Debugging and Improving Life

Some days are worse than others, but constantly being in the worse state is no fun at all. What I’m talking about is depression and self-doubt. I’ve seen several friends go through those and this is what I’ve learned over the course of 10+ years. These are the understandings that I’ve used and recommended to friends. This is a programmers take on debugging and improving life.

I’m mainly writing this hoping that it will help someone else as well. If you have something to add to these, I’m keen to learn about them.

Find someone to talk to

It’s one of the most obvious suggestions, but it is the most helpful. But, there are a few caveats:

  1. You should trust the other person. The best is if you are able to tell all of your darkest emotions and fears and thoughts without being judged.
  2. The other person should be capable of listening to your problems. See What Great Listeners Actually Do.
  3. The other person should be impartial.

There are professionals dedicated for this: psychologist and psychiatrists. Go to them, they should know what and how to respond exactly. If you don’t feel comfortable with one, just switch and try another one. Assuming that first one will be a perfect fit is way too optimistic.

A very good friend might work really well, as long as the 3 properties are present. But there is a slight danger of harming your friendship due to the complexity of situations. Impartiality is essential.

One of the most important facts here is that these people cannot fix you. They can guide you and can help you reach a better understanding. In a sense they are a mirror, bringing out your biases and hidden thoughts.

Sometimes just seeing and accepting your bad parts is sufficient to get out of the bad state.

See a doctor

In some cases, the depression is not psychological or related to your daily habits, but rather a physical malfunction. There are plenty of medical conditions where side-effect is depression. Fixing those problems may relieve all depression symptoms. But, even with a physical cause the following tips may improve your state.

You are biased

I guess it’s one of the things you must keep in mind through depression and other intense feelings. You are biased and your brain does not work well and it’s almost impossible to accurately see reality…

All the negative emotions, like “I’m not good enough”, “I cannot go further” are just byproducts of psychological issues. However, I’m not saying the feelings and thoughts aren’t real. Yes, they are very real… but they still are biased.

Yes, “You can go further”, even if your feelings say otherwise. Try to use logic to derive what is happening; it’s not completely accurate, but probably better than your feelings are telling you. Before analyzing, it helps to ground yourself — games work quite effectively here.

The common cognitive distortions are very well discussed on Wikipedia. Read them, understand them and stand in guard.

Similarly, don’t direct your bad emotions towards others, they are not at fault. We all are responsible for our own emotions, no one can adjust them unless we let them… Although, in practice, it’s easier said than done.

Cycles of emotions

It’s easy to come to the conclusion that emotions are just there and you cannot do anything about them. In reality they are a process, they form, intensify and subside. By controlling our behavior we can affect these emotions, to some degree.

With psychologically caused “bad emotions” I’ve found it particularly helpful to view them as a system of cycles each causing different emotions, each interacting with each other. If the emotions are long-lasting, in either “bad” or “good” mode, it must be a stable system.

By stable system I don’t mean that it is good or sustainable. The “stable” part means it has stayed in place for at least 3 months. So what does such a “stable” system look like?

Here’s one of the simplest example I can think of:

  1. Constant demotivation, such as “I’m not good enough”, “I can do more”, “This result isn’t good” etc. This causes a drop in confidence.
  2. To boost confidence, you might try to overcompensate with work or trying to improve things. This in turn causes exhaustion.
  3. This exhaustion can lead to poorer performance and worse results. It also makes it difficult to talk to people. Essentially, it causes confidence drop further.
  4. Then, people might use alcohol or any other destructive behavior to boost the mood. This in turn can lead to more exhaustion or even bigger drop in confidence.

Here we have the oversimplified cycle feeding back on itself holding itself in place. In a sense, each step are quite harmless in isolation, but by being in a stable system, they end up causing depression.

Now in reality the cycles and things are much bigger:

Or more likely, even bigger… however the necessary size will vary from person to person.

The “good” and “bad” can be intermingled and everything is connected. For example, working can be a very good thing, but when it causes overall exhaustion, it means that it will be one of the pieces that is holding “depression” in place.

How can you figure out the cycles.

  1. Try to get yourself in a decent shape — no sleep deprivation, not in highly depressive state. If needed, use anti-depressants.
  2. Be comfortable with pain — i.e. no drinking, no TV, no sex, no food… no nothing that could be part of the cycle. It’s hard to see the whole picture while being controlled by the cycles.
  3. Sit in silence for 1–2 hours doing nothing — this includes no music, TV, or anything that your mind could use to escape.
  4. Then start with the most obvious things, start drawing them out. Note that you should draw all the cycles that are in your life, not just the good or bad ones. Common things (or lack of them) that should be noted are “food”, “alcohol”, “friends”, “family”, “work”, “hobbies”, “sleep”, “common activities”, “relaxing”, “talking with people”, “social media”, “aimless browsing”…
  5. Take your time, you probably cannot do this in a single day, because you haven’t been paying attention all of your habits. Try to build this diagram over time— occasionally restart from scratch if necessary.

This was the easiest part.

Now we need to start understanding how and why they work.

Habit

Each of those small cycles has a particular purpose in your life. Drinking coffee might be comforting and relaxing in the morning, but the side-effect is that you get headaches in the evening. Working a lot may give personal satisfaction in accomplishments, but may also cause exhaustion.

A very good book on how each of these habits work is “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. It discusses 3 distinct parts in each habit:

  1. cue — something that triggers the behavior
  2. routine — the action that you actually do
  3. reward — the result of your routine.

It’s important to realize that each of those steps is affected and affects emotions and our internal state. Understanding the pieces helps to figure out what and how to optimally change things.

Changing Habits

When it comes changing your habits, the first instinct is to just throw it all out together and change all the bad behaviors at once — this is a bad idea for several reasons:

  1. You cannot create a stable system by destroying another system. Destroying means that you won’t build a new system, but it would happen automatically. If you want to move towards a better system, you must transform towards it.
  2. Large changes are really taxing on your will-power and it’s almost impossible to stay on course.
  3. Every local change in the system will cause smaller changes throughout the system. This means that some things might automatically correct them, some new good or bad behaviors may surface. So, a too big of a change may be over-kill.

However, it is possible to use forceful changes: for example by removing memories that cause intense emotions. Such force acts cause the system to go into an unstable state, with unknown results — either something new will emerge or, more likely, old habits will come back. Forceful changes cause a lot of unintended changes — many things are strongly connected in memory. For example, good memories might be blurred together with bad memories. As such, the process is seeing part of your life die. Movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” comes very close to explaining the feeling, although the whole process is less precise.

Now the other forceful change is to shock the system. Essentially, make a big change in your life. This will cause a new system to be formed, but as previously stated, this could be either better or worse. But it does bring out differences from previous system. By combining best of both it would be possible to create a new stable system. In a sense it helps to get a perspective in life.

To change a habit, the usual recommendation is to select a new behavior to replace it, rather than just stop doing it. Nature doesn’t like empty places and if you don’t replace it, you might just end up by getting some other behavior that is just as bad (e.g. you stop drinking alcohol, but start smoking instead.)

The replacement should be a natural fit to replace the previous activity. The cue and the reward should be similar. (e.g. Instead of coffee, you could start drinking tea instead.)

To change the habit, it must be held in place with will-power for at least ~21 days; more is even better. “How to Change a Habit” by Scott H. Young is an excellent and clear guide on how to do it.

Always… always… have backup plans for cases when you are not able to hold the habit in place. For example “when I accidentally drink alcohol, this is what I will do to remedy the consequences and get myself on track”. You may never need them, but when you do, you probably won’t be able to think up a good way to get on track — in such an emotional state it’s difficult to figure out what to do. Having a backup plan means you can avoid further regression.

Balance

One essential part is creating habits that balance out your life. “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz is a really good book on this topic, with lots of good research. You can see the key ideas in The Energy Project. In general it decomposes your energy or power to engage in your life into 4 different aspects:

  1. Physical (health)
  2. Emotional (happiness)
  3. Mental (focus)
  4. Spiritual (purpose)

Each of those “energies” should be exercised, used and renewed. Failing to do so will lead to decreased productivity and state.

The book and their website do a fantastic job explaining this topic, so I don’t think it’s worthwhile to repeat everything here.

A big part of balancing is sleeping well. “Night School” by Richard Wiseman offers an abundance of advice. Sometimes significantly improving your sleep quality can be as simple as getting an humidifier.

I should still highlight the “Physical” part here. Regular exercise can be an effective treatment against depression and improve depression symptoms [1][2]. Yoga and/or mindfulness are very useful here.

If you have trouble with motivation, then games such as Ingress and Pokemon Go may help here. They make you move around and help you keep engaged and focused.

Self Doubt

Self esteem, and its cousins self-doubt, impostor syndrome, can be very destructive in person’s life. It is the thing that can be the root of many bad habits.

One of the major causes of stress in my life was lack of self-esteem… to the extent that I built up my own worth in terms of how people close to me saw me. This of course is not a good approach, since we cannot control other peoples actions. When those people act against us, intentionally or unintentionally, the self-worth can easily crumble.

Fixing self-esteem/self-doubt is about coming to terms with your own self. By comparing ourselves to an unachievable moving standard, we are never able to catch it. As such, it often helps to focus on the every-day process and progress rather than the current result compared to the end-goal.

Freeing yourself from the “Impostor Syndrome” is about realizing that every other person in the world shares similar feelings. They have their own self-doubts, needs, wishes, hopes and goals. Unfortunately, we don’t see other person’s inner feelings and how they affect that person…

I like to imagine every person being pulled by big invisible hands in several directions, since it is the way our feelings works.

It helps to think that everyone who was great at something was, at some point in life, terrible at it. Even now they might be terrible at some things. Or might have ideas how to improve themselves at that thing…

At some point I was so ashamed and afraid of being found out as a bad-piano-player, while I was improvising music such as this. I’ve also had similar feelings about my drawings. Eventually, when I accepted and fully embraced that I have always ways to improve, I stopped constantly comparing myself to the greats. Once I stopped comparing myself to unachievable ideals, I started seeing how my music affected people… I realized I don’t have to be perfect; sometimes the imperfections can even give more character to the music. I still can hear my mistakes and know how I can improve, but they are not bringing me down.

In a sense, stop trying to evaluate your worth against other people’s accomplishments or your own ideals. You are here and now, and you are always making the best decisions you can at this very moment, with your current knowledge.

“The Charisma Myth” by Olivia Fox Cabane has an excellent chapter on it and exercises on how to overcome it.

Purpose

One of the driving forces in our lives is purpose. Why we do what we do and why we get up in the morning. “The Power of Story” by Jim Loehr is an excellent book on this topic.

Figuring out where you want your life-story to go is probably one of the best things for helping to select things that you do. Of course, your life is ahead of you and when your life changes and improves, so will your purpose and actions. It’s helpful to visit this topic once in a while.

One of the best questions in the book was:

What would you like to have written on your tombstone?

Such deep and stressing questions can be very provocative and bring out your true values in life.

For me, I realized there were few ideas:

  • He made people smile.
  • He taught me something valuable.
  • He created something beautiful.

I’m not sure how to merge them into a single whole and how to make it read beautifully… but I guess, the exact wording is less important than the actual meaning.

As such, I stopped feeling guilty about “wasting time” in forums answering random people’s questions. Teaching is something I truly enjoy, so until I go back to university or school to teach; it’s probably a good substitute.

Finding purpose may not be easy and may take time, but when you do… your life starts to make more sense.


That’s it

Well, I really don’t know what else to say other than:

I’m not saying this will be easy.
I’m not saying this will be hard.
But, it will definitely take time and effort.

Every week a little better and every year better. There will be worse days there will be better weeks… one thing I can guarantee, the process won’t be stable. You will be moving between unstable and stable feelings, since it’s essential to move to a temporarily unstable state to make any progress.


Recommended Materials:

Now I’m not saying these are the best books for you, people vary… but these books have decent amount of actual research backing them, compared to the usual “self-help” books.

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