Warning: This post is not for everyone. Only continue reading if you're willing to stare directly into the parts of yourself that you do not like, even hate, and want to use them to grow. If you are not afraid of your imperfections, if you seek to change them in a sustainable way that doesn't harm yourself or others, I invite you to keep reading. All others will find what I have written below to be a waste of time. If you are already perfect and don't want to change how you think, feel, and act, then stop here.
We want to change things about ourselves. Whether it's our body, personality, or life story, there's who we are and there's who we want to be. Stronger, less fearful, more active, more expressive, less lazy, less picky, more tolerant, more "I got this," less paralyzed, more intelligent, more good looking, more bad ass, basically just different, and on top of that more happy, more authentic, and more alive.
So, great, let's do it.
What's that? You're not Ideal You yet? Still just You You?
Y'know what that means?
Congratulations, you're not a machine. You cannot be upgraded, repaired, returned, or refurbished. You and I are what science calls "Humans."
This means we are complex. Complexity means having many tiny interconnected parts that interact with each other to create what looks like a large whole. The thing is, the large whole only looks like a single thing, when it's actually a million tiny things bumping into each other. To make changes to a complex system, you can't just bend it with your hands.
Think of an ant colony. Let's say I want to get it to move in that direction, away from my back door and kitchen. Well, I can just step on the ants, the little parts, whenever I see them. I can spray an invisible line of toxic chemicals around my door and assume there'll be no unintended side effects. Or I can turn on the hose and just flood my back yard. Any simplistic antagonistic approach will work for a short period of time until the complex intelligence of the ant system overcomes my challenge, and they swarm all over my filthy stove again. Just hypothetically. This is an analogy.
We are more ant colony than we'd like to admit, and the approaches we take to improving ourselves often resemble trampling the parts of us we don't like whenever they show up, shooting chemicals into and at our bodies, and flooding our minds with feelings so intense we can't feel anything else. None of these truly changes us, gets our ants to move, makes us more who we want to be. So what are we missing?
I think it comes down to a misunderstanding. I believe I should be able to control all the tiny parts of me at once. Of course, none of us has this much control, and feeling this can lead to interpreting our situation as having NO control over ANY parts of us. This is the misunderstanding. We can control some parts sometimes. And therein lies the secret to change: control what you can when you can, and don't try to control what you can't when you can't.
The secret is that I don't have to control everything in order to make changes to the complex system I call "I." The more control I pretend to have, or think I "should" have, the less control I end up with. The more I embrace my lack of control over certain parts of me, and learn how to work with them on their terms, the more control I will actually have. This is essentially a corollary of Nassim Taleb's reasoning behind Antifragility. The more fake control we exert in complex situations, the less real control we have.
So back to the question: How in the name of goddamnitall do I get myself to be the me I want to be?
The answer is counter-intuitive. Step by step, the process I propose looks like this: 1) Try something, a new way of thinking or acting (i.e. be New You) for a little while, maybe a day or two. 2) Be as observant as possible about what step 1 feels like. Journal about it or tell a friend about it. 3) When you feel yourself starting to slip: Give yourself room to go back to being 200% Old You. 200%. 5) Trust that swinging back around to 200% Old You is good. You have not lost the war; you are just getting started. 6) As Old You fades in intensity, repeat step 1. Throughout this process, do NOT worry about trying to change yourself in other ways while working on this one. E.g. if you're changing your diet, don't also try to read more books, go out on more dates, or build your business. Slow and steady wins the race. Fast and furious crashes at the first turn.
A little explanation on the backfiring from step 3. Since we're made up of many little parts, when we try to change our whole selves, what's really happening is that some parts want to change, and other parts don't because they like how things are. When we start being New Me, those parts that don't want change will notice the changes and react. "Oh no you don't," is more or less what they'll say. At this point, the parts of us that DO want change will react back. "'Oh no I don't,' oh no you didn't," and then it's a tug of war between Old You and New You, between a gorilla and an animal balloon, respectively. How does an animal balloon get a gorilla to relax? It gives the gorilla room to be 200% gorilla.
Something to keep in mind during gorilla season is that the damage we do to ourselves by relapsing is smaller than the gains we've made by trying out the new changes. This is true of most self-destructive things that feel good. They take time to do damage, so intense but short bouts aren't as bad as long, steady habits. Relapse FEELS worse than it actually is for us, but when we resist the gorilla, it resists back, and that makes it go on for longer.
Many people I've told about this have a hard time with my answer. Give the gorilla what it wants, 200%? Doesn't that mean it'll rule you forever and you'll be lost? Only if you forget that life is long. When the gorilla senses that it's being pulled, it will go nuts; let it. Then it will slowly fade in intensity as it sees it's not fighting against anything. After a few days or a week, you will eventually have another chance to slip into your New You suit again. And then the cycle will repeat, with the gorilla being more intense than normal, and you letting it, and it calming down, and you trying again. The goal, if I'm not mistaken, is to have true freedom, the honest choice to be New You or Old You whenever it's advantageous to do so; to degrade our compulsion.
Many people will not understand what I've just written. This is OK. For those of you who do not believe that this is how personal transformation works, I hope you find a better way that works for you. I can only say that this has worked for me, and it makes sense to me why: I'm complex; I cannot control all parts of me; the parts that don't want me to change will exert influence over me when I try to make them change, hence "backfiring", the period of time after making progress toward New Me when I swing all the way around and become an even more intense version of Old Me.
What I believe more than anything about change is that I need to keep adjusting, to meet change with change, and above all stay open to the fact that I do not have control and that that is truly OK. I can work with that; what I can't work with is fake control, the feeling that I know what will happen, that I know what'll work and what won't work before trying them out, or that I can predict exactly who I'll be tomorrow. These are illusions that stop me from experiencing what's happening right now. They stop me from feeling human. They stop me from seeing future possibilities. New Me doesn't exist yet.
P.S. Here's an example of how I'm currently going through this.
I have had eczema since I was really young. It's bad, and I've rarely if ever met anyone equally afflicted. I have tried many remedies, and the best ones have worked for a while and then stopped working. After reading Antifragile, I was convinced to cut down on sugar, and to try periodic fasting. I'd never fasted before, and I was also at the same time changing my diet. I went for 2 weeks not eating any meat, dairy, sugar, or wheat/rice. AND I fasted twice, each for a day during that time period. My skin was better than it'd been in two years. And after two weeks of that New Me diet, what do you think happened?
One day, after easing off a little, eating at restaurants a couple times, I decided I'd try to fast again. I ate lunch, planning on it being my last meal for the day. When I got home, there was a big bag of cheese popcorn on top of the fridge, and I ate the whole thing. Then I went to a friend's house and ate half a pint of ice cream, several brownies, a few pieces of banana bread, and at 11 pm was about to order a burrito. My girlfriend stopped me, thankfully, as I wasn't capable of making that decision at that point. But the key was that I GAVE it to myself. I gifted the freedom to eat whatever I wanted, knowing full well that my skin would suffer again, because I was convinced that it was the long term right move. The three days after that were similar. I had thoughts of trying to stop myself, but then I had other thoughts of, "It's OK. This is just backfiring. I've made progress already, and this needs to happen now." I gave myself room to be as Old Me as necessary, without judgment. Four days later, I fasted again. I am still figuring out how to create a sustainable action plan. Every step I take provides me with more information, and gets me closer to finding the right path.
I believe that I will be successful if I can tolerate cycling between New Me and Old Me without getting stuck. That's where I'm at right now. This is by far not the last I will write on this topic.
I found myself the other day chopping some mushrooms. I've only recently, past three months or so, started to enjoy cooking, and this is largely due to my new practice of chopping everything first, rather than chop some, throw it in the pan, then rush to cut the rest so nothing burns and I'm eating in ten minutes, or die trying. By changing the order in which I do things, I've reduced the challenge from "Cook it fast" to "Have a good time and notice sensory details." Another way to put it is that I've turned cooking into an opportunity for mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be described in many ways. It's a state of being, a state of not doing, a way of using your attention, a kind of surrender, a skill, a meditation, acceptance of what is. I have more recently come to define it as the act of paying attention to my senses. Doing a kind of scan, "OK, what am I seeing, what am I hearing, how does my body feel?" I find that this is more concrete for me. The definition makes it easier to test whether I'm being mindful or not. I of course don't stay in this state for long, as my mind wanders into the stories behind what I'm sensing. "Oh, that's a tree. Trees are so old." "Oh that's a dog, I wonder what it's thinking." "I want ice cream!" The mind has endless energy to find something else.
One effective way of stopping the mind from being anywhere but here and (anywhen but now) is to participate in what is called Flow. Flow is another state of being, but slightly different from mindfulness. Flow is the experience of total engagement in an activity, with a loss of self consciousness and a distorted sense of time. It often happens when our skill level matches the challenge level of the activity we're doing. People who report experiencing flow more often also report being more satisfied with their lives in general. (I think the two main ways to increase happiness are to address the minute by minute experience and the big picture narrative. Flow is minute by minute, discovering and refining one's life purpose is the big narrative).
The good news is that it's not actually that difficult to create flow experiences. All it takes is: a clear goal, immediate feedback, and (breakable) rules. A few examples. Playing music: the goal is to make nice sounds, the feedback comes from the auditory senses, and the rules are roughly rhythm and melody. Reading: the goal is to process new ideas, the feedback comes from our thoughts, and the rules are grammar. Physical fitness: the goal is to get stronger/thinner/whateverer, the feedback comes from physical sensation in the muscles and joints, and the rules are whatever program one is following. When I was trying to be mindful in cooking, the goal was to enjoy myself, the feedback came from my feelings, and the rules were that I pay attention to how I felt and what I experienced.
The connection between mindfulness and flow, the reason I'm writing this post in the first place, is hard to detect. As far as I can tell, mindfulness can bring flow, and flow can bring mindfulness. Flow isn't always mindful, and mindfulness doesn't always create flow. So basically, they're not the same thing but can be done simultaneously, and also not.
Back to me chopping mushrooms. The other day when I was doing so, I had lapsed into my old state of doing, a rush from cut to cook to realize I forgot to put in oil to "Is it burning yet? It's burning isn't it!" Neither flow nor mindfulness. At this point, I had let some time go by, mid-cook snacking, more time than I had anticipated, and it became clear that I had more mushrooms than seconds to cut them. I started slicing left and right not straight, almost offing my thumb, when I paused. I could feel a familiar tightness of stomach that signaled to me I was Rushing. What happened to enjoying myself and taking in sensory details, bro? "I just DON'T HAVE THE TIME," when another thought entered my awareness. If I was too anxious to be mindful, then maybe I could change the activity. Instead of paying attention to my sensory experience, my new goal became to chop the mushrooms perfectly precisely in the exact amount of time it would take to do that, without letting myself wander into "ooh mushroom so soft" or mindless self-mutilation.
It was in this flexibility, changing the goal of the activity, that I was able to avoid hating myself. I went from, "How could I do this? To ME," to feeling like a Jedi Knight for a couple minutes.
The meal turned out horribly, since I had forgotten to take the chicken out of the fridge in the first place. I had to turn the stove off for a few minutes to wash and cut the chicken before doing that thing where you have to put the chicken under the already cooked vegetables, and it turned into more of a mushy stew than a stir fry.
When you have to make a decision in your life that will affect you emotionally, such as what school to go to, what city to live in, what job to take, what career to pursue, who to date or marry, what to name your child, what to name your pet, or what to name your website (I didn't sleep for 2 days), there are several techniques to make the choice clearer, and I'm going to describe a few that I have found work really well.
But first, an aside. There is a concept called "Stochastic Resonance", which might at first seem totally irrelevant but isn't, according to me. "Stochastic" is a fancy word for random, and resonance is when things that are alike vibrate together. (It's a term I first read in Nassim Taleb's Antifragile, a book that has changed my life for the infinite better.) Stochastic Resonance relates to understanding signals that are buried in noise. Like if you're trying to hear a specific frequency on a radio, and it's a very weak signal, when you add white noise, randomness, you will hear the signal you're looking for more clearly.
This applies to other domains as well, where you're looking for some kind of information in a bunch of other information, and when you inject random information into the whole system, you're more likely to find what you're looking for. Here's an example. If you're looking for a needle in a haystack, rather than combing gently and finely through the mess, it might help to just shine a bright light on the whole pile and start throwing it all up in the air, hoping for the needle to catch the light on its fall back to the floor.
Does it makes sense how this relates to making emotional life decisions? There is a signal, some information you want to have in order to make the right choice, but it's hidden among all the other stuff you want, don't want, regret, crave, have heard is good, used to care about, one day might care about, can't live without, can't put your thumb on, have never tried, have only tried alone, will never admit to having tried, etc. It's hard to determine what exactly is the best choice and the best reason for it. The techniques to follow could be called "Stochastic Emotional Resonance."
First, it's all about the question.
What question is it that we're trying to answer by making this decision? Is it, "How can I make my parents happy?" "How can I enjoy life more?" "Who do I care most about?" "What's wrong with me?" "What will other people think?" "Who cares what other people think?" "Why are other people thinking so much all the damn time?"
Our questions determine what answers we will find. If we're not sure what questions we're really asking, then we won't know why we make the decisions we make. Marilee Adams has created a nice quick tool for asking questions that can clarify what problem we're really looking to solve. It's called the Choice Map. It's an illustration that helps us see the distinction between two types of mindsets we have when solving problems and the questions that create them. Briefly, the Judger Mindset is when we get stuck in judgments and judgmental questions like, "Whose fault is this?" or "What's wrong with me/them?" These reduce our ability to find new solutions by assuming that how the world is now is how it will continue to be in the future. The Learner Mindset, on the other hand, is characterized by open-ended questions which focus on our power to make choices in the moment that can change our future. Learner questions include, "What's possible right now?" "What do I want for myself and others?" and "Who do I choose to be in this moment?" By spit-balling these into our thought processes, we can more clearly detect what we want. We don't even have to come up with concrete answers to the Learner questions. Just by asking them, we ignite exploratory processes in our brains that can bring unconscious solutions to us. The open-endedness and unpredictability (randomness) from the questions leads us to clearer emotional signals.
Of course, you can then make a list of the things you discover and compare the pros and cons of each choice, etc. This will give you some information, but big decisions are usually too complex to truly understand by listing things we consciously know about them. In the end, these decisions are made in our unconscious mind/body, which is a much more powerful processing machine than we can possibly understand. Which brings me to the second technique for injecting useful randomness into the decision making process.
Once we've asked yourself a bunch of Learner questions, many of which we haven't even answered because that's not necessarily the point, we can go for a vigorous walk in town or a run or some kind of exercise that will focus our energy and attention on things totally unrelated to the decision at hand. This can make the aspects of the decision that matter most bubble up to the surface amidst the bumping and pumping sensations we get from physical exertion. The body stores a lot of information within it, much more than we can hold in our conscious minds. When we shake it up the way it wants, it offers us signals in return.
*Bonus* For smaller decisions with two options, you can try flipping a coin with one option heads and the other tails. The experience of having the decision made by fate can sometimes make it clearer which one you want more. I often do this when deciding where to eat. I flip the coin, and if I'm not too excited about the result, I choose the other option. For decisions with 6 options, you can use a 6-sided die like this. You can write down which choices correspond to which numbers and, when you roll it, if you're not happy with the outcome, cross it off the list and repeat until you hit upon the number that you feel good about.
Thank you for reading. If you found this illuminating or refreshing, please share with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or just copy and paste it somewhere on your hard drive.