who have hurt me, knowing very well that this consideration may never be returned to me. I will not resign to classify others any more then I will allow them to classify me. Caution, not borders, is what is needed. I’ll try to remain cautiously optimistic, and not allow any person to define me any more than my moods.
And hopefully, soon, I will be on the borderline of not being constantly afraid, hurt, and angry.
I look forward to that day and I hope there will be many others with me along the road. The road to recovery is difficult but manageable with appropriate levels of compassion, empathy, and willingness not to define each other merely by the hurt we cause.
I have never had an MRI or any other brain-imaging done to verify this, but I have reason to suspect that I may have a smaller hippocampus and possibly a reduced amygdala.
Why would I suspect such a thing? Well, people who have symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder tend to have these brain regions of reduced size, especially those with comorbidPTSD (source). People with reduced hippocampi tend to be more impulsive.
Borderlines tend to be impulsive.
Emotional management and impulsiveness are, in many ways, the hallmark of dealing with BPD. If you know a borderline, what you expect is a person who can shift moods quite quickly, and you might see a pattern of destructive behavior. For many borderlines, this takes the form of heavy drug use, unhealthy levels of promiscuity, etc. In other words, impulsive and potentially destructive behavior.
Perpetual fighting and flighting
Have you ever been suddenly scared and felt yourself become overwhelmingly alert, reactive, or anxious? Your adrenaline spikes, your fight/flight instincts kick in, and while you are more alert you may find that if you tried to apply some rational analysis to the situation you may be unable to do so. Some series of events have kicked up the parts of your brain responsible for quick decision-making, such as defending yourself or running away, but your resources towards rational thinking are temporarily compromised.
Now, imagine that this happened to you frequently, as a response to mild sources of stress or social situations. Imagine that this happened at a party or around certain (types of) people. Imagine if you grew up with this always happening to you, and so you didn’t realize this was abnormal. There are reasons I choose writing as an outlet, and tend to be quiet in person.
Living within a mind populated by fears of abandonment, chronic feelings of emptiness, and drastic mood swings (we’ll get to that in the next post) puts that mind on high alert all the time. Most of the time, I can easily manage impulses, whether they are to eat that whole container of ice cream, responding to that idiotic post or comment on the internet, or punching that douche-bag. In my life, I have eaten whole containers of ice cream, responded to idiots on the internet, and while it has been very rare (attending a Quaker school probably helped this) I have thrown a couple of punches.
But these types of impulses are not the largest concern for me. In my case, the larger concern is what I will call the potential monster lurking under the dark waters, barely seen but always present. This is the monster that interferes with rational thinking, probably due to the abnormal brain physiology consistent with BPD. You may have known me for years and never realized it was there. A few people do know it well, some of which do not speak to me any more. And yet, some both know about it and are close to me, probably because those people are amazing and awesome.
And, of course, my impulses, great and small, have led to amazing and awesome people leaving me. Hence my intense desire to understand, treat, and heal from the pain that often causes my impulses. Emotions and desires lead to impulses. Impulses can lead to both good and bad actions, but also to a wide range of radical mood shifts.
I have intentionally planned this post directly before the last in this series, wherein I will talk about radial mood shifts and emotional instability, because that instability and shifting is largely due to the presence of an aspect of my mind which sometimes terrifies me and forces me to be perpetually vigilant against an impulsiveness which is usually not a problem.
The fact that we all want to think of ourselves as good, smart, rational people means that we might lean towards self-justification in most cases, and this is also true of myself. But in my case, and I have no idea how this is true for other people, I’m almost always aware of the monster swimming under the murky surface which might, at any moment, cause me to make a poor decision, lash out suddenly and without apparent cause (there is a cause, it’s just usually buried under tons of emotions), or to spend hours or days parrying impulses towards a person who has severely hurt me. These feelings are the source of rationalization, self-justification, and cognitive biases.
When I first drafted this section, I spent some time composing examples of impulses, struggles with internal impulses to act in ways which might hurt people (because I’m being hurt by them), etc. As I kept writing, it became clear to me that the writing itself was a metaphor for itself. I was succumbing to the impulses that I was speaking of, and the tone of the section was highly aggressive, angry, and ultimately full of deep pain.
Because Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. After I wrote several paragraphs, I realized I was writing out of pain, anger, and I was suffering. And I wanted to redirect that suffering elsewhere. Those impulses to redirect pain (and abuse) are what has ended many of my relationships. I found myself doing that here, in writing about impulsiveness. Funny how that happens.
My writing was becoming an attack, not only upon people who have hurt me, but also upon myself. This is the largest, for me, result of my impulsivity. For me, being impulsive does not play itself out as drug abuse,gambling, or unhealthy sexual promiscuity. I don’t seek fights, stay out all night drinking, or go home with someone from a bar whom I hardly know.
Instead, my impulses lead to a frequent state of mind where the possibility for a rational or philosophical analysis are hindered. I find myself arguing between options which are all impulse-based, led by raw emotion, and I have to calm myself down to think rationally. Often anger and pain are the dominating emotions at such times, but not always. I am aware of this, most of the time, so I can catch it in order to calm myself down and re-evaluate (as I did here). As the years have gone by, this struggle and the subsequent need for re-evaluation has ended up making me too afraid to act in most cases just in case my decision might be made in a compromised state of mind.
That is, just in case my rational attributes are compromised (because if they are, I probably don’t know it) I have learned not to act, most of the time, rather than to act poorly. Of course, I do things quite often and sometimes a poor decision slips in, despite my trying to not allow poor impulses to make the decisions. The problem has become how to act wisely. How can I trust my ability to make decisions when I occasionally make really poor ones? Would trusting myself more make me more or less likely to act impulsively?
My intentions are good, the vast majority of the times (which is to say, I occasionally have impulses which don’t come from good places). I don’t want to hurt people, I want to treat people well, and I want healthy relationships. These are all trustworthy attributes, so long as I’m capable of practicing them in actual behavior (which is the vast majority of the time). I trust my ability to act morally and responsibly when I’m able to think clearly and rationally. And despite the fact that I usually act rationally and responsibly, that I make mistakes weighs heavily on my mind most of the time. I’m sure none of this is different from most of you who are reading this.
But my having a (likely) abnormal brain physiology, the skills to manage such human impulses require more honing and attention than with most people. We all can occasionally give in to an impulse, hurt someone, and then have to find a way to atone. The problem for me is that the little impulses every day lead to a habit of doing things which create day-to-day struggles for people close to me, which are often the result in tiny slippages of impulse control.
These slips can come to look like I’m a person to be afraid of, to not trust, and at it’s worst can turn into abuse. It is my most important day-to-day concerns to treat people well, anticipate their needs and triggers, and to listen and be self-critical. When things are very stressful for me, especially when I’m experiencing abuse myself, I have hurt people. I have lost relationships. I have lost trust.
I cannot take back my actions, but I can continue to be self-critical, listen to people around me, and be more aware of the causes of my behavior. And despite my mistakes, I have many people who do trust me because they know that I don’t deny responsibility for my actions, I am working to be better, and that trust is about who we are as people–if we are self-critical, if we are empathetic, and if we seek to learn from mistakes– as much as what we merely do.
And as my environment improves, I learn more about my disorder, and as I heal from traumatic experiences, my ability to manage normal levels of impulses becomes easier and I am less anxious and stressed. Where I, in unhealthy environments, had to be vigilant 24/7, now I just need to be aware of potential stressers and prepare for them when necessary.
Just like everybody else, except I probably have some abnormal brain physiology that makes it harder for me than most people. Lucky me.
Impulsiveness and relationships
What does this have to do with polyamory? Well, insofar as a person might be more impulsive in terms of pursuing sexual contact with more people, it might be a problem is some cases. Where increased drug use, gambling, etc affects relationships, it is relevant as well. It will effect communication and other aspects of interaction within relationships, but so long as that polyamorous environment is healthy, emotionally open, and everyone is aware of the issues and adjusts (to some reasonable degree, of course) to those issues, these symptoms are manageable.
Outside of the rare case where impulsiveness might lead to a decision which hurts a partner, most of my concern with impulsiveness comes from how I react to a recurring stressful situation or person. For me, the biggest concern about impulsiveness has been problems with a tendency to communicate with, react to, or act upon partners and metamours in ways, day to day, where I have not taken enough time to govern my impulses. That is, this is relevant to polyamory in the sense that it is relevant to any relationship.
Impulsiveness, and the subsequent shiftiness of moods, make communication difficult much of the time. Despite my desire for intimacy and emotional openness, because I’m managing impulses frequently this will sometimes interfere with my ability to communicate effectively. The resulting anxiety will have effects on my relationships.
I communicate my desires and needs poorly as a result of such anxieties. If I’m being hurt by someone, my ability to address this is hampered by a constant slew of impulses to say or do hurtful things in response. If I’m hurting someone, my ability to make amends is interrupted by an impulse to self-justify. If someone is walking away in frustration or fear, personally attacking me, or I’m being misunderstood or demonized then the problem is that I’m so busy fighting off the strong emotional impulses to lash out due to the fears and emptiness this brings to mind, that I am more likely to confirm any negative opinions of me than to demonstrate otherwise, if I do respond
This, unfortunately, leads to inaction where action is sometimes needed. And while I recognize that the ability to act, when appropriate, is healthier and better, sometimes it feels impossible to do so. Sometimes it may be unwise to do so, as a borderline, where for otehr people doing so would be good. Having these symptoms, I know that acting in some circumstances will expose me to overwhelming amounts of stress, anxiety, and my ability to manage impulses will probably be broken.
For people with mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder which makes speaking up, demanding right treatment, or self confidence hard, to be told that we are somehow failing because of our inaction only rubs salt into the wound, because we already know that.
Any person proceeding with comparable ease in asserting oneself and not being paralyzed by fear, anxiety, or emotional management is in a place of privilege. A place of privilege should be a place of compassion and understanding, not accusation and superiority. I’m in a place where I need understanding, encouragement, and care and not judgment, abuse, and demonization. I’m trying very hard to manage intense impulses, mood swings, and fears every day. If you are not, then making assertive decisions, requests, etc is easy.
Communication will often be hard for me until I reach the point of remission; until I am no longer diagnoseable. Until then, please remember that my disorder may not give me a free pass on my mistakes, but it also does not define me in any essential or fundamental way. Don’t allow anyone to only be defined by their mistakes, because we all make them. We all sometimes succumb to the worst impulses within us,and we all need to remember that each of us has also done good as well as bad.
My impulses, when I’m in a healthy place, are manageable and often good as well as bad. I’m hoping for more impulses to say hello, to give hugs, and to force myself to move past my fears and develop relationships of all kinds. Because some impulses should not be resisted.
Imagine yourself sitting in a room, of unknown shape, with mirrors at various angles making up the walls. It could very well be a mirror maze, like the ones you might find at a carnival, down the shore at one of the many boardwalk locales with rides and games, or perhaps in the mansion of some eccentric billionaire with interesting ideas about interior decorating.
If you had sufficient light, could you determine the shape of the room (within your line of sight) without moving around (you could rotate, but not move around)? With simple enough shapes perhaps you could, but as the complexity of the shape and the number of mirrors increases, the task of determining the exact shape would be difficult at best, impossible at worst.
If you placed a computer of sufficient complexity, with cameras and other accessories attached, perhaps it could do so more quickly and efficiently than you or I could. Perhaps some minds, better suited for such tasks, could do it as well. Of course, why you might spend your time calculating the shape of mirrored rooms is your issue.
Wait, I’m the one thinking up ridiculous scenarios. I hope I’m going somewhere with this….
I’m Going somewhere with this, honestly!
Sometimes, the internal cognitive structure of my mind feels like a hall of mirrors, where the light is insufficient and I can’t even turn my head in all directions. Trying to figure out the angles, turns, and shape of the environment seems like trying to figure out the shape of a hall of mirrors, similar to the description above. I think that if only I were super intelligent, I might be able to calculate the shape of my internal self and I could know exactly how to fix what seems broken, or at least what is not ideal.
If I were smart enough, my mental health could simply be rationalized away! Like magic, except rational. So, like rationalized denial, or something. Shut up! I’m really going somewhere with this, honest.
But then, another idea comes to mind; what if it weren’t a puzzle? What if the information at hand were not sufficient to calculate a solution? What if the mirrors in the hall were so complex that determining the shape of the room could never leave the mathematical realm of probability and enter into deductive logic?
What if you were perpetually forced to guess, anticipate, and be forced to be wrong much of the time? What would that be like?
Oh, right, that would be like reality.
What if it were not possible for me, or anyone, to know the shape of my mind? What if we were all problems, and not puzzles?
A dichotomy or a mere illusory problem?
In much of philosophical history, probably because Plato left so many footnotes, there is a hard, and often dichotomous, distinction between the intellect and the a-rational emotions, instincts, etc. As I have argued previously (mostly in relation to my ongoing series of critiques of Ayn Rand), this distinction is not really so hard, and the fact is that our rationality grows out of irrational soil. Our intellectual and emotional selves are intertwined in all sorts of complicated ways.
In philosophy, the distinction between a puzzle and a problem is essentially that a puzzle just takes time processing power, etc to solve. A problem is something that does not have a rational solution, and may have no solution at all. While some might say it is here where we dive into the realm of theology, I might lean a little more towards a positivist’s answer that such things might, in fact, be meaningless.
Or, they just might not have solutions that we can find, given our cognitive deficiencies, limited understanding, etc.
My intellect insists that the cognitive landscape within is a puzzle. When I’m feeling confident in this set of attributes which we refer to as intellect, I believe that given enough time and processing power, I can figure out the problems within my mind, personality, and social self and determine a rational solution to any mental health concerns I might have.
What of the other attributes? I am cautious to call them non-rational, because they are real physical processes which must adhere to some physical, and thus analog, rules. But they are at least convoluted puzzles, perhaps the parts of which are too hidden to determine how they work. (This, of course, is still my intellect insisting that this is a solvable puzzle, if not an excessively hard one).
Even if it were a puzzle, because the parts are not all accessible to me (I am not conscious of all the cognitive processes in my brain, which is one of the reasons why intelligence is insufficient), the practical result is that there is no difference between it being a potentially solvable puzzle and a problem, from my conscious point of view.
So, am I a problem to myself, or am I a puzzle?
My intellect insists I’m a puzzle, and the rest of me insists, perhaps stubbornly, the opposite. In other words, my emotions insist I’m a problem (that’s a little Borderline Personality Disorder joke there…). The problem there is that my intellect is dependent upon emotion, instinct, and unconscious processes to exist, and all of those things rely of the intellect to correct them (assuming we value skepticism to any degree, of course).