Mind Toolbox

I’ve been observing and assisting surgeries for the past couple of months, and everyday I was surprised to see new surgical instruments that I had never heard of before. The instruments would play small very specific roles, but play those really well.

I’ve spent my entire life in search of a simple and minimal set of mind tools that would help me fix my serious motivation and productivity issues. I’d try one mind tool, and then abandon it for another one days later… working on one tool a time. Why one? Because I wanted to keep things dead simple.

But now I have come to this important conclusion that I’ll have to work on building a rather comprehensive set of tools, and that a simple unified model of motivation/productivity etc might not be the right way to go.

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Dysfunctional Motivation Profile and OCPD

Those who are correctly diagnosed with OCPD have unmistakably dysfunctional social or professional lives. This text hypothesizes one axis that makes the lives dysfunctional. This may only be valid for perfectionists of certain types.

According to this hypothesis, the affected individual faces four challenges:

  1. Dysfunctional motivation profile (DMP) which narrows down the tasks the individual is interested in to one’s own disadvantage.
  2. DMP results in neglect of the real world leading to what I call “depletion of headroom“. Practically this may mean bankruptcy, and serious social rejection.
  3. Headroom depletion forces the individual to make a choice between the real world and one’s inner world, leading to cognitive disonance, which translates to stress and anxiety.
  4. The affected individual may end up trying to escape the cognitive dissonance in wrong ways, such as through denial and withdrawal, resulting in further deterioration of life.

We’ll look into these in detail one by one before moving onto solutions.

Dysfunctional motivation profile (DMP):

The tasks that interest an individual get limited and unimportant activities may interest the individual more than the important ones. The affected individuals find themselves motivated by:

  1. Tasks purely driven by intrinsic motivation i.e. tasks that are not good only for extrinsic rewards, such as money, repute or fame.
  2. Tasks that lead to positive outcomes and not only serve to prevent the negative ones. (read this mindlog for more)
  3. Tasks with a moderate level of difficulty. Too easy or too difficult are hard to stick to long enough.
  4. Scalable tasks, in which there is always something to match the individual’s increase in competitiveness with time.
  5. Tasks that the individuals know that they will be able to finish. They won’t work on the ones they know they will only be working on transiently.
  6. Tasks not involving much social interaction, especially to start with.
  7. Tasks not having major hurdles in the initial stages. e.g If the individuals need money to take a certain exam that they are highly passionate about, but lack that money, they wouldn’t be interested in the exam at all. This contrasts with one typically expects from a passionate or obsessive person.
  8. Tasks which are not to be done only because they pave way for other tasks, the other tasks being the ones of actual interest to the individual. e.g the individuals from the example in #7 will avoid taking a job, regardless of how interesting it is, if its primary purpose is earning enough to pay for their examination.
  9. Tasks that are not important only because they add value to something that has already been completed out of one’s interest.  e.g. a writer who has written a bulky novel in an entire decade may be satisfied enough in doing that. Now if he gets it published, he can add value to his hard work. Even though doing that needs little effort, and may possibly have a dramatic outcome, he feels unmotivated for that.
  10. Tasks which serve to make the meaninglessness of life (absurdism) less evident, rather than more evident. This affects only those with existential crises.
  11. Tasks that are nearing completion may either feel very interesting, or very uninteresting.
  12. Tasks that lead to tangible outcomes that can be hoarded. This one is interesting, since it can be used to one’s advantage, e.g in planting a desire to earn (and collect) money in an otherwise care-free individual.

Headroom Depletion:

At any point in life, one is more or less free to comply to one’s motivation profile. I call this freedom “headroom”.  A decent earning, having fairly working relationships, being debt-free, having accomplished family responsibilities, are all required for a decent headroom. These requirements would vary person to person, and may be pretty dramatic for some, and non-existent for others. Neurotic perfectionists, e.g , will have to meet a lot of expectations of people around them in order to be mentally relaxed enough. Narcissists on the other hand will not care of any societal pressures, and would rather use the society to their advantage. The pressure of having enough earning would however be fairly universal, I believe.

Maladaptive behavior on headroom depletion:

If one depletes one’s headroom, one undergoes one or more of these:

  1. Surrendering own tasks. The person with depleted headroom shall surrender to the external pressures and give up intrinsically motivated tasks they were working on. Earning, and societal approval will be on top of their priorities, more or less transiently. The issue with this choice is that it completely ignores one’s psychology, leading to burnouts.
  2. Denial. Some people will continue to adhere to the tasks of their private interest in denial of the headroom depletion, only to deplete it more. Others will continue to adhere to their private tasks with the belief that if they’re successful with those tasks, they’ll regain the headroom. To them, a depleted headroom is inevitable for their success. They may or may not be right.
  3. Withdrawal: One may completely withdraw from both one’s private goals, and the headroom related responsibilities. This, I believe, happens with perfectionists who are as much pressured by their inner obsessions as their external responsibilities, such that they cannot figure out which way to go and end up in cognitive dissonance. Others have an innate tendency of withdrawal on stress.

Solution:

This is too early to be able to propose solutions, both because of the primitivity of the above hypothesis, and my lack of exploration of solutions. Here are a few things to start with:

  1. Task crafting: This involves: (i) Carefully looking for tasks that both serve one’s innate obsessions and help heightening one’s headroom in any way. (ii) Finding some motivating aspect in tasks that favor the headroom.
  2. Fixing one’s motivation profile, by intellectulization, if possible.
  3. Headroom objectification: This involves: (i) Enlisting the things that increase and decrease one’s headroom, and sorting them based on imminence. (ii) Identifying things which should not affect the headroom, and are unnecessarily putting oneself in pressure, such as meeting absurd expectations of relatives. (iii) Identifying things that contribute to the headroom but you weren’t well conscious of, or were in denial of.
  4. Dead-end management: If you have depleted your headroom already, then realize that it’s more important to steer free of maladaptive behaviors than to try to re-establish it because doing the former would probably already accomplish the latter.
  5. Stamina building: No matter how much we excel in technique #1, we will encounter tasks which fail to be motivating at all. The OCPD inflicted must build their stamina to endure such tasks, while at the same time protecting themselves from training too hard,or burnouts, or ego-depletion. Those trying to build such stamina learn to defend intrinsically unmotivated activities through a host of cognitive distortions such as effort justification. Let me give an example. I started physical exercise because it is classically known to help fight conditions like depression and learned helplessness. The effects, however, were not readily apparent, and I lost motivation to continue. However, somehow I decided to try for at least two or three months. Now I was regularly engaging in an activity which didn’t motivate me, and surprisingly it got easier and easier. Biases such as the “choice supportive bias” and effort justification started making it easier for me, and now I am doing it on regular basis and enjoying it, and harnessing a sense of accomplishment from it. Experimental psychology believes we all have ego reserves that get depleted, and I am talking about putting those reserves to actual use, and of defending those reserves against overuse, and of increasing those reserves.

Double Bind : Notes

Recently I learned about this amazing concept called Double Bind. I won’t explain what it is over this post as you can read about it on wikipedia. This article only adds to the concept.

Binding magnitude:

Siblings encounter same or similar double binds coming from parents however their response to them can be remarkably different, not from a coping perspective, but in the magnitude of binding they feel. This difference may be easy to understand when we see how is it that the parents are punishing. If the parents are punishing by not allowing the children to socialize with peers, an introverted child will obviously be less affected than the extroverted siblings. More commonly, however, the punishment comes in form of withdrawal of love, or expression of hatred or anger. The personality traits among the children that correlate with these latter punishments would be: desire for love, emotional sensitivity, and perfectionism. The more the children differ in these traits, the more different their sense of binding would be.

Why double binds?

I haven’t found much information on the etiology of double binds, so I’m pressed to fill the gap myself.

i) Double binds arise when the issuer’s mental confusion gets translated into his implicit and explicit orders.

ii) The directives issued by the issuer may not actually be paradoxical, and there may only be a misunderstanding by the victim… However, the victim cannot clear up the confusion because of the issuer’s repulse to meta-communication.

iii) Since moderation is good, the issuer may have goodwill in issuing the conflicting orders, and the intent of the issuer might just be keeping the “victim” in a presumed-as-correct “gray” zone. e.g a parent asking a child not to pay video games too much, or at all, may at the same time ask the child to not study obsessively. His or her intent is keeping the child’s behavior moderated, but unfortunately it turns into a troubling double bind because the children has been given subjective directives, such that a child will have difficulty realizing what amount of playing, or study, is good enough. The issuer may exploit this situation to their advantage, by blaming the child upon wish since the subjectivity of their orders means that they can always argue that they orders were never met.

iv) The issuer’s preferences have changed over time, but the victim has internalized both the old and new preferences of the issuer. This internalization is so strong that even though the issuer’s preferences have changed, the victim can not get rid of his or her older directives.

v) Defense. The issuer hasn’t really issued contradicting orders, but the victim has extrapolated a contradiction out of them, either intentionally or subconsciously, only to justify either their hatred for the issuer or their own laziness in carrying out the orders.

vi) Sometimes the directives given by the parents are free from any threats of punishment, explicit or implicit. However, the pseudo-binded persons (children) continue to have this pressing want to fulfill those directives, not because they’ll be punished if they don’t, but because they may be rewarded if they do. Classically double binds are studied in light of punishment only, whereas I see we’ve been missing the other half: Getting binded for rewards. Such behavior may be secondary to tendencies in the children themselves, such as primary perfectionism, or result of parents chronic lack of expression of love such that the children end up craving for it so much that they end up in such awkward situations as double binds.

vii) In classical double binds, children actually get punished. If this happens over and over, children grow up with learned helplessness, such that even when parents have stopped punishing their children, any paradox in their benign suggestions get enforced as a double bind. This is different from (iv) in that the set of directives are new and not temporally spread.

The Dog

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There is this bird that thinks it cannot fly and hence cannot. Since flying is in it’s instinct, it doesn’t have to be taught how to fly. It only needs to be convinced of the instinct. It’s owner tries everything he can to do that, and so does the bird itself for it wants to fly too. But suddenly a dog starts chasing the bird and whoosh, there the bird goes, up in the air.

The dog compensates for the lack of emotional intelligence in the bird.

That’s how it works for us too. Either we should find dogs to push us out of issues we’re stuck at, or synthesize them in our minds. Simple stuff. Tried a couple of times. Works.

Anger Control, Philosophically

There’s moral nihilism. Morality is but necessary. Necessary not for equilibrium in society. Necessary emotionally. Something should be there to tell us what we have to feel, and how we are to behave in response to actions and attitudes of others. Our biology doesn’t tell us anything there, nor does our rationality. Some sort of morality models floating around us have to be internalized to maintain a steady stream of such information. These morality models aren’t always formal, not always doctrines, not always written. These aren’t internalized consciously. Our minds pick these up all on their own, perhaps to fill up a critical gap in our ability to judge, decide, and react.

Since there’s moral nihilism, there’s no global consensus over absolute rights and wrongs. Such consensus is impossible. This is good. This can be exploited. I get angry over stuff so easily. All it takes for me to get rid of these emotions is to internalize an alternative model of morality, and hence an alternate judgment. This trick plays really well, such that I’m able to tolerate what the most tolerant of minds couldn’t. I’m not always able to do this, especially when i’m overwhelmed with emotions already. But I’m learning with time how to kick off this defense at the most optimal time possible. Perhaps you could too.

Of the forms of Pathological Perfection

I’m driving. Something around the dashboard starts vibrating. I’m a perfectionist. I’ll do one of these:

  1. Stop the car and continue driving only after having found and fixed the source of vibration.
  2. Stop the car, look for the vibration source for a while. Give up. Stay depressed for the rest of the day for that one little imperfection I couldn’t fix.
  3. Overcome my innate tendency of obsession by not giving any attention to the noise.
  4. Pull out my to-do list and write, “Fix the vibration”, and draw a little flow chart outlining the steps that would effectively eliminate the vibration.

These four approaches are totally different, yet represent various attitudes of the same type of personality: OCPD, aka pathological perfectionism. Lets examine each of these approaches one by one.

ONE – Raw Perfectionism

Defense mechanisms used: None

Raw in the sense that the perfectionist has not intervened against their obsessive perfectionism at all and has done exactly what their obsessive personality demands.

TWO – Depressive Defense

Defense mechanisms used: Withdrawal

Some defense mechanism has come into play and the perfectionist is able to stop themself from diving into the trivial task. They have continued living their usual life but the standard of the usual life has slightly deteriorated, nevertheless it hasn’t collapsed.

THREE – Maladaptive Defense

Defense mechanism used: Reaction formation

The defense mechanism is so strong that it has overridden the perfectionist’s obsession completely and has over corrected it instead. The perfectionist has grown the habit of completely neglecting things that secretly beg for the perfectionist’s perfection.

FOUR – Channeled Perfectionism

Defense mechanism used: Intellectualization

The perfectionist has learned to be manage his tendency of perfection with perfection. Sounds good but here’s a big catch: The perfectionist has chained everything in his life together, into schedules and to-do lists. They’ll not care for the vibration around the dashboard only because doing that would make their life imperfect as a whole. They’ve set for themselves such a harsh overall standard of life that one of these would be inevitable:

  • Serious self-neglect or neglect of family and friends. Neglecting most social norms that turn out to be absurd to the perfectionist.
  • High level of confidence leading to distortion of one’s perception of reality and to arrogance.
  • Burnouts resulting in serious crests and troughs of performance and mood.

CONCLUSION:

Pathological perfectionism can assume diverse forms depending upon the defense mechanisms used. Scientists and psychologists must seriously put some efforts into classifying pathological perfectionism better. They must stop studying it as a single discrete entity.

Egodystonic to Egosyntonic

A glass half full is a glass that was previously empty and a glass half empty is the one that was previously full. One deserves optimism and the other pessimism. This is realism. Realism judges the glass by matching it’s current state with it’s initial state.

An egodystonic perfectionist is someone who craves for perfection in the heart but ends up abandoning his tasks because that perfection is simply unattainable. They have thought of the task’s finished product quite a lot. That product is perfect, and finished before the task is even started. They always start with the glass full. A full glass can never get any fuller. It will always get less full, no matter how well they perform, and so they would always be pessimistic towards that task. Had they started with an empty glass, the glass would always be somewhat full, and they’d be always happy.

Starting with an empty glass is the simplest key that could transform an egodystonic perfectionist to an egosyntonic one, thereby converting one’s greatest shackle to one’s greatest weapon. That’s when perfectionism starts sounding like a sweet word, all of a sudden, for the first time ever.

But how to do that?

Well, it requires one’s realization that what one is working upon is yet to be accomplished and is only a blank, imperfect, absurd canvas, and anything one does adds to that canvas. Everything adds to it, literally everything, no matter how little and how imperfect. That’s it. The idea is that simple. Comprehending it may be difficult at first, but once it gets up into our heads, everything starts to change. Not only our classical procrastination begins to fade, our existential troubles start getting solved.

Speaking of existential troubles, I used to be upset when I would think of death, or the absurd. But then I started appreciating that my initial state was death, and each moment I spent was adding something to that initially dead canvas. Nothing could be too depressing anymore. No failure. No imperfection.

Perhaps, shifting one’s focus from the ultimate state to the initial state is all that we, perfectionists, need to do to cure ourselves.

Project 13

“I expect the least from you. You never accomplished a thing in life. I paid for your medical education, you wouldn’t even be doctor if I didn’t pay for you”, says father.

I am only 24. I graduated from medical school only last year and am doing my internship. Such statements, at best, are senseless, and at worst enough to break an otherwise harmonious self into an irreparable mess, irreparable enough to receive a diagnosis from the psychiatrist.

I was diagnosed with OCPD last year. When I was diagnosed, I tried my best to outline the key events in my life that could have messed me up. I found nothing because I couldn’t recall much from my early life. I ended up concluding that my OCPD was purely genetic, and that I could fix it if I wanted to.

Before the diagnosis, I had already worked on at least 12 major projects, all left uncompleted, for my uncompromising perfectionism and my stubbornness to continue committing to projects that I was not well qualified for. Committing to challenging tasks was my obligation. If I wouldn’t do that, I’d be very anxious, feeling that I was wasting life, a one-time privilege. After getting diagnosed, I realized that rather than abandoning my habit of targeting at extraordinary projects, I could train myself in the skills required to bring such projects to completion. I did that. I spent 4 months in learning Ruby on Rails, a web development framework. As soon as I had finished, I started working over my 13th project. Things were indeed different this time. Not only that I was now well versed in what I was doing, I now somehow knew how to keep a check over my perfectionism.

While I was still working over my 13th project, I had to travel to my family in Saudi Arabia for some reasons. That wouldn’t hurt my project as my laptop was almost my entire workstation and I could carry that workstation back home.

I knew pretty well that with OCPD ruling my behaviors, I’d have a hard time keeping balance between socializing with family and working on my project. In anticipation, I had crafted out a sophisticated task management framework to take care of just that, months before traveling back to my family and had been practicing it ever since. I started writing a dedicated journal just to keep track of this balance.

Everything was well planned with one major exception: I had overlooked the other half of the problem: My father’s OCPD.

He couldn’t endure my obsession with my project. “Are you busier than me? Can you accomplish more than me? Do you care for the family more than me? You suck”, said dear father. He made me miss important appointments at least twice. He would force me to accompany him in his usual business long drives. I was cursed badly the one time I refused to go with him because of a critical appointment. I felt so low, so worthless. I realized I had to choose between my ambitions and my family’s harmony and that I couldn’t go forward without absolute compromise in either. As someone with OCPD, I could understand my father like no one else. So I decided to keep my father smiling.

I was met with a drastic challenge: To give up my longing for engagement in any of my projects. I worked so hard to accomplish this near-impossible task. I was successful. Life came back to normal.

But today, for the third day in a row, my father cursed me for “Not having ambitions”, and because I “talk big but are practically useless” and “keep wasting time doing nothing”.  He keeps convincing me how my life is a mess, how the world is miles ahead of me and I’m wasting my life. Normally, this paradoxical behavior was bad enough to fly me into introverted rage. But fortunately, thanks to my high defenses that I had erected in anticipation, I was able to keep my temperament in check. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop myself from obsessing over my 13th project all over again. I strongly felt as if I needed to prove myself to my father, and to the world, and the project was the best way because it involved doing what I loved.

All of a sudden…

I realized I had reached to the etiology of my pathological longing for perfectionism-tainted engagement in my projects: My father.

Why bear pain when it can be escaped?

Pain anxiety and helplessness

In an experiment, scientists shocked a tied up dog, who could not escape, again and again. The dog would still violently try to escape. This was understandable as it was its basic instinct to try to escape pain and discomfort. But after many cycles of shock, the dog stopped trying to escape. This was again understandable since the dog had learned that it could not escape and any effort to do so was worthless. The dog’s innate escape instinct had been overridden by a conditioned behavior. But the real surprise came when he was provided with a visible opportunity to escape and it still didn’t. It kept sitting there, kept suffering the shock. This experiment led to the psychological concept of “Learned helplessness” and believe me, there’s a lot we need to learn from it.

One may say that learned helplessness is good in that it makes you tolerant to a bad condition, or conditions. Well, if you’re successfully able to extrapolate the above experiment to your own life, you’d realize how this is not true. If you’re feeling helpless, you’re not calm. You’re not tolerant to the pain or discomfort. You’re not in your comfort zone. In some cases learned helplessness makes you very depressed or anxious. Anxiety is never tolerable. Even if learned helplessness puts one in a comfort zone, it serves as a major bottleneck to one’s true potential.

The good thing about learned helplessness, like most conditioned behaviors, is that it is reversible. This makes this concept very important for you to understand.

I am a perfectionist. I am so bad at it that I get very anxious when I’m unable to meet the standard I set for a task. I also get very anxious when a task I’m doing gets very complicated. This latter form of anxiety is strange. Why would complexity in a task make me feel anxious? The reason for it is my knowledge of my perfectionism and my belief that it is inescapable. So when my task starts getting extremely complicated, I feel as If I am out of control and helpless due to my perfectionist tendency. This feeling of helplessness brings in me severe anxiety. All it takes to kill this anxiety is the realization that escape exists.

An inquisitive mind might ask: If I know the way it works, why do I still experience helplessness and anxiety. Well the answer is simple. It is last night that I discovered that my feeling of helplessness was irrational and no more than a conditioned response. It so happened that I was working on a software project and things were going on fine until I realized that I had started digging into the minutest of details. There I almost had a panic attack. But then out of nowhere this idea crossed my mind: “If I know I’m digging too much into details, I can simply chose not doing it” and ironically that was the end of it. There, in a flash, the episodes of both perfection obsession and anxiety had vanished into thin air. I do realize, however, that sometimes my inborn tendencies would really put me in situations I’d have difficulty controlling and that anxiety wouldn’t always go away as easily as it did last night. But the belief that I can escape the pain through a difficult process makes a lot of difference compared to the belief that I’m absolutely helpless.

I have come to realize that learned helplessness plagues many other aspects of our behavior too. But this time I just introduced you to the concept and talked about how the knowledge of it may help those obsessed with perfection. If you think I have oversimplified it, stay tuned for more on learned helplessness.

If you think you can’t, you won’t.

Mental Momentum

Although I procrastinate a lot, I don’t think I’m lazy. When I’m doing some energetic task, I continue doing it obsessively until its finished, without getting exhausted, without needing rest. Where I really fail is initiating tasks and switching between them. Since fixing this tendency has never worked, I’m left with no other option than embracing it. And to embrace it and make life still work like normal, I seriously need to downsize my interests and ambitions such that at the end there should just be a single thing I’m pursuing in life. Nothing more. But this rapidly gets challenging as I’d have to fight myself real hard to get rid of things I absolutely love… such as writing, programming and reading.

Ah! It’s ironic how I love being a lot of things at once yet suck exactly at what that requires: multitasking. This dilemma is so painful… its hard for someone to imagine without going through it.