How to Handle Difficult Emotions

Advice from a Successful Former Mental Patient

I believe I am well qualified to write this article. I’ve had my share of unpleasant emotions: I have been hospitalized for depression and psychosis a total of five times. I spent a few years addicted to marijuana, and for a period of time I was taking a cocktail of five medications a day. Three of those hospitalizations were in December 2012 and January 2013, after three months of consistently hearing voices and experiencing a terrifying psychotic episode.

Me in late 2012. 3 days after being released from a mental hospital in Texas.

I overcame that experience: I’m now happy married, I no longer use drugs, and I’m gainfully employed at Facebook. I have mostly worked my way out of the large amount of debt I acquired while I was addicted to drugs and struggling every day with difficult emotions.

I am both bipolar and autistic, and I still experience difficult emotions on a regular basis — perhaps more than most people do — but I have found a way of dealing with them so that they are no longer a serious problem in my life — only an occasional experience from which I ultimately benefit.

Me today, happier and healthier.

I want to share this method with people, both because it has helped me, and because I believe our society as a whole is poor at dealing with difficult emotions — and as a result, we have trouble fixing some of the most stubborn issues of our time, such as racism, sexism, homophobia and a general distrust of people who are different from us.

Step 1: Calm Down

The first step is the most important. Fortunately, it’s also the easiest to work on. Pavlovian conditioning works wonders here; if you create a stimulus that you associate with calm, you can use the stimulus when you’re upset, and it will calm you down. You can practice meditation, sitting calmly, breathing deeply, and repeating the mantra “May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be calm. May I be free from doubt an worry. May I be well.”

It almost works like a battery. By performing an action repeatedly while you are calm, your body associates the action with calm. You charge the battery up. Just as faking a smile can make you happier, repeating a calming ritual will calm you down even when you’re very worked up — it’s like you’ve stored calm before, and now you’re accessing it.

When you are calm, you can think more clearly, and you can discard worries that are not relevant to the current situation. I am writing this on a flight for work, where I am sitting business class. I felt guilty for being treated so well, and imagined a homeless person asking for money, telling me that I didn’t deserve to be so comfortable. I felt unpleasant and upset that I didn’t know how to respond. In the past, this experience would have caused me intense stress. I would think about whether I was a bad person or why the world was so unfair. Today, because I can calm myself down from almost anything, this scenario was simple for me to resolve. I told myself that my ability to plan for a specific future scenario is basically zero, and that the appropriate response would come to me should the situation arise.

Being calm in any situation is a superpower. If you are the only one in the room who is calm, and everyone else is freaking out — you’re either already the leader, or you will be soon.

Being calm doesn’t mean “there is no problem” — it just means that the problem is better dealt with by someone who is calm.

I discovered the power of calm while in a hospital bed, awaiting intake to a mental hospital after an intense psychotic episode. It was late 2012 and I thought the universe had ended. I was pretty sure I was dead, which I felt guilty about, but I didn’t think it was my fault that the universe defined itself in terms of me, so I — a 27 year old man — lay on my back in the hospital bed and laughed while pedaling an imaginary bicycle, to signal to the universe that I knew this was all a dream.

A security guard came over, with a name tag that said ‘Mohammed.’ In the weeks which lead up to that episode, I had formed an elaborate narrative about how the world worked, which combined all the major religions into a bigger, meaningful struggle, and in this wild internal narrative, Islam was heavily associated with computing and time travel. Mohammed looked me in the eye, and said earnestly, “You need to calm down.”

“I am afraid of what will happen when my parents die,” I told him.

“I am too,” he said. He looked left and right, as if the time travel machine would only hold up so long, and the armies of former terrorists running towards the souls of dead marines, offering coolers of Bud Light with cries of “Allahu Akbar” would soon fail — and he said “I’m scared, too. But it’s so important to remain calm. Can you do that?”

I could see right there how important this was. Being able to calm down in any situation has been extremely helpful to me, and I’m sure it’ll help you, too.

Step 2: Find the False Belief

This was the hardest part of my approach for me to learn. When I felt intense emotions in the past, the intensity of my emotional response convinced me that I must be right. I think most people are the same way. The idea that an intense emotional response could be invalid made me very upset.

The areas a person feels intensely about tend to be the areas in which they are most unwilling to change their opinions. I know I was this way. Studying math, and repeatedly being shown that my intuition was wrong — and then working as a programmer, where I routinely had the experience of suspecting the problem was X, running a test, and finding out that the problem was not X — lead me to become extremely comfortable doubting my intuition.

We tend to think of being wrong as painful. There are good reasons for this. A helpful book about practical neuroscience — “Your Brain at Work” presented an acronym for the things that generate a positive emotional signal. They are:

  • Social Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

Being wrong about something hurts your status — it’s embarrassing to admit you are wrong. It hurts certainty, because a truth you depended on is now known to be false. Core beliefs are even harder to change — because if you wrong about X, what else that is central to your experience could you be wrong about? It can hurt relatedness if all of your family and friends believe something which isn’t true. Imagine being the only one of your friends who thinks there’s nothing wrong with being gay. Do you see how hard it would be to change your mind if you’ll feel cut off from your friends and family? Being wrong can even hurt your sense of fairness — if you believe the world is fair, you’re not going to want to admit to yourself any evidence to the contrary.

I believe people willfully delude themselves because they can’t handle the pain of being wrong. It is painful to admit you have been wrong — and so I try my best not to be angry at people who believe things I know are false, because I know they must be suffering. I’ve been there myself.

The one thing being wrong gives you — and it gives you this in a big way — is the chance to increase your autonomy. You only get to increase your ability to act of your own volition if you accept that you have a false belief, and work to change it.

I believe in the Truth. I know that the Truth exists, and I try to align my beliefs towards the Truth, but I can tell you with certainty now — there are things I believe which must be false. It would be absurd to believe otherwise.

Because I believe in the Truth — and I always believe I must be wrong about something, I am happy to find out a belief of mine is wrong, because now it means I’m closer to the Truth. Life is much better for me now that I’m totally willing to change my beliefs if they don’t line up with evidence — or if they are making me feel horrible.

I can imagine here all kinds of objections from a typical reader. Suppose my mother dies? Won’t I feel sad? Won’t that feel awful? How does that awful feeling stem from a false belief?

The false belief in that case is simple — I believe my Mother will be around forever. Of course, I don’t explicitly believe this — but my actions and the way I conduct my internal mental affairs suggest that I really do believe it. So in other words, I can say “I believe my mother will die some day”, but I may very well be deceiving myself about the extent to which i actually have internalized this fact.

I call my parents almost every day. This is a habit that started when I was struggling, but I’ve kept with it because I like having that relationship with them, and because I know, logically, that they will die some day, and I would like to get as much knowledge from them as I can.

So If my mother dies, and I feel miserable an unable to console myself and angry at the world — I know exactly what false belief it is that lead me to feel this way now — the false belief that my parents will be around forever. This belief is not something I or almost anyone explicitly tells themselves — and yet it’s how most of us act.

There are times I will sit down and be thrilled that society works, that I can walk up to the counter at a coffee shop and order a cup of coffee. That’s an amazingly beneficial attitude and perspective to have, a buffer against the mindset that acclimates itself to goodness and then tunes it out. I’m even thrilled to be on earth because it’s a good healthy place for humans to be! We’ve got a stable atmosphere, so we don’t have to recycle oxygen! How awesome is that? When was the last time you felt gratitude for the atmosphere existing?

There is a feast of wonderful goods before all of us, but most of us are missing out because we think the way things are is the way they’ll always be. When life doesn’t go the way I want it to, I can usually remember that I’m like a tremendously spoiled kid whining at a birthday party because I didn’t get what I wanted. Most people don’t consider themselves blessed that the cop didn’t shoot them or ask for a bribe or sexually harass them — they’re just upset about the ticket.

If you’ve never done this before, it will be difficult. It’s not easy to feel upset, and immediately turn to the thought — “I must be wrong about something “— but I can tell you it has worked wonders for me. Instead of being angry that the child next to me is crying, I remind myself that children cry, that’s what they do, and it’s a way of expressing need. I can replace anger at the malfunctioning noise generator next to me, with compassion for the being that suffers.

Think of it this way: when you burn your hand on a hot stove, the pain itself is not the problem. The pain is a signal that something is wrong. Emotional pain works the same way — the pain itself is not the problem; it’s just a signal of the actual problem — a false belief.

The false belief — that this baby is not suffering — is what caused me to suffer. In a way, it’s like crying is the baby’s way of saying “hey, I can’t take this suffering — can you take a bit for me?” And I can either say, “Sure, I am older and wiser and more capable and happy to put up with you crying,” or I can just grumble to myself.

Step 3 (ongoing): Stop Believing So Much

The experience of mania and psychosis come from intense belief in something. I avoid these by simply not believing intensely in anything. If it’s really true, It’ll be true whether I believe it or not.

Consider a scale, with -1 representing “certain belief in not X”, 1 representing “belief in x”, and 0 representing ignorance. Most people will assign the values -1, 0, or 1 to different claims. Statements they agree with get the value 1. Statements they disagree with get the value -1. “Changing your mind” on a statement means going between one of these three values. This is just my experience talking here; I could easily be wrong. I know I used to be this way, and most adults I talk to seem to be doing this, although I could easily be reading them incorrectly.

Here is how I used to organize statements in my mind:

How I used to organize statements in my mind. I believe most people do it this way.

This ternary way of thinking was destructive for me. The way I do things now is very different. It’s like there’s an asterisk by everything I believe — see store for details. It looks more like this:

I think of all kinds of claims on a regular basis. Some are just things other people have said. Others are ideas from stories I’ve heard. Others are random ideas I come up with on my own. Often they are metaphors — I’ll see system A as being somewhat analogous to system B , and the stronger the analogy, the more stock I put into the claim that the analogy is valid.

When one of these claims is contradicted by my experience, it moves a bit to the left. When a claim is corroborated by my experience, it moves a bit to the right. It would be extremely difficult for any claim to get past the halfway point, simply because I still sometimes think this is all a movie, or a dream, or a video game, or an elaborate lesson from a massive artificial intelligence. Unlike before, I keep these to myself, just as internal hypotheses. If one of the claims says “hey hey, it’s super important that you believe me”, it gets moved to the left — nothing is so important that you must absolutely believe it. So I still sometimes consider — “Maybe this is all just an elaborate video game.” Unlike before, however, that doesn’t lead to “I’d better go tell everyone I know.”

Actively believing a falsehood is far more destructive than being skeptical of something that’s true. I would much rather doubt a truth than believe a falsehood.

When you stop believing so many claims about the world, it becomes far easier to modify your internal hypotheses in light of new data. Moving a dot from the far right (total belief) to the far left (total disbelief) is a lot bigger of a change than shifting the dot a few pixels to the left.

Maybe these tips seem strange to you; I wouldn’t be surprised. It took me a long time to start seeing the world the way I do now; it only happened because the old way just stopped working. I could not make sense of the world the way everyone else seemed to be doing it — the ideas that lead to this method were difficult to think through, but they have definitely helped me. I hope they can help you, too.

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