When we ruminate too intently on the pains our future might hold, we experience a portion of that pain in advance.
People with empathy internalise the pain of others when they witness suffering. It helps us to connect, to understand one another, and to care for eachother.
When making a decision, we usually consider the effect it might have on others. In doing so, we are essentially imagining future versions of the people our decisions may effect, allowing us to empathetically consider the potential outcomes of our actions.
We are so good at this that we usually do it intuitively.
I don’t take an online yodeling class at 1:30am because I can imagine that my neighbours (and their baby) might find it difficult to sleep in the presence of such glorious sound.
Unfortunately, there is a little glitch in this otherwise wonderfully human system; we can’t help but also imagine ourselves as a future person. We possess an inescapable and often rather concerning future self.
Anxiety is the pain we absorb while empathising with our future selves.
Harbouring a bit of this pain is sensible, but too much acts like poison.
We consider people ‘anxious’ when the pain they are experiencing in advance is disproportionate to the actual risks their furute presents.
“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
Your anxiety is as useful as it is actionable.
If you can’t do anything to address a concern, there is zero gain in accepting preliminary pain on your future self’s behalf.
You’ll have to deal with it when your future self arrives at the worrying destination, so what sense is there in experiencing the pain twice?
Getting stuck empathising with future you is dangerous because this process feeds upons itself.
Once painful worrying becomes a habit, you might find yourself worrying about the worrying.
All of a sudden, your introspective empathy has turned toxic, and you’re so caught up inside yourself that you can barely muster the energy to look out.
Any meaningful progress requires the processing of (and response to) feedback.
An archer practicing her shots on a target nocks an arrow, aims, draws, then releases.
One of three things will happen;
She hits the bullseye;
She hits the target imperfectly;
Or she misses all together
The beauty of pursuits like archery is that the feedback involved in its practice is unambiguous, immediate, and self-enacting; it’s clear whether-or-not you’ve succeeded, and every possible outcome inspires the same response; nock another arrow, and try again.
If the archer misses, she picks up her bow and tries again until she hits.
When she hits the target imperfectly, she tries yet again, aiming for dead centre.
When she strikes dead centre, she tries again, and again, until she can strike dead centre one hundred times in a row.
Even when she has accomplished this, her mastery is not complete.
She takes a step back, increasing her range. Then once again, she tries again.
The process of improving at archery is ingrained in its practice. You hit, or you miss until you only hit.
You can’t pretend to be good at archery. Not to others, but more importantly, not to yourself. You are, or you aren’t. You hit, or you miss.
Similar loops can be found in pursuits like Jiu Jitsu, pottery, or lifting weights; You can defend yourself, or you can’t. You can throw a set of identical bowls, or you can’t. You can deadlift 80kg, or you can’t.
Want to get better at any of these things? Then do them.
Show up. Try. Process feedback. Repeat.
It sounds simple, because it is.
What most people fail to realise is that this type of progress is not exclusive to pursuits with self enacting feedback loops inbuilt.
Feedback loops can be designed and implemented into any pursuit.
It’s not always easy. But if progressing in your pursuit means something to you, designing and implementing feedback loops is essential.
Some artists do a particularly poor job of this. An artist’s failure to develop usually has to do with the ambiguity of their feedback, and their failure to reframe it into something actionable.
When the feedback generated by an activity is ambiguous, responding productively is a challenge.
Unlike arrows in targets, the effective success of artistic practice is often hard to measure.
What’s worse is when that ambiguous feedback gets further distorted and filtered by the artist’s ego.
What happens when ambiguous feedback gets passed through an ego filter?
Not a lot of growth.
When pursuits don’t have clear feedback cycles, we have to build our own. We owe it to ourselves.
If you want to get better at whatever it is you’re pursuing, you must be able to point at the bullseye, and describe what sending an arrow crashing into it looks like. Not the field it’s in, not the target itself, but the actual image of an arrow lodging itself cleanly in the centre ring.
For the artist, their bullseye might be the approval of a trusted mentor, or to their second timing on a monologue or poem.
A bullseye could look like one interesting blog post published every day, without typos, at 6am.
A detailed understanding of what perfect execution looks like is essential if you intend to trend towards it.
Fail to do so, and you’ll dabble in mediocrity for however long it takes you to quit.
Incredible things are difficult to do.
You shouldn’t feel horrible every time your arrow flies wayward. You shouldn’t expecting perfect results every time you loose an arrow – It’s about giving yourself the best opportunity to grow towards perfect results.
When designing your own loops, consider three things;
What does perfect execution look like?
What opportunities do I have to practice my own execution?
When I fail, how will I know what needs to change?
The more you try, the more you grow, the closer you get, the more you try.
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.”
Being in control of things outside yourself is relative to your influence over them, but being in control of yourself requires nothing more than feeling in control. This is a skill, and we can practice it.
Feeling in control requires you to acutely focus solely on the things which you can change.
We can change much more than we usually give ourselves credit. Even in times of hopelessness;
While we may have no control over a a thief who wishes to break into our home, we do have control over how we prepared we are for that possibility; installing security screens, cameras and investing in insurance are all measures we can take to minimise the possibility of disruption.
We also have power over how we react to being stolen from; we can grow fearful, bitter and angry, or we can deal with the problem as best we can, prepare ourselves better in case the circumstance arises again, and move on.
The problem with reacting angrily is that there’s nothing to be gained by allowing those emotions flourish. The thief has been and gone. There is no perpetrator to receive the justice of your anger, so what are you to do with it?
It feels good to embrace negative emotions in times like these. To imagine what you might do if you found the thief. How good you’ll feel if the police find them. You may find yourself playing these scenarios over and over in your mind, your emotion building as the visions become clearer.
But with no way to act on or utilise these feelings, thinking this way is nothing more than self-pollution.
This thinking does nothing to change what happened, nor does it aid in actually realising your imagined capture of the thief.
We can’t control the actions of others, their reactions to our actions, nor the hand we’ve been dealt in the game of life.
Unless a feeling informs action, you don’t need it. That doesn’t mean that like a stray cat it won’t try to stick around, it just means you should probably avoid feeding it incase it decides to live with you permanently.
Take care not to obsess over things which fall outside the bounds of your control. When we do, especially if the thing scares us, we often wind up ruminating; thinking in abstract circles about how concerned or bereaved we are about a problem, without committing any energy to actually resolving it.
Ruminating about problems is useless, because problems require solving.
Solving is active where rumination is passive. It implies that action is being taken in the direction of a solution.
Nobody cares how worried you are about climate change, but plenty of people care about how you’re planning to vote at the next election.
People value action because it drives progress.
We can take control of our lives by choosing to focus our attention not on rumination, but on actively seeking out problems we have the capability to solve through our own individual action.
Accept everything which you cannot change, focus solely on those things you can, and pursue them with rigour.
Describes the natural tendency to react to a positive action with another positive action;
You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
You get out what you put in.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
It’s all reciprocity.
Reciprocity is the glue which binds us.
It’s the social chain reaction which inspires deep friendships, and even love.
It’s a powerful force which demands the careful balancing of social expectations and experience.
Relationships intensify when your partner’s reaction to a positive effort matches, or slightly exceeds, your initial effort. But relationships shatter when one’s reciprocity is too disproportionate.
Say you made them breakfast, then they picked up your groceries on the way home. A week later, you do a load of their washing and a week after that they clean the house on their day off. The back-and-forth exchange of favours enhances your trust and appreciation for one another. How sweet.
Now instead, imagine you made them breakfast, then that afternoon they returned home in a new car they’d just bought you.
Even if you wanted the car, you probably wouldn’t stay with them any longer than it took to sign the liscensing paperwork.
Even if the gift was genuinely bought as a selfless gesture, because money wasn’t an issue and they knew how much you wanted it, there is a fine tuned part of your brain which analyses these situations with scrutiny;
What do they want?
What do I owe them?
Could I repay them?
Am I sure I want to?
When reciprocity goes to the extreme our scepticism is triggered.
This scepticism exists to protect us from threats or deceptions. The more disproportionate the reciprocity, the more sceptical we will be of the intention behind the positive act.
Scepticism is exhausting, anxiety enducing and awful to be on the receiving end of.
If meaningful relationships are what you want, it’s best to build reciprocity slowly.
Give, give often and give warmly. But be mindful not to overwhelm others with your generosity; whether in the form of gifts, kind deeds, or your time and attention.
I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully.
Most people never listen.
Our ability to listen informs our ability to learn, grow, and thrive.
The type of listening Hemingway notes here; active, careful listening, involves more than hearing and interpreting words.
Listening is how we process feedback, and not all feedback is proceesed by your ears.
You listen to your body when it’s thirsty and to the road through the touch of your steering wheel just as you would listen to a loved one tell you about their day.
Listening is how we interpret information; turning the inputs of our world into understandings we can act upon.
The world and the people we share it with present a near limitless array of potential inputs.
Advertisers alone ensure that we consume tens of thousands every day.
Where you decide to apply your attention will determine which of those inputs shape you, your thoughts and your wellbeing.
In a world so saturated by inputs fighting for the precious space in your mind, listening carefully is the only way to register some of the most important inputs which would otherwise be lost to our periphery;
The way a troubled friend sighs as they tell you they’re ‘fine’.
The way your little cousin taps their foot when he fibs.
Or the split second raise in the smile of your partner when you tell a bad joke they don’t want to laugh at.
If we’re not mindful, these things, the richest parts of our existence, might pass us by.
Careful listening = Paying generous attention
In this way, your attention is even more valuable than your time.
Invest it poorly, and you risk leading a meaningless existence. You could live for a millennia this way and get less out of life than someone who invested well for just a year.
Invest your attention with generosity, empathy, and joy. Succeed in this, and you’ll find it hard to life miserably.
Investing wisely requires you to share your attention only with people who matter, and to share it fully.
When these people share their own attention in return, cherish it. It’s a beautiful gift to receive.
Perhaps most importantly, beware the vices of those who are more interested in leeching your attention than sharing it with you.
Sadly, as Hemingway notes, this is most people.
Listen, pay generous attention, and encourage those around you to do the same.
But if they prove unable, walk away.
We can’t afford to spread our most valuable asset too thin.
You don’t have enough to waste on those with those unwilling to invest their own wisely beside you.
How often do you have moments when you look at someone and think,
“They’re just not aware, are they?”
Like when someone’s staring at you but they don’t realise. Or domineering a conversation, totally unaware that they’re denying you the chance to speak because they’re so focussed on what they need to say.
We all have these blind spots.
I especially struggle with identifying when I’m getting close to overwhelm.
The people around me can usually tell when I’m trending towards overcommitting myself.
Even when they warn me, I rarely act on their advice before it’s too late.
Our minds are tricky that way. We reinforce our own defaults.
Even when told outright that I’m doing something stupid which is bothering those I care about, my mind finds a way to trick itself.
I’m okay. I can manage. They don’t understand. It’s not that bad.
But of course they understand. And if they’ve mustered the courage to initiate that awkward conversation, it is that bad.
We’re hardwired to trust our own thoughts almost blindly, while scrutinising the observations of others at every step. Even those we trust.
This process functions as a form of self defence, protecting us from the deceptions of others.
Unfortunately, it also insulates our own self deceptions; the things we tell ourselves are true not because they are, but because they’re less painful than what’s actually true.
Self deception is a viscous, malignant thing.
We must become aware of what we choose not to see.
Maybe your boss wasn’t being totally unreasonable when she called you out on your performance.
Maybe you’re not too tired to get the exercise you need.
Maybe you haven’t earned that break yet.
And maybe I ought to listen to the people closest to me more often.
If multiple people are shining a light on something which you can’t see, and it also makes you uncomfortable, you’re probably the one with the blind spot.
Ask yourself: Do these people have reason to deceive me?
If, like with my overwhelm, the people shining lights are those who love and care, how does tricking you benefit them?
Statistically speaking, they probably aren’t conspiring against you. If it feels like they are, perhaps you’re conspiring against yourself.
When the people who love you rally together to shine a light and you’re the only one who can’t see it, chances are you’re looking in the wrong direction.
Fail to turn around for long enough, and the lights might stop shining.
It’s the kind of minor, inconsequential pain which wields the potential to cause more angst than it’s worth.
It feels like when you get cut off in traffic. Or when someone doesn’t knock before entering a room. It feels like when someone doesn’t change the toilet roll.
Beestings feel this way unless you’re allergic, which some people are to inconsequential problems. We all know someone with a beesting allergy; a usually well-meaning hothead who can be set off by the tiniest negative input. To those less affected, this can be infuriating.
But beesting allergies aren’t unnatural. Our minds are naturally geared towards these negative inputs, it’s called negativity bias.
The good news is that there is a key difference between a real beesting and the beesting of mental angst: you can train yourself to minimise the effects of the latter.
Meditation and cognitive therapy are both great for this. The former is natural and free, whereas the latter requires finding a good practitioner (which usually isn’t free).
As we bumble about our daily lives, it is equally important that we take all reasonable precautions to avoid stinging anyone as it is to take responsibility for enhancing our own beesting immunity.
Some people are perpetual stingers who also have allergies. This isn’t a good mix. Especially when those they sting start stinging back.
Take care not to get so caught up in your own head that you wind up perpetually darting around, ungraciouslly stinging those you cross.
If you regularly feel on edge, like any little thing might cause you to snap, you might instead have an allergy.
Be honest with yourself. If you’ve got an allergy, or a tendency to sting, slow down. Breathe. Play with some meditation.