The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray.
– Oscar Wilde
A while back I read a book called Real-Time Relationships, by Stefan Molyneux. It’s a book about creating relationships that are healthy, enjoyable, loving, and virtuous. The author hosts a philosophy podcast called Freedomain Radio, which deals with everything from overcoming procrastination and how to be a good parent, to the ethics of taxation and philosophical analyses of current events.
This article is not a review of the book, so I’ll avoid any comments on its read-worthiness as a whole. But I would like to share with you an extract that forever changed the way I look at things. It’s a quote from the book that concisely summarizes what the whole thing is about:
The Real-Time Relationship (RTR) is based on two core principles, designed to liberate both you and others in your communication with each other:
1. Thoughts precede emotions.
2. Honesty requires that we communicate our thoughts and feelings, not our conclusions.
Molyneux’s point is that so much of the negative communication in relationships arises because we treat feelings as facts, and tend to skip over the thoughts that underly those feelings. This results in arguments that are, in essence, based on mythology.
So let’s say one day Alice says to her husband Bob:
You’re so lazy! You never help around the house!
This is an example of communicating a conclusion — that Bob is lazy — rather than communicating just her thoughts and feelings. It is not necessarily true that Bob is lazy. Perhaps he doesn’t help clean up after dinner because he assumes that, since he cooked dinner, the cleaning task should naturally fall to Alice. Or maybe he left washing the dishes to Alice because he did the vacuuming earlier in the day.
Alice calling Bob “lazy” bypasses these possibilities. It’s a conclusion derived from anger, rather than an honest deployment of what she’s experiencing on the inside. A more sincere approach would be for her to tell Bob that she feels frustrated because he left her to do the dishes, which makes her feel disrespected, makes her think that Bob doesn’t care, and so on.
Replacing the name-calling with an accurate testimony of what it made her feel opens the door for Bob to address those feelings. On the one hand, it might make Bob realize that he really is lazy, and if he cares about his partner he better work on that. On the other hand, he has a chance to clarify a misunderstanding. He could talk to Alice about how he assumed that since he cooked dinner, he thought it was okay if he left the clean up to her.
Whether that division of labour is something they can both accept is a separate issue. The point is that communicating with integrity requires describing your thoughts and feelings, not rushing to conclusions about what’s really going on.
In my experience, the Real-Time Relationship is an excellent model not only for productive communication between two people, but also for communicating with yourself. In particular, it’s a powerful tool for dealing with negative emotions.
Let’s revisit those two core principles of the RTR, to see how they apply to dealing with one’s own negativity:
- Thoughts precede emotions. Emotions, in and of themselves, tell you nothing about the facts of reality. Feeling hopeless about your chances of meeting an amazing girl does not actually mean that you have no hope of meeting an amazing girl. And just because losing that game damaged your confidence so much that you feel like you’ll never win again does not mean you actually will never win again.
- Honesty requires that we communicate our thoughts and feelings, not our conclusions. The best way to deal with negative emotions — which are often negative conclusions we’ve come to about ourselves — is to examine the thoughts and feelings behind them.
For example, I have always had a fear of losing. As a chess player during my teenage years, this fear surfaced in the form of offering draws to higher rated players when I had a clearly better position. Other times it just kept me out of tournaments altogether: by not playing, I guaranteed not losing.
Recently that fear resurfaced when I started playing go (a board game invented in China 4,000 years ago.) One particular loss a few weeks ago was particularly hard to swallow. I was a solid 50 points ahead in the game, and my opponent was ready to resign. But my follow through was so terrible that he ended up beating me by about 50 points instead.
I don’t mind when I lose because my opponent just outplayed me, but I get really frustrated when I outplay myself. And after this particular loss, my confidence was deeply shaken: How the hell could I play so badly? Why did I try to get so fancy? It’s impossible to blow a lead that big. If anything I had to congratulate myself for being able to fail so spectacularly.
And on it went, to the point that I wondered whether I should just quit playing altogether. What was the point of all the studying I was doing if I was just going to blow games like that? How would I regain my confidence to actually win a won position? Would I ever even win another game again?
Challenging Negative Thoughts
When you start thinking negative thoughts like this, don’t try to ignore them. If you’ve ever tried to repress negative feelings you know that it just doesn’t work. If anything, it amplifies them. Further, trying to stamp out bad feelings gives you no actionable way out of that state. There are underlying premises, beliefs, and assumptions about you and the world around you that have led you to feeling that way, and those need to be addressed.
So the way out of negative emotional loops is not to ignore them, subdue them, or even “just let them be there”, but to challenge them. Confront the negative self-talk directly and identify exactly why you feel that way. Extract the thoughts that precede the emotions.
Returning to my go example, I knew I loved the game and I had no intention of actually giving it up, so I forced myself to figure out how to better handle major upsets like the one I’d just endured. I did that by taking a close look at the thoughts that were going through my head. Here are some examples:
- How could I play so badly? Easy: by making mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. When a doctor makes a mistake, he might kill someone and/or get sued. When a computer programmer makes a mistake, it might lead to a huge security flaw in his software. When an investor makes a mistake, she might lose a few million bucks. And when a go player makes a mistake, he loses a game of go.
- How could I lose such a won position? Because deserving to win is not the same as winning. And by the way, this probably won’t be the last time you blow such a big lead. This is more like “the first major screw up of the rest of your (go playing) life.” But the more it happens, the better you’ll learn to deal with it.
- Will I ever win again? Erm, seriously? Do you really think that if you play another five or ten thousand games you’re going to lose all of them? Do you really think that if you spend a couple hours a day studying and playing go, and constantly seek out opportunities to learn from stronger players, that you’re going to be the same strength in five years from now that you are today? Not. Likely.
The more I cranked up the resolution on my thoughts, the more I realized how silly they were. Sure, I still fear losing and I still hate blowing won positions, but challenging those feelings and forcing myself to reveal the thinking behind them has greatly diminished their control over my actions. And they no longer threaten my continued enjoyment of the game.
I’ve intentionally given a rather tame example here of course, but I use these same principles to confront all kinds of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. I have the same kinds of worries about my writing, my consulting work, my health, my relationships, etc., and I’ve found this process to be extremely helpful for putting things in perspective.
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