Thinking Toys #11 — Self-Decomposition


When was the last time that you were examining an issue and noticed yourself becoming emotional? Maybe it was something like anger or frustration. Or it was a voice telling you how stupid you were or how obvious something is. Often times, there is more content behind these reactions than meets the eye. You are examining some set of parts and are being disturbed or distracted by others. There may be some conflict here. Focusing is a great way to start understanding this but many other skills help. One of them is learning to do what I call self-decomposition. When you find yourself unable to maintain attention on an individual part, it helps to step back. Treat everything that comes up as its own distinct part. Each is separate from You, the impartial observer. Rather than feeling dismissive or angry or frustrated, try seeing it as “some part of me is feeling dismissive.” Attend to each one in order, be curious and try to see what it perceives from its perspective.


My typical pattern is to have a reaction where some part I’m examining gets called “stupid” or “silly”. The best move is to then examine that name calling part. Rather than myself calling something stupid, I step back and notice “some part of me feels this is stupid”. Right away this reduces some of the associated tension. With this distance, I can examine it impartially to try to see what else it wants to say. As an example, I used to have a dominant frame of viewing religious ritual as silly. The Sabbath, keeping kosher, etc. This reaction dominated whenever I tried to understand the value of rituals. Only when I was able to make some distance between my “self” and the “silliness” reaction was I able to hear from it. It was trying to keep me from being “just like everyone else” — that part wanted me to be special and unique. This was nice to hear, so I accepted and appreciated it. And then was able to look at the merits of ritual without interruption. This allowed me to start to see ritual in a new light.


A variety of triggers can signal a new part arising and the potential need to create distance from it. Sometimes it’s an obvious emotion that overcomes you. If examining something makes you angry or sad, consider trying to treat it as just another part of you. Sometimes parts step in more subtly. If you keep seeking distraction or feel unease, that can be a clue. Paying attention to the patterns of how your mind moves when attending to issues will highlight your own unique triggers.


It’s important to distinguish self-decomposition from the psychological defense mechanism of dissociation. It is similar since dissociation allows you to avoid certain experiences — unpleasant emotions. The problem with dissociation is it tries to completely ignore the experience — that part of you. This prevents making progress by being able to curiously examine it and see what it is trying to tell you. When doing self-decomposition, we don’t want to completely hide parts from our awareness. We seek to hold them at arms-length rather than wearing them like clothes or hiding them like a mess in the closet.


I’m writing one of these every week: sign-up for the Thinking Toys newsletter

Thinking Toys #10 — Bargaining


Do you notice yourself waffling between different approaches to a  problem? Half-assing two strategies and not making the kind of progress that seems possible? This can feel like stuckness or indecision between two paths. Sometimes it’s experienced as a recurring pattern of distraction. One potential solution is bargaining — coming to an internal agreement where each strategy gets a full-assed attempt at success rather than simultaneously half-assing both. Before proceeding, it’s best to empathize with the two sides and seek alternative approaches. If those still leave you feeling stuck between two paths, then try bargaining. Propose a set of terms that allows you to commit to trying one strategy before switching to the other. If you succeed, you may notice immediate relief from associated anxiety and second-guessing.


Bargaining works when you can make the side of the strategy-that-will-go-second feel secure. Unfortunately, it often gets thrown under the bus. You know what this feels like. “I’ll check Twitter for an extra 5 minutes now and then not again until tomorrow.” Often when faced with a short-term urge, we sacrifice our future self. If one path feels more immediately enjoyable, it tends to work best if that one goes second. When both paths feel equal in desire then the ordering matters less. In that scenario, the important move is to state the terms of the agreement in a clearly measurable way.


For a while, I bounced between writing publicly and free-flowing private theorizing. Often when I engaged with one, I would start to feel guilty about not working on the other. Earlier this year, I decided to see if I could fix this dynamic. I decided to spend a few weeks at a time working on private notes and then switch to focusing on public blog posts for the same length of time. I planned to try this strategy for 3 months and then reassess. By constructing a bargain that both of these desires approved of, they were able to stop interrupting each other. Immediately, associated feelings of anxiety or guilt from ignoring one or the other disappeared. This left me free to assess the merits of each one independently.


Once you’ve empathized with the different sides, you build up some trust that you can use to bargain. By keeping promises that parts will “get their chance”, they will often stop nagging you in the interim. This nagging is the anxiety, indecision, and distraction-seeking that presents when two parts are in conflict. When a part feels heard and trusts an agreement, it often stops sapping your energy and frees up your attention. Self-trust is crucial here. Without it, your parts won’t believe in the negotiation process.


We often bargain to deceive or manipulate our future selves. “I really want this cookie now but I know it’s bad for me. I can justify it if I promise myself to spend an extra 30 minutes at the gym later!” This is the dark side of bargaining. We tend to fail to hold up the future end in these scenarios. This builds resentment in the part that cares about the “good in the long-run side” and erodes self-trust. With reduced self-trust, parts become skeptical of any bargaining and we lose the ability to do so. You can check-in with the parts of you to see if they already feel this way, thereby beginning the process of restoring trust. If you notice yourself trying to bargain to enable an immediate urge, try to pause and increase awareness of the pattern. Consider reversing the ordering — allow yourself the indulgence but only after the “good side” goes first. Allow yourself a cookie after the gym. Ideally, you can avoid this type of bargain entirely.


As Ainslie argues in Breakdown of Will: “Will, in short, is a bargaining situation, where credibility is power.” (good overview here). Building this trust is a matter of bargaining fairly — being curious when you listen to the parts — and honoring your agreements. This is easier when you consider more contingencies in advance. Try to think of all the ways your plan may hit exceptions and cause you to break the agreement. Account for these in advance of imposing the bargain.


One common failure mode of internal bargaining is a lack of clarity in the terms. It works best to stick to conditions that are falsifiable. You should be able to easily tell when one strategy has succeeded or failed or when it’s had its fair turn. Track things in time or money, or other measurable outcomes (win/lose). Be specific about how much is “enough”.


Where has bargaining worked well for you? In what scenarios has it failed?


I’m writing one of these every week: sign-up for the Thinking Toys newsletter

Thinking Toys #9 — Undichotomizing


Pick a choice you made this week where you felt tension or indecision over which option to take. Perhaps you saw two approaches and neither of them seemed more appealing than the other. They both had their drawbacks. Or maybe you were working with another person and disagreed on which action made the most sense. Now consider the possibility that you were facing a false dichotomy. You perceived two options and didn’t see any appealing alternatives, but perhaps with some effort, you could find more. Take 2 minutes and try to generate other options. Make a list of as many as you can. If you feel stuck, start by trying to generate bad ideas. Give yourself the freedom to be silly or wrong. This helps get you into a flow of generating ideas and out of that something useful can often come. By undichotomizing — pushing yourself to find other options beyond the default two — you often discover something better.


Minds cling to dichotomies. This is magnified when there is another person involved. We default to being protective of our own ideas rather than trying to generate and synthesize a third option that satisfies everyone. One way to help reframe the problem when butting heads is to go up in construal. Ask yourself why you care about your preferred option. What does it do for you? What do you get out of it? Then try to empathize with the other person and understand why they care about their choice. It pays to be curious here. You may not immediately understand the other person’s viewpoint and it is natural to project one’s own perception of the world. By exploring motivations, alternative options that satisfy both sides sometimes effortlessly appear.


I’m working on a project with a few friends and we recently ran into a disagreement about how we want to release it into the world. I have a desire for getting the result into the hands of as many people as possible. Their perspective is that most of the value will come from making it feel special by personally presenting it to friends. For a few moments, this felt like an either/or situation but other alternatives were available with some effort. The obvious one that is potentially appealing is to do both! We can start with the initial special, personal delivery approach. After some time, we can proceed to a wide release. It seems silly and obvious in hindsight but in the moment this wasn’t immediately clear.


The hardest part of undichotomizing is awareness. It’s very difficult to become aware of all false dichotomies we may be drawing in our day-to-day lives. Take a few minutes and see if you can list 3 dichotomies you ran into during the past week that now seem limiting. Often these situations leave us feeling stuck or frustrated with the tradeoffs we face. These are good triggers to keep an eye out for. More practice trying to spot these seems to make us better at it, as with any skill.


Why are we so drawn to dichotomies? What causes our minds to get stuck in them? It seems like minds thrive when carving up reality. Either into categories, like animals and places, or into mutually exclusive states. True/false. Here/there. Self/other. Now/later. Freedom/structure. Commitment/flexibility. Stay/go. These are extremely useful shortcuts for making sense of and surviving in the world. When we hear a loud noise, our mind jumps into Fight-or-Flight Mode. Precaution by jumping to conclusions served our ancestors well. This is less useful when we’re not in immediate danger, though. This automatic tendency to dichotomize can handicap us.


Do you have other ways of finding these scenarios and working around them? I’d love to hear, reply and let me know!


I’m writing one of these every week: sign-up for the Thinking Toys newsletter

Thinking Toys #8 — Curiosity


There are parts of the world that don’t make sense. Some of these also generate a strong emotional reaction. People exist that hold very different beliefs from us. But can we say that we understand their perspectives? A common place to look is in politics. You also see it when people butt heads over metaphysics, core beliefs or values — religion, science, spirituality, etc.


Find one of these viewpoints. Something that feels particularly crazy or wrong to you but that you know others feel good about. As soon as you bring it to mind, you may notice an emotional response. Some aversiveness, or smugness, or even hatred. Try to acknowledge that response while also setting it aside. Instead, try to imagine how the world appears from this wacky perspective. Imagine a hypothetical holder of this view and try to empathize with them. Imagine this person, so different from you, is not merely confused. What was their childhood like? What are their hopes and fears? What would it take for you to believe what they do?


Notice how you may tend to paint this hypothetical person in a negative light. We tend to elevate our own perspective and perceive the other’s as inferior or degenerate. This effect is greater the more different the other appears. This is a natural response but is not helpful to this exercise. Try to set this aside and look from their eyes with compassion and curiosity. What do they know that you don’t? What have they seen that you haven’t?


How can we know when we’re doing this “right”? Check if you believe that the other person would agree with your description of them. If it feels condescending or paints them in a foolish light, you are probably missing the mark. People don’t tend to see themselves that way. You probably don’t consider your most strongly held beliefs as unintelligent or ignorant.


I’ve been a generally politically left-leaning person for most of my life. Also, I tend to reductionism and a scientific approach to understanding the world. Over the past few years, I’ve put in a lot of effort in exploring other approaches. What I continue to find is valuable knowledge embedded in (previously) foreign traditions and mindsets. Seeing how other systems navigate the world also helps me see the flaws in my rigid perspective. Yet, I know that I’m still scratching the surface of possibility and am working hard to improve.


This is Curiosity. Not the easy kind where we get excited and dive into things that seem useful. This is the hard kind: where things seem wrong, foreign, yucky, or bad. And yet, this is often where the juiciest insight is hiding — the places we have a hard time looking into. The more we can be curious, the more powerful we become. You become more able to connect with people that appear totally different from yourself. You become more able to see things in the world that your peers may be missing. Your implicit models improve and your actions become more effective.


And it seems like we can get better. Curiosity feels like a muscle. The weight we are lifting is that of emotional resistance to experience. We can exercise this muscle by coming up against this resistance. Toeing the line and feeling the discomfort. The more we try this exercise of pushing our boundaries, the easier it is the next time around.


I’m writing one of these every week: sign-up for the Thinking Toys newsletter

Parts in Conflict

Internal conflict is a staple of human experience. In fact, it seems our mental dynamics oscillate between Flow and Conflict. Flow feels like a dissolution of self — of a critic or observer — and as immersion in an activity. In these moments, the experience of the act makes up our reality. We lose ourselves: in cooking, writing code, dancing, and daydreaming. The less immersive an activity, the more mental chatter is noticeable. We can describe mental chatter as Conflict. It feels like a dynamic of ideas proposed and discussed. There are sides. There are arguments and counterarguments. Proposals and counterproposals. Desires that appear at cross-purposes and plans which fight for shared resources.
There is an eery similarity between what goes on within minds and between them. Our internal dynamics feel analogous to what happens between people. By digging deeper here, I hope to transfer insight from one domain to another. Getting better at understanding intrapersonal issues may provide insight into group conflict management. Similarly, studying how to resolve group conflict may reveal ways to improve our private experience.
We know things about how to manage these internal dynamics. Mindfulness practices increase awareness of experience and can reduce mental chatter. Therapy practices like Focusing and Internal Family Systems provide tools to better understand individual parts of us. An overarching theme is one of curiosity and openness. Interest in and unconditional acceptance of whatever we find. The more we can empathize with a given part of our experience, the more it feels comfortable telling us what it wants. Parts say new things but only when you are open to the possibility that you don’t already know the whole story. This newness can dissolve conflict or help it shift into a “better” equilibrium.
The part of me that seeks distraction while I’m trying to work triggers annoyance. Sometimes that part begins to dominate my experience and I feel deep-seated frustration. Empathizing with it doesn’t come easily — it’s easier to label it as sabotaging, lazy, or childish. But stepping back to try to guess at what it’s trying to do from its perspective seems to generate insight. Is it skeptical of the value of what I’m working on? Is it distracted by other activities which it guesses are more pleasurable? Maybe it’s trying to get me something that I may be missing… Empathizing requires something like a suspension of disbelief (or reason!) as we guess at what a part’s worldview looks like and check it to see if it agrees. This is more difficult to the extent that a parts model feels crazier — less reasonable.
There are other ways internal conflicts can play out. Often, the default way of approaching conflict is through dialogue — mental chatter. This fails when parts have very different worldviews. The greater the difference between them, the greater the urge one will have to “interrupt” another. Statements made will seem wrong — unreasonable. It can be exceptionally difficult for a part to remain quiet in those situations. In theory, parts could reason dispassionately and identify ways to integrate their evidence. Uncoincidentally, the same hopes we have for people in disagreement. In practice, this is tough. It often devolves into the use of force — within the mind this is willpower. Specifically, the self identifies with one part and smothers another. Of course, to some extent this is unavoidable. Sometimes it takes “too much” energy to reach a stable agreement. There is a tradeoff between the energy required to force parts to act against their beliefs and the energy required to empathize with parts to develop internal coherence
What can we learn from the techniques that allow us to better navigate this internal tradeoff? What can we learn from how the most effective people do so? And how can we transfer this insight to handle interpersonal conflicts?

Thinking Toys #7 — Action Echoes


Think ahead to the next few days and find an upcoming situation where you expect to face temptation. Specifically, an urge that often leads to involuntary action that you don’t like. Something where it feels like in the long-run you’d be better off if you could avoid succumbing. You can think of this as something you “want” but don’t “like”. Common examples include alcohol and tobacco abuse, eating sweets, or getting into arguments.



Rather than seeing this temptation as a one-off event, view it as repeating over and over into the future. Imagine the decision you make this next time also deciding how you act in similar future situations. Your actions echo into the future.



With this lens, eating a cookie at the coffee shop is no longer an exceptional event. Instead, you nudge your future selves to eat a cookie at every coffee shop you visit for the rest of your life. Hundreds or thousands of cookies! See if you can picture them piling up in front of you and then getting sucked into your body. Performing this exercise in advance makes it easier to act as you like. It also helps to run through the practice right before exposing yourself to a trigger.



This may seem a bit manipulative. “This is an exception, succumbing to this one urge isn’t going to dictate the future!” I argue that, actually, it does! Our actions are mostly dictated by our habits and every act serves to establish those habits. Another way to look at it is as a chess game. Every “bad” move has consequences later in the game. Sure, you can sometimes find ways to dig yourself out of a hole. But it’s helpful to realize that every move you make contributes to your eventual position. Being aware of this dynamic allows you to intervene in it more skillfully.



Reframing a decision as a bundle of future repeated actions gives a more accurate view. You are better able to trade-off future costs and benefits rather than just what’s immediately in front of you. Perhaps you decide it’s OK to indulge under certain conditions. That’s great! The goal is not to entirely avoid urges but to reframe them in a way that best accounts for their consequences.



The final piece is becoming aware that The Future is Real! This day, or any one decision, is far from your last. You will be around years from now! Any single temptation is not unique! The actions you take now will establish patterns that determine your future. By developing the habit of seeing your actions echo far into the future, that future starts to feel more real. And the more seriously you take the future, the easier it is to feel long-term consequences.



This mechanism and the underlying theory draws heavily from Ainslie’s work. He lays out the details in Breakdown of Will, which I highly recommend. You can find a nice overview here.


I’m writing one of these every week: sign-up for the Thinking Toys newsletter