Sunday, January 12, 2020

"What matters is behavior"

I try to read most of the comments and I saw this one that raised interesting points:

I should have mentioned: I like that video because it's message is that what matters is behaviour, not nature of experience. Behaviour is pertinent to evolution; regardless of how motivation might vary between types of individuals.

The video the comment references is here:

I recognized this belief as being the one that I had for 95% of my life. It was the one that I advocated multiple times in the book, that "what matters is behaviour, not nature of experience." And I still do believe it in so many instances. For instance, I do believe that sociopaths love, even though it is different than the way that other people experience love.

I was also just reading about Shaquem Griffin, who is a one-handed NFL linebacker. He told the story of how when he was young, there were weight minimums and maximums for the league he was playing in. At one of these weigh-ins, he was told he was too heavy, even though he had weighed himself the night before and was fine. He had his coach re-weigh him and he was within the proper range. When they confronted the official that said that he was too heavy the official confessed that it wasn't so much about the weight, the official said what he said because he was too uncomfortable having a boy play who was one-handed. This seems like a very good application of experience vs. behavior. Is he able to play? Then he should be able to play. I don't feel like someone can validly come in and say that he can't participate in all life has to offer just because others experience the same situation differently.

And I think that was always what I was thinking about when I voiced that belief -- that behavior matters over internal experience. Because I didn't want my personality disorder to limit me in any way. I wanted to have enriching relationships and lasting and rewarding jobs and maybe even kids! (Although that last one turned out to not be in the cards for me.) So what if my risk/reward meter was always on. So what if my love was as shallow as a sandbar? These things all felt very real to me, despite not experiencing them in the same way that others did.

But my brother recently shared with my a BYU talk with the following passage:

The challenge is not so much closing the gap between our actions and our beliefs; rather, the challenge is closing the gap between our beliefs and the truth. That is the challenge.

This is more how I feel now. Because when your beliefs are based on true and right principles, it's much easier to act accordingly. When you see good and loving behavior as a natural form of self-expression, that becomes that most natural way for you to behave.

I think a related point is the question that some people have about how much responsibility a sociopath has for their actions. My pinned tweet is "I'm not saying that sociopaths aren't responsible for their actions, but they're certainly not responsible for being sociopaths." Even that gets push back from people who think that sociopaths are trying to eschew any responsibility for their actions. It it oft cited and accurate that a sociopath often knows what the morally "right" answer is in any given situation. But the sociopath does not have an actual belief in the rightness of the thing. To the sociopath, even well decided moral issues are seen as essentially social conventions. To them there's not much difference between the moral issues you fault them for and using a shellfish fork properly.

Some of you are probably less gross than I am, but at least when I was younger I remember washing my hands after using a restroom much more frequently in public than I did in my own home? Why? Because I knew it was the "right" answer, but I myself did not value washing my hands in most situations. I think everyone does things like this, even daily. But imagine the world of a sociopath in which you do things like this dozens of times per day -- always conforming your behavior without ever having the belief. If you want to know how difficult this is to sustain, look at how often sociopaths self-destructive (or how often you give up your New Year's resolutions).

I think the key to a sociopath having greater life living sustainability and being and feeling "better" is not in changing behavior, it is in changing beliefs. Unfortunately, hardly anyone in the psychological community is willing to help sociopaths change their beliefs and it's almost impossible for them to do themselves, like a game of blind man's buff.

I'll write a little more on this in the next post.

Here's the more full context from the BYU quote:

People say, “You should be true to your beliefs.” While that is true, you cannot be better than what you know. Most of us act based on our beliefs, especially what we believe to be in our self-­interest. The problem is, we are sometimes wrong.

Someone may believe in God and that pornography is wrong and yet still click on a site wrongly believing that he will be happier if he does or he can’t help but not click or it isn’t hurting anyone else and it is not that bad. He is just wrong.

Someone may believe it is wrong to lie and yet lie on occasion, wrongly believing he will be better off if the truth is not known. He is just wrong.

Someone may believe and even know that Jesus is the Christ and still deny Him not once but three times because of the mistaken belief that he would be better off appeasing the crowd. Peter wasn’t evil. I am not even sure he was weak. He was just wrong.

When you act badly, you may think you are bad, when in truth you are usually mistaken. You are just wrong. The challenge is not so much closing the gap between our actions and our beliefs; rather, the challenge is closing the gap between our beliefs and the truth. That is the challenge.

So how do we close that gap? 

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Therapy for sense of self

I thought this was related to the last post on the importance of sociopaths focusing on changing beliefs and acting according to beliefs rather than just conforming their behavior to social and moral conventions. I thought this conversation with a reader shows a bit what this belief change might look like, at least in part.

From a reader, under the subject line "Therapy for sense-of-self":

Hi -- in the November 30 post on, you mentioned that you'd had a setback a while ago in your therapy to develop sense-of-self. In your book you talk about not having a strong core sense of self as one of the hallmarks of a sociopathic personality. That hit me strongly, and was a powerful explanation for a lot of things I've experienced. While I'm working with a therapist (I'm highly functional) we haven't touched on this aspect yet.

It's trivial to put myself in someone else's psychological space and interact with them that way. It's highly effective at superficial relationships (i.e. business, casual), and that's the upside of the weak sense of self. The pitfalls of it in what are supposed to be close relationships, long term ones, are obvious. I honestly have no idea what working to develop a strong sense of self would even mean. Do you have any thoughts or insights into what you're gaining by working on this? Any resources you've found useful?

My response:

I almost feel like I should ask my own therapist what the particular type of therapy he did with me. The core exercise I remember though was to get me to realize that I had underlying preferences regardless of context. To get me to do that, he did a thought experiment in which when presented with a choice I had to imagine that there was no one else in the world. If there was no one else in the world, then I could not be tempted to consider how people would react and thus make a choice based on which reaction I would like, rather than just my preference. Does that make sense?


Thanks -- and yes, that's really useful. Kind of ironic that a group of people who are popularly considered not to care a bit for anything about other people are constantly modifying their behaviors away from what they would naturally do, to they point where they lose sight of the simple fact that they have preferences. To me, this feels a lot like the emotion work I've done with my therapist -- the emotions are there, but just very very quiet. So quiet that having grown up and lived in almost exclusively "loud" emotional environments, I thought I didn't have any at all. It takes practice and relative silence to be able to hear them, but I'm figuring out how to do it. Maybe it's so with the preferences too.

Really appreciate you sharing your experience.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Biases and natural experiments

I teach legal classes. I've done so in some capacity for almost a decade, so I've had a ton of teaching evaluations over the years. I just got done reading my teaching evaluations from this summer, mostly because I ask intuition when is a good time to read it, and if it isn't a good time I just wait until I get a confirmation that it is. So I had some time, caught up tonight on grading, and looked at them. Some were better than I thought they were going to be (my "boss" had emailed some concerns about them, which I responded to, but hadn't read the evaluations). I got like a 4.9/5 rating, which I don't know but guess is one of the highest out of all of the instructors at that particular institution. The other institution I knew at least one review was bad because when the boss emailed me, it said "the one is basically an outlier," so didn't worry. But there were actually two really negative reviews. One of them said "I don't know why she teaches here."

Of course I know that you can't please everyone and sometimes a teaching style that some people will like, others don't, etc. Some people want more assignments! They want me to be strict or to penalize them for things. I don't know, maybe they don't have a great internal locus of control and feel like they want me to police them, but I don't because it's their agency and they can use it to learn or not to learn.

But these two people for were really negative. One said "Frankly, I really don't see what she is doing teaching here." And: "Enough with the [review] games, stop being lazy and truly teach your students something." How often do these outliers happen? I find that there's either none, or about half the time there are 1-3 per class. And it's kind of an interesting social experiment, because they all take the same class. And the rest of them are saying things like the class is great and they love the review games, etc.

What is going on? Again it could be that some people don't like the format of the class or maybe they're jaded because I was giving them bad grades or because they learned things a different way and don't like my way (the practice of law is like music or art in that there are some basic rules of thumb to go by, but there's actually also a lot of discretion and "practice" in the discipline). Or maybe they don't like women or whatever. But you know what intuition thinks it is? Intuition thinks that some students google my name and see that I've written a book about being a diagnosed sociopath and they don't like that. And that knowledge colors their perspective of everything else they experience in the class. Suddenly I am lazy, not innovative for reviewing the material in a game show format.

Sometimes students will outright reference the book. Not surprisingly those evaluations almost always have a very poor view of the value of the class. My people know about the book and are still very supportive (one of the bosses did disability accommodation in a previous position and the other one is a baby boomer era gay woman, so I feel like they both get it better than your average person, and I'm lucky that way).

But even when evaluations don't explicitly mention the book, there can be weird comments like: "I felt that the instructor was ambivalent about our success and comprehension." That's a common one I see in conjunction with the comments about the book. I think they're trying to find a relevant reason to complain. It doesn't matter that I seem perfectly friendly and invested in their success, everything I do is seen through a lens of suspicion. Why did I choose to have them do group work? It must be because I'm lazy. That sort of thing. But interestingly students who don't seem to know about the book will mention that they loved the group work, etc.

You've probably heard the term "natural experiment". Like situations in life that just happen to have experimental qualities -- things like community programs that are decided randomly, e.g. based on a lottery system.

I guess my situation is not quite a natural experiment, because I'm sure it's not entirely random who decides to google me. I often think it's the people that especially like me and the class at first that are more prone to google me. But they all subsequently sit through the same class and come up with really different ideas about it. And with the people that know about the book, it seems to color their every subsequent interaction with me.

Have you ever taken those inherent biases tests? The ones that kind of play off your expectations, like the word yellow written in purple and you have to read yellow out loud? But for racism or for sexism? I feel like I am just as socialized as the next person to have inherent biases. Maybe it's seeing so many examples of bias or the way people's psychological make-up distorts their perceptions or seeing how normal deeply ingrained norms seem to the people I visit in my travels and how foreign they seem to me, but I'm basically a 3/10 for believing that I can rely on my own mental capacity to understand. I love to learn, but I just know that my understanding is so limited -- sometimes in really obvious ways like when I try to understand dark matter, and sometimes better like when I actually was able to understand how astronomers have predicted a ninth planet (not Pluto, which doesn't count, but a new planet we have never seen before based on the motion of other objects in our solar system). Also I think being in academia really jaded me in terms of relying on expert anything? Because I have met those people and they're just people. And like all other people they're like 7/10 driven by fear and self preservation. I see it in the sociopathy researchers who won't stick their neck out and go against the general tide and I see it in my students who take corporate jobs they hate and I see it in a million other ways in which people settle for something less than the truth that will set them free and their real life's purpose. 

Saturday, November 30, 2019


I had a dream five summers ago. It was during a little bit of a hiccup in my therapeutic progress. Due to external circumstances that were particularly psychologically trying, I was "going through it," as the kids say. I felt like I had lost the sense of self and inward sense of forward motion and direction from therapy. I was lost to myself again. But mixed in with these feelings was relief -- relief that I once again was detached from my own emotions. I went back to my old habits. I manifested weak sense of self, chameleon-esque behavior, but that particular version that I always liked to think was "being on my best behavior." In other words, I was doing stuff just to get along with society and being a little more careful than usual to follow rules or social norms in order to keep things smooth in my life. I was no longer choosing to do things primarily as a true expressions of my identity. I kind of went through periods like this cyclically. I would blow up my life, people would bail me out, and for a short period of time I would feel like I needed to clean up my act. But I didn't really know what that meant, so mostly I just tried to force myself to be what others wanted me to be. This particular time, because of what I perceived to be expectations of my religious faith (and my family, who shares that religious faith) that I live in a very particular way and out of my desire to not rock anybody's boat, I was ready to live a cloistered life of hermitage rather than keep trying to be more authentically myself in a flawed and imperfect way. This was probably the peak of me thinking that I should try in every way possible to fulfill the expected role of legit Mormon upstanding citizen, whatever the personal sacrifice.

That whole summer I was plagued by depression, anxiety, and bad dreams, which led to bad sleep. I started to see a neurobiofeedback guy, who my mother had heard about and wanted her two most troubled children at the time (me and my little brother) to see during the summer while my brother was home from college. I called him my brain doctor.

When the brain doctor first mapped my base level EEG brain activity, he was so tactful and gentle trying to break the news to me that I had abnormally low activity in the areas of the brain associated with empathy. And perhaps because that was such a blatant lack, he always wanted to spend out sessions working on empathy. I always wanted to work on my sleep because the bad sleep and bad dreams were making me a little miserable. As part of that concern for my sleep, he had me keep track of my dreams, which is I think why I remember this one so vividly. I wrote about it a little at the time.

A bad guy (or multiple?) are after me for most of the dream. There are these government agent looking men (dressed in black, sunglasses, assault rifles) that are my security detail. The main bad guy gets caught. For some reason, he has hands that are like just flat circles, like the shape of a thick hamburger patty or pancake -- like a skin and flesh mitt that has been placed over his hands or that his hands have been burned and deformed intentionally that way by whatever "good guys" got him (cops? government agents? a private group?). His face is also deformed and scarred. His lips have been fused together so he can't talk. I thought in the dream -- this is part of his punishment somehow for being bad, that they tried to neutralize his ability to do harm while still allowing him to exist. He doesn't get locked in prison, though. Instead, he gets locked in a walk in closet in a master bedroom suite of what sort of looks like my parents' house. I'm also staying in the same house in another bedroom off the same hallway. Time passes and the men and black and I go to check on the bad guy, but he's not in the closet. Then I notice bloody footprints on the carpet. I immediately know who caused the bloody footprints, another bad guy that has no skin, just exposed flesh. I understood no-skin guy to also be in that condition somehow as a result of the government men. Based on the footprints, no-skin walked in the sliding glass door, walked to the closet, let out pancake hands, and appeared to be still in the house somewhere. So basically the one bad guy let this other out and now they're both on the loose. That's when I woke up.

The dream was such a great example of my typical bad dreams at the time. That summer, being asleep felt like it was the only time in any given day that I didn't have control over my thoughts and feelings and I didn't like it. I didn't want to be asleep because it didn't feel safe. I was afraid of where my mind went.

When I met with brain doctor next, we talked about the dream. He seemed to already understand what this dream likely meant in the context of me, but was asking me questions to see if I would come to see what he was seeing: "Who are the bad guys, aren't they just you? . . . . Parts of yourself that you've disassociated from? . . .  And figuratively castrated or mutilated so they have no say, no ability to do anything? . . . Stripped of any identifying features or relationship to you? . . . They're not looking for you to hurt you, but to be reunited."

And in that moment I knew he was right. When I saw the dream in that light, it was not scary at all. I felt so sorry for the bad guys. So sorry for what I had tried to do to them, unknowingly. I realized very naturally and without having to be prodded that these figures were not to be feared and opposed, they were to be embraced.

I don't know that I've ever experienced such a profound paradigm shift, or at least not so quickly or as obviously as in that moment.

That was the day that I finally gave up on trying to distort myself to fit some concept of what someone else wanted me to be. Because I saw it for it was, mutilation.

And I stopped having bad dreams after that because I realized that the things I feared had nothing to do with uncontrollable external forces and everything to do with me being wrong about what was best for myself and unwittingly self inflicting pain and attempting to live in a world of delusion rather than just seeing and accepting things as they really are.

For a while I was very deliberate about making sure that all parts of me found easy/daily self expression, even if it was just playing cheesy wedding music gigs or watching terrible movies. I wanted to regularly acknowledge and find expression for every aspect of who I am, never silence or disempower.

I think this is something that every body deals with (but especially the personality disordered). I really wish I could find this reference, I want to say it was Ta-Nehesi Coates, but he was describing how he saw his African American daughter gradually grow from being almost completely unaware of her African American status in the eyes of society, to gradually recognizing it, to gradually distorting her true self in response to the expectations -- either in defiance or compliance. We all distort ourselves a little bit. But it is not a good thing. It is the worst thing we can do to distort our essential identity. We shouldn't be doing it for any reason, not for any purpose, and never to please any person. But since we all do it, the good news is that we can re-integrate those parts of us that get lost along the way. We can re-familiarize ourselves with the aspects of our own selves that we have lost touch with. As someone recently told me going through a similar healing process: "I feel more like I have a way of thinking that is like my old self and my new self."

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