Draw intrinsic drive by confronting the terrible

My cliff notes for “See the dark world“:

We frequently, when frustrated by the world, invent reasons to make it seem tolerable — not to judge things as good, but acceptable as they are, even though they may be bad.

[U]pon seeing that the world is broken, people experience an impulse to explain the brokenness in a way that relieves the tension. When seeing that the world is broken, people reflexively feel a need to explain…

Maybe our we gave our best (even though it wasn’t good enough). Maybe something — famine, war — is terrible, but beyond our control (we aren’t responsible). Maybe we wash our hands spitefully (because we didn’t get what we wanted).

These are all strategies to make things tolerable — fundamentally acceptable as-is — which eases the tension when something is unacceptable. This is called tolerification. It is a human reflex — we all do it, and do frequently. It is seeking an explanation of the dark state of our world that relieve us from the pressure of action or responsibility.

Even cynicism, I think, can fill this role: I often read cynicism as an attempt to explain a world full of callous neglect and casual cruelty, in a framework that makes neglect and cruelty seem natural and expected (and therefore tolerable).

For example: The actuarial market value of saving a life is approximately $3,000. This is reprehensible. Two ways to tolerify it are to (1) reject that markets can make value a sacred life entirely as a ridiculous, rejecting this fact out of hand; or to (2) conclude cynically that actually lives aren’t sacred, after all, and thus not worth saving (or worrying about). Both approaches relieve pressure. Both approaches deny that there is a market value of life, and lives are invaluable. That world — our world — is a dark world. It is unacceptable, so we impulsively tolerify it.

Now that we’ve removed guilt and obligation as a motivator [in previous posts in this series], we are motivated intrinsically. By relieving pressure, tolerification saps our intrinsic motivation.

To preserve and strengthen your intrinsic, be mindful of tolerification, and instead, focus on the dark world. (This is, obviously, incredibly grim.)

A tool to help with this: Pose yourself a “what if” question: What if _____ (something bad) is the case, and it is unacceptable (in other words, whatever you’ve found to tolerify it is invalid)? What would I do then?

The nice thing about the “what if” question is that I don’t need to believe that that’s the actual world when pondering the “what if”. I don’t need to acknowledge that I am [for example] unqualified for the job, I can simply ask what would do if I were

The answer might require self-improvement — say, improving some skill or attribute that isn’t good enough yet) — or realignment of your life or believes to address some injustice or hard apparent truths…

There is no one right answer to the “What if the world really is so dark?” question, but asking it should generally lead to two things consistently: First, a sense of despairing over unfair, unacceptable, things. None of this is easy! But second, it also leads to a sense of resolve, because avoiding the pressure relief allows you to face what needs to be done, and to act.

People say they need to tolerify, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to handle the intolerable world.

But that’s false. Acknowledging that the world is unacceptable will not kill you; the world is already as unacceptable as it is. Remember the litany of Gendlin.


Let the world be not okay. Live in that space, where you feel cold resolve, fury, determination, even despair, and can be powered by those things. This kind of intrinsic drive comes from bearing the truth, which is exactly the opposite of the common wisdom that we need fantasies to bear the truth.

I say, if you want the intrinsic drive, drop the illusion. Refuse to tolerify. Face the facts that you feared you would not be able to handle. You are likely correct that they will be hard to bear, and you are likely correct that attempting to bear them will change you. But that change doesn’t need to break you. It can also make you stronger, and fuel your resolve.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Buckle down

My cliff notes from “Being unable to despair“:

There are two ways to respond to things getting hard: digging deep, and giving up. Giving up can look like finding excuses, or failing dramatically. If your approach is giving up, here’s how to dig deep, instead.

First, realize that you probably aren’t someone who gives up all of the time; when facing hard problems, sometimes you do buckle down. So, you are capable of applying that response at least some of the time. Perhaps you can apply it more often.

Second, realize that doing nothing — curling up into a ball — is not a non-action; it is one choice of actions. When you do nothing, thus giving up, you are making an active choice for how to respond to a difficult challenge. (Note that the point isn’t that curling up is always bad — sometimes it may be good for you.)

Third, realize that to feel helpless sometimes is human — we all feel it at times. Feeling helpless doesn’t mean you are helpless; you can push on despite this.

[I]nternal drive often requires tapping into a deep desire to make the world be different, in a world that’s very large and very hurting and very hard to change.

[Putting it all together, working backwards: Recognize that the odds are stacked against you, just like they are everyone; difficult odds don’t let you off the hook of buckling down. You can choose to buckle down, just like others do. In fact, you already do buckle down, some of the time. Knowing all of this, be empowered to choose determined internal resolve even more often, even in the face of (and even because of) bleak odds.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Recap: Mortals need not feel guilt

My cliff notes from “Residing in the mortal realm”:

This is a recap of last seven posts’ tools and highlights their common thread of embracing our mortality — our less-than-perfectness — and then briefly looks ahead.

Focus on how to do your best given your shortcomings, instead of feeling guilt over your shortcomings.

Guilt has no place among mortals: we already know we’re fallible. We don’t need to suffer over that fact: our failings provide only information about what to do next, if we want to steer the future.

Guilt functions for some people as a motivation system. This series has focused so far on shifting and then removing guilt, and making it seem alien. It will now turn to what to replace it with to drive you in a more healthy way. [heh — it’s repeal before replace…]

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Bad doesn’t parse

My cliff notes from “There are no ‘bad people’”:

It is possible to judge someone objectively for being bad at achieving their goals, or for being poor with some skill, or for procrastination, or for hurting others. One can judge also another for the goals they choose to pursue.

But for someone to be “a bad person” is either nonsense, or shorthand for some shortcoming like those above. An objective standard for a “bad person” is elusive. Fundamental good or badness is not a quality of a person in our deterministic reality, where our being, thoughts, and choices are implemented by the laws of physics.

[This post — as with the entire series — takes a scientific view of our reality, and doesn’t consider religious perspectives for one moment. This is self-justifying, and the statements about “good” or “badness” are self-evidently logical from this perspective.]

We aren’t here to alter the color of the fundamental “goodness” stone buried within us; we’re here to make the path through time be a good one.

Look not to whether you are good or bad. Look to where you are, and what you can do from there.

Rather than fundamental judgements of us, our mistakes and wrongdoings are lessons from the past — encapsulated information about how we work in the world, that inform how we can control ourselves to bring about more good in the future.

At times we are akratic, and these moments inform where we have power, not our goodness or badness. [Here is where I believe Danny Reeves from Beeminder has something valid to criticize about this series, about the utility of channeling our guilt with personal economic commitment devices to shape our behavior in better directions, as an alternative to assuaging guilt as Nate Soares — although I suspect that Nate would actually agree. More on this in a future post, after concluding the cliff notes.]

This is freeing: We are judged only by the path of the future [and only by ourselves].

When interrogating your motivations:

  • If you discovery you are trying to avoid being bad, press on further to a more coherent answer. Treat “bad” as shorthand for some greater unconscious value.
  • If you find you’re in conflict with another, and you’re motivated to not be “bad” (because one of you must be) — liberate yourself of that good/bad frame, and investigate further.
  • If you unpack “bad” to different values or desires in conflict, that are difficult to reconcile, that is progress — it is truer than “bad” (and devoid of guilt besides).
  • If you have a hard time seeing past “bad”, then pretend someone asks you “I don’t understand ‘bad’ — can you elaborate?” — and answer.

Sometimes the answers to these interrogations present as senseless, which disarms them. There is no shame in realizing you are irrational; you are human and humans are irrational; you’re more monkey than god. Work with, not against yourself.

Rather than aim for being “good”, aim for who you want to be, what you want to work in the world, and bending towards a future you want.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Tools for self-compassion

My cliff notes from “Self compassion”:

Most people, when thinking back to a time they knew they had done wrong and were wracked by guilt, feel a sense of not wanting to look back. Yet when we imagine someone else, a child, in the same situation, suffering from learning  a hard lesson, we feel a sense of compassion for them, a desire to reassure and nurture.

Extending the same compassion to ourselves is difficult for many of us, but is important for your wellbeing. Here are two tools to cultivate self-compassion:

First, the truth that self-compassion is easily confused with self-pity or making excuses, but it is quite different. You can be self-critical and honest, while still practicing self-compassion.

Imagine feeling compassion for an athlete who fails despite trying their hardest. You can empathize with their struggle and sense of failure, without pity or pretending they haven’t made the grade. You can view yourself in the same way; “You don’t need to make excuses for yourself, to take the outside view and feel the same warmth for a monkey that’s trying to try”.

Recall that we are monkeys who can fail despite our best efforts, even sometimes with parts of us working against ourselves, as in depression and self-doubt.

The second tool is to see yourself for what you are:

I see bundles of proteins and lipids arranged in a giant colony of cells, their lives given over to the implementation of a wet protein computer that thinks it’s a person.

I see fractal patterns that arise on precisely the right sort of planet when you pour sunlight into it for a billion years.

I see wiggles in the Sun’s wake that struggle to understand the universe. Incomprehensibly large constructs made of atoms, which are unnoticeably small on the scale of galaxies.

Check in with that monkey. How’s it doing? Let it know you’ve got its back. Lend it your support. Reassure it you are there for it, no matter what — you are there for yourself.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

No, you could not have

My cliff notes from “Where coulds go”:

Willpower is scarce, and doesn’t work the way we think. When we find ourselves seemingly unable to stop a behavior we’d prefer to avoid (e.g. choosing to watch just one more episode of that show you’re binging on, long after you planned to go to bed), and think next time will be different — we’ll try even harder to stop — we give willpower too much credit.

Our real choice to stop, where we can focus more effective effort to change our behavior, occurs earlier, when making a choice to start down a path that test our willpower. If you have to apply willpower, you’ve already missed the choice to change.

A tool: Pretend you don’t have any willpower. Assume you won’t make the right choice when you start down a path where you know you’ll have trouble.

This requires awareness of patterns of behavior that lead to situations requiring willpower. Look for triggers leading to temptation to make choices you’ll regret.

I don’t treat myself as if I “could” stop binge-reading a good book, and therefore I don’t feel terrible if I binge. Instead, I say, “ah, I see, I binge-read engaging books; I will treat ‘read an engaging book’ as a single atomic action that takes five to twenty hours, with no choice nodes in between.” Where others are berating themselves for failing to complete an impossible task (“stop binge-reading halfway through and get back to real work”), I am learning what I am and am not capable of, and learning where my real action nodes are.

Our “coulds” are broken, in other words we often can’t make the right choice when we think we could. Our better judgement does not rule our behavior. Addiction, our lizard brain, being tired, our emotions — many things work against it. If you repeatedly make the wrong choice in a situation, that reveals that “you could make the right choice” in that situation is incorrect.

But we can win anyway, by “experimenting and identifying which action nodes work”. Make the choices that you succeed at, before facing the difficult decisions.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Your coulds are broken, you monkey

My cliff notes from “Not yet gods”:

We set inhuman expectations for ourselves (e.g., unsustainable work effort expectations), and feel guilt for failing to meet them, because we fail to recognize that our expectations are unrealistic. The line we draw between what is possible and impossible for ourselves is badly located: Our “‘coulds’ are broken.”

People berate themselves whenever their brain fails to be engraved with the cognitive patterns that they wish it was engraved with, as if they had complete dominion over their own thoughts, over the patterns laid down in their heads. As if they weren’t a network of neurons. As if they could choose their preferred choice in spite of their cognitive patterns, rather than recognizing that choice is a cognitive pattern. As if they were supposed to choose their mind, rather than being their mind.

We are monkeys, not gods. We’re all a bit of a mess, psychologically fragile. We all do things we regret. This is human. Yet we feel bad for not transcending our human flaws.

We monkeys behave according to stimulus-response patterns. Don’t feel guilty over this; work with it. Change the stimulus to get a different response. Experiment, and retrain the monkey (yourself).

We have ambitious goals, with complex, irrational minds we don’t fully understand, in a complex world we don’t well understand.

When our coulds are broken, we judge ourselves as super-humans; effectively as gods. Don’t do that. Judge yourself as a monkey.

Recognize that you are trying hard, and be kind to yourself! Give yourself compassion when you stumble, not judgement.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

See yourself anew

My cliff notes from “Be a new homunculus”:

This introduces a new tool for addressing guilty feelings: Pretend you are a “new homunculus”.

Homunculi are tiny representations of humans. The homunculus fallacy is locating consciousness somewhere in your brain as a tiny version of yourself in control of yourself; the problem is, who then controls the homunculus?

[B]ut it can be quite fun to pretend that you are a homunculus sometimes, mostly because this allows you to occasionally pretend you’re a new homunculus, fresh off the factory lines, and newly installed into this particular person

This can allow you to take a fresh look at yourself, without the baggage of ownership over, defensiveness of, and attachment to your current state, however you got to be who you are now. The old homunculus was responsible for how you got to where you are now. Without reason to honor old obligations, you have the privilege of cleaning house! It’s a kind of fresh start.

It can also specifically apply to guilt: Taking a fresh look can help you recognize symptoms of lingering guilt such as regrets, anxieties, and dreads, interrogate them to identify guilt at the root, and make changes (i.e, reprogram your patterns), and absolve the no-longer-useful guilt.

Guilt is a kind of subset of the sunk cost fallacy, that carries with it a lesson. This tool is broadly effective for dealing with sunk cost fallacies.

To put this into practice, when experiencing guilt:

  1. Actually close your eyes
  2. Re-open them as a new homunculus
  3. Pay close attention to the guilt
  4. Actually write down its lesson
  5. Spend 5 minutes brainstorming patterns to change
  6. Commit to making changes
  7. Thank the guilt for teaching the lesson
  8. Dismiss the guilt.

This can become reflexive with practice, and is useful in other ways outside of addressing guilt for seeing yourself anew.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Guilt is useful only when first felt

My cliff notes from “Update from the suckerpunch”:

Some think guilt is a useful guide for avoiding doing bad things. This is similar to thinking belief in god is all that keeps you from doing bad things — and both are incorrect. You have reasons to do good (you’re allowed to Fight for something) that are independent of consequences you may face from doing bad.

Some think guilt is a useful teacher of lessons, and that without it they will repeat their mistakes. Fine, but the guilt isn’t an effective teacher if it keeps happening.

That said, there are lessons that need learning, and there is something sort of like ‘guilt’ that can help you learn them.

But you can use it even while completely replacing your guilt motivation.

When you realize you’ve made a mistake, there’s a moment of acute guilt that feels “like being punched in the gut”. Lingering regret, that continues afterwards, is distinct. The former is all that you need to learn a lesson and update your behavior. You experience it as an involuntary reflex. The latter is superfluous, disposable, and something you can choose to reject.

Update immediately when you realize where you failed, and use the terrible feeling to make sure you don’t do that again.

Updating your behavior matters, and can be done immediately — so do it immediately. Moping does nothing productive or positive.

One thing that lingering regret can accomplish is sending a social signal of your penance. Sometimes in groups of friends individuals “form a tacit pact of non-excellence”. Phooey; that normalizes mediocrity. It’s far more virtuous for humans to demand positive behavior changes, instead of punishment. Consider letting go of friendships with toxic elements.

Removing guilt requires you decide you don’t need it, and give yourself permission to live without it.

Emotions generally have their uses. The sucker punch you feel following a mistake is useful. Lingering guilt is not useful.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Replace guilt with science

My cliff notes from “Don’t steer with guilt”, arguably the heart of this series:

Guilt works in the same way as a threat: You want to avoid it. Feeling guilt steers you toward a future without more guilt in it.

Being threatened with an ultimatum (say, “I’ll break your leg if you steal from me”) steers you away from a future where the threat is realized. If you need to make good on a threat often, the threat isn’t doing its job effectively of steering someone else’s behavior in a direction you prefer.

Similarly, if you find yourself experiencing guilt often, then it isn’t being effective at steering your behavior. You should ideally not feel guilt; conversely if you feel guilt often, guilt isn’t serving you.

Experiencing guilt is costly, and can be demotivation. It can lead to failure spirals: Guilt leads to more failure leads to more guilt… This can lead to boom/bust productivity/failure cycles, that lead to lower productivity over time than intrinsic motivation (lack of external, guilt-based motivation).

If you regularly behave sub-optimally, assigning guilt to that behavior will not be useful.

If the situation occurs regularly, then guilt is not the tool to use! You’re welcome to feel guilty if you ever kidnap a baby or punch a homeless person, and you can tell that the guilt is working in those cases because you never do those things. But if you repeatedly find yourself in a situation that you disprefer, then guilt is just not the tool to use. That’s not where it’s useful.

Employ science, rather than guilt, to sub-optimal ways in which you regularly find yourself behaving. Look for patterns and hypothesize about conditions that lead to your sub-optimal behavior, then experiment with changing conditions. If your behavior changes, you’ve confirmed the hypothesis. If it doesn’t, what else have you learned from the experiment that can inform your next hypothesis? And how else can you gather more data that will eventually lead to your improved behavior?

“Don’t bemoan individual failures.” Focus on the pattern.

Recognize that there are infinite ways you can improve yourself, and you have to prioritize which to focus on. Then let the others go. There’s no need to feel guilty about them, as you are spending your finite energy wisely on more important things.

[I]f you lack the time to change the pattern, then the occasional failure is a fair price. Trust yourself to fix the pattern if the costs ever get too high, trust yourself to understand that investing in yourself is important […]

Each failure is new data. Each success is new data. Feeling guilt is nonsense, as it has no positive (only negative) bearing on your science experiments.

Shift the meaning of a failure from “I am terrible, and should feel bad”, to “time to update my tactics”.


This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.