We are in triage every second of every day

We are always in triage. I fervently hope that one day we will be able to save everyone. In the meantime, it is irresponsible to pretend that we aren’t making life and death decisions with the allocation of our resources. Pretending there is no choice only makes our decisions worse.



Spoilers ahead— listen to the episode beforehand if you don’t want to hear rough summaries first.

I quite liked the above episode of RadioLab. The topic is triage, the practice of assigning priority to different patients in emergency medicine. By extension, to triage means to ration scarce resources. The episode treats triage as a rare phenomenon– in fact, it suggests that medical triage protocols were not taken very seriously in the US until after Hurricane Katrina– but triage is not a rare phenomenon at all. We are engaging in triage with every decision we make.

The stories in “Playing God” are gripping, particularly the story of a New Orleans hospital thrown into hell in a matter of days after losing power during Hurricane Katrina. Sheri Fink from the New York Times discusses the events she reported in her book, Five Days at Memorial. The close-up details are difficult to stomach. After evacuating the intensive care unit, the hospital staff are forced to rank the remaining patients for evacuation, because moving the patients is backbreaking labor without the elevators and helicopters and boats are only coming sporadically to take them away. Sewage is backing up into the hospital and the extreme heat is causing some patients and pets to have seizures. Meanwhile, on the news, the staff hears exaggerated reports of looting and lawlessness in the city. Believing they have no choice, some of the staff begin to think euthanizing the sickest patients (and those hardest to transport for evacuation) may be the merciful thing to do. It is alleged that some patients were euthanized, though no one involved was ever charged. Tragically, the possible killings took place on the same day that the rescue vehicles returned.

The crux of this story is that giving in to the logic of triage put the hospital staff on a slippery slope to “playing God.” The episode goes on to discuss ways of formalizing triage so people don’t have to rely on their own judgment at such a fraught time. (Utilitarian triage is discussed, and you can almost hear the speakers holding their noses.) Very often, concerns for the caregiver’s conscience take center stage, though no one acknowledges how selfish this is. Triage is portrayed very unsympathetically throughout, as if the people being forced to make the choice must be at fault somehow for having gotten in the situation.

But it was the last story that made me want to write this. Sheri Fink, the guest reporter, describes a woman she met in a American-run disaster-relief hospital in Haiti. Nathalie was a charming middle-aged woman whose life was spared because she went to the hospital for difficulty breathing. When the earthquake struck, her entire family was at their home, which collapsed and killed them all. Nathalie was putting on a brave face, just glad to be alive, and she radiated gratitude for the care she had received. But there was a problem. Nathalie needed oxygen, and the hospital (indeed, the nation) did not have enough to go around. Because she was suffering heart failure, the triage nurses had decided she should receive no more oxygen and return to a local Haitian-run hospital, most likely to die. Fink mentions ruefully that the nurse who made the call had never met Nathalie, as if that makes any difference at all. Fink rides in the ambulance with her to the new hospital, where she coughs and sputters and receives no oxygen to help. Fink’s heart breaks. But when Nathalie gets to the Haitian hospital, a clever doctor does what he can to drain the fluid from her lungs and manages to get her through the crisis without supplemental oxygen.

This story reinforces for Fink the fantasy that you never have to choose– that agreeing to choose is already going too far. Fink was so moved by Nathalie that she helped her to get a humanitarian visa to the US. It turned out Nathalie needed a heart transplant, and she died before she could get one. But, Fink says, she was a delight to everyone she met in those hospitals, and she even took up a collection for the other patients back in Haiti. So who were the doctors to say that she didn’t deserve every chance?

This is, of course, the wrong question. Of course Nathalie deserved every chance. No one should have to suffer heart failure in the first place. But did she deserve the oxygen more than all the other people who needed oxygen in that hospital? No. Did Nathalie’s time alive matter more than the greater amount of time the doctors could give other patients by employing the oxygen carefully? Absolutely not.

Nowhere in the episode were the beneficiaries of the triage discussed. There was no attempt to determine how many more people were saved because hospital staff took difficult, decisive action. There is no discussion of who should have died in that situation if not Nathalie– someone with many healthy years ahead of them? two people who could have been saved with the same amount of oxygen?– only denial that anyone had to die at all. There is no gratitude for the extra lives saved– only loss aversion. There is no acknowledgement that Fink would very likely not have wanted any other patient to die, either, had she met them, much less an acknowledgement that people matter whether you have personally met them or not.

Making better choices through conscious triage is no more “playing God” than blithely abdicating responsibility for the effects of our actions. Both choices are choices to let some live and others die. The only difference is that the person who embraces triage has a chance to use their brain to improve the outcome. The suffering of the person who doesn’t receive the scarce resource is no less because you, personally, haven’t witnessed it. When Fink saw Nathalie’s suffering, it should only have informed her as to the gravity of the situation both for Nathalie and for those who did receive the oxygen.

I understand that it’s hard, that we will always instinctively care more for the people we see than those we don’t. There’s no shame in Fink’s deep feelings for Nathalie. They are a key component of compassion. But there should be great shame in letting more people suffer and die than needed to because you can’t look past your own feelings. This is the kind of narrow empathy that Paul Bloom is against.

There are millions of people around the world dying of entirely preventable causes. Why should it make any difference that they aren’t in front of us? You know they are there. They know the suffering they feel. Poverty is a major culprit, as are neglected tropical diseases that could be cured for pennies per person per year. Money that you won’t even miss could be saving lives right now if you put it to that purpose instead of, say, home improvement or collecting action figures. Every decision we make bears on the lives of the myriad others we might be able to help.

We are always in triage. I fervently hope that one day we will be able to save everyone. In the meantime, it is irresponsible to pretend that we aren’t making life and death decisions with the allocation of our resources. Pretending there is no choice only makes our decisions worse.

Instead of “I’m anxious,” try “I feel threatened”

cw: teaching to learn

I have a long history with anxiety, and I’m pretty good at noticing when it’s happening. The problem is that I’m always anxious. Noticing anxiety doesn’t snap me out of anxiety– in fact, it often produces meta-anxiety, anxiety about feeling anxious. So I’ve tried a simple reframe lately, and I’m liking the results. Instead of noting “I’m anxious,” I say to myself “I feel threatened” or “I feel threatened by x” if I know what set me off.

Anxiety is just chronically being in a state of fight or flight, and fight or flight has a stimulus. I like Sapolsky’s thesis, which is roughly that for most animals, the stimulus is always something external, a threat to safety or status. For anxious humans, the threatening stimuli are internalized, and fight or flight is either triggered or sustained by thoughts. Anxiety is the condition of feeling threatened.

And yet, noticing that I feel threatened is much more specific than noticing that I’m anxious, whether I can identify the threat or not. It makes what I’m feeling less about me (I’m just anxious; my perception is inaccurate; oh, why don’t I just stop???) and more about the pattern of behavior (I’m reacting this way because I perceive that thing to be a threat; is it really a threat?; if it is, is it something I can handle?).

In the short time I’ve been practicing this, I’ve identified many things I had not realized I considered threats, although, of course, on the feeling level I had always known. I’m surprised by how mundane most of the threats are. Many of them are just “I feel threatened because that noise startled me.” But others are kind of embarrassing or incongruent with my self-concept. For example, I’m threatened by other people being better than me. I would find myself stiff and clearly in fight or flight when singing in a group, for instance, and I used to just nurse that anxiety for the entire practice thinking, “Fuck, I’m anxious, I can’t breathe, my singing is therefore terrible, and I must be blushing…” But with this technique, I notice the anxious symptoms and see if I can identify the “threat” that tripped them. To my shock, it was usually as simple as another person singing really well, or me not knowing how to sight read when others could. Such everyday, simple provocations! At this point, I don’t have much pride left to be embarrassed with, but it’s still humbling to see my mountains of anxiety for the molehills of petty jealousy and insecurity they could have stayed.

I don’t blame myself for getting carried away. Anxiety is the master of false narratives. An injection of anxiety causes my thoughts to speed up and start going down rabbitholes of what to do, all premised on unseen assumptions I’m making about the nature and severity of the threat. There’s no time or brainpower to examine every hasty conclusion when you’re swept up in that wave. Reigning in anxiety is necessarily a process. It can be embarrassing to realize just how simple the “threat” that led to hours (or days, or months, or years…) of anxiety was, but it’s also such a relief! Admitting I’m jealous or petty or flawed is a small price to pay to reclaim some peace.

Scrupulosity: my EAGxBoston 2019 lightning talk

This was a 5 minute talk, so I basically only had time to read the slides (dynamically!). I’m going to provide the slides and whatever extra info I said at the time in italics and give commentary and context in plain text.



Obviously, this is a matter of degree. It’s not a disorder unless it’s distressing and interferes with your functioning, but I was more interested in the way of thinking than what counts as clinically significant symptoms. I should also mention there’s a lot unimportant disagreement about whether Scrupulosity should technically be considered its own thing or a form or OCD or as a part of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). Again, this introduction is so broad that you can ignore all of these subtle distinctions. The general pattern of relieving guilt and anxiety from obsessions with compulsions is not in dispute.

I neglected to give an example then, but here are a few:

I feel wretchedly guilty because I think about sinning all day long (obsession), so I spend hours each day reciting prayers for absolution (compulsion).

I am plagued by guilty and sad thoughts about the deaths of animals in factory farms (obsession), so I keep looking for more ways to make my vegan diet 100% cruelty-free (compulsion).

I feel guilty and undeserving of my money (obsession), so I devote myself to being as frugal as possible (compulsion).

Most people do not realize when they are acting compulsively because we think of compulsions as physical rituals, such as tapping and counting in “classic” OCD. But you can do any physical or mental behavior compulsively. One of my personal compulsions is self-doubt, though it’s only compulsive when I do turn to it to relieve anxiety from feeling exposed rather than simply noticing organically arising doubt about specific things. I learned to do this in part from dicourse norms in science and rationalism, because it’s a very safe position to say you don’t know or don’t trust your own thinking. Because self-doubt is such a virtue in those worlds, both my healthy doubts and my compulsive, goodharting doubt get reinforced.

There are many stories of compulsions starting when the person has an experience of great relief from their guilt or anxiety by adopting a certain belief or performing a certain behavior. Scrupulosity is also called a process addiction because it’s an addiction to a certain algorithm for dealing with distress: in this case, making or obeying rules. I first remember experiencing this when I stopped eating meat as a little kid. All the guilt and turmoil I had been feeling about the blood on my hands was gone as a result of sticking to this rule. It made me think on some level that all distress could be prevented or dealt with if you just followed the correct rules.


An excessive sense of personal responsibility is also called “overresponsibility,” “hyper-responsibility” (in the context of OCD), or the dysfunctional attitude of omnipotence. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), it is considered one of three universal attitudes anxious people share (the other two are perfectionism and intolerance of uncertainty). I have a lot more to say about overresponsibility and its relationship to EA in an upcoming blog post.

Thought-action fusion is this diabolical cycle that’s very common in anxiety and OCD. Essentially, when we are in fight-or-flight, the distinction between thoughts and actions gets blurred, so that just thinking something can have the weight of having done it. This usually makes the person more anxious, thoughts and actions get more blurred, and the downward spiral continues. 

The doubt and confusion is usually fixated on the true meaning of moral precepts or rules. When scrupulous people begin to doubt their own ability to discern moral behavior, it is understandable that they would want to conform to ideologies. Unfortunately, this makes them very vulnerable to cult behavior and fundamentalism, simply because each addresses their need for certainty.

“Long periods of highly distressing moral rumination”– this is is the thing that made me want to give this talk. The paper I drew from went on to say “that patients believe are helping them solve their problem rationally.” So, obviously, in EA we recognize long, highly distressing periods of moral rumination. I’m not saying they are all unproductive or symptoms of a problem, but I think we could stand to remember that we aren’t always trying to solve a problem in the external world. Sometimes we’re trying to solve our feelings in the guise of the problems we’re most comfortable solving. 

Many experts say that a “debilitating fixation on moral issues” is scrupulosity’s most damaging symptom because it leaves little proccessing power for the rest of life. 


Prioritization and economic thinking have scarcity baked in. There’s an acknowledgment from the get-go that not everything is going to get done and no one’s record is going to be perfect. 

I personally have seen a lot of respect for self-care in EA, moreso than in other moral communities I was a part of, anyway.

Maximizing is a hard one, because it’s only our whole thing. I think drawing a line as to how much you can do is difficult in principle, and if you’re a scrupulous person who doesn’t have a natural sense of their person line, it’s even worse. 

Totalizing: people who get really involved in EA tend to get REALLY involved in EA, which means being surrounded by messages of moral maximizing and sacrifice. I believe that EA selects for scrupulous people (like me), which concentrates these tendencies in a very connected community.

EA introduced me to things I would never have felt responsible for on my own. Such as picking the most effective career or the entire future.

Essentially, for me EA has helped a lot by taking morality seriously as a real world project. With evidence-based charity comes a lot of sobriety. But it’s also hurt because my way of thinking is magnified in this community and I’m constantly made aware of all the things I could, in theory, be doing to help the world.


Your selfish desires are a part of you, worth keeping in touch with. If you actually don’t know your selfish desires or feel like that part of you is blocked, that’s a huge red flag. It means you’re not being honest with yourself, perhaps because you don’t feel safe being honest with yourself. Going from my personal experience alone, I would suggest that all people with scrupulous tendencies check in with their selfish desires regularly as on-going hygiene. Having trouble finding them is an early warning sign for me. (Plus, it’s kind of a fun “intervention” because there’s the promise of gratification when you figure out what you want. 😛 )

Exposure and response prevention is just “exposure therapy,” where the scrupulous person exposes themselves to the guilt- or anxiety-provoking stimulus without doing the compulsion to relieve the anxiety. After repeated exposure with no feared consequence, the limbic system learns that the stimulus is not dangerous, and the reaction extinguishes. Depending on how severe your symptoms are, you might want to do this with the help of a therapist. 

Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself for struggling with this. It’s okay to be small human with limited powers, it’s okay to struggle with scrupulosity, and it’s okay to be you. In my case, scrupulous symptoms are related to feelings of worthlessness, like I alone have to live up to this perfect moral standard because somehow I can’t afford to be as immoral as a normal person. I can’t effectively tackle particular obsessions or compulsions if I don’t start by healing my sense of fundamental worthiness, because then I’m just playing whack-a-mole with new symptoms.

Boundaries, here I’m talking about protecting your psychic and emotional space. Give when your cup runs over, but what’s in the cup is yours. It’s important to set expectations with others, but for scrupulosity I’m talking about setting boundaries with yourself to respect your own needs and happiness.

Alternative beauty: my tummy pokes out

I think I’m pretty good about ignoring what I’m “supposed” to be doing with my appearance to the extent that I don’t find it useful or fun. But I’ve been at war with my belly since it came on the scene at adolescence.

I write this post half in jest because, for the most part, I have a body that a lot of women think would solve all their problems. I’m thin and small and well-proportioned. Also I’m relatively young. I hope it’s obvious that I don’t think my body needs to be reclaimed as “alternative beauty,” and that I’m joking to cover up my embarrassment at not being able to grok what I know intellectually– there’s nothing wrong with my body and it happens to be to my society’s liking.

But I can’t help it. I have an Achilles heel. Except for me it’s not my heel (quite pleased with them both), but my tummy. I have a paunch. A pooch. It’s not even fat. Like, there’s some extra fat there, but the size mostly comes from… bloating, I guess? It kind of feels like some days the insides of my abdomen are all in place and some days they are just sloshing all around and pooling in the front. Sometimes the cause is obviously food, but that’s not alwaysas consistent or clear as you might think. Propensity to pokiness seems to be related to hormonal fluctuations and sleep. Sometimes my belly is totally flat for a few days and I’m very quick to get used to that, but the gut always comes roaring back.

I know grossly bloated tummies on otherwise thin women are common. Presumably it’s universal even if it’s less noticeable on thicker body types. And internet ads make it clear that the secret to cutting belly fat and bloat is desirable enough to be clickbait. I even know that allowing for a little more puff used to be more popular. Some older corsets pop out over the belly to allow squished fat to be directed there, so it was obviously considered better in that situation to protrude forward than to have a thick waist. I see an amount of belly-popping that would embarrass me personally in a lot pin-ups up until ~the 60s. My husband even claims that he liked a little belly on a woman before he fell in love with my sparkling personality. But I was weaned in the era of completely flat stomachs on tv and started out string-bean skinny myself, so I was pretty upset when puberty came with a spare tire.

Now, I think I’m pretty good about ignoring what I’m “supposed” to be doing with my appearance to the extent that I don’t find it useful or fun. But I’ve been at war with my belly since it came on the scene at adolescence. I suck in my gut habitually, and I think this leads to a vicious cycle of exaggerated refractory poking out and then having to hold in even harder. Sucking it in constricts my breathing which probably exaberates my anxiety, not to mention the anxiety caused by dividing my attention between social interactions and gut control.

I want to make peace with my gut, but it’s hard. A deep part of me think it’s unacceptable. Like it’s rude or sloppy to show my face while I’m revealing just how far my tummy wants to be protruding. Like my belly is an unruly child and I’m terrified to be that maddening parent who’s too okay with it. I’m afraid if I stop fighting it, it’ll get stuck fully extended. I guess ultimately I’m afraid that I’ll deserve to be a schlub if I accept that this might just be how my body is. Maybe I’ve barely got a lid on it by sucking in and mentally resisting it, and who knows what else would come frothing out of that pot if I stopped holding down that lid?

But none of that^ makes any sense, right? What’s the worst that can happen, I accept my body and then it doesn’t meet the standards that only mattered when my self-acceptance was more conditional? This fear feels more like giving up (the illusion of) control. My badly behaved belly isn’t getting with the image I’d like to project whether I fight it or not. Might as well end the war.

This is actually very exciting to write. Every time I realize that I’m afraid to accept something about the way I am because I believe my mental resistance is the dam holding back something worse deeper inside, I get brave/vulnerable, stop resisting what is, and then very quickly I’m over the whole complex. It just takes a short time seeing the world through the lens of “It’s okay to be me and let the chips fall where they may” to realize how silly the idea that I need to repress myself is. Being comfortable in your own skin is the best feeling there is. I know because I’ve tasted it, and I want to live there no matter how exposed the journey back is. Like society teaches us to do, I’ve been trying to feel good about my body by conforming to standards. But I’ve already learned this lesson a thousand times– the only way to love your real self is to love yourself unconditionally. If I plan to love myself fully only when my tummy is flat, I won’t really be loving me for who I am whether that day comes or not.

If this were one of those alternative beauty videos, this is the part where I’d eat a huge meal, put on a gold sequin bikini, slather my belly with glue and roll around in gold glitter. Then I’d stand up, peel off letter stickers I’d been wearing around my belly button, and the negative space would read “My Belly is BEAUTIFUL.” Probably top it all off with some crying. Needless to say, that feels kind of contrived to me. More power to those that like that sort of thing, but I could only see myself doing that out of a need to justify myself to others. (This blog post is all the self-justification I need on this topic!) I don’t ever see myself glorifying my pokey tummy, but I do feel ready to call off hostilities and let it do its thing. That’s a pretty good start 🙂

Multiverse of minds

Everyone dwells in their own universe– a dream made up of sense data, culture, beliefs, historical contingencies, and idiosyncrasies. We all share an external reality (as far as we know), but none of us actually lives there. We live in our own universes in our minds.

Dreams, delusion, and psychosis vividly demonstrate the extent to which we can generate our own world. Optical illusions, or even just learning the neuroscience of perception show us how much of our “external” world is merely the brain’s user interface or evolutionarily educated guess. What we experience is highly constructed, there is no denying, and that goes for all things. Including other people.

There are as many versions of you as people who have met you. You have an avatar in every mind you’ve ever met. On top of that, you see yourself– or a past self– with fresh eyes every so often, so there are many versions of you in your own mind. All these images of you are only inspired by your objective being– primarily, they are the property of the universe they live in. It’s the same for the characters in your universe– they are as much you as they are the minds of other universes.

In a way, we’re all gods made man. Our entire universe is within us, yet we are incarnated in a shared world, as humans among other humans.

It might seem like this view is saying “you are the center of your universe” but I actually feel it says the opposite. When you realize the whole universe is filtered through and filled in by you, suddenly there is no center. You are spread over all awareness just as much as you are the human body feeling self-conscious talking to the person in front of your face. Just like artist renditions of distant celestial bodies, everyone you know is a composite based on evidence from them and conjecture from you. And everyone else you know is equally their own universe, where their awareness represents a version of you.

I’ve always found the idea of making contact across vast gulfs of time, space, or culture deeply meaningful and spiritual. It’s not just because of the distance or the leap of faith on both parts. I think it’s because I saw great stretches of time and space as stripping messages to their core. The most crass or mundane message from ancient Sumeria, for instance– “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.“– becomes a touching testament to the universality of human nature.

And yet I’ve always had some awkwardness in connecting to people right next to me. Perhaps because all the layers of contemporary stupidity and meaninglessness are still caked all over their messages. Or perhaps because I’m holding them too close to myself in my universe. I think I know who they are, and the things I don’t like about them are an awful lot like the things I don’t like about me. The reality, of course, is that in my universe they wear a me-specific skin. The true message they send comes from very far away– another universe. I have to do the archeological work of stripping away my dirt and grime to hear them. When I remember how fundamentally alone we all are and how truly alien another mind is from mine, I remember to treasure whatever fleeting or mundane point of connection we share.

There’s a near and far to every person. Every time you truly see another person across that distance, and not just the nearby film of your own expectations, it is a miracle. You’re communicating with a foreign world! And the real you might be coming across in their universe. There really are other dimensions packed all around us, and we can touch them!

There’s something strangely beautiful, even sacred, about viewing myself as my own vast, spacious universe, yet overlapping with so many others in a crowded multiverse. It makes me feel simultaneously profoundly alone and utterly connected, touching others on all fronts, even in ways I’m not conscious of. It makes me care more for the world to realize that so much of what scares or repels me in it is coming from my own mind. It’s the most relevant way to any human that we are all connected. Loving others is loving yourself and loving yourself is loving others. How can you love others if you hate the skin of your universe that covers them? How can you love the world if you hate its source, yourself?

If each of our minds is an abode for a universe, self-hatred and depression are a house divided against itself. It’s the autoimmune disease of the soul. It’s not the symptoms you observe from the outside, but the mindwarp inside. It’s like fiddling with the hidden variables of reality and experience themselves and watching the whole system start to fade out. It changes everything and everyone. My experience with depression is part of what makes this multiverse of minds idea so intuitive. Coming in and out of depressive episodes makes it so obvious that the most important changes in your world come from within. You can’t love existence and hate yourself, because existence is being one’s self. The only way to love life is by loving what is, which is who you really are.

Internet identity bag

I think the bulk of online identities are bloated outer bags decorated with chunks of lightly processed recycled images, sounds, and ideas.

You’ve probably heard of caddisflies or bagworms. The larvae of these two groups always carry around encasements (“bags”) which they build up with found objects. If you supply caddisflies with cool jewelry pieces like this guy did, you get cool bejeweled cases.


Here’s one from nature:


Caddisfly larvae live at the bottom of rivers, so you’re more likely to have come across bagworms in the wild. This is one way they can look like in Florida. You can see they tile the bag in a log cabin fashion.


I see a parallel between these encased larvae and online identity. While I was on Facebook (my social media drug of choice), throughout the day I always had a scavenger program running in my mind, and everything was screened for how it might look as part of my online identity. There were times when I wasn’t able to read an article or watch a show without scheming the entire time how I would add my spin when I posted about it on Facebook. Everything I took in was filtered through the lens of how it would look on me, as part of my exterior bag found art collage.

I think the bulk of online identities are bloated outer bags decorated with chunks of lightly processed recycled images, sounds, and ideas. Even though I’m sure we’d all agree that people are much more than their interests and affiliations, I think it’s common to lose sight of that in an online world that increasingly occupies our social lives.

I don’t have any hate for highly culturally referential identities or personae. I think it’s beautiful that our thinking and creativity are so interconnected through culture. It would be tragic not to swim sometimes in our shared cultural soup (if it were even possible). I freely credit the people and works that have influenced me on a deep level. But those things aren’t the superficial merit badges of identity I wish to leave behind. Ideas and works that affect our deepest selves penetrate the bag and mark the fly. I just want to be the fly now, the living thing inside the flashy wrapper. Let my beauty come from my deepest nature– not the bag I festoon in recycled ideologies and shibboleths.

I don’t think there’s any way to avoid signaling, and I’m not putting down the bag because its a patchwork of signals. I’m putting down the bag because its a patchwork of borrowed signals that don’t feel authentic to me. I had no hand in the authoring of Harry Potter, for example, but it truly affected who I am. Sharing hot takes from centrist internet commentator #17, however, feels more like wallpapering myself in discarded advertisements. Cheap identity bluster. The more that I’m drawn to that kind of identity, the more that the living being in me is just the legs dragging around a bloated, undigested pastiche identity bag.

A caddisfly larva or bagworm can’t actually shed the bag*, and I’m sure I never will, either. But I can keep it from obscuring or crushing my real self. That’s why it’s worth restricting my access to garish materials, such as contentious thinkpieces, and arenas, such as social media, to show off my reactions. It’s the hygiene of the identity for me. If it’s too easy to pick up pieces of other people and incorporate them into your outer self, it’s too hard to be your inner self.

*A convenient oversimplification for the sake of my analogy. Caddis flies lose the bag when they metamorphose and male bagworms leave the bag to mate. Female bagworms usually live their entire lives in the bag, from what I understand.

Lessons from leaving facebook

I deactivated facebook in mid-November 2018, and so far it’s going pretty well. It feels like I’ve been off long enough now to share some takeaways:

  1. As much as I would have protested to the contrary before, I was severely addicted to facebook. The withdrawals made this crystal clear. When I conceived a shareworthy sentiment after deactivating (which, due to combination of desperation to post and low quality standards, happened every few seconds), the need to share it is was like a wild animal throwing itself against restraints. The chatter of things that were just too good not to share drowned out most of whatever else I doing for about a week. After 3 weeks I felt I was out of withdrawals. 4 months later my temptation to use facebook is more out of curiosity about what others are doing.
  2. The nature of my withdrawals made it clear(er) to me that I get addicted to approval and attention. I thought I liked facebook for the salon environment and as a place to sound my ideas. I knew I also liked whatever attention and praise it brought me “as a byproduct.” During the withdrawals, I kept having these ideas that NEEDED to be shared, yet I could barely stand to entertain them for their own sakes for a few minutes. I couldn’t go more than 30 seconds down most lines of thought before my mind said “that’s enough to post– hurry!!” At least at that time, my motivation was obviously not to explore ideas, but to get my squirt of juice for sharing them.
  3. I used facebook to cope with anxiety. For a few days a couple years ago, I actually recorded what prompted me to go to facebook every time I found myself there. The results were very eye-opening to me– 90% of the time it was feeling a spike in anxiety. I would get an email that stressed me out, and instead of riding that wave for the 20 seconds it would take to break, I was automatically prompted to turn to my comfort object. Attention- and approval-seeking are also based in anxiety. Not having anywhere to sink that anxiety has been quite difficult at times. I still scrounge around for some kind of mindless activity that will do it for me like facebook, but I’m glad I haven’t found one. My dream is to be able to sit with discomfort when it arises an watch it pass. I think it’s difficult to learn that if you’re constantly leaning on something to take the edge off. The battle is long and leaving facebook is only a part of it.
  4. The experience of deactivating convinced me that being off Facebook is right for me. I would need to grow significantly with regards to attention- and approval-seeking to consider going back. Add the ease with which it becomes an unhealthy anxiety coping mechanism and I don’t know if it will ever be a good idea.
  5. I have a lot more time. Facebook was one of the only places for me where time was guaranteed to melt. I would spend a day on facebook, look up, and wonder what happened. The day feels much longer, fuller, and more real without facebook melting away every train ride or work break or every time I got home and sat with my phone on the couch for “just a minute.”
  6. I thought facebook riled me up, but it was more complicated than I thought. One of the reasons I stated for leaving facebook was how it brought out my hostility. Facebook whipped me up, no question, and it supplied me with bugaboos. But unlike the need for approval and attention, which calmed down a lot after I had “prevented my response” for several weeks, my anger actually got worse. Based on Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger, I believe I was using Facebook to vent in a way that just preserved the status quo causes of anger in my life. Venting gave me temporary relief and kept me from looking more deeply into the patterns that were maintaining this steady supply of rage. Facebook was definitely a source of rage but in hindsight I’m more concerned with the way it allowed me to offload feelings of frustration and helplessness as rage instead of addressing them head-on. Since venting is the norm on Facebook, I didn’t see the true issue until I got off and I couldn’t start taking a big step toward peace and happiness in my life.
  7. Facebook filled my head with crap. This is probably the most obvious one. But I’m not just talking about memes and getting into strangers’ personal dramas. I’m talking about politics. Facebook kept me in this dumb soap opera people use to feel important and a dozen more gossip-y stories (like what Elon Musk is up to) at any given time. Not keeping up with politics day-to-day has given me so much more room to breathe. And guess what? It hasn’t changed my actual impact at all. I still vote, which was about all I did on a regular basis before. Unless you just love posting about politics on facebook, please don’t let yourself believe that you’re doing anything useful. (You might even be doing something harmful by sucking everyone into this drama and causing division.) If you’re worried about being out of the loop politically if you leave, I suggest implementing a monthly issue round-up that focuses on action items (such as bills or policies being considered) at your local, state, and federal level, then making a call to your representatives if you feel strongly about one of them. You’ll be lightyears ahead in political involvement than you were when your main political activity was to keep up with the news.
  8. I got a lot of praise on facebook, but I see now how little it had to do with me. I got a lot of praise for my posts. It seems to me now, though, that a post exemplifying the need to overshare would get effusive praise from other oversharers, a post fueled by anger at my rejection by old leftist friend groups would get “THIS.” from other scorned comrades, and some scrupulous expression of how hard people should be on themselves would be vaunted by others afflicted with scrupulosity and self-judgment. I think the whole world is a mirror where we only see ourselves reflected if we’re not careful. But facebook and social media are worse. It’s particularly stark online how much praise tends to tell you only about the praiser. Unfortunately, it seems like the strongest praise on social media is in support of shared vices or hatreds.
  9. I turned back to my blog and more polished writing. It’s in most ways more satisfying, though I still miss a casual way to publish short, low-effort writing. I don’t know if I can have that right now without being addicted to it, which is why I’ve kept the blog a little formal. I also miss how easy it was to get blog views by posting to facebook, but whatever. Tradeoffs.
  10. FOMO didn’t amount to much. I have missed some stuff because of being off facebook, but none of it was a big deal and I would not trade all the time and effort I used to put into facebook to have heard those things in time. This is the most legitimate-feeling reason to stay on/return to facebook, but I promise that the people you really need to be in contact with have a way of finding you. I had a handful of meaningful acquaintanceships that I lost because we didn’t text, email, or have other friends in common. I’m confident they don’t want me to sabotage myself by feeding a facebook addiction solely for them when the bond between us wasn’t even strong enough to exchange email addresses.
  11. They say no one else really cares about your presence on social media, but that wasn’t true for me. Cal Newport says no one will miss you if you leave social media, and that any belief to the contrary is grandiose. I was counting on this so I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out on individualized attention by leaving. But actually people did tell me how sad they were that I had left. They emailed me a few a weeks later like, “OMG, did you deactivate?!” or told me in person. Just a few days ago I was contacted by someone through this blog asking if I had saved an old post. I’d say it was less than 10 people out of my 1000+ friends and followers, so Newport may mostly have the right of it, but, still, people missed me. Facebook was my little salon that I lavished huge amounts of time on. It turns out other people did notice. This makes it a lot harder to leave, and people who use facebook the way I did should be prepared for that. There will be peer pressure and temptation.

That’s all for now, but I’ll add to this list as new lessons become apparent.