“There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.”Aldous Huxley
Billie is one of the wonderful people — I thoroughly enjoy her. While it would be incorrect to say she is everything I am not, it wouldn’t be a bad first approximation and one would be forgiven for thinking as such. On the surface we may appear vastly different, but at the core we share many values. We do, however, still possess many differences and that is something I appreciate. Hanging around people you agree with and who are overwhelmingly similar to you is the path to dogma, not discovery.
I appreciate Billie because — among other things — she values the latter.
Billie has a diverse resume and an even more diverse history, so I would be doing her a disservice if were to try and encapsulate all of that here. Instead, I would encourage you to check out Billie’s content yourself at the following locations and see if you can make sense of the amalgamation that she is. Common themes will include: yoga, lifting heavy weights, eating plants, crystals and grey-on-grey tracksuits.
Billie’s Instagram: @billieasprey
Billie’s Website: www.billieasprey.com
In Donversation #3
It is lovely to have you here, in my digital space.
As you well and truly know, you and I have had a great deal of thoroughly enjoyable, long and in-depth conversations. I have enjoyed many of the perspectives you’ve shared with me throughout our time as friends. I think we have a very interesting (read: substantial) amount of differences, while still being able to connect and share values, and that leads to some interesting conversational destinations.
So, with that in mind, I invited you here today to ask you a few things. I am very interested to explore your thoughts regarding these topics.
I have two questions to start off with.
The first is: What does self-acceptance mean to you?
And then building on that: How do you reconcile self-acceptance with ambition or the desire to improve one’s self?
It is lovely to be here virtually. Thank you for having me 🙂
I’m gonna take a tangent straight off the bat and say I think you and I share a lot of similarities in values and ambitions, although they are only apparent more deeply. How we display or align ourselves with those is where we contrast significantly and is what is more readily seen. (read: Lyndon makes sense with Sam Harris while Billie makes sense on a yoga mat, Biggie Smalls pounding in her ears while doused with lavender oil and surrounded by a sea of crystals). I think we would all have significantly more and/or deeper relationships if we permitted others the time, space and safety to share more of themselves more deeply. Surface level, I think you and I couldn’t be more dissimilar, but here we are. Anyway, with that out of the way…
I think self-acceptance is widely misunderstood. It is often interpreted as synonymous with self-love, which is not the case. And while that error can seem harmless, the effects can be more far reaching in making self-acceptance appear an unobtainable fantasy that is therefore, not worth exhausting resources in pursuing.
The actual definition of self-acceptance refers to having an awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses, making a realistic (albeit still subjective) appraisal of one’s abilities and worth and feeling content with that appraisal, deficiencies and all. So that being said, you need not be perfect to be self-accepting, and you need not blind yourself to your flaws and shortcomings to delude yourself into self-acceptance. It is acknowledging that you’re human so by definition, you are faulty, but accepting yourself despite that. It’s recognising that you’re flawed and seeing areas for improvement, and knowing that even once those areas are improved, there will still be flaws — and you will still be acceptable.
In terms of reconciling self-acceptance with ambition: these two ideas can seem incongruent but they are extremely harmonious when given the conditions to dance together. I’d argue that they actually amplify one another and they exist better in harmony.
Ambitious pursuits in the absence of at least some degree of self-acceptance can drive a lot of desperation, yearning, self-doubt and feelings of helplessness and defeat. On the other end of the spectrum, an extreme self-assuredness, viewing yourself as faultless or without room for growth is also detrimental to ambition and progress. If you view yourself as a finished product, why pursue more?
Look at someone like Elon Musk. Despite all his success, he’s still hunting progression. He’s not sitting on his hands because he’s “done.” I don’t want to put words in his mouth but I’d imagine he’s content with his accomplishments, while maintaining some degree of discontent which drives the continued effort — which would perfectly demonstrate my earlier point of the two existing harmoniously.
I think you’ve raised a very insightful point straight away. The seemingly insignificant — but practically important — difference between self-acceptance and self-love. I will admit that I am entirely guilty of interpreting the two as meaning the same thing, but clearly, they are more different than I had previously realised. I also think your straight off the bat tangent is actually going to prove itself very relevant and useful here.
For starters, those superficial differences you speak of — like the ones that you and I feel as though we have overcome regarding one another — can be very misleading. In novel situations, we tend to only have superficial details to base our inferences on. When all you see in a situation like that are differences (albeit superficial ones), then you could very easily — though falsely — conclude that there are only differences.
As you outlined, however, this is rarely the case. Your recommendation to give others the time, space and safety to share their deeper values is well taken and supported. Additionally, we should (politely) request that others return the favour as well.
One area that I think is extremely important in this regard, is what people mean by their words when speaking with someone. The words we use could be considered as a superficial detail, one that must be moved through to what lays beneath.
This is because words are only “signifiers” for an attached meaning. It is the meaning we must concern ourselves with — what those words actually depict in reality. Unfortunately, though, that meaning is much deeper and harder to discover. Often we don’t even realise how unconsciously we have attached certain meanings to certain terms. As such, we must be willing to consistently clarify if what we said is the same as what was heard, and vice-versa.
Because of the different groups and tribes we are all members of, the words we use and the meanings attached to them begin to diverge from that of others. And because words and meaning can be coupled in a variety of ways, two people can say the same word and be speaking about very different things, while others can say different words and actually mean things that are essentially identical.
I mention this because you’ve already cleared up a misunderstanding of mine relating to this exact issue already. I interpreted “self-love” and “self-acceptance” to be different terms that denote the same thing. However, as you have stated, they are different terms denoting different things.
This highlights the necessity of ensuring our words are being understood in the way that we are using them if we are going to convey knowledge, ideas or care effectively. If we do not explore what is beneath the sound of the words and probe for what is being said, we may think we have successfully communicated when we actually haven’t.
I mention all this, because when I was reading what you wrote I was trying to keep in mind what the tribes I am a member of may say instead of “self-acceptance.” In essence, is this a new concept to me? Or, do I need to just look more closely for the shared meaning?
Tell me what you think about this:
As far as I can tell, “truthful,” “realistic” or “honest” maybe words that we might use in relation to self-acceptance. While we are talking about the self — and thus, something that is subjective — we are trying to be objective in our appraisal of it. This entails an aura of neutrality; not one that is overly congratulatory, nor critical.
This differs from self-love, however, which (to my understanding) is an appraisal of the self that is infused with positive and celebratory ideas. For example, one might achieve self-love by avoiding the recognition of short-comings or by exaggerating the limits of one’s positive attributes.
Have I done ok so far? Or do you use a different term for an excessively positive appraisal of one’s self?
Regardless, this division between self-love and self-acceptance is interesting to me. Having it framed this way, it tends to suggest that self-love is somewhat of a mirage; it lacks substance. One must perceive themselves through a rose-tinted lens in order to perform self-love (or be excessively self-assured) — but that is a photoshopped reality. Which suggests that what is actually real, is not really loved at all. Self-acceptance, on the other hand, which doesn’t seem to carry the same positive connotations, seems to be the basis for the genuine love of one’s actual self.
With these conceptions in mind, and what you mentioned regarding Elon, would you agree that it is more self-loving in the long-run, to opt for self-acceptance in the short-term? Or, to invert that: do you think you are harming the long-term development of the self, by being too loving of it in the present?
This is how I tend to see it at least:
If I love myself, then it seems to follow that I want good things for myself. If I want good things for myself, then I need to be worthy of those good things. In order to be worthy of those good things, I need to be better than my current state. In order to be better than my current state, I must recognise what are my current limitations. In order to recognise my current limitations, I must appraise myself neutrally.
Therefore, long-term self-love (in the sense of betterment, or improved welfare) is expressed through short-term self-acceptance.
I would be interested to see how much of this you agree with, or whether I have completely missed the mark. Please do correct or add anything regarding the above as you see fit.
Finally, I would like to zoom in on one of your statements and pose another question to you. The statement was:
“It [self-acceptance] is acknowledging that you’re human so by definition, you are faulty, but accepting yourself despite that. It’s recognising that you’re flawed and seeing areas for improvement, and knowing that even once those areas are improved, there will still be flaws — and you will still be acceptable.
My question is: When does someone ever stop being acceptable?
In fact, can someone even be unacceptable? Or does being human — and being as faulty as that entails — mean that all humans (and their errors) are acceptable?
I think you spoke really well to the idea of words as signifiers: it is the interpretation of words that creates an impact; not the words themselves. We see this everyday in the way people respond to news and politics for example. With words acting as symbols, what we each interpret those symbols to mean can vary considerably and have profound and far-reaching effects.
For example, if I was to write on a piece of paper “five,” most people would conjure a similar idea of what that represents. If I was to write “shirt,” we would start to see some discrepancies in what that word symbolises, particularly among different cultures and social classes. Then stretch that to this topic of conversation and write “self-acceptance” and there is going to be even greater discrepancies.
You may hear self-acceptance and understand it as just that: acceptance of self. Someone else may hear the term self-acceptance and interpret that to be an unobtainable feat of radical self-love that they could never themselves experience. Someone else may take it to mean egotism. While we are viewing words as symbols or signifiers, neither are inherently right or wrong. So that being said, please take everything I say about the meaning of self-acceptance with a grain of salt. It’s just my interpretation.
As you made a point of though, we would do well to seek to clarify meanings wherever possible to reduce the discrepancies on topics worthy of discussion, since we each receive words, messages and symbols through the individual lens with which we view the world. This may be possible in a one-one-one conversation: the person delivering the words can convey the intended meaning as clearly and as concisely as possible, the recipient can clarify the message upon receipt and they can each repeat this until the parties reach a satisfactory, mutually agreed upon interpretation. This may be cumbersome, but possible.
Imagine though, if everyone who read something on social media replied in the comments section with their interpretation of the message conveyed for the poster to confirm or deny whether it was understood the way they intended. This is unlikely. Cumbersome, possible and desperately unlikely. I provided this social media example as I think posters (specifically around this topic of self-acceptance and self-love, though on all topics) have a responsibility to clarify their message as best possible, but similarly, consumers would do well to understand that the lens the poster is viewing the topic from is not necessarily the same as their own and to have some empathy and accommodation for that.
All that being said, I think you nailed the meaning of self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is an attitude that is steady and unconditional. While our appraisals are always going to contain some degree of subjectivity (particularly when it is ourself that we are appraising,) self-acceptance asks that you are as objective as possible, removing heat of the moment emotions from your judgement of your worth.
I would like to contend your interpretation of self-love though, and I’ll honour here all of our earlier comments about words and symbols. Self-love is not selfish, narcissistic, or ego-driven. I do believe our culture is making positive steps towards stamping this misconception out. It is not selfish or narcissistic to regard yourself in a positive light and to act in your own best interests. (Read: can’t pour from an empty cup.) I know you’ve written a fantastic piece before about creating an eudaemonic you which reflects this well.
Self-love is defined as an appreciation for one’s own worth and virtue and a regard for one’s own wellbeing and happiness. Importantly, self-love combines both feeling and action. Self-love involves taking care of your own needs and not sacrificing your wellbeing to please others. I would say that it is more synonymous with self-care than with self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance is a foundation upon which self-love can be built. While self-love is certainly an obtainable object, it can seem a daunting task to begin with. “How am I to love myself when I can’t even look myself in the mirror?” Perhaps one can start with getting acquainted with themself first and simply dropping excess criticism. Love can come later and for now, need not be of concern. If one can learn to self-appraise in the absence of destructive self-criticism, they may learn to self-accept. If one can learn to accept that they do in fact have worth, then they may learn to appreciate that worth.
Importantly and in relation to your comments about self-love as a substance-lacking mirage, self-love should not be confused with ego. Without opening too-large a can of worms, I would say that a “big ego” is typically compensation for a lack of self-love. We could use your description of self-love to define ego and narcissism: a refusal to acknowledge one’s own flaws and inflating one’s own self-worth; viewing oneself through rose coloured glasses. You can, and certainly should value yourself and what you have to offer. And you can, and certainly should do so in the absence of a clouded judgement which places yourself far superior to anyone and anything else.
I absolutely love your question: “do you think you are harming the long-term development of the self, by being too loving of it in the present?” I’m glad you raised it.
In short, yes. Tying this back to the start, I don’t think this is the fault of self-love but individual interpretation of self-love. “I woke up on the wrong side of the bed so I’m gonna wrap myself up in a blanket, order a burrito, eat my feelings and not do any of the things I said I’d do today because #selflove.” This is problematic and in my opinion, is unfortunately heavily glorified by our society. We have a collective attitude of “relax sweetie, look after yourself” which comes at the detriment of our long term progression.
If we look back to the definition of self-love as “… a regard for one’s own wellbeing and happiness,” we’d be best not to ignore long term wellbeing and happiness. Like you said, if I love myself, then it seems to follow that I want good things for myself. If I want good things for myself, then I need to be worthy of those good things. In order to be worthy of those good things, I need to be better than my current state.
So this acceptance of self-love as immediately gratifying and soothing the present self with a blatant disregard for the future is where self-love and ambition can be at odds. Again, this is not the fault of self-acceptance nor self-love, but the interpretation of and culture surrounding it.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this #selflove and #selfcare culture and how you feel it is playing out for long-term ambitions and self-acceptance.
Your closing question of when someone ever stops being acceptable is a tricky one to answer. I think this could go up for a huge ethical and legal debate. Personally, I think acceptability is in the eye of the beholder. Any act that is legally or morally unacceptable was probably perceived by the perpetrator (among others) to be acceptable at the time. And the perpetrator and someone adversely affected by their acts would likely hold conflicting views of the acceptability of the situation and the individuals involved.
Let these following comments be an educated guess at best: based on what I know of self-acceptance, someone deemed to be unacceptable by their own self (perhaps a criminal, someone under-performing at work, a lousy partner, or someone unhappy with their appearance) may be better positioned to prevent or rectify this unacceptability if they first experienced a greater sense of self-acceptance. In not viewing themselves as inadequate or lacking, perhaps they would be better able to stop themselves in their darker tracks, take off their rose coloured glasses or pull themselves from underneath their #selflove blanket to make more productive steps towards the things that they would know they are worthy of. Self-acceptance would therefore be both cause and effect.
I would love to hear your insights on this. Based on your knowledge of human psychology, our flaws and our biases, under what circumstances would you deem an individual to be unacceptable. Or further, under what circumstances would you deem yourself as unacceptable?
Your discussion and image regarding words not only being signifiers, but signifiers with varying levels of abstraction are extremely useful. It highlights the high probability of confusion and miscommunication when we discuss such vague concepts as the current one. Your proposal that posters take greater care when conveying messages surrounding these topics, while consumers interpret them in a more open-minded manner is, again, well taken. I will offer more thoughts on this momentarily.
I’m glad I have understood the concept of self-acceptance well and I am certainly pleased you pushed back on my depiction of self-love. Your follow up to what I proposed has certainly cleared up many of my thoughts and, I believe, prior misunderstandings. Let me convey where my thinking now sits, and you tell me how this meshes with your interpretations.
Saying that self-love is more akin to self-care than self-acceptance helped me parse more of what you have said. I think a useful word to throw in the mix at this point may be attention, which may help us bind the ideas of self-acceptance and self-love together.
To accept something is to pay, at least some, attention to it and determine that it does not require changing. To love something, however, is to pay substantial attention to it, and ensure that it has most or all of its needs attended to — something which does often require degrees of change. In my understanding, this is what you are referring to when you say self-love; the idea that we should feel warranted and justified in attending to our own needs. Using this definition, to say that one needs work-life balance, or adequate alone time should well and truly be considered self-loving but not egotistical.
With all that said, I would like to ask you something else. Above, you said the following:
“Without opening too-large a can of worms, I would say that a “big ego” is typically compensation for a lack of self-love. We could use your description of self-love to define ego and narcissism: a refusal to acknowledge one’s own flaws and inflating one’s own self-worth; viewing oneself through rose coloured glasses. You can, and certainly should value yourself and what you have to offer. And you can, and certainly should do so in the absence of a clouded judgement which places yourself far superior to anyone and anything else.”
I understand you were somewhat trying to salvage my own misunderstanding, but now that I think I am following along to a greater extent, could we possibly take what you said above and improve it slightly, where egotism is not actually due to a lack of self-love, but self-acceptance?
It is almost as if one is trying to short-cut the process, where narcissism is an attempt at self-love without first going through self-acceptance — of both the “good” and the “bad.” It seems, to me at least, that narcissism is not only a failure of recognising one’s limits but also of the value one has to offer. The inflated ego is a compensation for an unwillingness to unveil and look at one’s self, convincing one’s self that whatever is in the box is better than words could describe without ever actually opening it. I find it hard to comprehend that one would need to enlarge their ego to such an extent of narcissism if they genuinely had awareness of the value they have to offer. It seems to only make sense to me that an unwillingness to accept is at the basis of this kind of pathological psyche.
Please do tell me your thoughts on this, though, I may have misconstrued some ideas again.
In relation to your point about the version of self-love we encourage as a society, I agree with you. The glorification of “I woke up on the wrong side of the bed so I’m gonna wrap myself up in a blanket, order a burrito, eat my feelings and not do any of the things I said I’d do today because #selflove” gets right to the crux of my concerns surrounding this area. I am glad we are on the same page there and we do not need to strive further in order to reach a common understanding before I express my thoughts.
So here goes, though this may be wandering into murky territory…
Take the substantial number of “It’s Ok To Not Be Ok” pages or other similar variants on Instagram. These pages frustrate me. Not because they don’t do any good, but because I think they do some good, while masquerading as the purest of good. Personally, I do not like the incessant focus on finding reasons for why someone can’t or shouldn’t, rather than reasons for why they can and should. It seems to only promote the idea that we must make the world gentler, rather than create stronger people. By all means, I don’t think the world should be any more rough or harmful than it must be, however, people should also aspire to be as strong and resilient as they can be.
Unfortunately, this is somewhat taboo to say, because part of the current mental health message is that we need to make it more acceptable to talk about mental health — which I emphatically agree with. What I don’t agree with, however, is how pathological behaviour or psychological states are being celebrated in order to try and make that happen. It is very difficult to objectively critique this trend without turning yourself into a pariah.
While good is obviously good, viewing something that is merely good as very good, is bad. The danger arises not because something is good or bad, but as a product of whether we over or undervalue it as well as by how much. It is the accuracy of our appraisal that matters most. My contention would be that a non-trivial amount of harm is being done by over-propagating some of these self-acceptance and mental health messages. We are possibly slipping into a state of overvaluing the expression of “I’m Not Ok” and this creates an incentive for people who are mostly fine, to express that they aren’t. This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, because there truly are people who need help, and we need to ensure they are heard — the signal may be lost in the noise. Additionally, by mostly capable people becoming convinced that they are not Ok, they stop producing, providing and creating the progress that drives us all forward. This poses subsequent issues.
My point is that things such as depression and anxiety are not Ok. What is Ok, however, is to ask for help and assistance in dealing with them. That is beyond Ok; it is encouraged! Care should be received, and given, for these illnesses; but the illnesses, or the mental states and behaviours they create should not be generalised or deemed acceptable and common. Personally, I believe we are getting this part a bit wrong. We should not accept mental health issues any more than is absolutely necessary to effectively deal with them, and the promotion of “It’s Ok To Not Be Ok” walks somewhat counter to this, I feel.
Take malnutrition for example. No sane person would promote a message saying, “It’s Ok To Be Malnourished.” It isn’t, and we should be doing everything within our power to aid those who suffer from it. Speaking analogously, the current mental health message tends to promote individuals to speak up and express “I’m malnourished” the instant they are merely hungry.
Again, this is all only my read on the matter (and I’m truly not trying to devalue the importance of this area), but I think we need to be very, very careful about encouraging everyone to speak up about the moment they have an off day. There are voices who do genuinely need to be heard, and we risk their message being lost or devalued. As I mentioned, I think the current messages around self-care may be counter-productive at times to these goals.
In returning to the prominent theme of this conversation, I cannot speak to the misinterpretations of consumers regarding self-care posts, as I do not post content of that nature (prior to this, of course). What I can do, though, is speak to the point of vagueness from posters. I think there are two readings of this, one is that they are intentionally vague, the other — and Hanlon’s Razor would suggest this should be our leading theory — is that they are vague due to a lack of understanding or clarity on behalf of the poster.
If they are vague because they lack clarity, then this is mostly self-explanatory — and not surprising, given the nature of the topic. If they are intentionally vague, however, it is likely because they are trying to leverage the Barnum/Forer effect, which is the cognitive bias that leads people to think that vague descriptions describe them precisely or possess more meaning than what they actually do.
For example, take the first three questions from a famous study in this regard:
1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
The majority of people find that these descriptions apply to them personally and specifically, but this obviously cannot be the case if the majority thinks that. I would not be surprised if self-love/care content is being written in a similar, vague way that allows the consumer to overate how well it describes them or their circumstances. This goes back to my concern that the important signals may be lost in the noise if we do not proceed with greater care.
Finally, in regard to the big question of when does someone, including myself, become unacceptable, I ultimately have to agree with you; acceptability is in the eye of the beholder — or beholders, such as in a legal sense. There are no laws of the universe that conclusively define what is and what is not acceptable, which means that is humanly contrived and therefore is open to contextual interpretation. Because it is contextual, this provides a lack of absolutes to help make clear decisions with. I will try to say what I can around the topic, though.
Firstly, I don’t think there are bad people. There are bad upbringings, undesirable genetic combinations and pathological socio-cultural environments (among other things); but not bad people. People can act in bad ways, but they can act in good ways, too — what they do specifically depends on the above factors. This lends support to the idea that people as a whole cannot be deemed unacceptable — only a specific behaviour, or the circumstances that created it can be.
On the flip-side of this, however, is that if people cannot entirely be deemed unacceptable, I don’t think they can be deemed completely acceptable either. Few, if any, are truly worthy of the praise they acquire — circumstances, not us, tends to create the good just as much as the bad.
Building on this, as I outlined, a variety of factors can make people do bad things, and bad things hurt people irrespective of whether they were caused by a bad person or a person amongst bad circumstances. This thought process leads me to a conclusion that I feel very strongly and deeply, that complacency is one of the most unacceptable things.
We are complacent as a product of being comfortable and we are comfortable — as outlined — mostly due to the work of Lady Luck’s hand; not our own. Therefore, luck-induced complacency is as close as it gets to unacceptable in my eyes.
To elaborate, we have been fortunate enough to grow up in a time of immense comfort, standing atop much prior progress, due to nothing more than luck regarding the time we were born. Previous humans created the progress that we are now so fortunate to profit from; they paid it forward, and I feel that we are morally obliged to do the same for those who are yet to exist. To paraphrase one of my favourite authors, Eliezer Yudkowsky, you are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.
Not doing that, or spreading messages that diminish its importance, is unacceptable in my eyes.
I really like your utility of attention to define acceptance versus love. I think you explained this beautifully. Another word perhaps worth highlighting is “need” — acceptance is to pay some attention to something and determine that it does not need changing. You may decide that you will make some alterations, but even if you did not, the object of your attention would be deemed acceptable. In an example very relevant to my work, there is no harm in changing some physical feature of your body. There may be harm though when those changes are born from a feeling that they need to be changed or else you will be unacceptable.
I also really appreciate and agree with your amendment that egotism is not actually due to a lack of self-love but rather self-acceptance. In the process of becoming more self-accepting, one would not only recognise and acknowledge their limitations, bringing them back to earth, but simultaneously unearth their own personal value and the idiosyncrasies that make their value unique. I really believe this. The more one gets acquainted with their quirks through the lens of self-acceptance, the less they’ll feel the need to self-inflate — they are not in need of inflation. They are uniquely acceptable just as they are.
I feel like we’ve reached some really great “conclusions” and definitions here, if I do say so myself.
Leading in to the #selflove culture and “it’s ok not to be ok” message. This is murky territory indeed, but here goes…
I absolutely loved your line that it’s not that these messages don’t do any good, but because they do some good, while masquerading as the purest of good. I absolutely could not have said this better. Certainly they do some good. There are certain ears upon which this message will land and have solely positive implications. However, as these messages are conveyed in mass, there are certainly ears these messages will land upon and they may not produce negative effects, but could absolutely have hindered more positive effects should an alternate message have been received instead. It’s not a bad message, it’s just not the best message for everyone at every time under every circumstance. The vagueness of such messages, whether attributable to Hanlon’s Razor, the Barnum/Forer effect, both or otherwise certainly exacerbates this outcome.
I agree entirely that rather than actively searching for reasons for why someone can’t or shouldn’t do something, we’d do better to unveil reasons why someone can and should. Not only would this be more productive, but I believe certainly more empowering for the individual feeling a little subpar.Further on this, I have a strong belief that (please don’t misconstrue this as pessimism but moreso a realistic optimism) bad things or at least setbacks happen all the time. We rarely experience a “normal” week, normal being the ideal week where nothing bad happens. Most weeks, something goes wrong or at least not right. And so if every time something sub-optimal happens that causes us to feel less than our best, we seek refuge in our cocoon of zero drive and productivity, we’re not going to get much done.
Like you said, mental health is not only good or bad; it exists on a continuum. It can be very good, mostly good, a little bad, horrendously bad and everything in between. I believe we’d do very well to appraise where we fall on the spectrum when assessing our capacity to do things on a given day: am I feeling very bad today, or am I feeling a little bad? Am I completely incapable of doing anything today, or could I perhaps accomplish some [even small] things that would make me feel better later on? In throwing a blanket over everyone who is experiencing a state of mental health that is not 100% positive, mostly capable people stop producing and stop experiencing the positive effects that come from achieving something.
Related to this also is our capacity for resilience. In this encouragement of wrapping yourself up and hiding from adversity, sure we can protect ourselves from the immediate darkness or misfortune so we feel a little better today, but what good does that do in preparing us for future adversity? It would be ignorant to think (again, realistic optimism) that whatever you are experiencing today is going to be the last negative experience you have. So sure, you can seek refuge from this negative experience and wait until it passes, or you could engage with it a little more, learn from it, develop strength in the face of it, and have yourself better positioned for the inevitable next negative experience that comes your way. I think hiding away is minimally productive and should not be encouraged if you are capable of doing even a tiny little bit more. Only the individual in question can be the judge of that, and perhaps employing a continuum by which to view their mental health and their capacity to respond to it would aid in making the best possible decision to yield the best possible outcome for their self.
In wrapping up this murky topic, I feel I should probably put a disclaimer here before I appear heartless. I think it is extremely important that we seek help or prevention when our mental health is a little bad, whether that help is from someone else or it is soothing we can provide to ourselves. I firmly believe we should be addressing declining mental health as early as possible, even if it is only a slight decline, before it snowballs into a larger problem that could have been prevented. Using your earlier analogy, we would do well to source food at early signs of hunger, long before we became malnourished. Importantly however, the intensity of our search and cries for food should reflect the intensity of our early signs of hunger, and this should apply whether our cries are communicated directly to one person or publicly to a wider audience.
Moving on to the big question of what makes someone acceptable or not, I largely agree with your comment that there are not good / bad / acceptable / unacceptable people, though I can acknowledge that this is only my belief derived from my own experiences.
I did find interesting though your comment that few, if any, are truly worthy of the praise they acquire — circumstances, not us, tends to create the good just as much as the bad. I do wonder if I have misunderstood this though. It is my belief that we are largely in control of our circumstances, choices and outcomes (and even if that were not the case, it is empowering to believe so). So while I agree that circumstance does play a significant role in dictating our success or lack thereof, I do think it is more often than not a slippery slope to adopt an external locus of control and credit both your successes and failures to something else outside of you. I believe this fosters both a lack of self-responsibility when things go south, and a lack of pride when things go well.
Would you agree or disagree with that? Or would you care to elaborate more on the effects you perceive circumstance to have on us and how that contrasts with our wider ability or willingness to acknowledge that?
It’s so interesting and thought-provoking to me that you say that complacency is one of the most unacceptable things. While I agree, I imagine that if we asked 100 / 1000 / however many people what traits or qualities they judged as most unacceptable in themselves or others, we’d probably receive just as many unique answers. It’s such an individual concept, which ties back to our shared view that acceptability is in the eye of the beholder.
Elaborating on what you had to say on complacency, I certainly agree that our being born into the families, countries and times that we have been is a massive stroke of luck. If anything could be attributable to luck, it is that. I also love that quote by Eliezer Yudkowsky. In one of my favourite books Earth is Hiring, Peta Kelly suggests that each time we make an important decision, we should act as though there are two seats on our board reserved for the children and the environment. Which while a little more “woo” than the messages you provided, I think it ties in beautifully. If we have been fortunate enough to be born into such privileged circumstances, I do feel it is our responsibility to continue to build upon that, or at the very least to not undo the profound work that has preceded our time.
I’m glad you think we have reached some useful definitions and conclusions. I certainly do, too. This speaks to the point that you won’t always agree with or understand someone initially; but overcoming those obstacles is where the value is found.
Your point that: We rarely experience a “normal” week, normal being the ideal week where nothing bad happens, is extremely pertinent. You highlight one of the (often very unhelpful) tendencies of the human mind — its optimism bias. For the sake of clarity, I will elaborate briefly as one might think that a bias towards optimism can only be a good thing.
The optimism bias is essentially as it sounds: a tendency that we, ourselves, are less likely to experience a negative event. It is well captured by the phrase, “I never thought it would happen to me.” We watch the news and read books, and know of the kinds of unpleasant things that can happen to a human in their lifetime, but our mental-simulations of our own future exclude basically all undesirable events. This leads to some misconceptions about what one should expect or what is “fair.”
While optimism is often highly regarded, that regard is often misplaced. A lot of the time we are optimistic by default (and mistakenly), not for well-reasoned purposes. As I said, when we think about the future, we do not simulate the negative events — due to chance or our own shortcomings — that will intrude on our lives. Instead, we think, “I will have x if everything goes to plan.”
The only problem is that nothing ever goes entirely to plan.
This study even showed that people’s realistic “best guess” of time-to-task-completion were indistinguishable from their most optimistic predictions. This highlights our inadequacy of modelling the future (even for such small and trivial things). “Realistic” should mean that reality has an equal chance of over-delivering as it does under-delivering; the odds of the task being completed early are the same as it being completed late. However, this differs substantially from most people’s applications of “realistic,” which represents some kind of unattainable benchmark that actual reality pulls you progressively further and further away from. This really can only ever lead to disappointment.
Undoubtedly, bad things will happen. That is not being pessimistic, but realistic — which is valuable, because if you’re realistic, you can be (somewhat) prepared. Recognising that problems will occur, and you have a capacity to overcome them is true optimism; not the unwillingness to recognise problems in the first place. Rather than being blindly optimistic about the future, in my experience, Murphy’s Law tends to be a better modelling process: That which can go wrong, will go wrong.
Not that one should be nihilistic about this, only that a desirable future requires active construction.
With all this in mind, let me now turn to your point about an external locus of control and the weight I placed on circumstances. When I said “few, if any, are truly worthy of the praise they acquire — circumstances, not us, tends to create the good just as much as the bad” I was attempting to highlight the role that luck, chance or other factors beyond our control play in generating specifically the “good” people or outcomes.
I was not trying to make the case that we should all adopt an external locus of control, only that a failure to recognise environmental circumstances in generating desirable outcomes is just as flawed as a failure to recognise the same influences in undesirable ones. For the purposes of our ego, however, we show remarkably inconsistency in these regards.
Generally speaking, most of us fall into the following pattern: If we are successful in an attempt of something, we credit our skill (or other intrinsic factors). If we are unsuccessful, we blame circumstances (or extrinsic ones). Yet when appraising the success of others, we invert our model. We assume the success of others is due to luck (which helps us feel better about our own lack of success), and we explain the lack of success had by others due to their own intrinsic flaws, such as laziness or inadequate skill (which makes us feel good about our own capabilities).
There is without a doubt an interplay between what we control and what we can’t in generating what comes to fruition; I am simply trying to highlight that we read this interaction in an inconsistent manner, almost always in ways that are favourable to us.
The point I am making here is the complement to the idea that you shouldn’t be overly judgemental of others, as you don’t know the circumstances that played a role in their misfortune. If you are experiencing fortune — in any domain, not just financial wealth — then odds are that you are likely blind to (some extent) how your advantageous position was generated by circumstances beyond your control. Many believe themselves as more worthy, noble or admirable than they likely should. The fact that many have not stooped to low levels is because they have not been dragged — against their will — to the basement floor of life. This idea is inherently linked to my aversion to complacency.
You should not evaluate the strength of your position during times of comfort. This goes for essentially all things, but the two I would like to highlight are metal health and character. To presume one’s self as mentally strong or of upstanding character tends to lead one to not making further progress in those domains. To be strong or upstanding due to circumstances is not admirable and is setting one’s self up for a fall when they change.
I believe this is integral to a fully integrated conception of an internal locus of control. The idea that I am in control of my destiny, but I am also currently experiencing some kind of fortune beyond the level of my doing and, therefore, I must work to make myself worthy of such fortune — and be prepared for the chance that my luck changes.
To adopt the attitude that you are in the driver’s seat of your own life is only good for the purposes of motivating productive action. If, however, it leads one to take credit and rest on their laurels due to a position of comfort they are experiencing presently — and over-congratulating themself for the role they played in creating that — then the internal locus actually becomes a hindrance to their own development, in my opinion.
Hopefully, that clears up where my thoughts are on that.
I also love that quote by Peta Kelly. I have added Earth Is Hiring to my booklist! I think those recommendations of also considering children and the environment are invaluable. I really need not add anything more to that.
So, with that said, I will now pass it over to you for any concluding thoughts or comments on what we have covered thus far.
I really love what you said about true optimism being the ability to recognise that problems will occur, and that you have a capacity to overcome them. I think this ties back well to self-acceptance and self-worth too. It takes a strong sense of self-worth not to crumble in the face of adversity but rather to step up to the challenge (no matter how big or small) with confidence that you can overcome it. A false sense of optimism coupled with a low confidence in your own ability to overcome adversity (heaven forbid it should present itself) is an extremely flawed, albeit extremely common approach.
This article largely mimics the message of the one you shared, but it remains interesting nonetheless. There are a few experiments included but one I enjoy most involved asking participants:
- In an ideal world, how many times per week (on average) would you exercise in the next month?
- How many times per week (on average) will you exercise in the next month?
The results are consistent with our conversation: there was no difference between the responses to questions one and two. That is, participants were already answering as though they were gearing up to live a month in an ideal world. The researchers concluded that the key to more realistic predictions of future behavior lies not in exhorting consumers to ignore the ideal but in getting them to acknowledge it. Those who did so of their own accord abandoned their idealistic expectations and embraced realistic ones.
So you may say that the participants would do well to rid themselves of their unrelenting optimism and instead, adopt true optimism, where they consider what may go wrong and prepare themselves accordingly, with confidence they’ll be fine anyway.
Thank you for clarifying your comments around locus of control. This makes a lot of sense to me. Your comments and belief system around this I believe also lend themselves to fostering continually high standards of self. I’ve never really heard anyone speak of an internal locus of control in this way. It kind of sounds like an internal locus of control can be a gateway to an inflated ego, if not kept in perspective. Thank you for sharing that.
I’m currently reading Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday which I know you’ve read. He writes about the San Francisco 49er’s going from the worst team in the league to a Super Bowl victory over three years, then falling apart in the years that followed. Holiday writes: this is what happens when you prematurely credit yourself with powers you don’t yet have control of.This is what happens when you start to think about what your rapid achievements say about you and begin to slacken the effort and standards that initially fuelled them.
This was fun. What would a conversation be with Lyndon without the requirement of a flowchart to understand how on Earth we got to this point from the initial topic of conversation? Although there’s been many different tangents, I do actually think the flowchart would make a lot of sense (if I had any desire to actually create it). So to resist adding any more words, thank you so much for having me, for challenging my thoughts and further opening my mind yet again. I look forward to the next conversational adventure.