One of our top principles for self-debugging (to borrow a metaphor from the world of programming and systems analysis) and also for checking out an older system, in the process of blocking our better future is called “defending the suffering”.
Before detailing the implications within the Prosperity Habits System, let’s look at the specific application of this “cognitive fallacy”, which is actually a design feature of the human mind. In the realm of investments or financial decision-making, it is called “the sunk cost fallacy”.
A sunk cost is a cost (some of the set up costs for a business, for example) that once it is made; it cannot be recovered. Time in any endeavor – research on whether a business idea is viable or not, for example – is usually a sunk cost.
You cannot get it back, no matter how much you make if the business succeeds. The profits made are compensation, but the time is still “sunk” and there’s no way to get it back, even if you handed your profits back.
This is different from an economic loss – you buy a new car, and in the moments you drive the car off the lot; you’re car loses value. You can sell the car, but you usually lose some money from what you spent to purchase it. That’s economic loss.
Decision Theory (and much of what passes for the “rationalist agenda”) then parts company from reality. In their theories, up until quite recently, we put our losses behind us and turn smartly and brightly toward the future, taking our lessons with us to improve our results tomorrow.
Except we don’t. That’s not how actual humans behave. So we must watch the theory vanish in a “poof” of reality.
What we often do is try and somehow recoup those losses by carrying the fact that we have invested so heavily, forward into the future, somehow trying to “make a bad ball good” as my high school PE teacher used to repeat while (pointlessly) attempting to teach us to play tennis.
You can’t make a ball that’s already over the line, into one that’s in bounds.
And yet we constantly try to play and replay events, situations, adaptions and robot-programs that were “all over and done” many years ago. Perhaps feeling that we’re somehow “proving” to someone who is no longer present that we are “being good”.
Or maybe we’re persistently ducking and covering to avoid a blow that that we feared was about to fall many years ago but it never does; or keep an argument going so that we can be right… and if there’s no one there, we transform anyone available into our sparring partner; or we address every simple question as if it were a test from long ago; the possibilities and permutations are endless.
But the thing that binds them all is that we have put so much time and so much energy and created so many examples of our conclusions ABOUT that adaptation that the robot treats them as axioms of life that must be defended at all costs.
This is the source for mental stories (particularly the mental stories that seem to be repeated over and over again) and especially the mental stories of why changes in circumstances, situations, and results CANNOT be brought about.
While working on a project a few years ago, I witnessed a number of incidents with a woman who was beyond morbidly obese, who during breaks and lunches, when in social situations, would start conversations with people whom she knew to be dieting or engaging some health improvement scheme (exercise, etc.) about what they were doing.
As they would describe what they were doing, her replies would center around how she couldn’t do that “because…”, and then some kind of “rationale” (narrative) about why she couldn’t, with her statements of belief (?) Conclusions? Evidence? being exclusively irrelevant to anyone who was actively pursuing better health, weight loss, etc., and only relevant to someone who is not organizing their behavior to lose weight and become fitter e.g. “I just don’t have the time to plan ahead like that.”, “Oh God! No potato chips? I couldn’t live that way.”, “I can never find the right clothes to exercise in.”, etc.
She thought she was making sense, when she was only stating that she had organized her mind and behavior in order to avoid losing weight and exercising.
After the fourth time I witnessed this and saw how clearly this pattern worked – as a defense of her present situation (it was overt and “on the surface” of her utterances), and the myriad behaviors and purposes they were seeking, while at the same time it seemed she was not consciously or intentionally playing a game or “running a racket” with the accidental company she was in – she just used these situations as opportunities to reinforce her robot’s mindset, which coincidentally allowed her to carry on exactly as she had been “because…”
It was the perfect demonstration of what I now call “defending the suffering”.
Defending the suffering is any time you choose to divert from choices you have made to better your circumstances or yourself, or talk yourself out of doing what you have decided is a better way… “because…”
Defending the suffering extends to the robot’s nasty diversion tactics when you get close to doing something useful, practical or bettering – “suddenly” feeling the urgent need to get a drink when you are starting to work; “spontaneously” feeling tired just as you are about to begin doing something; “forgetting to remember” to do something; “choosing” to watch just one more re-run episode of “Three’s Company” “Because that Suzanne Summers is a brilliant exemplar of Method Acting…”; “deciding” on the spur of the moment that rather than working you need to go shopping… displacement and distraction activities sit neatly within defending the suffering.
Any attempt to divert taking action for the future now, that has been already been decided on… is defending the suffering.
I can’t start because… “I don’t know what to do…”; “I feel anxious when I try to start…”; “I can’t seem to get going…” – all of these are “robot’s speak” (the “unconscious” making things up that seem real; W.C. Fields’ flask of stimulant and snake) –
All to protect some program, intent, or purpose from the past that wasn’t “closed” properly and so it still runs on autopilot;
All specifically performed to prevent you from moving forward. All usually seeking mercy, or pity, and understanding, and compliance “because…”
Defending the suffering is a clear sign that you need to slow down and deal with that wacky robot, who is pulling some program tricks to make you think that there’s an emergency here.
It’s almost always a charade; almost always non-sense; and almost always some reactive attempt to escape something unpleasant… from long ago… and that actually was over long ago but, for whatever reason, you didn’t shut it down (“Phew! Thank God I never have to deal with those ignorant Bozo’s again!”).
Perhaps, instead, you ran the events over and over again in your mind (“I’m just… thinking about them.” No, you are practicing remembering them over and over, and retriggering off the same damned response, every time) until you got bored… or distracted by some new shiny thing in life… and then suddenly, one day, something similar sets off the well-rehearsed and well-practiced reaction (first law of neurological patterns – biggest cable gets the signal first)… and there you are.
The fear, angst, brow-beating and weltschmerz when faced with a change or plan that seems difficult is often the result of defending the suffering – any element of our map or model of the world, our conclusions about the nature of our potentials based on past experience (“beliefs”, so-called), past traumas or experiences that we reacted to as if they were traumatic – anything and everything can be called in by the robot to make us feel – so sorry for ourselves, so pathetic, so put upon (“Why? Why?? Why???”), or just so plain flustered that “HOW COULD ANYONE EXPECT ME TO…?”
Such is the everyday meat and potatoes of defending the suffering.
Let’s look at the day to day acts of defending the suffering…
The ways through are varied but the simplest is best:
Catch yourself in the act!
It’s so easy to do – it fits right in with what we are doing in the Prosperity Habits System because you know what your outputs are for the day, and you are either doing them or not doing them. Yoda’s law applies – you are doing or not doing. There is no in between.
- Catch yourself in the act “spontaneously NEEDING” to spend time on the internet, when it has nothing to do with what you’ve decided; etc. Anything that is not what you decided.
- Notice exactly what you are feeling in that moment and compare it to the moment before
“I’m now feeling certain and decided. A few minutes ago I was feeling frustrated”
“I’m now feeling happy but a moment ago I was feeling scared about cold calling for work.”
“I’m feeling relaxed but before I was not looking forward to getting out the door.”
- Get back into the feeling of a moment ago. Rethink what you thought and allow yourself to feel it. Like an editor, run through the sequence of thoughts and behaviors and feeling-reactions but in slower motion.
- “Come up” with the clever idea to do something other than what you had decided earlier (what the robot actually did, but now you are doing)… but do it even better than the robot did it
Run through a list of at least 10 other BETTER things you could do to get away from whatever you were feeling before. Make them REALLY good; REALLY exaggerated. Look at what the robot was avoiding and design (think) around it:
For example, Ron a wannabe go-getter:
“Well I felt tired when I thought about going to work, and the possibility of getting stuck in traffic, so I decided to watch an episode of This Old House, and then maybe The Price is Right before I left. I could just get in on time if I got out immediately after that.”
So “I felt tired when I thought about going to work, and the possibility of getting stuck in traffic…” 10 better things than that:
- I could call in sick
- I could take public transport to work and then make myself late… if I stop along the way for a coffee and donut…
- I could bring my Kindle and watch some tv shows on the way
- I could feel tired, and send a few texts to see who’s available to meet at the gym after work, then go to work.
- I can get to work as quickly as possible to check out that new temp…
- I can feel tired and say “why am I worried about what’s going to happen at some point or other anyway?” I can just prepare…
- I can feel tired, imagine that there will be traffic, and then feel tired and imagine there is no traffic… and… can I stop making this list now. I want to go to work. [No, you can’t. You have to keep going to ten.]
- 8. Uhm… I can feel tired and smile anyway because I know I’m going to meet friends for lunch and maybe even after work.
- 9. This is stupid I just want to go to work NOW [Keep going – only one more – make it good.]
- 10. Ah! I was tired because I was thinking of dumb stuff that might happen and feeling bad in advance. I can catch myself in the act of thinking about stuff that hasn’t happened, isn’t happening and I can just choose to feel okay whatever comes up. I can plan to be happy.
[One more thing, Ron – run through earlier this morning, start from thinking about driving to work and getting caught in traffic, feeling tired, but this time take #10 and imagine that’s what you did.]
Basically by coming up with alternatives, and running them without the intention to force the robot/unconscious to do ANYTHING (this is not a brute force change or trying to “create against” what was robotically habituated) – by taking “what came before” as the starting point and consciously taking over the avoidance/distraction purpose, but doing it “better”; you are screwing up the distraction program with regards to whatever had triggered it.
Ron was over-running the trigger-to-the-program with different content. By the time he had made it to #7; he was already “over it” but you need to run the alternative scenarios (options or choices, as it were, now added to the trigger) until there is NO question about distraction/avoidance being a choice.
One last run through of the best alternative, (in Ron’s case, starting from the “problem” of thinking about getting to work but getting stuck in traffic, feeling the unpleasant reaction, but then choosing to think of the other possibilities for traffic, and deciding to be cool whatever eventuates) is like saying “this is the new standard for avoiding feeling bad”.
Your next piece, of course, is then to make that a habit. That’s a topic for another post.
Start with something small and run of the mill defending the suffering. We will work up to robot soap opera and “because…, because…, because…” in a later post.