Reader Letters #1, Epilogue

I want to take this time to respond to questions from part 5 of the Reader Letters #1 series.

First, here’s a question from Kal Ross:

I saw the solution to being a codependent as mourning first, becoming self accepting second, and then partaking in social interests and having real empathy (which also keeps us from becoming compensatory narcissists since they lack empathy). My question now is how does one become more empathetic and live for the social interests of the people they love as well as themselves? I saw this solution on Schreiber’s site a while back, but I am a bit confused. I used to do a lot of volunteering, but stopped because my volunteer manager was a dick. However, I feel like I need to volunteer to become more empathetic to people and not be narcissistic. Am I missing the point?…

So is regaining empathy another thought process like mourning and self acceptance or does it require certain habits that we can discuss?

It’s hard to tell someone else what it is they need to do to increase empathy. The process is so different for so many people that I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all strategy. But I think if you treat empathy like a goal that you have to force to come to you as soon as possible, you risk turning it into just one more thing on a checklist. It becomes one more item on your checklist of perfectionism, a goal on the road to making your symbol of perfection, your idealized, false self, a reality.

There are plenty of people who are what I call “abstract humanitarians.” They like humanity and good causes in the abstract, and do lots of public displays of good like volunteering and organizing charities, but on a personal, one-on-one level they are angry, mean-spirited, and don’t get along with anyone, and are often cruel and insensitive to people who need their empathy. All these acts of good they perform have done nothing in the way of making them into better, more empathetic people because they only do them for their own self-aggrandizement in the eyes of others. Their idealized, false selves are the types of people who volunteer and do acts of charity, so that’s why they do such things. No other reasons.

Meanwhile there are some people who don’t volunteer, who don’t do charity, because they are too busy working 60, 70, or 80 hour weeks to make ends meet, but when they have the free time to be with their children, lovers, or friends, they are truly connected and selfless. They understand what other people feel when they are feeling it and tap into it and make them feel reassured.

So I think the more you try to focus on forcing empathy by looking for the right “answer” in the form of volunteering, certain habits, or the right thought processes, the more you risk turning the whole endeavor into some easy fix solution and risk treating people like a self-serving means to an end. You can end up falling into an ego trap if you’re not careful (“look at me and how empathetic I am!”)

The most imporant things I can say toward building empathy are first, try to understand what you’re feeling when you feel it, and why you feel these things when you feel them. Is a primary inferiority being triggered? Are you emotionally reliving a childhood trauma? Are you acting like a codependent? Are you dealing with an emotional vampire that reminds you of a vampire you grew up with? Are you falling into a distorted thinking pattern that you need to catch before it spirals out of control?

Be as brutally honest as possible to yourself about yourself when it comes to why you do the things you do when you do them and why you feel the things you feel when you feel them and learn to accept and forgive whatever answers you come up with for these actions and feelings, even as you resolve to improve yourself. The greater your self-acceptance and self-awareness, the better your awareness and acceptance of others will be, which will make your more empathetic, because you won’t feel the need to deny your negative feelings about yourself and project them onto others. You’ll own your own emotional bullshit, and accept yourself as you are, which will free you from feeling the need to push your bullshit on other people and will allow you to accept them as they are.

This is not to make it sound simple and easy. It’s very hard to be brutally honest about yourself to yourself, without the use of rationalizations, denials, projections, or any other of your favorite defense mechanisms. At the end of the day you can only accomplish that by letting go of you ego, that is, your idealized false self. And it’s a different path for everyone. What worked for me may sound to new age and airy fairy for some. What didn’t work for me because it sounded to religious and dogmatic may totally work wonders for others. Explore for yourself. I can’t provide that answer for you, even though I can tell you what worked for me in the recommended resources section of the next post.

My personal definition for empathy is the ability to understand what someone else feels, and to be able to feel that same emotion they feel while they are feeling it. If you are not in the habit of identifying your own feelings and allowing yourself to feel them without judgment, how can you identify the feelings of others, feel them at the same time as they feel them, and keep from judging either yourself or the other person? (Insight (Vipassana) meditation was very helpful for me in this area)

Kal Ross also asked:

Are u going to answer more reader letters in the future?

Yes, and the answers will be much shorter. I only made the first answer so long because it contained issues that I saw in maybe 80% of the reader letters I was sent. I was hoping by going so in depth I could tackle a lot of readers’ problems at once so I wouldn’t keep receiving the exact same issue over and over, thereby allowing myself to move into different areas and problems. The question about whether or not to become a pickup artist was especially popular, hence that monster-sized post addressing it.

I have a few reader letters in the pipeline to answer, but if anyone else wants to ask  advice as well, feel free. I will not use your real name. I automatically give everyone a pseudonym.

Sasha wrote this comment:

I’ve mentioned this book several times and I’ll do it again since it’s THE primer on Emotional Body: There’s No Such Thing as a Negative Emotion.

I haven’t read that book myself, but it looks damn good. I can’t fully recommend it since I haven’t actually read it, but I just purchased it based on the preview, and figured I’d make other people aware of it in case they wanted to read it as well.

Sasha continued:

Since Emotional body lies between mental and physical, if it’s fucked up/damaged/diseased, energy flow between mental and physical gets severely kinked AND both you mental and physical bodies get out of whack (cue in men building strong bodies/minds to contain weakness/pain of the emotional body). The way to fix it seems to be a combo of direct body-based emotional work and mental-emotional work. The latter is good therapy and books/reading like this blog and you probably done lots of reading. The former is things like Chi Nei Tsang or any emotional bodywork that allow you to bypass/quiet the mind.

This is a good point that I downplayed. There’s nothing wrong with finding a good professional to help you deal with stuff, and I feel it needs stressing because there is such a stigma when it comes to finding emotional help from professionals. And don’t feel discouraged if your first few attempts don’t work or are a bad fit. It’s like relationships: every relationship fails until one doesn’t. I found getting formal meditation instruction to do a world of good, as well as going to a hypnotherapist for a short spell. I also hear a lot of horror stories about people going to therapists and spiritual teachers as well, so don’t write off getting help from professionals totally just because of a few bad experiences.

Sasha wrapped up with:

There are two kinds of Hero’s journeys – one is the journey of triumph against adversity, the other is surrender. Gotta mourn sometimes – but not too long and make sure that what you are morning is actually dead.

This is a great point. If you drag it on the self-awareness and core work for too long, it becomes an exercise in self-pity and mental masturbation, or even worse, scar worship. Don’t rehash your traumas to the point where you make your scars into your identity. And if your trauma is an ongoing one, your first priority is to stop the wounding and bleeding before you move on to the healing.

Brian wrote this comment:

I might have missed it, but where do you draw the line between self improvement and attempting to build a ‘false self’?

Self-improvement means figuring out who you really are and accepting who you are unconditionally, and then trying to improve from there. Building a false self has to do with avoiding who you really are and not accepting yourself except on the condition you can improve yourself in specific ways.

That’s why I had that line in the post about “You’re fine just the way you are…and there’s always room for improvement.” Compare that to the attitude: “You are unworthy the way you are…unless you improve to become X,Y, and Z.” The former is self-improvement and the latter is building a false self.

Jim asked in his comment:

I don’t get it. For me, I mean.

I still can’t motivate myself without using external influences or beating myself up. I lack the discipline and it takes a lot of motivation to develop that discipline. If I develop discipline using poor motivators, the discipline will always be based on these. I don’t see a way out of this.

What is it that we are supposed to mourn? I don’t see getting rid of my less-desirable coping strategies as all that mourn-worthy.

If you are happy being motivated in the way you’re currently motivated, so be it. This isn’t for everyone.

For many people, living a life primarily motivated by external validation is ultimately unfulfilling. Many people reach a point where the accumulated pain of remaining the way they are far begins to outweigh any fears they previously had of losing their identity and sense of self if they tried to significantly change. It’s similar to how the junkie can’t change until they hit rock bottom.

Other people don’t hit rockbottom but are lucky enough to have the foresight to see that a rockbottom will come if things don’t change.

Then others are perfectly fine with the way they are, even if they’re other-focused and driven by external validation. They can happily remain that way until they die. If being ego-driven works for you, it’s not my place to try to convince you you’re unhappy. It would be the height of hubris to tell you that your contentment isn’t genuine and that you can only be happy if you follow my way of thinking. This advice is more for people who have lived an ego-driven life focused on chasing external validation and continue to feel frustrated and unfulfilled and happy no matter what.

Jim also added:

I can mourn that my parents weren’t perfect, but that seems ridiculous – I should accept my parents’ faults as I accept my own.

Reread the five stages of grieving/mourning. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. See that last step? Acceptance. Do you see how you contradicted yourself? You say mourning your parents lack of perfection seems ridiculous, and instead you should accept their imperfections. But the final point of the described mourning process is acceptance. The five stages of mourning clearly say so. If you feel you should accept your parents lack of perfection, then you are basically saying you should mourn your parents lack of perfection, since the mourning process is an acceptance process.

The misunderstanding comes about because you, and several other readers, only think of mourning as the part where you feel sad and never get over it and replay bad thoughts and feelings and never move on. That’s not mourning, that’s wallowing, which is an incomplete mourning that gets stalled at one of the first four stages of denial, anger, bargaining, or depression. A mourning isn’t complete without that final step of acceptance, which you seem to agree with.

YOHAMI wrote this comment:

The grieving your parents stuff. Maybe it’s not grieving. They seem to have come up with that with terminal patients. 5 steps my ass…Dont chase the mourning etc.

I want to clarify something on the 5 Steps of Grieving information from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross that I wrote about in the last installment. People seem to misunderstand and think that the grieving process I discuss is something I’m telling them to chase.

I’m not telling people to chase the mourning process, or even to begin the mourning process. I’m advising people to complete the mourning process they’ve already started but never finished. The difference is important to understand. You see, if you experience a loss, even an emotional loss like the chance to have an emotionally healthy childhood with parents who loved and supported you unconditionally, you are automatically and immediately going to start mourning that loss, whether you want to or not.

You may not realize you are mourning that loss. You may be in the first stage of mourning called denial. You may be still invested in perpetuating the myths that you had a great childhood, that your parents were loving and supportive, or that it didn’t bother you as much as it did. You may be in the anger stage. You may be going through life as an angry person, always flying off the handle at imagined slights, especially from authority figures that remind you of your parents. You may be a codependent harboring tons of covert anger and passive-aggressive behavior toward emotional vampires in your life, emotional vampires who unconsciously remind you of your parents. You may be in the bargaining stage: you’re using your ego to bargain with life itself. You’re telling life, on an unconscious level, “Send me an emotional vampire who reminds me of my parents so that I can get it right this time.” Or “If I become this image of perfection, this idealized false self in the form of a player/pickup artist/hot chick/homemaker/white knight/badass/alpha male/beta male/tycoon, I will heal my primary inferiority and all my pain once and for all.” All the final, fictional goals that we set for ourselves in order to become our idealized, false selves, all the bad relationships we inexplicably seem to find ourselves in, all the neuroses we develop, all the complicated defense mechanisms we create in order to protect our fragile self-images, these are all forms of bargaining that we do with existence while mourning our emotional losses.

When we fail at these final fictional goals we experience secondary inferiorities, which in turn trigger our primary inferiority and cause the core pain from our childhood losses to come flooding back into our emotional memory. This is when we experience the fourth step of the grieving process, which is depression. Most of our depressions in life have been us going through this fourth step of the grieving process. Most of us tend to deal with our depressions not by progressing to the fifth step and finally finding acceptance but rather by finding a way to return to the previous three steps. We come up with new ways to bargain (step 3), such as using defense mechanisms again or finding new, “better” final fictional goals to pursue and bigger and better false, idealized selves to aspire to. We may try to get ourselves out of the depressive funk by converting the feeling into anger (step 2). We may deny (step 1) the bad feeling by using methods like dissociating through drinking, drugs, excessive shopping, sexual conquests, or other compulsive behaviors  or immersing ourselves in distractions like our favorite forms of entertainment. And at various times we end up depressed again (step 4).

If you look at most of your life, you may realize that at any given point you were always in one of the first four steps of a mourning process you couldn’t complete. You’ve been wallowing, whether you consciously acknowledged it or not. You’ve been mourning your childhood losses your whole life, which is why it’s so painful and filled with stretches of denial, anger, rationalizations (bargaining) and depression, but never acceptance. What I was recommending to people in the last installment was not to start the concept of mourning. It’s too late for that. You unwittingly started the grieving process a long time ago, and you never had a choice about it. I was telling you to stop the dysfunctional coping behaviors that keep you bouncing around the first four steps and figure out a way to get into the fifth stage of acceptance, where you forgive life for the bad hand you were dealt and find a way to make peace with it and move on.

Adam wrote this comment:

the only healthy sexual relations I’ve ever had is when I’ve refused to talk about myself, and forced the relation with the girl to be a multichannel output on her end flowing towards me, while I consume but give little to nothing in return. And this has made girls crazy about me. But it leaves much to be desired, and it ultimately makes me lonely. I had hoped that someday my wife would be my best friend, and that it would be honest sharing of myself, completely honest where everything that I am is shown to another, and she does the same with me, and that we face the trials of life together. But every girl that I have met so far seems immensely self absorbed, uncaring, and pretty unable to really connect with another person emotionally. And if I do attempt to voice my own thoughts without filter, it leads to romantic rejection. Something like that just can’t, in my experience, lead to a healthy sexual relationship.

pain answered with this comment:

Part of this may be age. 16 to 20, every single person you’ve ever met at that age is a retard. Sorry if that seems harsh or judgmental. Quite frankly, serious relationships before age 25 are almost always a waste of time. Teenage relationships are a just sexual urges wrapped in some drama.

It sucks that the hottest ones are still too young and dumb to have a real relationship with. Life wasn’t made fair.

I agree with pain.

Adam, it’s hard to answer you without knowing specifics of your case, but I will say you’re 20 and very young and you need to just be patient. You’re way too young to be chasing a serious girlfriend anyway. You’re 20 years old, why would you want a serious girlfriend? If these girls you meet are self-absorbed, uncaring, and unable to really connect with anyone, be glad they don’t stick around. You’re better off without them.

The first thing you need to do is not be so hard on yourself, because it will lead you to second-guess yourself excessively, become nervous before you even talk to a girl, and then when you do talk to a woman that nervousness and lack of self-acceptance will be what actually causes your rejection and not the actual honest self-disclosure. There are some guys who will say the most politically incorrect thing but honestly believe and accept their own bullshit and sell it with conviction, and women will eat it up wholeheartedly. And if the woman doesn’t, the guy feels it’s her loss and moves on. If you aren’t comfortable in your own skin and second-guessing your own worth, it doesn’t matter if you say what you really think or whether you are telling her bullshit: either way you won’t get far, except with bad or fake people.

Another thing that happens is that sometimes people confuse being honest with being tactless and insensitive. Make sure that when you say you say what you feel “without a filter” that you aren’t doing anything rude. I remember in college when I had a friend who was pursuing authenticity, he took it as a license to throw all tact out the window and became unintentionally offensive.

Again, I don’t know the specifics of your case, but people tend to accept people they feel accept themselves. You can only get so far by faking self-acceptance, and its usually with people who are fake themselves. Focus more on whether or not you accept yourself and less on whether other people accept you, especially if these women are as shallow and selfish as you say. And most of all, you’re 20 years old! Don’t get so heavy and self-absorbed right now, and have fun experimenting with dating and what works for you. Don’t be in a rush to get tied down to anything or anyone or get wifed up to the first woman who accepts you sexually.

And to add to what pain said, in post-“Sex and the City” North America nowadays, many hot women don’t evolve beyond glorified Disney Princess and Mean Girls socialization patterns even into their 30s, remaining spoiled brats well beyond a stage where it could possibly be considered cute by a normal man with dignity. Given how childishly spoiled and entitled adult professional women have become these days (and yes, I know there are exceptions), I can’t imagine how bad women who literally are children have become.

R wrote this comment:

What about genetics? Cannot those problems be inherited? I mean abused parents make abused childrens and thats sounds logical.

I don’t believe you can blame everything on genetics. I think the nature vs. nurture debate is a tired one, and one without much merit. It creates a false choice fallacy where people act like the only choices are that what people become is fully determined by their genetics or what they become is fully determined by their environments. Genetics and environment both play a role. But I don’t care how good someone’s genetics are, the environment still plays a stronger role.

Your genetics may have some effect on how you’re treated. If you are a cute baby that naturally acts coy, people may treat you better, which trains you from youth to showcase your cuteness and to act coy, which in turn makes people treat you better. This creates a positive reinforcing loop: your genetics, which involve cuteness and coyness, cause your environment to give you good feedback, which causes you to express certain parts of your genetics even more, which in turn causes your environment to give you even better feedback. Take an unattractive and colicky baby on the other hand. The baby’s genetics cause it to have an unattractive appearance and demeanor, which may cause people to refrain from playing with the baby or may even cause them to be mean to it. Say this negative feedback makes the baby act even more unpleasant, which makes people mistreat it more. This is a negative reinforcing loop.

In ways like that, your genetics can certainly play a role. But you can’t say that because genetics play a role, that somehow proves that environment doesn’t matter. I don’t care how good someone’s genetics are, if you beat them down emotionally and physically long enough, they will become broken people in some manner. If the environment is shitty enough, it doesn’t matter how high their IQs are, how athletically gifted they are, or how good their immune systems are.

M.E. wrote this comment:

I am confused by the seeming all-encompassing nature of these concepts (narcissism, codependency, neurosis, etc.). It seems like any human interaction or behavior could be discussed in the light of narcissism and codependency. So then what is the use of these concepts? How can we say for sure that they are meaningful labels for people and not just aspects of universal human behavior?

I’ve gotten similar comments to this several times regarding this series.

Why would the universality of these observations somehow invalidate them? This is a human nature blog. It says so right up there in the subheading under the title at the top. Human nature observations should be universal. I think the fact that they are universal is exactly what makes them useful. They are meaningful labels for people precisely because they’re aspects of universal human behavior.

What’s more useful, a key that only opens one door or a key that opens almost all doors? The latter only lacks value if everyone else on earth has the exact same keys, but most people don’t understand these basic human nature concepts. One just has to look at how dysfunctional society is and how it keeps repeating the same mistakes to see that.

M.E. continued:

The second issue I have is that psychological disorders these days are often treated exclusively with medicine and CBT. How do we know for sure that these childhood influences really cause the patterns discussed here? How do we know that this isn’t just the result of selection bias causing us to fit causes (parental neglect) to effects (loneliness, low self-esteem) when other kids who might have been more neglected never develop the same issues?

Psychological disorders these days are often treated exclusively with medicine and CBT because they’re cheaper, they get faster results, and that makes them easier and preferable in the eyes of insurance companies as well as in the eyes of customers with limited budgets and a quick-fix mentality.

It’s the same reason why most doctors treat high cholesterol and heart disease with statins and medications over making people eat healthy and exercise. They give a quick talk about how you should eat right and exercise, but the main focus is quick fixes and magic bullets in the form of pills. Does the fact that most of these problems are treated with medication instead of deep, profound insights and lifestyle changes change the notion that shitty diet and lack of exercise are the real causes of the problem?

How do we reconcile these ideas with the existence of families where one identical twin develops psychological problems and the other does not? Conversely, how do we explain the fact that the likelihood of developing depression is strongly correlated in identical twins even when they are raised in separate families?

Not all psychological problems are the same or have the same root causes. Some forms of depression may  be genetic in nature. There certainly is evidence for that theory. In such cases it makes sense that identical twins may both develop the disease despite being raised in different families. Other forms of depression however may come from childhood traumas that come from being raised in an abusive family. In those cases, one twin may develop psychological problems while another raised in a loving family doesn’t develop mental problems.

In general though, you’re making the same mistake as commenter R of looking for a neat either-or categorization where things can either be labeled as having wholly genetic or wholly environmental causes. Few health problems can ever be categorized that neatly.

And if these stories really are true, that parental neglect really does cause these issues, then why are we prescribing Prozac to people?

A lifetime of eating high-carb crappy processed food until becoming obese and refusing to exercise play a huge role in causing diabetes. Yet many doctors just prescribe diabetes medication to people without doing much else. Do you see the logical fallacy you’re making here? The fact that doctors prescribing a drug or a quick-fix surgery for something doesn’t necessarily mean they’re attacking the true cause of the problem. Just like a doctor can’t force someone to eat better and hop on a treadmill every day to help their diabetes, a mental health doctor can’t force a depressed person to do the hard work needed to fix their core issues. Sometimes all the person wants, or can afford, is a quick-fix. But treating a symptom is not the same as proving a cause.

Also, I never said every last case of depression or every last mental health problem is caused solely by childhood issues. Some problems can be genetic, like schizophrenia and other disorders for example. Genetic mental disorders are often caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Childhood traumas may worsen and exacerbate these genetic disorders, but they don’t cause them. However even in cases like these it doesn’t hurt to work on the trauma issues in addition to treating the genetic issues. It certainly can’t hurt.

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The next post will be one listing a bunch of website links, videos, and book recommendations that supplement this series for those who want to do more research on things I’ve spoken about here or see some of these concepts discussed in more depth and from different perspectives.