Recent icky personal stuff
So far, 2016 has been a pretty interesting year of me. I discovered a lot about myself and I had both the happiest and saddest time in years. I hope you like icky personal stuff, because this post will be unusually full of it.
The first time in my life, I had a crush on someone and I told them about it. My previous method of dealing with love was mostly hoping that maybe senpai will notice me. That, of course, didn’t ever work. I don’t claim rationality.
I was lucky and a relationship followed for a few months. I felt very much in love. But there were problems that weren’t properly dealt with and I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to. And so, suddenly, poof, no relationship no more.
I had depression for the following ~4 weeks. (I concluded this was actual depression from my results on the Beck Depression Inventory.) At first, I mourned losing someone I loved. After I first successfully applied CBT on myself (with the help of talking it over with others), I wrote Updating. You can read that with X set to something like He loves me.
I noticed that the bad thoughts I have been thinking were familiar - I have thought some variations of them many times in the past. A hard one to verbalize feels like a searing mental pain from being unloved, or from being rejected. Some were variations on Nobody likes me and I have no real friends. These bring back painful memories of the times people have been mean to me, mostly in my childhood.
Then, I looked very hard for answers, probably thinking maybe there was some way I could fix whatever broke the relationship, or at least have it not happen again.
I realized that this was probably a textbook dependent relationship on my part. I sincerely felt that this totally best person was the center of my world. I derived my feeling of satisfaction with my life from the relationship.
I came to the conclusion that a spiral of my dysfunctions played a large role in the breakdown of the relationship. It starts with one tiny problem that makes me feel a little bit insecure, because it looks like a threat to a relationship that’s the center of my world. One way I deal with insecurities is emotionally detaching, which creates communication problems. Communication problems lead to more problems, which make me feel more insecure. And more detached. And when I’m detached, I can completely miss emotional clues. Or the fact that things are not going well and that the current trajectory leads downwards. Which might be why the breakup surprised me so.
I turned my attention inward.
Two young fish are swimming in a fish tank. An older fish comes by and asks: “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then one looks at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
On proper reflection, I have a lot of issues. When your issues have been with you long enough, you don’t see them floating in the corner of your vision. The way I saw them was looking backward. Once I knew what to look for in my personal history, I saw them at work undoing my happiness all over the place. Noticing the way you think is harder than it sounds. I’m working on spotting my issues at work more readily so I can course-correct faster.
Why am I writing this? The true reason is just because I want to, it feels good to talk about myself. I also have a few rationalizations.
A: I did well for myself in school and in work and some people look up to me, admiring my abilities in CS and math. And yet, I, the guy who can program his way out of anywhere and who never got a C on an exam at uni, have problems. This sends a message: nobody’s perfect, everyone has problems and it’s OK to talk about them.
B: Maybe you’ll recognize someone you know or maybe even yourself. Maybe me talking about things I’m working on will help you see opportunities for your own personal development.
One symptom I call (for now) social anxiety. It doesn’t usually manifest as actually feeling anxious when dealing with strangers. I just avoid doing anything that means dealing with strangers. Say, even something as stupid as buying new pants. I never actually think OK, I need to avoid buying new pants because I don’t want to deal with people. I just never go buy new pants. Ask me why? I’ll probably whip up a rationalization.
Another one is the detachment I mentioned earlier. I think I developed that in middle school. I had a crush on a girl and I couldn’t for the love of god bring myself to do anything about it. Then, by a coincidence of my stupidity and my classmates’ nosiness, my entire class found out I liked boy parts. I haven’t been very well-educated about sexuality by then, so my thought process was mostly OK, now everyone thinks/knows I’m gay. That’s a bad thing. People think badly about me because of that. Nobody can find out, especially not my parents. If people found out, I could never be happy again. Also, now since everyone thinks I’m gay, any chance I ever had of being with the girl I love is ruined beyond repair. (Of course, probably not a single one of these statements was actually true.) So, I felt I couldn’t be helped by anyone, so I didn’t talk to anyone. And, maybe to prevent my parents from finding out how sad and vulnerable I felt (because that would only harm me further), I started acting like a tough, emotionless, hostile robot. If you see me spitting venom with an empty expression on my face, it probably means I feel threatened on some level. (It just so happens Spitting Venom by Modest Mouse is one of my favorite songs. Synchronicity.)
I think the most common reason I go detached is that I feel I’m being left out or ignored for some reason.
Aside: In the end, I think the aforementioned thought process is what eventually led me to believe I was gay, which I still believed in 2015. But, on proper reflection, while I seem to prefer man parts, the fact of the matter is that there are men I like and there are women I like. Would I say I’m bisexual? Maybe it’s the right word to describe my experience. But I no longer think a label on my sexuality is an important part of my identity. (Yet I still exclaim that in a public post. I like showing off. Shoot me.)
I think I placed too much value on my work even before high school. Even on my first small side-gigs I did for random people, I put in very long hours for peanuts and I tried to make everything perfect. I also always liked learning scientific stuff. In high school, I took a lot of electives and worked more side jobs.
By the end of high school, I think I got the idea of becoming a Successful Software Engineer, which I worked towards up until now.
In my university, you basically get a free reign over your schedule. I got to work and optimized my first-year and second-year schedules. To the extent that my schedule looked like a huge rectangle all over every day of the entire workweek. (I even wrote a schedule optimizer to optimize my schedule for me. Hello, Twilight Sparkle.)
A 3-year bachelor’s costs you 180 credits. After 2 years, I had 211.
On top of that, I kept on taking side jobs, and in my second year, I started my internship at Prizeo. My schedule slipped and I ended up going to work as one of the first people and leaving very late. I worked on useful features, yes. But I actually spent huge chunks of my time doing useless busywork I created for myself in retrospect. Like fixing bugs nobody cared about, refactoring the packing optimizer the 8th time, changing spaces for tabs. Embarassingly enough, I also looked a lot at GitHub’s contribution charts. I was almost always first in number of commits and pull requests. I know, right? If I remember correctly, I probably had a vague expectation of recognition. Did I realize there was anything pathological about what I was doing? Nope.
I also started tracking my net worth in a graph, which I looked at several times per day. It’s nice to see your score go up, isn’t it?
At Google in Paris, it got even more out of control. I almost never got around to doing anything I liked outside of work, so I spent my time at work morning to night. I got a slight twinge of satisfaction when I got a peer bonus for working so well.
In general, I think most of the work I did I didn’t do for money to do things with. That was just a side-effect. It was probably just so I could have less free time alone to fill with feelings of sadness and loneliness.
That might have been my first unhealthy (unhealthiest, too) coping mechanism. I’ve had problems with overeating since the first years of primary school. Food, especially sugar, is satisfying and numbing, and it feels better to eat than to think about how everyone hates you for being fat (and a smart-ass).
And so on
Very low impulsivity: I often am just about to do something or say something, but stop myself before I do. Probably something about fear of criticism or rejection. I also think I often act not the way I want to or the way I am, but the way I think other people expect me to act. There’s an interesting concept called true self and false self on Wiki.
Scarcely having fun on purpose: Before 2016, I almost never did anything fun myself because I wanted to. Lunch in a nice restaurant? A walk in a park on a sunny day? This easy fun thing I had on my bucket list for ages? Nope, let’s just browse Reddit all day. I seem to act as if I were incapable of having any fun on my own, so I end up having no fun on my own, which undermines my self-esteem.
“I am unacceptable”: I act as if I can’t open myself up to other people, because then they would hate me or reject me. Before I came out as gay, I thought something like “if people knew I’m gay, they’d hate me, so I must be careful so that nobody can tell”. After that, there’s always a ton of irrelevant bullshit my brain can substitute. “Hey, remember stupid embarassing thing #71? I bet everyone would shun you if they knew.” The consequence is problems opening up to other people, which sucks. I even do that with close friends, family, and romantic interests or partners.
“Other people don’t like me”: thinking that is an easy way to get people not to like you. Sample intermediate steps: “Huh, this random sentence she just said could be possibly interpreted as criticism/teasing/… . She doesn’t like me, so it indeed is, and that’s a purposeful attack on me.” A: “Let’s fight back.”, B: “Let’s be passive-agressive to her now.”, … “I have no real friends” is another thought that can ruin my enjoyment of any activity, especially one I’m enjoying with my friends.
Bad self-image: I think my idea of my looks and fitness developed in high school at the height of obesity, and I didn’t yet properly update after fixing that.
Abuse of recreational drugs: I have used marihuana, and I think at least some of it was for the numbing effect.
“I need a relationship to be happy”: This one undermines happiness and self-worth when you think it while single.
I read that “I have wasted my life” is also frequent and destructive. The Near Future is practically dripping with it.
I like helping people. In high school, I got a ton of satisfaction when I wrote exercises on complex numbers for Khan Academy, which helped a lot of people learn, and I dreamt of working there one day. I might have a tendency to attach myself to people I can help. I have strong feelings about effective altruism. “Helper’s syndrome” might be part of my mix.
Finally, I easily get jealous when I perceive someone as being more successful than me, when it comes to relationships, friendships and doing fun things.
Save a day or two here and there, I have been mostly OK for the last few weeks. I’m seeing a psychologist in a few days to get some professional advice and possibly treatment. (Since I have been reading Feeling Good just before I became full-blown depressed and reading more psych stuff afterwards, there’s some possibility I’m just imagining most of it and being a hypochondriac with confirmation bias. We shall see.) There’s some serious self-improvement I’m working on.
I’m purposefully organizing my free time to maximize fun. I’m using a Pleasure-predicting Sheet, which is a technique from Feeling Good by David Burns. (It’s intended to build confidence that you don’t need other people to have fun, but I also use it to force myself to have fun on purpose.) I push against my social anxiety by doing more people things and seeing that people bite way less than my stupid lizard brain thinks. I took on running and jiu-jitsu - sports are supposed to help with depression. My self-esteem is particularly low when it comes to my looks and my fitness and running a 5k in 26:30 helps with that. I use Zombies, Run. Talking also helps.
My original plan for this year was finishing a thesis before October, grabbing my master’s, and then working for Google as a software engineer (I got an offer).
Stupidly (and workaholically), I spent the winter semester working on Factorify instead of on my thesis. In the summer semester, I had my failed enmeshed romance, and then my depression. Now, I mostly don’t work on it. I usually procrastinate or start getting bad feelings after an hour or two. I make a very small step every week or two. If I pushed myself, I might be able to finish it this year, but it’s not very likely. I’m also no longer so sure I want the degree enough.
I’m ~99% certain I didn’t get the H-1b visa for Google Mountain View, so it’ll probably come down to deciding whether would I want to work for them in Europe, and if so, where and when. When I’m in a good mood, I think Zurich or London would be nice. But I worry that might be just a cached dream of the career-obsessed past-me and that moving would just put me under more stress than I can safely handle. On the other hand, making software used to make me happy before. Would I be happier on a year-long vacation without any programming? One question I’ll have to reconsider as well is: Do I actually want to work in software?
I think “Yes”. I have at least one other idea. Do I want to work in AI safety? The question of the importance of AGI has been lingering in my mind for months. It’s confusing to my intuition, which is, of course, not a LessWrong-rational argument. And I don’t (yet?) defer to LessWrong-rationality when confused. I applied to MIRI’s 2016 Summer Fellowship, mostly hoping it would convince me either way, but I didn’t make the cut. (My impression is that I didn’t have enough research and math credentials, which means there’s probably someone who has more of those than me working on AI safety now, which is good news.) Before my depression, I was slowly reading up on MIRI material and I was hoping of getting more information and meeting AGI researchers once I got to Bay Area. Alas, no Bay Area for me, and since my depressed brain is vulnerable to the issue, I’m putting it on hold.
For now, I’m leaving the question of my future open until it comes knocking. I don’t like to think about it too hard. Wherever I go (or not go) next, I want to feel comfortable in my skin.
Thank you for reading. I thrive on your attention.