Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen by Hannah Howard Review

This book belongs to that dying coming-of-age-in-NYC-uber-honest-personal-essay-featuring-tampons-vomit-and-DMCs genre.

It’s also sweet and embarrassingly relatable for millennials.

The best things about this book is Hannah’s startling honestly. Not even so much when it comes to her devastating eating disorder, but how she feels about men and work. You kind of wonder if some of it was made up to protect the identities of the people involved. It’s preciously revelatory and confessional. You can feel the anguish.

It’s certainly readable, but I cannot honestly say I am a fan of the style. Some of it is beautifully descriptive. Parts are repetitive. Everything shines like the moon. Hannah is preoccupied with the sensations in her toes. 

The descriptions of food can be wonderful, but at times it seems like she ran out of paper and had to write her shopping list in her personal diary.

Other times, the detail seems unnecessary. For example, she cooks Irish oats. I effin love Irish oats. But frankly, they are not that different to good oats from anywhere else in the world. Why mention that they are Irish? To show your level of pickiness? Sophistication? But surely, oats are just oats – and anyone who cares about food enough to care that the oats are Irish knows that. Hannah isn’t pretentious or arrogant! (Of course, the reader is assured at this point that they know her like she is her best friend.) Maybe, it is just the glaringly obvious explanation: food is her tragic obsession and there is no rhyme or reason to it.

There are also too many Americanisms consumerinisms. She talks about writing things in Sharpie. Dude, why can’t you just say marker?

The main theme of the book, as I see it, is Hannah’s struggle to find people who will love her and accept her. She wants to find a “home”, “her people” and feel like she belongs. Despite severe anorexia, she even feels at home when the uberthin hostesses of an superposh New York restaurant side with her in a mean girls exchange. That’s all it took: knowing she wasn’t alone. Her fear of weight gain summed up in one line: “I will be unfuckable, or even worse : unlikable, unacceptable, unlovable.”

There is probably one most telling bit in the whole book. Hannah talks about the advice that works: “Get out of yourself and your own head. Call someone else. Ask how they are doing. Ask about their day. Listen. Don’t talk about you. That advice. I’ve heard it before from Aaron and it is exactly what I don’t want to hear. It works nearly every time.”

What is it? Well, the same way that steroids get rid of inflammation, this exercise gets rid of self-obsession. A crude diagnosis, but it’s there.

The ending is a little but too much of an amalgam of post card philosophy. I don’t think she’s not honest or what she says is wrong, but it’s not nearly as refreshing and gripping as the rest of the book. Then again, this also happened to War and Peace, so I don’t judge 😉

My highlights below.

On what food does for an addict

Life is big and scary. Food is constant, safe, dependable. Food blots everything out and calms everything down, draws the shades and tucks me in. Cozy. Miserable. Numb.

Sure, food is my answer to anxiety, sadness, boredom, anger, but also to excitement, possibility, and joy.

And just like starving is the answer, bingeing is the answer.

Often, postbinge, I feel a sweet relief, a stillness.

It is an instant cure to whatever ails me, save the paltry price of the morning after — waking up and needing to barf and not being able to, vowing to eat nothing for a day, a week; the self-imposed, relentless suffering.

My trusty companion has let me down. All that food has done nothing to quiet my demons. I cannot escape myself.

I am not a cool girl. I always have friends, wonderful friends, and yet my identity as an outsider feels fixed from as far back as I can remember.

But most importantly, I am not thin enough. This sums it all up. This is my curse, my refrain, true as my name.

The mirror is enemy number one.

After cosmetic surgery

When I go back to school for senior year, nobody notices. If they do, they are silent. I feel the devastation in my chest, my bones, their marrow. I am still me.

On loneliness and lack of self-esteem

College means everything. If my body is one measure of my self -worth, college is the other.

I read. No matter how lonely I feel, how much an outsider,how fat, I am welcome in the world of words, stories, poems. They hold my hand. They show me that there are more ways to think and feel than I may fathom.

In my fantasy, something remarkable happens at college. I am not an outsider. I belong.

I am going to be a whole new Hannah. Like myself, but immensely better. Skinnier, of course. Skinnier is everything. Skinniness is next to godliness.

The summer holidays after getting into the college of her dreams:

My new life is full of possibility but I am stuck inside myself. My stomach feels round and big as the moon. I have big plans for my summer. I want to do unambitious things like make eight bucks an hour scooping ice cream, read a lot of trashy mags, and sleep. It sounds wild, an adventure. Also, I will diet.

It doesn’t feel like enough, not even close, but hunger seems a small price to pay for liking myself, for not dreaming of carving away the flesh below my belly button, the sides of my butt.

On starving herself

So much better than being cool, I feel powerful. My skin and bones are different, electric.

My stomach gurgles, struggling against its own emptiness, and I am proud.

I go long stretches of days with only Pink Lady apples, coffees with skim milk and Splenda, liters of diet soda and seltzer water. A frozen yogurt, sometimes.

My butt hurts when I sit, and sometimes my knees buckle under the weight of my body, like it’s heavier in its thinness.
I think about the pancetta sandwich he cooked me, the cruel extravagance of the buttery croissant.
I flip through the pages, deliberate over what I won’t hate myself worse in the morning for ordering.

On men

It is the best drug — wanting him, him wanting me. The room spins.

He peers over, and we make eye contact… “ You’re very beautiful, like a model. ” His eyes are wider than they should be, all pupils, like he’s taken an opiate. His gaze feels like a scratch on my skin, unbearable… He doesn’t say anything this time, his eyes are hard on me. I think, This is because of my diet. Fifteen pounds ago, this would never have happened. Is this what people want? Why?

“Your face is a ten, but your body is a six,” he says, unprompted. “ I’m only grading you harshly because you have such potential. You could be a ten, even, if you lost some weight, got in great shape.” I feel as if my skin has been peeled from me. And yet, I agree.

“Do you see the way men look at you?” Corey asks. “ ike they’re hungry?”

I still hate the roundness of my belly, pull on the flesh around my hips and fantasise about its evisceration. But I have felt immense pleasure and given the same. The power of that straightens my spine.

Because I don’t believe I am likable, even for a second, attention from men surprises me, every time.

On hearing that her boyfriend is addicted to coke and alcohol:

I don’t think, Hannah, yikes, walk away. I think, Thank god. I am not alone. He gets it… He drinks the way I eat—to fill something unfillable.

I think about years passing with him, decades. The thought makes me want to puke.

[There is a lot on sexism. There is also a rape.]

On wanting to be thin

I wonder how miraculous my life would be in her body.

“ You know,” she says, “ being skinny is such a strange part of beauty. It’s not the most important part. It’s just the only part you can control. ”

“The point is to be fuckable. ”

I fantasize about butchering myself the way the cooks I work with so beautifully break down a side of beef, carving away the excess until I’m okay.

I want to be badass and free from the patriarchy and skinny.

No one wants me to join Ari on TV because of the roundness of my belly, I am sure. It doesn’t matter, the other stuff.

On finally being thin

I think, This is what I wanted. I’m skinny and eighteen and about to go out with a Michelin – starred, kind – of celebrity chef. I wonder why I’m not elated.

“ You’re beautiful, ” he tells me. The claim sounds ridiculous, cruel.

I don’t particularly want him, but being wanted makes up for it.

My chest hurts with each inhale, the empty ache of not – enoughness.
..deep inside my internal organs, there are millions of pounds of longing. This is not the way I thought skinniness would feel.
The Atlantic rushes up to my ankles, the beach smells of wind and sardines. My loneliness feels as wide as its endless expanse.
I want to eat the pastéis de nata and I don’t want to eat the pastéis de nata. I am trapped. Either way, I will let myself down.
I remember Corey saying “ Just lose some weight, then you can go back to loving food.” Am I there yet? That place does not exist. I will never arrive.

On work

Nobody goes home sick at The Piche. It’s the restaurant code of honor.

I close the restaurant, stumble home drunk on exhaustion at 2 AM, and get up at 5 AM to open the restaurant the next day. “ It builds character, ” they tell the three management trainees.

At first, I love the profundity of my exhaustion when I come home, the satisfaction of the ache in the arches of my feet, my lower back, proof I have worked.

The day ahead here feels like a prison.

I don’t stop talking about whether to quit or not to quit. I’m trying to decide. Both options fill me with hot dread. I feel resigned. I fear that if I stay, Josh’s prediction will come true.

My soul will be constricted and slicked down, like my hair, until, starved for breath, it deflates. Yet if I go, I will be a quitter, a failure at my first real grown-up job.

What she really wants from work:

It’s the creativity, the spirit, the heart.

The Corporate Steakhouse could never have been home. Walking out past the koi for the last time, I feel the vast freedom that comes from knowing this, from setting off to find the place that is.

On finding out that what she thought was her dream turned out to be quite different in real life:

Our vision. Our dream. The truth is, I don’t love it or even like it. I am simultaneously stressed and bored.

On her initial recovery from anorexia

Anorexia is the most fatal mental illness. Deadly. Before a heart stops, way before hospital visits, furry skin, even when the anorexia is merely an idea of itself, a taste of impending famine, it starts to obliterate things.

I cry in her office. I know I am getting fatter. What was the point of all this struggle? I gain a few pounds, and nobody says anything ever again to anyone’s mom ; nobody worries about me.

I am not better. If anything, I am worse. I still go as long as I can go without eating, until everything around me breaks into little dots and begins to lose its substance. And then I binge.

On her success in recovery

No longer a secret, the food very slowly loses its tight grip on me. The shame begins to dissipate.

“Your feelings won’t kill you,” Faith says as if reading my mind. “And they will pass. Promise.”
I once thought I was eternally fucked.
They tell me “a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity.” I say that I don’t understand what the fuck that means.

On wanting love

Surreally pretty. I catch myself staring: his sharp jaw, his cheekbones, his underwater eyes. That he likes me, loves me, seems unfathomable.

…our whole bodies are not just touching but without boundaries, his skin is my skin, his tattoo is my tattoo, and it is better than chocolate and cake and sex and success and all of the things that are good.

I notice that the people who love me do not love me more or less if I am thinner or heavier.

My eating disorder is all about me, me, me. A selfish beast. It tricks me into thinking that if I can shrink enough, I will be safe and loved and admired. But I am safe and loved and admired just as I am, no matter what size I wear, even if I have to tell myself this a million times over to half believe it.

Post-card philosophy

There is a Japanese art called kintsukuroi. Each time a piece of pottery cracks, it is lacquered back together with gold. All those golden threads make the piece what it is, extraordinary.
I like to think of my heart like that. That each time it breaks, it gets more valuable and beautiful with the mending. It is a collage of gold.

Insight

It makes me sad, how much of my own life I have missed, buried in the self-obsession of my eating disorder.
It’s not that I’ve emerged from my cocoon a butterfly. It’s not that I have escaped the taskmaster that lives in my brain and shouts and shouts an endless loop of fear, worry, shame. But I do know that the taskmaster’s voice speaks only some garbled, deeply skewed version of the truth, and that’s no truth at all.

Special like everyone else

“You are unique and special, just like everyone else”…

is a semantic cop out.

If special is better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual, it means that most everything is usual – and once in a blue moon, we get to see something special.

So, no, everyone isn’t special. (The semantics are very simple: the fact that one is special in the eyes of another doesn’t mean that they are special full stop.)

Unique – is a different matter. Every piece of sh*t is unique, but they’re not quite so special. (Gastroenterology, look away).

Perhaps, it’s a semantic cop out that was trying to right some even worse wrong in the 1960s, when it was said by Margaret Mead, but today it can only do harm.

While building a brighter future during the Khrushchev era, my mother’s generation was convinced that to indicate that you wish to be something greater, yourself, was practically a crime. No wonder, the likes of Ayn Rand were screaming for a different view.

Reading blogs written in the US today, I feel much more aspiration for individual greatness, whereas in this part of the world, “delusions of grandeur” are strongly discouraged.

I think it is damaging for people to think of themselves as being special. It’s the sort of attitude that has people craving accomplishment and its short term substitute, other people’s attention.

If one comes to terms with the fact that they are an ordinary human being, like everyone else, perhaps they won’t feel the void left by… normalcy. Imagine that.

Maybe they won’t reach for their phone every morning for the dopamine hit of someone’s attention on social media that reminds them that they are special. Or look in the mirror to remind themselves of how their perfect skin/abs/ass makes them special. Or look at a wall full of degrees and ribbons to reassert their specialness.

A desire for specialness is mostly about an external locus of control. I think every person swings in and out of that unhelpful state at times, but I went through a transient, painful time when it really hit me hard. Was it my parents/teachers/friends’ fault? Or maybe that’s just social media? Whatever it is, it’s not an excuse to remain this way, so it doesn’t matter a huge amount to me.

In a previous post, some people said that they used to affirm their students’ specialness to them using this mantra, “You are unique and special, just like everyone else”. I think it’s kind and well intentioned, but perhaps not very helpful today as it feeds into the inescapable narrative rather than correcting for it.

I don’t think any teachers of mine ever told me I was special, it never occurred to me that they should. In fact, it would be weird. I looked for self-actualisation in other, what seemed like real, meaningful ways. I feel that this was a good thing. I think my phase of search for specialness was down to the fact that I got into comparing myself to others beyond all context.

This is by no means asking anyone to regress to the mean, encourage mediocrity or prevent people from doing something special. I just don’t think that special things should be done for the sake of making the doer special. They should be done for a real, less narcissistic reason, which usually involves someone else or something bigger than oneself.

And of course, we can define those special as relating to the general population, or better, to the relevant reference group. What is your cut off for special? 5%? 1%? Less than 5% of the population blog, so are we all special? Hmm. You get the point.

Is this as close to a long read as I am gonna get these days, jeez… For what I didn’t manage to say, here is some Radiohead rather beautifully wallowing in the pain of trying to be special, oscillating between idealising and devaluing. 1993. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Beautiful ordinariness

The word snowflake has filtered down to the teens (or did they invent it?) And they write about not wanting to be snowflakes. Us millennials inspired the term and obviously terrified the rest of the population. These Z people make me excited.

It was coined in Fight Club:

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

Would it be a thought crime to say that it’s a good thing to come to terms with the fact that you, and everyone else, is ordinary?

As I see it, people can do things that are special, but the concept of being special is the root of millennial narcissism.

Notes on The Last Psychiatrist

I love few things more than a great blog. My latest find: The Last Psychiatrist, an archived blog, mostly about narcissism.

I was so excited to learn his insights… I made notes.

What follows are his finest insights about narcissism and my comments.

Imagine a crowded subway, and a beautiful woman gets on. Hyper-beautiful, the kind of woman who can wear no makeup, a parka, earmuffs and a bulky scarf and that somehow makes her look even prettier. A handsome man about her age in an expensive suit gets up and says, “please, take my seat.” She smiles, and hastily sits down.

TLP (The Last Psychiatrist), as the author refers to himself, gives us two options as to how the woman should think about this:

  1. This was a sexually motivated act as far as the man was concerned
  2. He was just being nice

If you think of narcissism as grandiosity you miss the nuances, e.g. in her case the problem is narcissism without any grandiosity:

she is so consumed with her identity (as not pretty) that she is not able to read, to empathise with, other people’s feelings. Source

In another post, TLP explains why narcissism isn’t necessarily about grandiosity. This is a blatantly obvious point that escapes most people, unfortunately.

Being the main character of your own film isn’t necessarily grandiose. It is narcissistic though because all the other characters are only important because they help the viewer to understand the main story line.

Here are some less obvious traits of narcissism TLP outlined:

Shame over guilt (I think this is because shame is an emotion directed at the self, whereas guilt is an emotion directed at your victim)

envy over greed (greed would be a primary reason to look for something, whereas envy is only a desire to catch up because otherwise otherwise it’s a bad reflection on you. I liked how this was called “existential agency” here.)

He [the narcissist] thinks the problem is people don’t like him, or not enough, so he exerts massive energy into the creation and maintenance of an identity: if they think of me as X… (and that’s one of the reasons why we love brands)

The narcissist feels unhappy because he thinks his life isn’t as it should be, or things are going wrong;  but all of those feelings find origin in frustration, a specific frustration: the inability to love the other person.

And this really brings it back to the original myth that TLP broke down beautifully here:

Narcissus mother took him to a clairvoyant who said, “He’ll have a long life as long as he never knows himself.

Narcissus kept rejecting people who fell in love with him because they weren’t good enough.

One rejected lover was furious and begged Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, for retribution.  “If Narcissus ever falls in love, don’t let the love be returned!”

Nemesis  heard the prayer and caused Narcissus to fall in love with himself: he was lead to a  pool of water, and when he looked into it, he fell in love with what he saw.  And what he saw wasn’t real, so of course it couldn’t love him back.  But Narcissus sat patiently, forever, hoping that one day that beautiful person in the bottom of the pool was going to come out and love him.

Because he never loved anyone, he fell in love with himself. That was Narcissus’s punishment.

This brings up an interesting point: how are you meant to feel about yourself?

Let’s first look at what we want. What we pay for. A huge portion of marketing directly helps us to be in love with ourselves, because we’re worth it. They’re not even trying to hide that the feeling of being in love with yourself is what they’re selling. And it’s not punishment as we see it – otherwise we wouldn’t buy it. I suppose it’s a psychic equivalent of putting a person on heroin. You mightn’t feel it’s a punishment, but it is.

Then there are the more subtle “intellectual” publications that help you love yourself (see the distinction from being in love with yourself? Cause that would be shallow.) I wonder how many pages were dedicated to helping people see Narcissus’ infatuation as Buddhist acceptance or some other high and mighty concept.

There isn’t really anywhere that would tell you that you’re meant to not love yourself.

What happened to Narcissus doesn’t really sound so horrible in today’s culture. Maybe he wouldn’t have even retaken a selfie if he lived today and been happy with the first shot? That level of self-acceptance is just enviable! He’s winning at life by millennial standards!… Indeed, TPL calls narcissism “a generational pathology”.

TLP goes on to discuss Narcissus’ parents’ role, which I thought was priceless:

He will have a long life, if he never knows himself.

Forget about whether the prophecy is true.  Ask instead, “what would the parents have done once they heard it?”…

Next time I feel insignificant and weak, maybe I need to hold on to that feeling, because my culture will obviously infuse me with my own grandiosity without me ever trying.

TLP has another explanation for why Narcissus stayed looking at the primordial selfie lake though.

He didn’t stay there for years because the reflection had pretty hair.  He stayed because daydreaming takes a lot of time.

In other words, Narcissus didn’t recognise himself and spent all that time conjuring up images of how wonderful life would be with that person in the reflection…

And the DSM says exactly that, only it adds a grandiose twist: “preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love”.

I am confused now.

Narcissus fell in love with himself, only he didn’t know if was himself.

So, as far as Narcissus was concerned, he was genuinely in love with another human being – only they were unreachable. Their personality was entirely a figment of his imagination…

Wait, that’s not Narcissus, that’s Gatsby! (Who also dies in a body of water, fair dues to FitzGerald).

Narcissus’ crime wasn’t being in love with himself at all. Phew, it’s ok to let L’Oreal and #positivethinking to get money and likes.

Narcissus’ crime was not knowing himself.

Actually, no, again.

TLP puts it better:

The moral of the story of Narcissus, told as a warning for the very people who refuse to hear it as such, is that how Narcissus came to be is irrelevant.  What was important was what he did, and what he did – was nothing.

And that’s his main crime: he never cared about anyone real. To me that’s all one ever needs to know to understand narcissism.

TLPs advice on how to not be a narcissist is to fake it. I think what TLP’s getting at is that your behaviour is much more important than your identity.

Another reason to be less demanding

“I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”

I came across the idea that our self-esteem is equal to our opinion of others.

Sounds esoteric, but I reflected on it and there may be something to it.

Assumption:

A mentally well person accepts that she is an ordinary human being and that most people who surround her are ordinary human beings.

Hence,

a) if she is highly critical of most ordinary human beings, on an average day she is critical of herself

b) if she is accepting of others’ faults,on an average day she accepts her own faults

Doesn’t this add up?

I sort of talked about this when I hypothesised that people criticise others for the things they hate about themselves. Reading over it, it seems naive and slightly needy, but I still think there was a grain of truth in it.

“Yet another reason to not be a demanding pig”, I gently remind myself.

What psychiatrists think of Donald Trump

It is considered unethical and unprofessional for psychiatrists to hand out opinions about public personalities from afar. This rule was broken recently, with regards to, of course, Donald Trump.

Letter to the editor

A letter to the editor in The New York times, signed by Lance Dodes, an addiction psychiatrist, former Harvard assistant professor (and 34 other professionals) on the 13th Feb 2017 stated:

“Silence from the country’s mental health organizations has been due to a self-imposed dictum about evaluating public figures (the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 Goldwater Rule). But this silence has resulted in a failure to lend our expertise to worried journalists and members of Congress at this critical time. We fear that too much is at stake to be silent any longer.”

“Mr. Trump’s speech and actions demonstrate an inability to tolerate views different from his own, leading to rage reactions. His words and behavior suggest a profound inability to empathize. Individuals with these traits distort reality to suit their psychological state, attacking facts and those who convey them (journalists, scientists).”

“In a powerful leader, these attacks are likely to increase, as his personal myth of greatness appears to be confirmed. We believe that the grave emotional instability indicated by Mr. Trump’s speech and actions makes him incapable of serving safely as president.”

A strongly-worded response to the letter

A pretty badass response came in the next day, 14th Feb 2017: a follow-up letter to the editor from Allen Francis, who wrote much of the DSM IV, including the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Much as the DSM IV has its flaws, this guy is really on point, in my more than humble opinion:

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.”

“It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).”

“Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely. Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.”

His psychological motivations are too obvious to be interesting, and analyzing them will not halt his headlong power grab. The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological.”

Should psychiatrists stay silent?

Looking down from her moral high ground on the 2 lads in a newspaper fight is the president of the American Psychiatric Association, Maria A Oquendo, who pointed out that while she could understand the desire to “get inside the mind” of a presidential candidate, having psychiatrists comment publicly about people they have not examined threatens to erode the public’s confidence in the profession.

“Simply put, breaking the Goldwater rule is irresponsible, potentially stigmatizing, and definitely unethical,” she wrote.

As for me, I believe that, psychiatrists shouldn’t be analysing living political figures – as psychiatrists. As people with opinions, however, I feel they should be heard – just like anyone else. They also happen to be very good at analysing people’s behaviour. It is up to the reader to understand that this is not an excerpt from Trump’s personal medical files, instead it is just another opinion made legitimate by our commitment to free speech.

What is this psychiatric condition they are debating about?

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism. For those of you not familiar with the DSM, it is a (the?) diagnostic guide for psychiatrists. We are currently of the 5th edition. Here are the criteria for NPD:

The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits. To diagnose narcissistic personality disorder, the following criteria must be met:

A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:

1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):

a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.

b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.

AND

2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):

a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.

b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others‟ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain

B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:

1. Antagonism, characterized by:

a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescending toward others.

b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.

C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.

D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual‟s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.

E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).

Fear: a millennial perspective

Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level

Ernest Becker

Fear of the passage of time

I recently came across the term chronophobia in the context of people doing exams: knowing that exam day is ever closer makes people anxious. Chronophobia was defined as an experience of unease and anxiety about time, a feeling that events are moving too fast and are thus hard to make sense of, in “Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s” by Pamela Lee.

Chronophobia isn’t a formal diagnosis, neither does it feature in scientific literature. In other words, it’s not really a phobia. It is more of an unpleasant feeling – one that is often expressed in art.

It is common in prison inmates, students in long academic programs and the elderly. When one is anxious, it is not only possible to be anxious about the event, but also its inescapable approach. Chronophobia is less about the doom and more about it being impending.

chronophobia anxiety about passage of time
Salvador Dali: The Persistence of Memory, 1931. The melting clock describes the feeling of chronophobia rather well

Chronophobia appears to be connected with heightened awareness of the passage of time that is inherent in distant deadlines for significant events.

This morning during my 10 minutes of mindfulness, something interesting bubbled up. I randomly remembered myself on an airplane travelling back to Moscow to visit family about 2 years ago. I felt a strong urge to be that person again, a bit like when I’m on vacation and towards the end, with a sigh, I think back to how liberating the first day off felt. Or when I reach the last bite of some dopamine-explosive dessert, I think back to how happy I felt when it was just put in front of me. We all love vacation and desert. However, my wish to be 2 years younger makes little sense. I was in the throes of a challenging 70-80 hours per week medical rota. It took much ingenuity to carve out enough time to travel. Is it regret? It wouldn’t be fair to say that the last 2 years were somehow a waste of time in any regard. Why do I feel so drawn to the thought of going back in time?

fear of the passage of time chronophobia
Salvador Dali: The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, 1954. Dali saw the fish as a symbol of life

Fear of opportunity cost

Aged 27, I frequently contemplate what it would go back to a previous point in time. I think it’s the understanding of the limited nature of time. I also worry about opportunity cost. In economics, there is the term opportunity (alternative) cost is the value of the option that we don’t choose when making a decision. [If I have 1 euro and buy a 1 euro can of Coke, I would have to forego the 1 euro Mars bar in order to have it. I would thus potentially worry about what it would have been like if they got a Mars bar instead.] The feeling is different to decision-anxiety. It’s not even about second guessing one’s choice, but more about imagining alternative paths.

The word decision literally means the cutting off – of other options. Thinking of the alternatives always reminds us of the unyielding nature of choice and how we really can’t literally “have it all”.

Robert Frost’s famous (infamous?) “The Road Not Taken” is a brilliant and often misinterpreted examination of the nature of choice. It is important to recognise the speaker’s deliberation: he says the roads are much the same: “just as fair”, “really about the same”, “equally lay”.

“The Road Not Taken”, a frequent feature of post-card philosophy, is often oversimplified to say that the speaker chose the less travelled road – and, woohoo, that’s amazing. It’s more complex than that.

The speaker admits that he left the first road “for another day”. While he knew he would never go back, the torment of admitting the final nature of choice is just too much. 

One can get very detailed when describing their particular fear. I certainly don’t support the idea of including “fear of opportunity cost”, “fear of the passage of time” or even “fear of choice” as phobias into the DSM. Indeed, this is perfect ground for thinking by induction. Is there a common thread here?

fear of death emotional coping mechanisms
Hans Holbein the Younger: The Ambassadors, 1533. Note the anamorphic skull in the foreground. It surely is a reminder of death

Boiling down fears to a common denominator: could it be death?

Why does chronophobia affect students? Time forces them to deal with events that will affect serious aspects of their lives such as their future careers – and thus even more permanent things like social class, the kind of people they will be likely to marry and so on. Exam results’ effects are by no means definitive, but probabilistically they are significant.

It has become popular to say that there are only 2 human emotions: fear and love.

Everything negative is a form of fear. It kind of makes sense: anger is a way of defending one’s point of view, property or whatever other boundary. Being sad is a fear that one will never be as happy as they were before as a result of an event (not talking about depression here). Disgust is a fear that something will negatively impact one’s existence. You get the gist.

The other popular thought is that all fear is a form of the ultimate fear – of death.

Going back to chronophobia again, why does it affect the elderly? Time threatens the existence of the elderly. It threatens all of our’s existence, but the elderly are more aware of it – mostly for social and cultural reasons. Now, none of us are deluded enough to actually think we’re not going to die. However, as Ernest Becker points out:

we have 2 ideas of the self: the physical and the symbolic.

In my opinion, our rationality only extends as far as the physical self. We are preoccupied with ways to immortalise our symbolic self. As per the “Mahabharata”:

“The most wondrous thing in the world is that although every day innumerable creatures go to the abode of death, still man thinks that he is immortal”.

fear of being insignificant
Salvador Dali: Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937. Dali had an interest in psychiatry

The recent debate that followed my discussion of the role of validation in our self-esteem sparked some follow on thoughts. In short, it showed that people with narcissistic tendencies experience much emptiness or even self-hatred – and validation is used to take the edge off. However, as all creatures who make choices, people with narcissistic tendencies are subject to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure (thank you, Dr. Freud). Clearly, they find narcissism more tolerable that the alternative. How could this be?

What if those who crave validation to feel good about themselves chose to be this way because the alternative – knowing that one is inherently valuable, without any validation – makes the thought of inevitable death absolutely intolerable? If one feels that they’re not that valuable, dying isn’t quite as scary or tragic.

Realising that a person is valuable, getting attached and then letting go is much harder than never getting attached – in this case to your self, as is the case with death. This devaluation allows people to cope with the fear of death. At the same time, the person with narcissistic tendencies maintains the upside of being able to work on “their immortality projects”, like winning medals and getting promotions. This is just a hypothesis of mine. I understand that I have no idea what Steve Jobs was really like. A lot of people say that he was an obnoxious narcissist. He said this, which happens to be congruent with my hypothesis:

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

There are other psychologically sneaky ways that we deal with the fear of death that have stood the test of time (well, since 1974 or so when “Denial of Death” was published):

Becker argues that everything we do: writing books, starting businesses, having children are all ways to transcend – and not have to deal with – death.

It makes sense too: the thought that everything one ever does will disappear into oblivion is so hard to accept that in order to keep going we find ways to defy death’s erasure of our existence by leaving a legacy.

fear of being insignificant

One’s own death is hard to imagine. It is as if we believe we will still be alive on some level after we die, but unable to act on our dreams and stuck reminiscing of the time we were alive and lamenting we didn’t do more.

If leaving a legacy isn’t an option, then one can choose to believe in the afterlife to help themselves cope with the concept death.

Paradoxically, dying may be a way to transcend death. Physical death could be a route to symbolic immortality. Just think of war heroes.

While death could explain a lot of our autopilot behaviour, we don’t seem to want to think about it very often. We are told to think positive thoughts instead.

To think, or not to think – about death

all fear is fear of death
...what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…

Constant reminders of death were common all throughout the last millennium: having a skull on one’s desk was kind of like having sticky notes or an extra mouse. An experiment where people were asked to write about death before they were asked about their country’s war efforts showed that thinking of death made people more enthusiastic about war -as it adds meaning, purpose, a sense of belonging, a feeling of impact…

The Stoics came up with a variety of reasons and hacks to not fear death such as the symmetry argument: fearing death is like fearing the fact that one wasn’t alive before one was born. I won’t go down the rabbit hole of explaining how to fear death less.

The purpose of my reflection isn’t to say we shouldn’t fear death, and it will all be fine. It is more of an inquiry into what behaviours of ours are motivated by the fundamental, underlying fear, which so far appears to be that of death. However,…

It’s not death we fear, it is not having an impact

Is it really death we fear? I think a better way of putting it is that we fear that we’re inconsequential, insignificant, that we made no difference through our existence.

For those who insist that it is a fear of death: it’s that of the symbolic self. For those who insist that our biggest fear is to not be loved: to have someone love one is probably the biggest impact one can have on another human being. Perhaps, it is the ultimate, or the one that really count. I am not sure. However, my point remains: it is about impact.

It could just be a millennial’s take on it. With a lesser role of traditional religion in today’s society, millennials have the unfulfilled need for meaning – and have a habit of finding it in the most peculiar places.

My recent discussion of meaning according to Nietzsche prompted many to comment that the fact that we die and that the universe will ultimately end (something to do with the Sun and physics) implies that there could be no meaning in our lives. I don’t follow this argument. To me, it is like saying there’s no point in eating because you’ll get hungry again. Clearly though,

for a lot of people death is the ultimate enemy in a game rigged against them.

I used the word impact above for a reason. I could have said consequence or meaning, but something stopped me. Both of those words are overused and call to mind all kinds of associations. Furthermore, I thought of animals. They are driven largely by the same evolutionary forces as we are, and I think we overestimate the extent to which animals are different. They may not have insight, but they are a reflection at least of how nature intended things. To illustrate, I will use an example I recall from watching a BBC documentary on giraffes. Two massive male giraffes were fighting for a female. How on earth do giraffes fight, I hear you ask. Well, they violently swing their entire necks to strike. The force of the swing is enough to shatter their skulls. The battle went on to the point of near death… for the sake of a female. The giraffes decided/were driven by nature to go that far just to reproduce – so death is less important than an opportunity to have impact, which, for giraffes I think is reasonable to assume, is to have progeny.

I don’t think that the fear of not having an impact is the same as the fear of failure. One can fail, but still achieve a lot and have an impact. Failure is defined in terms of a percentage of the way to realising a dream. Impact, or lack thereof, is much more real.

I feel that a human being on their death bed is likely to think of what impact they have had, not where they ranked compared to their dream.

fear of not making a difference
Salvador Dali: The Elephants, 1948. Not quite giraffes, but close enough

On the bright side…

There is a “cure” for fear of choice

Going back to my own ENTP-torment of being more interested in talking about choices rather than actually making them, I am looking for some kind of resolution. N. N. Taleb, a favourite writer of mine, is popularising the concept of optionality. He argues that having options is a great thing:

Optionality is the property of asymmetric upside (preferably unlimited) with correspondingly limited downside (preferably tiny).

It’s not really a way to get out of making choices. Instead, it is a way to do what you were going to do anyway, but leaving cheap enough nets here and there to see if one day something nice washes up in one of them such that covers the cost of having had the nets n times over.

He argues against specialisation (i.e. going down too far in the decision tree of choices or going down to the end of just one branch). We are all familiar with specialisation success stories. The Nobel Prize goes to the person who studied a particular enzyme for 30 years. The startup that solves a specific problem in one particular niche is the one that does well. Kim Kardashian has one thing going for her, and she’s taken over the world…

Taleb reminds us that there are cemeteries of specialised ventures and people. Just because the successes that make into the media are specialised, doesn’t mean all of them are. Specialisation comes from the propensity to make choices. It is not the only way to achieve something. Hence, it is possible that the act of making choices is overvalued.

Richard Branson has over 400 companies. Is it because he is greedy – or perhaps because he understands that specialisation is a dangerous game to play? Venture capitalists and angel investors back things in a non-specialised way. All financial investors do. It may look like it is specialised on the surface, but it really isn’t. Biotech, or robotics, isn’t a specialisation. These are incredibly broad fields. It’s like saying blogging is a specialisation. Investors take directional bets once is a while, i.e. ones that really require a choice, but they do so in a way that for every 1 euro they invest, they stand to gain 10, and only invest a tiny fraction of their euros into these schemes. This is exactly congruent with Taleb’s definition of optionality.

I have fabulously rationalised away the pressure to make choices here. However, the real work is in putting oneself into situations where optionality can be exercised.

The older I get, the more I realise that there’s quite a lot of engineering involved in all of this. It’s not so much about going after specific visions, but creating situations where visions can flourish – and ultimately have an impact.

millennials fear not having an impact
Maybe, the millennial/Gen Y variety of man (and woman) are a bit different…

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