On Emotional Processing

(Epistemic status: This is probably one of the most powerful tools I’ve discovered for regulating my reactions to the world around me and quite frankly, making me a better person.)

How often are things just not right in your life? How often does something impossibly frustrating, or impossibly depressing, or anything in that space of emotional pain, happen to you? And how often is your first response to vent about it or otherwise unload about it with your friends? How often do you want your story heard, your emotions validated, and to know that you are safe within the tribe, no matter how bad it seems? For me, personally, this happens a lot. I’ve been under more stress than I imagined I ever would be over the past few months, and this has worn on me.

Unfortunately, it has also on others that care about me – I think that it is a natural drive to have help with emotional processing, to get it out of your head. I don’t think the drive itself is even wrong, or bad. I don’t think one should feel guilty for externalizing their emotional world, especially if their friends are prepared for it. What I suggest instead, is that this process can be optimized.

A lot of the problem I have when I am in emotional pain is that I lack clarity on what the nature of the problem is. I hide a lot of information from myself, especially when I am in a social situation where, to some extent, I feel obligated to make my pain “pretty”. There are additional incentive structures inhibiting my expression – I want to stay in the painful state to continue getting attention. I want to make whoever is helping me prove themselves worthy. I want the costs of the emotional labor to have been “worth it”. This leads to things where the goalposts of what I want keep moving around, and reassurances get invalidated in increasingly absurd ways. Eventually, I find myself getting frustrated and shutting down (or worse, lashing out). The process is not one that often helps, though occasionally I learn things after I reach the point of regretting my actions. However, this isn’t sustainable, nor is it fair to those around me – so I decided to find a better way to do things.

The key things that help actually make progress on emotional problems are specificity, proper scoping, and actionability. Specificity means – you know specifically what is hurting. Being able to define the bounds of why something hurts makes it much easier to interact with the pain where it is and possibly have the need met. Rather than “Everything hurts and I don’t want to exist,” or similarly broad statements, you can bring it down to “I feel like I’m forcing myself to do things I don’t believe in, and chastising myself whenever I lose motivation.” Proper scoping means that you aren’t letting the pain color everything you are thinking about or talking about – a thing that happens with me is that the emotion acts as a contagion – I might have initially been upset about failing at a specific task (say, writing some code), I ask for reassurance about my code and get it, but because I’m still in this self chastising emotional state, I start questioning the reassurance and coming up with reasons it’s not true. When pain is scoped, it means you can step out of it, knowing that the problem isn’t with all of you. Lastly, actionability means that, when all is said and done, you have an idea of what you could do differently to interact with the pain in a way that is better for you. It doesn’t strictly mean avoiding the pain, or salving it, or solving the problem stemming from it – it really varies based on the stimuli, and sometimes it’s hard. It’s much better to say “Well, I wrote that code poorly, so I’ll practice writing more code of this type until I get it” than to say “Well, I wrote that code poorly so I guess I’ll get better at coding somehow”. The reason I bring up these keys is that you don’t actually need other people to find these qualities of a given problem. Given that you are the one living your life, you have access to a lot of information other people don’t – but a lot of it is hidden when you are in pain. My solution to this has been to write everything down when I’m in these states.

Now, writing a “processing journal” requires a certain amount of introspective ability, and your mileage may vary. It might be helpful to do this in a more auditory way on your own, or perhaps through art. Writing works best for me – the process I follow is just every I feel statement that seems true at the moment, regardless of the scope or specificity. I usually end up with a lot of broad statements about how bad I think life is – but as I go, I notice some things seem truer than others, and I start honing on those. I try to think about what triggered the shift in my mood, and how it relates to the I feel statements I’ve put down, and I start writing more about what I want and what those feelings are telling me. As I go, I start feeling a little less bad and more curious – I want to explore what parts of me are generating what feelings and why. I want to hear their concerns and figure out what about my life is arranged in a way that’s misaligned. What hurts starts to become more coherent and specific, and I start being able to think about what the problem is, and ways I’d want to approach solving it. Sometimes I end up with a list of things that aren’t easy, but seem much better than just despairing. Other times, I end up with super specific actions I can just take, and find that my life improves pretty quickly. The best part though, is that usually when I’ve finished a processing session like this, I still need some input from my friends…and it becomes so much easier for them to give it. I have specific questions, a list of the things that I’ve already thought about, and much more ability to communicate and stay in the problem solving zone. Instead of somewhat antisocial venting, I find myself in a situation where I can provide actual opportunities for those that care about me to help me, and get help that I am searching for. The problems start to evolve, rather than staying stuck in a loop. I’m still quite new to making this sort of thing work, but it already has given me traction on problems that have long seemed impossible.

Overall, emotional processing doesn’t have to be a group activity – the dividends from starting with yourself as a resource and putting some work in are huge. When it does become a group activity, it becomes much much easier for others to help you, to the point that sometimes rather than incurring social debt, you end up generating social capital. Additionally, by generating clearer models of your problems rather than giving yourself the runaround, it becomes that much easier to help others with their problems. Finally, I suspect that having a record of your past internal conflicts makes it easier to see patterns and deal with the abstractions rather than just the situation, from a healthier headspace.

Discussion questions: How do you regulate your emotions? What helps processing for you – words, art, or something else entirely? What is your relationship with emotional processing and sharing pain with those around you? If you have tried something like a processing journal before, what were the benefits and drawbacks of it?

On Color Qualia

(Epistemic status: Extremely subjective experience, mostly a thing to play with rather than amazing insight.)

Recently, I’ve found things like qualia to have a conceptual color to them.  There seem to be three obvious axes that I focus on when thinking of the color of an experience – red-blue, yellow-green, and white-black.  I think there is also a light and dark, but I’ve felt less of that dimension.

Red-blue seems largely to be about projection outward versus projection inward.  Red is an experience that involves how much of the world you are acting upon.  A lot of details get blurred because you are acting on your perspective, and pushing outward.  The experience isn’t about rumination or getting caught in loops, it’s about action, playing with the world from one’s own perspective lens, imposing one’s context on the surroundings.  Blue is the opposite – blue is being a receiver for the context and considering what it means – at worst, ruminating on it.  Letting things go into you – paying attention mostly to the external qualia and how your internal state is affected by it.  Paying attention to how the context changes you and how your response changes the context – more the former than the latter, but basically intense introspective, sensitive experiences – awareness of the world, but not in control of it.  The middle part of this axis is purple – a sense in which your internal experience is an important part of the context, but you are not in control of the context.  It’s effortful to get too lost in yourself, but also effortful to impose your self on the world around you.  It’s a state of being, but with effort – but usually the effort is worthwhile.

Yellow-green seems to be somewhat related to bigness, but not quite.  Yellow experiences tend to be vivid, energetic, almost comical.  They’re big, larger than life.  Everything feels alive.  Green experiences tend to be a lot slower, a lot more serious.  Green is pressure, green is the struggle of mundanity.  Green is when you wake up with a hangover, or after taking an antihistamine – everything is harder and slower, but it still seems mundane – you’re tired, but it’ll pass.  It’s…being ok with things being hard, rather than needing to make something larger than life to interact with it.  The light-dark axis is most notable here – dark green tends to be mundanity combined with a pessimistic outlook – the outside view and it hates you; I imagine dark yellow is sickly, like everything is bigger than you and you are too mortal to handle it.

White-black seems to be a rare sort of qualia.  White is an intensely pure experience – it doesn’t strictly mean it’s a good experience, but it tends to be the kind of experience where something beyond yourself was formed – a vow, a piece of the puzzle of your place in the world just fitting, a responsibility fulfilled in a deep way.  It feels like a milestone, done right for the shape of the thing you are.  Black is…the opposite of this.  Black is the deepest sort of corruption and out of placeness.  Black qualia are the darkest moments, the darkest choices – the ones where you wonder if you can really justify the thing you are.  The ones where there is no ground, no sky, nothing except a rejection of your core and how you deal with that.  I don’t think black qualia can ever be good in the moment, but I think that they can be valuable when contextualized by other qualia.

Overall, I feel like this is a very vague map that is pointing at something, but not in nearly high enough resolution to be useful – dichotomies rarely are good for that.  I would like to explore my experiences in this framework more in the future but think that holding it lightly is likely wise – it doesn’t cover all experience by a longshot, but maybe it can be useful for predicting what sorts of things are best to do when your setting imposes a certain “color”.

Discussion Questions:  What sorts of qualia taxonomies are your gotos?  Do colors of qualia resonate with you at all, even if the colors are different?  What are your thoughts on classing experience in systems like these?

On Musical Resonance and Mood Modification

(Epistemic Status: A thing I do and probably something most people do, I just like writing words about things most people do)

Have you ever found yourself waking up, and just knowing it was going to be a bad day? Have you ever just felt, like, tired on an existential level and done with things before the sun has even made it above the horizon? Have you ever just dragged yourself through every minute of your day, kicking and screaming? Have you ever listened to your favorite, most high energy song while in this state and…just gotten nothing out of it? This is a problem I have encountered sometimes and I wasn’t really sure how to resolve it for awhile. I had known for some time that I could meditate on an energetic song and kind of get emotional resonance and energy from listening to it, but this was often when I was in a state with high enough energy to want to listen to music. It mostly was increasing a feeling that was already basically there. It was one day when I started feeling this awful that I discovered the useful concept of musical resonance and opted to play something more in line with how I was feeling – slow, spaced out, depressing to a degree, and felt, if not more energetic, at least a little more at peace.

The interesting thing, was, however, the songs I chose after that. I picked a song with a bit more energy, but still in that lowkey territory. Then something that started a bit slow, but got faster and more intense. Then something mid to high intensity. Then something that resonates most strongly with my high energy state…and I discovered that I was in fact in a high energy, fighty state, right where I wanted to be. It turns out, musical resonance can be used to hack your mood, and in turn change the musical resonance to create a more desireable feedback loop. Essentially, if you create a playlist that gently guides your mood from the undesirable state to the desirable state and double down on it, you’ll generally have good control over how you’re feeling as long as you have enough time to do it properly.

The key to designing a playlist like this is largely noticing how you feel when certain songs are particularly resonant, what songs you are drawn to in certain moods, and how certain songs seem to be pulling you mood wise. Track this information, create a chart of songs for your various moods. Pay attention to songs that seem more mixed or universal – these are the most valuable songs because they form good transitions between states. Once you have enough data, you can design lists that guide you from one state to the other, as well as to various intermediaries. In my case, it’s relatively simple because I often round things to “low energy” and “high energy” and most frequently want to be high energy. For others with a bit more nuance, you might have to create more complex lists.

Overall, musical resonance is generally a feedback loop tool – it focuses attention on a given mood and intensifies it. Using it to guide your mood is a little more intensive and takes some time, but can often be worth it if you need to get into a certain state (hence why various playlists for the gym or for interviews often get made). Tracking your states and their relation to music is generally good practice from a systematizing perspective because it can increase ability to optimize reliably. Music in general has a lot of mind space effects that are worth exploring – it’s best to experiment and find out what works for you personally.

Discussion Questions: Have you ever used music to intensify or change an emotion? How well did it work if so? Is there anyone for which music doesn’t seem to affect valence? What is that like? What sorts of mood transitions are most valuable for you?