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#53: The Law of Unintended Consequences

#53: The Law of Unintended Consequences

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Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that intends all of its consequences. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you be a slightly less awful human being. This week, we’re talking about 1) the law of unintended consequences, 2) meta-feelings and being ashamed of shame 3) a 2020 mental health update. 

Let’s get into it. 

1. The Law of Unintended Consequences – Long-time MFM readers will remember that when I kicked this newsletter off last year, one of the first things I wrote about was something I called “The Nuclear Power Effect.” I described it as a situation where the “solution” to something really scary is subtly more damaging than the scary thing itself. In the case of nuclear power, it turns out that shutting down reactors increases reliance on fossil fuels which actually harms and kills far more people than any nuclear meltdown ever would (not to mention, it fucks the environment). 

Back in those halcyon days of the newsletter (ah, we were so young and innocent then, weren’t we?) I asked readers for more examples of this “effect.” Lots of great ideas popped up—counterterrorism, driving instead of flying, shark attacks, etc. 

In honor of the newsletter’s first birthday, I decided to whip up an article about this “nuclear power effect”—situations where the apparent solution fucks everything up way worse than the original problem. 

This is often referred to as  “The Law of Unintended Consequences”—situations where the solution ends up being far worse than the original problem. I came across tons of examples of how this can happen in our daily lives—in our careers, finances, relationships, etc. The piece ended up being one of my favorite articles I’ve written in a long time. Check it out: 

Read: The Law of Unintended Consequences (or read it on the iOS app)

2. Meta-Feelings (or Being Ashamed of Being Ashamed) – Last week, I published an article challenging the conventional self-help notions about shame. I argued that shame, while it has the potential to royally screw us up emotionally, exists for pro-social reasons and is probably impossible to completely eradicate within ourselves. 

Unsurprisingly, a number of readers pushed back against that, most with an argument about the differentiation between shame and guilt. Shame is hating who you are. Guilt is hating what you’ve done. All feelings of shame should therefore instead be interpreted as guilt and then the feelings of guilt can be resolved through some combination of corrected action, forgiveness, compassion, etc. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, this sounds wonderful in theory. But I’ve come to believe that it’s simply not possible in practice. 

A few issues: 

  • Not all sources of shame are actions. I can be ashamed of my family members, my socio-economic status, my propensity to eat when I’m nervous, or the way my legs strangely curve outward even when I’m standing entirely straight. 

  • Not all shame is rational or even conscious. In fact, most of it is not. It’s hard to uproot what is so abstract that you hardly even realize it’s there.  

  • Like all emotions, shame adheres to the Backwards Law—i.e., the desire to rid yourself of shame is itself a subtle form of shame. The idea that you should possess no shame and come to accept yourself fully and completely is itself a failure to accept yourself fully and completely.

Years ago, I wrote an article where I discussed something I called “meta-feelings.” If you feel happy, that’s a feeling. If you feel bad about feeling happy, that is a meta-feeling. Generally, we can never change our feelings. What we can change is our meta-feelings.

So here’s the real issue with shame: some of it simply doesn’t go away no matter what you do. This is particularly true of survivors of sexual trauma or child abuse. The traumatic event physically alters the brain in such a way that these feelings of inferiority or undeservedness are “baked into” our psyche to a certain extent.

Therefore, the solution is not to remove the feeling (hint: the solution is pretty much never to remove the feeling, no matter what it is), but rather to master the meta-feeling. So, don’t try to remove the shame. Rather, master the way you judge and interpret the shame. That’s where the healing is. 

A beautiful example of this recently occurred on Tim Ferriss’ hugely popular podcast. Tim’s work has traditionally focused on optimizing external, material achievement. But a few weeks ago, he recorded an episode with author and sexual abuse survivor, Debbie Millman. It was there that he then revealed for the first time publicly, that he, too, was a sexual abuse survivor. 

What ensued was an incredibly honest and powerful conversation about shame and trauma, the limits of therapy, and various attempts to cope and heal. It’s a powerful listen. Yet, what stands out in both of their stories is their understanding that this doesn’t go away. That as long as you’re fighting or fleeing the feelings, the feelings will always win. 

It’s only on the battlefield of the meta-feelings—determining the meaning of the feelings; the feelings about the feelings—that you have some chance of liberation.

So, I stand by the shame article. There are things about myself of which I am ashamed. I do not expect those feelings to go away for the simple reason that I have little control over them. But what I do control is my ability to accept and appreciate my own shame as I’ve come to accept and appreciate the other parts of myself. And that’s what I strive to do. 

3. Mental health in a pandemic world – Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s lighten things up a little bit and talk about suicide. We’ve now been living with the pandemic long enough to get some useful data on how the state of the world is affecting people’s mental health and the results are, uh… not good. 

The CDC did a survey over the summer asking 5,400 Americans if they had considered suicide in the past month. Nearly twice as many people said “yes” as did in 2018. Particularly horrifying is the fact that a quarter of respondents between the ages of 18-24 reported suicidal thoughts. 

Another new paper, based on an older data-set from the Spring, says that suicidal ideation is up, particularly among low-income individuals and people who lost their jobs this year. This is no surprise since one of the strongest predictors of suicide is economic loss and financial insecurity. Interestingly, though, this paper is the only one I know of that mentions loneliness as a significant factor, as well. 

Another paper, based on the same data-set as above, looks at self-reported feelings of depression. It concludes that feelings of depression are three times higher than in previous years. Once again, financial insecurity was the top factor. 

Despite being incredibly sad, I suppose none of this should be that surprising. Generally, under any economic downturn/recession, you see spikes in suicide, depression and mental health issues. That is, unfortunately, nothing new. We know losing your job and your savings takes people to a dark place. But what’s more interesting to me is how much of this is borne out of social isolation, lack of mobility or autonomy, and just straight-up boredom. But that’s hard to know. 

Regardless, I invite you to challenge yourself this week to reach out to someone, particularly if they are struggling. Check in on them. See how they’re doing. Listen. You never know, it could make a difference. 

Until next week, stay healthy. And stay sane.