The Feedback Loop From Hell
This is an excerpt from my new book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.
There’s an insidious quirk to your brain that, if you let it, can drive you absolutely batty. Tell me if this sounds familiar to you:
You get anxious about confronting somebody in your life. That anxiety cripples you and you start wondering why you’re so anxious. Now you’re becoming anxious about being anxious. Oh no! Doubly anxious! Now you’re anxious about your anxiety, which is causing more anxiety. Quick, where’s the whiskey?
Or let’s say you have an anger problem. You get pissed off at the stupidest, most inane stuff, and you have no idea why. And the fact that you get pissed off so easily starts to piss you off even more. And then, in your petty rage, you realize that being angry all the time makes you a shallow and mean person, and you hate this; you hate it so much that you get angry at yourself. Now look at you: you’re angry at yourself getting angry about being angry. Fuck you, wall. Here, have a fist.
Or you’re so worried about doing the right thing all the time that you become worried about how much you’re worrying. Or you feel so guilty for every mistake you make that you begin to feel guilty about how guilty you’re feeling. Or you get sad and alone so often that it makes you feel even more sad and alone just thinking about it.
Welcome to the Feedback Loop from Hell. Chances are you’ve engaged in it more than a few times. Maybe you’re engaging in it right now: “God, I do the Feedback Loop all the time—I’m such a loser for doing it. I should stop. Oh my God, I feel like such a loser for calling myself a loser. I should stop calling myself a loser. Ah, fuck! I’m doing it again! See? I’m a loser! Argh!”
Calm down, amigo. Believe it or not, this is part of the beauty of being human. Very few animals on earth have the ability to think cogent thoughts to begin with, but we humans have the luxury of being able to have thoughts about our thoughts. So I can think about watching Miley Cyrus videos on YouTube, and then immediately think about what a sicko I am for wanting to watch Miley Cyrus videos on YouTube. Ah, the miracle of consciousness!
Now here’s the problem: Our society today, through the wonders of consumer culture and hey-look-my-life-is-cooler-than-yours social media, has bred a whole generation of people who believe that having these negative experiences—anxiety, fear, guilt, etc.—is totally not okay. I mean, if you look at your Facebook feed, everybody there is having a fucking grand old time. Look, eight people got married this week! And some sixteen-year-old on TV got a Ferrari for her birthday. And another kid just made two billion dollars inventing an app that automatically delivers you more toilet paper when you run out.
Meanwhile, you’re stuck at home flossing your cat. And you can’t help but think your life sucks even more than you thought.
The Feedback Loop from Hell has become a borderline epidemic, making many of us overly stressed, overly neurotic, and overly self-loathing.
Back in Grandpa’s day, he would feel like shit and think to himself, “Gee whiz, I sure do feel like a cow turd today. But hey, I guess that’s just life. Back to shoveling hay.”
But now? Now if you feel like shit for even five minutes, you’re bombarded with 350 images of people totally happy and having amazing fucking lives, and it’s impossible to not feel like there’s something wrong with you.
It’s this last part that gets us into trouble. We feel bad about feeling bad. We feel guilty for feeling guilty. We get angry about getting angry. We get anxious about feeling anxious. What is wrong with me?
This is why not giving a fuck is so key. This is why it’s going to save the world. And it’s going to save it by accepting that the world is totally fucked and that’s all right, because it’s always been that way, and always will be.
By not giving a fuck that you feel bad, you short-circuit the Feedback Loop from Hell; you say to yourself, “I feel like shit, but who gives a fuck?” And then, as if sprinkled by magic fuck-giving fairy dust, you stop hating yourself for feeling so bad.
George Orwell said that to see what’s in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle. Well, the solution to our stress and anxiety is right there in front of our noses, and we’re too busy watching porn and advertisements for ab machines that don’t work, wondering why we’re not banging a hot blonde with a rocking six-pack, to notice.
We joke online about “first-world problems,” but we really have become victims of our own success. Stress-related health issues, anxiety disorders, and cases of depression have skyrocketed over the past thirty years, despite the fact that everyone has a flat-screen TV and can have their groceries delivered. Our crisis is no longer material; it’s existential, it’s spiritual. We have so much fucking stuff and so many opportunities that we don’t even know what to give a fuck about anymore.
Because there’s an infinite amount of things we can now see or know, there are also an infinite number of ways we can discover that we don’t measure up, that we’re not good enough, that things aren’t as great as they could be. And this rips us apart inside.
Because here’s the thing that’s wrong with all of the “How to Be Happy” shit that’s been shared eight million times on Facebook in the past few years—here’s what nobody realizes about all of this crap:
The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.
This is a total mind-fuck. So I’ll give you a minute to unpretzel your brain and maybe read that again: Wanting positive experience is a negative experience; accepting negative experience is a positive experience. It’s what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as “the backwards law”—the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place. The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make. The more you desperately want to be sexy and desired, the uglier you come to see yourself, regardless of your actual physical appearance. The more you desperately want to be happy and loved, the lonelier and more afraid you become, regardless of those who surround you. The more you want to be spiritually enlightened, the more self-centered and shallow you become in trying to get there.
It’s like this one time I tripped on acid and it felt like the more I walked toward a house, the farther away the house got from me. And yes, I just used my LSD hallucinations to make a philosophical point about happiness. No fucks given.
As the existential philosopher Albert Camus said (and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t on LSD at the time): “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
Or put more simply:
Now, I know what you’re saying: “Mark, this is making my nipples all hard, but what about the Camaro I’ve been saving up for? What about the beach body I’ve been starving myself for? After all, I paid a lot of money for that ab machine! What about the big house on the lake I’ve been dreaming of? If I stop giving a fuck about those things—well, then I’ll never achieve anything. I don’t want that to happen, do I?”
So glad you asked.
Ever notice that sometimes when you care less about something, you do better at it? Notice how it’s often the person who is the least invested in the success of something that actually ends up achieving it? Notice how sometimes when you stop giving a fuck, everything seems to fall into place?
What’s with that?
What’s interesting about the backwards law is that it’s called “backwards” for a reason: not giving a fuck works in reverse. If pursuing the positive is a negative, then pursuing the negative generates the positive. The pain you pursue in the gym results in better all-around health and energy. The failures in business are what lead to a better understanding of what’s necessary to be successful. Being open with your insecurities paradoxically makes you more confident and charismatic around others. The pain of honest confrontation is what generates the greatest trust and respect in your relationships. Suffering through your fears and anxieties is what allows you to build courage and perseverance.
Seriously, I could keep going, but you get the point. Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.