On treating oneself with curiosity and compassion

Sharing insights from my friend Nikola Jurkovic

On Facebook, I wondered whether anyone actually defaulted to treating themselves with curiosity / compassion after a mistake? E.g., thinking “Great, I’m learning more about myself and how to improve!” vs “Wow, I suck at this.”

My friend Nikola Jurkovic had some wonderful insights into how to lean into the former framing:

On framing mistakes as learning

I personally don’t suffer much from beating myself up over mistakes and it’s mostly because I don’t really think “mistake” is that coherent of a concept. there are input-output pairs to how the world behaves, and sometimes I badly predict how certain imputs correspond to certain outputs, and then I can be like “oh, I guess that doesn’t work that way”

for instance a few weeks ago I was super sleepy and having the last conversation of the day with some people and I made a comment that was slightly snarky/insulting to one of the people I was talking to, and I was like “fuck I just made a mistake and I feel bad and I’m bad” for a moment until I caught the feeling and started thinking about it the normal way of “is this a sign I have to set up better internal systems or was this a bet I’d take again?”

Achieving this mindset

internalizing determinism/no free will and human fallibility.

I’m almost never angry at other people because I see everything, including other people, mostly as physical systems going through timesteps.

A cup dropped from shoulder height will fall and shatter when it hits the ground. Water in a pot will boil when a fire is lit under it. Everything is reducible to simple physical processes, and there isn’t a point on the cup-human spectrum where I’m like “ah, that’s complex enough, now I can get angry at it!”. It makes no sense to be angry at a cup for shattering when it hits the ground - it did what cups do when they hit the ground.

Similarly, it makes no sense to be angry at a human doing something wrong - it did what humans sometimes do. Keep in mind that here I’m not advocating never feeling the emotion of anger. I’m saying that on some platonic level, there’s nothing bad or wrong about following the laws of physics.

I think it’s probably good to feel anger some of the time, but noone “deserves” to be angry at. There are probably ways to feel anger while also not directing it towards specific people. Most of the anger I feel is vaguely towards the universe dealing us a bad deck. But it’s not anger at others, it’s anger with others, similar to the distinction of laughing at someone vs laughing with someone.

When someone does something “wrong” to hurt me, the thought that’s going through my mind is mostly “it sucks that the universe is like this, that people can get hurt for no good reason, and I will punch the universe until no-one is ever hurt again”. Not because the universe “deserves” to be punched, but because I want to punch things and the universe just so happens not to feel pain when punched (by “punch the universe” i mostly mean “change the world with determination”)

cultivating loving kindness towards myself and towards others

I’m not sure how determinist buddhism is generally, but in it there’s this very nice idea that basically, everyone is looking for happiness. Everyone is trying to make their corner of the universe a little bit better, but some people are confused or hurt, and in their confusion and pain, hurt others and themselves in trying to do this. I think that this is abstractly very close to the truth, but there are some exceptions, such as sadists, but sadists are victims of their own preferences being unaligned with others, which they too didn’t choose.

I think this insight is also true very often on a smaller level. I’ve found that most of the time people snap at me in anger, they are undergoing high amount of physical pain in that moment. They might be very tired, they might have a piercing headache or toothache, they might be suffering from a disease. People who are suffering are much more likely to be angry than those who are not.

From this perspective, when someone snaps angrily at me, I don’t really feel hurt that much, I’m mostly thinking “this person is very likely in a lot of pain right now, and I wonder what caused that, and what I can do to help them”.

pointing mental habits inwards: how would you treat others?

In therapy there is a very useful technique used in many different approaches, and that is judging oneself similarly to how one judges others (of course, having the foundation of not judging others harshly).

Many people can beat themselves up for mistakes they made as children, but when described a different child who made the same mistakes, feel nothing but compassion and sorrow for the child.

The crucial step here is realizing that there is nothing about you being you that makes your mistakes bigger than other people’s mistakes. You’re just like other people: half-monkey-half-god, and the monkey half is very often confused and hurt, and makes mistakes in its confusion and pain.

you are just a physical system. what is the best way to make yourself run smoothly?

And so, when you bring it all together, you are a physical system that follows the laws of physics, half-monkey-half-god, that has certain parts which aren’t used to the world, and there’s no difference between you and other people that’d make your mistakes bigger than others.

In this framing, you could imagine someone else living your life, making the same mistakes, and you’re tasked with taking care of them and making sure they thrive. How would you talk to them? What advice would you give them? Would you yell at them? Show them love and compassion? The answer to these questions should dictate how you actually treat yourself internally

see everything as a bet

Connected to determinism is the mindset of seeing everything as a bet. You bet on how specific actions will lead to specific outcomes, and sometimes, they don’t. But, as with any other bets, sometimes people lose bets that are worth taking, and sometimes people win bets that aren’t worth taking. Instead of looking at the outcome of the bet itself, I think it’s better to focus most of our attention of the information we had while taking on the bet.

For instance, sometimes telling the truth bites me in the ass, but I don’t beat myself up when this happens. This is not because I place some innate value on telling the truth, but because I realized long ago that telling the truth is on average more useful than not doing it. There are times that this will bite me in the ass, but it’s a bet I’d take again, as on average, it has been useful

I think another thing useful in internalizing determinism/ the laws of physics/ everything being a bet, is that when you take a high EV bet that results in you losing, then you basically took the punch for all the parallel universe yous that won. The actual truth value of this statement is debatable because map != territory and many worlds may not be true, but on a higher level this is a useful abstraction

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