Beauty is in the mind of the beholder

I first posted this on facebook on 6/18/18:

I’ve been on a kick of reading and watching videos about extreme plastic surgery. The psychology behind it really fascinates me. How can these patients see their before-bodies so differently than everyone else does? How can they think these extreme surgeries, like H-sized breasts and 60-inch booties, look good? Am I wrong to think people with healthy body image would always prefer a natural look? Etc.

But this jag has had consequences! I never looked at a single one of the women after surgery and thought “I want to look like that!” I usually felt horrified and thought “Thank goodness I can appreciate what I have naturally.” But then the next time I saw myself in the mirror, I thought “I look so boyish!” Despite the fact that I think the ginormous boobs and asses look ridiculous, somewhere in my mind I’m comparing myself to that. It’s the strongest evidence I’ve ever personally experienced that seeing unrealistic body types screws up your internal standards. I repeat, I never even liked the way these women looked. I was nothing but sad for them (wrong and puritanical though that may be of me) that they had ruined their bodies because they thought they needed to be more extreme-looking. And yet seeing them made me view myself as more flat and deflated. The effect faded the longer it had been since I watched one of the videos.

This effect blew me away and has made me take the idea of a “healthy media diet” more seriously.


Sure enough, since I gave up on this habit, I have seen myself pretty much like I used to. But I’m glad I experienced this powerful example of the need to protect yourself from fake or extreme “data” that contaminates your unconscious mental models. It’s not enough to know consciously that something is false or exaggerated– the operative portion of your brain may not.

Seeing how easy it is to break my perceptions of curviness has also made me more confident that other people’s perceptions of your body don’t matter. For that matter, my perceptions of other people’s bodies don’t matter. Beauty really is in the mind of the beholder, and who knows what sort of junk went in there?


Casting “Riddikulus” on intrusive thoughts

I have recurring images of what I’ve heard called “horrific temptations*,” what my mom used to call “dreadful thought syndrome” and what are more generally called “intrusive thoughts.” For over a year, my pattern has been to get nervous as I cross the street or am careful not to slip down the stairs, etc. Then, when I have any downtime, my brain helplessly loops the same video of getting hit by a car at the intersection or trying to do a cartwheel down my stairs and breaking my wrist over and over and over.

There’s something that feels very urgent about these thoughts, like they will come true unless I can figure out how to prevent them right now. Reassuring myself that I take all reasonable precautions does not help; it only makes me feel more vulnerable. The answer my brain wants is that I’ll ratchet up safety vigilance even further or avoid anxiety-provoking situations altogether, but obviously that would be an unworkable and merely temporary solution. My brain would just keep wanting more and more safety in a world that cannot be bubble-wrapped, and I would only be more fearful in the end.

But I have found a great antidote! The solution I’ve hit on is so much like casting the Riddikulus spell on a boggart that 1) I think J K Rowling must do this, too, and 2) I must have subconsciously gotten this idea from Harry Potter. What I do is rewind the tape of the feared event a little and creatively tweak the situation. For instance, with the staircase, I imagine I’m actually cartwheeling into a pool of Jello. The car that hits me is either made of smoke or I’m dressed up in padding like the Michelin man and I have a fun time bouncing around.

I think this works best when you still go through some fear and anticipation in the imagined scenario, but those feelings are able to be resolved in a safe way. In my experience, low-level anxiety can be felt as fear or excitement depending on whether you have faith you can handle the feelings and what’s coming. Like, I would not enjoy cartwheeling down a slope into a pool of Jello or being bounced around in an airsuit in real life, but that’s just about the scary sensations those things would create, not physical harm. So in my amended visions, I go through real trepidation, but I also get to feel exhilaration from coming out okay.

This “spell” helps me to separate the emotions attached to intrusive thoughts, which shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed, from the storylines that usually get the attention. By casting “Riddikulus” on the thoughts, I’m able to break through the superstituous mindset and see that the intrusive thoughts are just thoughts. My instinct is to try to satisfy the thoughts on their terms, by buying into their narrative of iminent danger and becoming more vigilant. But changing the storyline a bit allows me to challenge the assertions of the thoughts– “this is an urgent threat and you can’t settle for anything less than a guarantee of safety”– in a way that doesn’t suppress or deny the emotions involved while also allowing a measure of emotional resolution.

I hope you find it useful, too!

*First heard this phrase here and it seemed right. It’s not very common in the psych literature, though, and seems to come up only in relation to OCD, where it something in between an obsession and and a compulsion.

cis gratitude


A wonderful byproduct of transgender visibility for me as a cis person is that I no longer take it for granted how lucky I am to really fit in the gender that was provided for me. I have a deep sense of being female, and my preferred gender expression fits well with contemporary society’s idea of femininity. Even where I’m “non-conforming,” I never think of that as being un-femme– I just think “well, I’m a woman who does this, so here’s another data point on femininity.”

This is not to endorse any particular theory of what causes gender dysphoria or how best to ameliorate in any given case. It is simply to recognize all the ways in which a person can feel alienated from their body and the way they are perceived socially with regard to gender, and to say how lucky cis people are that that stuff is working out for them. If anything, I have gender euphoria! No matter how many disadvantages come with being female (though I happen to think there are many, many unsung advantages as well), I will always want to be female to the extent that gender is relevant because it feels like an expression of me.

I imagine gender dysphoria is very similar to depression in this regard. Mood just sort of works out for most people, but for some it doesn’t, and it’s only then that one appreciates how many things need to be going right to feel “normal” and take that feeling for granted. So I’m trying to fully appreciate a thing that has worked out for me! As a depressive person, I feel that non-depressed people are honoring my struggle the most when they are truly grateful for the well-functioning mood regulation they have. It means they understand the gravity of what I lack in that moment– plus they get to feel happy and grateful for a wonderful thing they might be overlooking! I hope it’s the same for trans people.


Mood shifts

Wherein I opine on the nature of mood shifts and the value of different states of mind.

I had major depression from about age 20 to 23. I was functional the whole time and so I’m never quite sure how serious it was. I simultaneously felt desperately miserable and completely dismissive of my own evaluation of my misery. I thought that I was somehow imagining being miserable; that real misery was too good for me somehow. Therapy and drugs made a big dent in whatever it was, though. I could tell because I recognized the self that emerged from the treatment as my old self.

Reflecting on different phases of my depression is difficult, because I find myself in a whole different frame of reference when my mood shifts. It’s hard to embody memories from radically different mood contexts. I still have the semantic content, but it doesn’t have the same emotional meaning. I’m still making sense of the whole experience, and how that relates to a different and more foreign phase: blithe happiness.

Blithe happiness is, unfortunately, for me a very selfish mood. I feel my own emotions more acutely, and they crowds out everyone else’s. My thoughts don’t stray to distant people and places the way they used to. I feel more selfishly invested in myself than I do when I am depressed. I’m afraid I’ll lose sight of the big picture that I saw when I felt like the one speck among billions instead of feeling like the star on a stage with billions of extras. Maybe there’s just more to lose than when I felt like a shadow of myself. Or maybe depressive thinking isn’t all wrong. I can’t help but feel that I grokked something deep and true during my depression, and I’m afraid that I’m losing the in-my-bones understanding that I had in a depressed state.

I’m trying to understand what my brain seems to think is desirable about this state.

When I realized I was depressed, it was like slowly coming to on another planet. I didn’t know that could happen, that you could just find yourself in another mental environment altogether. It’s not the emotions that changed– though that happened, too– it’s that you can’t remember anything else. The wallpaper of the mind is suddenly different and you realize you never noticed what was there before. It’s like color constancy. At first, nobody can believe that The Dress could look black and blue AND gold and white, but then they see it flip. Part of overcoming depression for me was learning the ins and outs of these illusions.

The Dress

But at first it just seems like what was white is now blue, and gold is now black. I took what my brain was telling me at face value– the world, and I in particular, had become awful. Since then, I’ve realized that these context shifts happen all the time, and probably happened all the time before I learned to notice it. My mind just confabulated at any given moment that I had always felt whatever I felt then, which gives a false impression of continuity.

The feeling of alienation from my old self and from my body (dissociation) was one of the scarier parts of depression, but it’s also somewhat self-protective. One theory of dissociation/derealization is that it’s a defense mechanism against the intense negativity of depressed emotions. It’s like a psychological immune response that can get out of control and become part of the problem when you can’t zoom in anymore and focus on yourself. Seems a major part of my life will be learning to turn that focus dial. Or maybe just to accept the whole picture for what it is without being able to see everything clearly.

(12-12-18: I just realized calling The Dress “The Shift” would have been a brilliant pun!)

Depressive altruism and feet of clay

Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.
This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. (Daniel 2:31-33 describing Nebuchadnezzar)

Now I see what people mean when they act like EAs haven’t “earned the right” to care about faraway people. On some level, they are right. Our bodies have limits, and our bodies support our brains. Caring about increasingly abstract things takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. If you don’t have a stable base that replenishes your energy, you’re draining the principal. The principal is eventually lost anyway, no matter its size, when you die, so you shouldn’t store it up forever. And sometimes it pays to take risky bets; to gamble the principal. But you’ll live a walking death if you mortgage yourself for others and you can’t make the payments. A zombie, no matter how pure its intentions, is not much help to others. The best thing a zombie can do for everyone is stop and take care of itself.

Some people are better or worse at interpreting their body’s signals– hunger, thirst, heat, cold, pain, etc. Some people put too much stock in these signals and take more resources than they need to deal with them. We say someone is selfish when they are unwilling to bear their own pain and hassles to spare others the trouble. The opposite of selfishness is not effective altruism. It’s asceticism. It’s a level of self-denial that becomes reality-denial. All of our bodies have needs, and if those needs are not met, then you’re standing on feet of clay.

Some people really are too selfish. They can afford to help others, and their own lives would probably be richer if they did help others. But some people have a tendency to deny their needs (EAs often fall in this camp). And they build increasingly elaborate structures on a shaky foundation. They have feet of clay.  Nebuchadnezzar had an undeserved ego– a head of gold  on top of arms of silver all the way down to feet of clay. Some EAs, recently including me, have an unsteady superego. It comes from a beautiful impulse to help others, but if the foundation is not sturdy enough to support it, we’ll collapse under the weight of the world. We can’t neglect to take care of ourselves when our goal is to use ourselves to take care of others.

I didn’t mean for the above to sound didactic. I’m sharing this because I recently went through a crisis from pushing myself too hard. When I’m in a bad state, I move toward self-denial that easily disguises itself as altrustic sentiment. I’m writing this to share, but also to remind myself when I need to step back and care for myself.

Launched my podcast

I can’t believe I forgot to post this to my blog, but I just posted the first episode of my podcast with Ales Flidr, the Turing Test (the podcast of the Harvard Effective Altruism student groups) on Saturday.


The first guest is Larry Summers and there’s a lot more coming up 🙂

Subscribe here and like our facebook page if you want to support it.

I’ll probably write about lessons learned on this blog soon. Suffice to say that editing a podcast is a great way to become extremely aware of how you sound…

Migraines: the sword of Damocles

“So, Damocles, since this life delights you, do you wish to taste it yourself and make trial of my fortune?”

When Damocles said that he desired this, Dionysius gave orders that the man be placed on a golden couch covered with a most beautiful woven rug, embroidered with splendid works; he adorned many sideboards with chased silver and gold; then he gave orders that chosen boys of outstanding beauty should stand by his table and that they, watching for a sign from Damocles, should attentively wait on him; there were unguents and garlands; perfumes were burning; tables were piled up with the most select foods. Damocles seemed to himself fortunate.

In the middle of this luxury Dionysius ordered that a shining sword, fastened from the ceiling by a horse-hair, be let down so that it hung over the neck of that fortunate man. And so he looked neither at those handsome waiters nor the wonderful silver work, nor did he stretch his hand to the table. Now the very wreaths slipped off. Finally he begged the tyrant that he should be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be fortunate.

–Cicero’s Tusculan disputations 5.61, translation by Gavin Betts.

Migraines lurk behind every seemingly good thing. The sun is out? Migraine. Done with exams? Migraine. Great workout? Migraine. Exciting travel? You better believe there’s a migraine in store at the end. Do something random like catch a fluorescent light from a weird corner of my eye? Bonus migraine!

My migraines aren’t even that bad or frequent. I only get one or two that last about 6 hours every few months (for perspective, there are 4 million people who have 15 or more migraines per month). I have at least 15 minutes heads-up when I get aura, sometimes longer if I’m really paying attention to how I feel. The pain is manageable if I can get to a dark, quiet room before the headache comes on and not have to talk to anyone while I ride it out. Sometimes I throw up, but only if I had to move too much after the onset.

The worst part is the psychological symptoms. If I’m not mindful of the pain creeping in, it tanks my mood and convinces me the world is nothing but aching and dissatisfaction. Sometimes I get migraines in my sleep and wake up in the headache stage. Waking up is always a relief, even though I’m still stuck with the pain, because it frees me from a limbo of desperate, tortured dreams inspired by the migraine. Even at the best of times– saw the migraine coming, got to safety, maximum pain mitigation– migraines bring me down. They are powerful and fickle god that I have to drop everything and appease.

No, my migraines are just bad enough, preventable enough, and come with just enough warning that worrying about them consumes a big part of my life. They are the sword of Damocles because they attend the good things in life. The threat of migraines tinges the most potent and exciting developments in my world. Throw myself into a project and live a little immoderately? Migraine. Should have seen that one coming. Big performance? What if I suddenly go blind? What if my face goes numb and I can’t even fake my way through? This is not even to get into the worries that my migraine symptoms are actuallly a stroke this time…

It’s easy for the migraine reward schedule to give my intuition the idea that there’s something vaguely sinister about exciting and happy things. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I have to work hard to convince myself that migraines aren’t my punishment for getting uppity. (I should have known better than to go outside!!!) Fortunately, that idea doesn’t make any logical sense. Migraines are a nasty god whose power I need to respect, but the god’s jurisdiction is much smaller than the territory I let it occupy. 24-60 hours of my year are forfeit. I will spend those hours in bed (or in hell on earth: heaving up my guts in a train bathroom– whatever the case may be) trying not to provoke my tormentor any further. I don’t need to sacrifice any more of my life to this asshole in the hopes my meekness will move it to pity.

I may be stuck with migraines but I’m hereby opting out of crippling migraine dread. Let the sword fall. Because, in this case, “prevention” is worse than the disease.