Nothing to see here

(Except when there is)

See the Change You Wish to Be

by Niklas Haas on March 8, 2020

Tagged as: mental health, personal.

Something interesting I’ve come to realize over the past few weeks of introspection and (renewed) therapy is the importance of understanding just how the human brain learns best: by imitation. Monkey see, monkey do. Most of our personalities are formed by our childhood brains automatically trying to imitate our only reference points for how humans are supposed to behave (i.e. our parents), and those of us with personality disorders are obligated to un-learn these behavioral and thought patterns by acquiring new reference points.

As such, the most important step of any therapeutic process is to first identify what your personal ideals are and what you wish to stand for, and once you’ve identified them, actively seek out people who represent your ideals and spend time interacting with them. You will learn by osmosis, and by imitation. Cutting out “toxic influences” from your life means realizing that spending time with people who reinforce your own maladaptive survival instincts will only drag you down in the end. (Note: This doesn’t mean the people themselves are somehow innately toxic: just that the dynamic between you is toxic. In other words, their very presence reinforces an interaction pattern you wish to break.)

It’s sometimes said that our own behavior is basically an amalgamation of the small handful of people we spend the most time interacting with. While there is definitely some aspect of selection bias here (i.e. we tend to seek out and thus interact more with people who behave similarly to us a priori), this is, I feel, complemented by the reinforcement effect that people have on us. Whether consciously or not, somebody we respect acting a certain way gives us the validation and inspiration we need to act that way ourselves. We’re social creatures and our herd instincts cause us to adapt to the people around us, no matter what those surroundings are.

When trying to battle addiction, for example, one of the most important and difficult steps is actively cutting people out of your life who are trapped in the same addiction, in particular if they either downplay it or glorify it. It can mean completely alienating yourself from society even further, only to rebuild a new support network and a new friend network from scratch. This is where therapeutic clinics and especially self-help groups come into play, and also where many “online support forums” tend to fall down. Promoting an atmosphere of depression (or even maladaptive coping mechanisms) only reinforces everybody’s depression. It can be an important stabilizing effect for people who are at rock bottom, because it’s these online forums where I first realized I was not alone. I first started gaining some self-acceptance and social validation. Despite this, it’s important not to stay stuck in this trap. Social media is just another addiction, and “depression memes” are toxic influences I had to learn to cut out from my life. They reinforce a pattern of thinking in problems rather than solutions, focusing on the past instead of the future, and being envious of what you’re missing rather than grateful for what you have.

I would also like to point out that the other big important factor in human learning is that rewards motivate us more than punishment. What this means for the context of choosing your friend network is that it’s important to distinguish between people who you want to make proud, and people who you don’t want to disappoint. While there is obviously some overlap between the two, fear of disappointment is a worse path to success, because it puts you under immense pressure. A good friend will catch you even when you make a mistake, and continue motivating you to fix those mistakes; rather than let you drop the moment you slip up. This is where therapists come into play. I think the most important aspect of therapy, for me, is to make sure my therapist is somebody I want to make proud; but who will nonetheless accept my flaws when I fall down. There’s a reason that therapists are said to emulate the healthy parent/partner dynamic - they replace both the healthy support and the unconditional love that we should have gotten from our parents (and thus grow up desiring from our partners). Gentle pressure works better than tough love. (Which, incidentally, is why women are measurably more successful as therapists)

Anyway, the bottom line is to choose wisely who you wish to spend your time with.