Opinion psychology

Lesson 7: Learn How to Negotiate with Yourself

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There are many things that are fun to do. But if you keep doing what’s fun for long enough, you’ll get depressed.

Why? Because you substituted short-term gratification for long term happiness. That is the story we are often told, but there has always been a missing piece in this story, and I believe one of the reasons why Jordan Peterson resonated with so many people, was because he was able to find that piece, or at least, something very close to it.

We know the dangers of overindulgence. An obese person today enjoyed the path he took to get him where is at. He enjoyed the cheeseburgers, ice creams, and donuts. But at the bottom of pleasure is pain. He finds himself in the present moment, obese, with a host of health complications, he is chronically tired, unproductive, has no social life, and is depressed.

But he had fun. And if you are not obese, then maybe you have a different kind of addiction, one that does not involve food. Maybe you’re an obsessive gambler, or your thing is parties and drugs and alcohol, or maybe your poison is video games and weed. Whatever it is, you have a poison, and it haunts you every day, until you recognize that it exists.

Peterson’s whole message is about sorting yourself out. People who respond to it, are usually people who feel they need to sort themselves out. And people who have that urge are in a place in their lives when things aren’t going as planned. They are either stuck in a job they hate, or studying for a degree they don’t care about, or they’re unemployed and unmotivated.

And often, the culprit in all these cases is the one thing everyone agrees is great: fun. It seems like a paradox, but things become clearer once we understand ourselves a bit more.

What psychologists and philosophers have taught us about ourselves is that we have are not a monolithic machine – we are made from contradictory beliefs, emotions, and needs. Kahneman the behavioral economist, likes to draw a clear dichotomy that is useful: we are part thinking (slow), we are part reactionary (fast).

What most people find fun is reactionary. It is what is easiest, since there is a lower barrier to entry. An expert musician may be having a lot more fun during his practice sessions than 4 college students getting drunk, but there are a lot of college students, and there aren’t as many professional musicians.

When it comes to you, you are conditioned to do what is easy, and what is available to you. You will avoid honing your skills at something complex and rewarding and fun in the long run because you want convenient, immediate, pleasure. So instead, you watch something on Netflix, or you play a game on your phone.

But every time you do this, you make it more likely, that you will end up like the obese guy at the beginning of the post. Anxious, depressed, unmotivated, unhappy.  

There are no monsters

The first thing I learned from Peterson was to recognize that dragons exist. He recalls the funny nursery story in which a boy complains to his mother that there is a dragon under his bed. At first Billy pets the dragon, and it enjoys it, but when he tells his mother about it, she ignores him. “There’s no such thing as a dragon” she says.

And every day, the dragon gets bigger, and every day, he tells her about the dragon, and she ignores him. When Billy (the boy) encounters the dragon, he doesn’t pet him anymore, because it’s silly to pet a dragon that doesn’t exist, until eventually the monster gets so big that it lifts the house up and walks away with it. The problem is finally resolved when the boy insists that there is a dragon.

Fun is the Dragon

Fun is associated with what is easy, pleasurable, pleasant. Most people love having fun. If you don’t, there may be something wrong with you. But just because something is fun, does not make it advisable. Gambling is a lot of fun, but gambling can also ruin yourself, as it has for many people, as well as the lives of their families and friends.

We are drawn towards pleasure, but our brains can trick us. We deceive ourselves, because as we now know, our brains are physical organs that contain different systems of processing information that frequently oppose one another. If you are trying to lose weight, and you see a cheeseburger, you will feel a tension in your brain, and this is proof that you do not have simple goals, or uniform goals.

“Dragon” are usually disguised as fun. If monsters looked like monsters, you wouldn’t be fooled by them, you’d just run away, or you would fight it, depending on who you are. But monsters are insidious, and they are subtle, and they are often the things you least expect.

There is an insight borrowed from Carl Jung, and it is that “the things that you most need to know, are in the places you least want to look.” And I believe that this a category of things that fits this dictum. Unfortunately, the monsters may be your favorite things to do, they may be your close friends, or even your family.

If you are moderately skilled at arguing, you will be able to rationalize to yourself why you engage in self-destructive behaviors, why your monsters don’t really exist. A smoker or a gambler can make a good case that smoking, and gambling are fun, and that it’s worth the risks, and that they contribute to his well-being in the long run.  

I will not get into the argument about whether human beings really understand risks, but I will say a few things about it. Perhaps a small number of statisticians understand risks, but most people do not understand them.

Peterson makes the case against gambling, particularly slots and similar electronic machines.

He made the point that people are not emotionally wired to respond to astronomically low odds. For example, we are great at understanding the consequences of a 50/50-coin-flip, but we are terrible at understanding the odds of winning the lottery, or the odds of losing in gambling over time.

Taleb, when he explains the concept of ergodicity or the Black Swan demonstrates this inability to understand large numbers, or events with extreme magnitude, or even how probabilities change, depending on which perspective you take, and whether you factor in time.

Why We Don’t See Dragons

But what about those monsters? Why can’t we admit that they exist?

That is because we are self-deceptive. We have a duplicitous nature. We are willfully blind. We are dishonest.

This should worry you because it suggests that oftentimes, you may be acting against your self-interest, you may be going for easy, short-term satisfaction, rather than difficult, long-term satisfaction. You may be preferring simple, meaningless interactions with people over complicated, meaningful ones.

The fact that we are odds with ourselves is a problem, but we know how to overcome it.

Slaying the Dragon

When you are honest with yourself about the obstacles that you are setting in your way, then you will have the chance the overcome them. And if you try hard enough, you will make progress. But we often play a trick on ourselves, and that is when we convince ourselves and others that we are not at odds with ourselves.

We make a careful case that we are, in fact, desiring of the short-term pleasures for reasons that make sense in the long term. We start to rationalize, that because we have worked so hard today, we deserve a session of binge drinking. That because we have gone to the gym for 3 consecutive months, we deserve to stop watching what we eat on the weekends. Or we may rationalize, that to have a good life that we can enjoy, we need to allow ourselves to indulge, to live.

The point here is not to say that indulgence is wrong, or that we should never break the rules, but rather, to be aware that we are breaking the rules.

Things get out of control, when we engage in a web of lies, and do not hold ourselves accountable. You gamble 200 dollars, and then you say, well, I have already come this far and lost this much, why not another 200 dollars?

Our bad behaviors are gateways to worse behaviors. Fun is not bad; it is over-indulgence in fun over a long period of time that is bad. Cheating on our own rules is not bad, it is not admitting that we are cheating that is bad.

But the final insight from Peterson, is on how to contend with this reality, of having monsters, of being duplicitous and deceptive.

It is to not be a tyrant, and to not be a slave.

There seems to be two extremes that people fall between. They are either too lax or too stringent on themselves. They are either too much in order or too much in chaos. It is again the middle line that must be traversed, and that calls for a negotiation with the self.       

You cannot be a tyrant to yourself. If you are, then you will find yourself rebelling. You must allow the weaker aspects of your nature to be given expression. You must make way for indulgences, but at the same time, you must set rules and stick to them.

To negotiate, you need to be honest with yourself. You must admit to the things that are standing in your way, you must admit to your overindulgences, and at the same time you must account for the fact that you are human, that you will need to indulge every now and then, that you will need to relax.

To know how to negotiate with yourself is the ultimate test of adulthood. If you succeed, then you will have overcome the dangers of addiction, the repercussions of laxity, and the unforeseen consequences of tyranny, which include a joyless, monotonous, meaningless life, as well as the inevitable rebellion from within that will collapse whatever it is that you have been working for.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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