Monday, 24 July 2017

Self-help for sceptics

Yesterday I began to try to explain to a good friend what I meant by using science to sort myself out. I didn't get far. It's not hard to explain but it's not something I can encapsulate in a few sentences drinking coffee outside a cafe in Shoreham. This isn't helped by the fact that most people don't really know how science works. They maybe remember what they learned at school about repeatable experiments, and later they read the often controversial and mind-blowing claims about climate change and vaccination, cosmology and subatomic particles. At best they maybe watch documentaries or read popular science but most people know very little about the process of ordinary everyday science.

I’ve made some immense improvements to how I deal with my life over the last few years, after 50 years of struggling and being very unhappy, and frankly I’m as amazed about that as anybody. As it stands I’m pretty much the only person I know who has suffered from debilitating low self-esteem, depression and anxiety all his life that has succeeded in working his way out of it, mainly by thinking it through. I’ve been a little surprised and disappointed that nobody’s wanted to know how I did that, considering so many of them suffer similar problems. You’d think they’d want all the ideas they could get.

I certainly spent a lot of time asking people how they manage – hoping for some sort of useful insight but instead I’ve been told I’m obsessing, over-thinking and being paranoid, navel-gazing, being self-indulgent or self-involved. If I feel unhappy I should simply be more positive they say. If I’m struggling to get on in life I’ve been told I should just believe in myself – ‘just do it’. People who’ve given me advice have been exasperated with me for not simply doing what they say. I’ve been told I don’t really want to be happy – that I’m just wallowing or attention-seeking.

These people are of course expressing their own impatience with my unhappiness rather than trying to help, and that means I’ve almost never had a constructive conversation with anyone about it and have had to work it out for myself. Furthermore, I’ve never found the idea of Gods, spirits or souls, or any ‘consciousness’ beyond our own (and perhaps a few other animals) made much sense, so I’ve had to work it out without being able to fall back on any of that. I can’t put my trust in a higher power or ask the universe because nothing about my experience suggests that makes any sense. I can’t simply put intangible things down to ‘energy’ or ‘spirit’ because I have no idea what those things mean (I know what energy is in a pure physics sort of way, but not in the way New-Agers talk about it, which seems very muddled)

Of course, none of our experiences are completely objective. Science goes to enormous lengths to minimise the effects of personal perception and interpretation by making the process as open and impersonal and disinterested as possible. Peer review is about laying your work open to people who don’t necessarily agree with you and want to find fault. But this is impossible with introspection. Psychoanalysis has made a lot of money out of our ability to delude ourselves about what’s really going on in our own minds, but I think it’s possible to achieve a useful amount of objectivity if two things are true:-
1. If you genuinely want to get better. If you use the wrong information the treatment won’t work, or it’ll only work superficially but won’t tackle the deeper causes, so the problems will re-emerge in a different way. If you really want to get better you need the best possible information about what’s happening or there’s simply no point. There’s no point pretending – you’ll only be fooling yourself. Even so the information you gather will always be incomplete and any conclusions you reach will be uncertain. All you can do is make as coherent a theory as the evidence allows, and be ready to revise it when new evidence comes along.
When you come up with a hypothesis you have to test it to destruction – you have to try to think of anything that might disprove it. You learn to spot that nagging feeling that something about your new hypothesis isn’t quite right – that it’s too easy or too generic. You need to be ruthless – no comforting half-truths or convenient rationalisations.
With a bit of experience you’ll know when you hit the right explanation because you can feel it fit, and the change happens like that - whether you try or not. It simply works. You don’t have to practice or say something over and over or believe in something. If it’s right it works, in exactly the same way as using the right component fixes an engine.  If it doesn’t work you try something else.

2. If you can take an inquisitive and fearless view of whatever you find. Simply be interested in the contents of your mind - in whatever comes up. Don’t cherry-pick evidence to support a preferred story. In science, there is no wrong answer. The evidence you uncover might lead in a completely unexpected direction. Go with it – see it as interesting rather than disturbing, exciting rather than unacceptable (after all – nobody else needs to know). I suspect many people stop when they come across something they don’t want to know, or that they think reflects badly on them and instead of exploring further, just pretend it’s not there, or cap it off with a lie. I understand that if you’ve been through something deeply traumatic this might not be easy (none of this is easy) but it might be doubly good – debriding the wound – getting in there and clearing the junk out so it can heal properly.

Another thing you must be prepared for is for it to take a long time and to involve a lot of going around in circles (this is when people think you’re obsessing and wallowing). The first part of any scientific project is the collection of data. You’ll need to really get into the feelings that come up on a daily basis, in order to see what they consist of – to unpack them and trace the components back to their origins. As a scientist, I assume that things are not random – that causality applies so I’m looking for connections and patterns. I’m not going to go into the details here, but the fact is, unless you find the workings of your mind intrinsically interesting, you won’t be able to do this, because it’s time-consuming. Personally I think minds are fascinating (not mine especially – it’s just that mine is the one I happen to have handy and which is giving me trouble). Looking at other people’s minds, just by talking and observing and/or by taking in a little psychology and neurology really helps. A bit of anthropology and philosophy helps too but none of this is essential - an ability to think critically and a ruthless honesty are really all you need.

Where to start? I begin with the time-honoured idea that how we are for the most part comes from our childhoods. Traumatic experiences can over-write that but for most of us, who we are is based in the time before we were able to make conscious choices about how to be and life just was whatever it was. If I understand it correctly, the research tells us that we’re more or less 50:50 nature/nurture, but in any case we take after our parents genetically and form our characters mainly in response to the behaviour of the people we spent most time with in those early years. Probably the amount we change after that gets smaller and smaller the older we get with a small peak at adolescence.

I think it’s crucial to understand what your early years were like as much as possible – not just the events, but how your parents felt and behaved, and not just in terms of how it was good or bad for you (this is not about blame). You can’t avoid being very much like your parents, so it’s best to get to know them as well as you can. You may have taken after them or rebelled against them, or a bit of both but you need to know. It might be worth doing a bit of history – see what the world was like when they grew up – what the dominant culture was then (mine grew up in WW2 but were too young to remember much about it, but they remember the post war austerity and were just too old to enjoy the 60s, unlike some of their friends who had their children only a few years later) Find out how their parents treated them and what their early memories are (my dad did his best to be nothing like his own father, who was a very angry man) Observing other people’s children, it is obvious that their basic characters are already well developed by the time they’re 2 – whether they’re withdrawn, adventurous, curious, fearful, dominant, sensitive, confident, proud, caring, or mischievous – it’s all there. It gets added to and modified over the years but in many ways, once it’s set it takes an enormous amount of deliberate effort (and possibly therapy) to change and generally it’s not really possible. It would be like changing the foundations without dismantling the house.

I’ve found the Freudian Id/Superego/Ego model very handy – especially as transformed into the Child/Parent/Adult model in transactional analysis (the Ego/Adult in this case is a rational, mature, disinterested person – not a selfish authoritarian one. The Parent/Superego is the authoritarian). I think this makes sense because of what we know from child psychology about how children’s minds develop. Those early Child /Parent interactions aren’t rational, whatever the actual real-life parent may intend. To the child, life is all emotions and instincts and conditioning. It is what it is – natural, common sense, normal, obvious. You do as you’re told or you get into trouble (or you get away with it). And of course, much of the time adults are no more rational than their children. Only later can we think about fairness and whether doing things another way makes sense but by then it’s too late - the deep feelings are set. We can (with a lot of effort) change our behaviour superficially (wear a smile, force ourselves to get up in the morning, repress our rage) but the deep feelings are there, and if the behaviour and the feelings are at odds there’s going to be a struggle.

For those of us who are struggling, this all sounds a bit hopeless but the iota of hope in all this is that the foundation is, as I said, never completely coherent – it is made up of lots of misc bits and pieces and the number of permutations, even among a small number of components, is large. We can’t be anything we want, but we can find a way of combining them to make a foundation that works better and allows the house to be improved. Some of the old components can be reused or they may become redundant (they’ll always be there but not actually doing anything, except maybe getting in the way.)

For me, locating a whole load of components that had been ignored was the key – things from my Child that had been dismissed as useless but which were undoubtedly there, and strong, from the start. I had gone through life viewing my Child the way my Parent did, which at its worst, was with contempt and exasperation – an unrealistic, immature, lazy, and somewhat stupid child. I’d somehow dismissed all the other things I was, and which I still am. I had to go in and see all the different ways I was back then, what I did, what I wanted, and also how other people responded. More than anything I had to look at my Child not as my Parent did, but as my Adult, with understanding and compassion and curiosity (because that tends to be how I look at other people) and I found a creative, conscientious, imaginative and enthusiastic child with a good heart. And as I said above – when I found the right components they fitted and my new way of doing things simply worked. It’s almost like I can’t see myself the old way now (or at least, only sometimes when I’m very tired). As a bonus I learned to look at my actual parents that way too, and to let them off.

It’s taken a very long time but maybe if I hadn’t had to work it all out from scratch it might have happened sooner. I don’t know. No doubt this ‘method’ is not original. I’m sure it’s been thought of before. I’m not a fan of self-help books or self-improvement courses so it’s probably out there. That said all those I’ve come across do seem to rely on either some form of spiritual belief or some sort of rigorous practice to keep it going, so if you’re a sceptic or don’t have that kind of self-discipline but really enjoy thinking, maybe this could help.