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?

Don’t ask why?…

A reader kindly sent me this article.

I don’t agree with its analysis, but it has some interesting points about using what vs why can have a significantly different effect.

During my stint in psychiatry, I learnt perhaps the most helpful question: what makes you say that? Notably, not a why question even though it asks about the same thing.

I also remember a brilliant psychiatrist giving a patient advice. The patient had a personality disorder and started reading about them to understand why she has it. He told her that at that point reading that could make it worse – and that interventions such as mindfulness and therapy were superior.

As for my disagreement. The article suggests introspective people are unhappy. It assumes and, with a very simple experiment, shows that asking why causes people to be sad. I think that introspective people aren’t sad because they are introspective, but sad and poorly self-aware people turn to introspection. And Negative Capability is still a thing.

Why do women love cosmetic products and how I plan to find out

I.

Why do women wear make up? (1)

I asked my near 60 year old mother and she had no qualms: make up is ultimately to attract men. A bit of a thought crime in our modern days, isn’t it? The Last Psychiatrist wrote this gem on the subject:

When they say, “it’s a woman’s choice” what they mean is “it’s not a man’s choice, it is thoroughly stupid to wear make up just for men, the only acceptable reason is if you do it for yourself, if it makes you feel better about yourself.”

Hear, hear.

Everyone knows you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, now you’re saying the cover of the book influences how the book feels about itself? 

This got me thinking.

II.

Apart from when I am trying to get someone’s attention, I am the content way over form type of gal.

Like really. I take pleasure in the fact that I haven’t bought most anything I didn’t actually really want or need in the last 2 years or so. In the fact that there is no clutter on my bedside locker. If I do buy something, it’s either evidence-based or very well reviewed. And I am not stingy or spartan. I buy it if I want it and don’t mind if it’s pricey. I just don’t like useless things.

I’ve always laughed at the people who get this massage and that massage in their attempts to look younger and fitter  – in wonder – when the obvious thing to do is go to the gym and eat well. The people who rub coenzyme Q10 and hyaluronic acid into their skin when it’s so darn obvious that it will only sit on the surface.

I was always curious about the thought processes of those who are really into their image. I had the privilege of reading an opinion piece from a schoolgirl who loves fashion and wants to explain why it’s substantial. (4) To my mind, it was rather a circular argument: fashion for the sake of fashion. Maybe I will find another reason?

 

III.

I am not so sure why women wear make up. Because they were told that they should, mostly? (2)

When I just joined the workforce, I wore a lot of make up (by my standards). I wanted to fit in with other girls, who I knew would invariably be wearing make up. It signals a number of things: a desire to be liked, a desire to fit into the female tribe – and a certain social class.

I also think that I am more liked when wearing make up. Perhaps the relationship is actually the inverse: on days I am particularly interested in approval, I wear make up and look for people to like me. I don’t really know. I guess make up is a particularly effective counterweight to the things that make me appear more serious than I am (being Russian and just a little nerdy).

IV.

Then I thought: content and form aren’t actually separate. The tech innovators of the last 20 years made a lot of money out of this less than obvious idea. They call form design and it works for them.

So if form is image and content is character, by working on one’s image, does one change their character?

If so, could it be for the worse? Are the people who look invariably perfect always shallow?

No, definitely not, in my experience.

What Dr. Last Psychiatrist really brings out, when he compares us to books with covers, is that we are social animals. What others think of us is hugely important and does influence what we think of ourselves. My question is how does our perception of ourselves change when we work on our image?

I thought long and hard about it. It’s unusual for women to wear make up at home, when there is no one around, at least in the same way as they do when they go outside. So it is about signalling to others. It is about others. That doesn’t mean that our perception of ourselves isn’t influenced by working on our image. Indeed, when we signal to others, we signal to ourselves, just a little bit.

What do we signal though? In my experience, there is something life-affirming about skincare. It makes me feel clean and creates a little isle of order in an otherwise chaotic world. It could also signal that we are not good enough to go out as we are, but that only happened to me when eyeliner wouldn’t go on right the first time or my skin was too dry for foundation and flaked.

If keeping a gun in the house made me feel good, it would be because at least on some level I felt I am safer with it. Similarly, make up enhances beauty – which, importantly, means higher status. Higher status leads to not only approval, but also safety. People are less likely to challenge those who look healthy, strong and of high status. This is where Azazel and deception come in. Make up builds up status and it’s a fake it till you make it operation that deceives us into believing that we’ve got it. Hence, more confidence.

V.

Does that mean women are so unbelievably needy and shallow that they pay 8 billion dollars a year to deceptively jack up their status in society?

Partly. But it’s a hobby too. It’s of entertainment value.

Like the guys who collect guns, women buy way more make up than they need because it’s a collection of toys. I wrote on a related topic previously and one of the comments was “I dress for myself… it’s about pride in appearance, not date bait” (Patti‘s blog). I completely believe her and, in my view, she is a hobbyist (I take the liberty of using dress and make up as very related concepts). It’s not that the concept of trying to impress specific people with your appearance is unfamiliar to me, but I genuinely don’t think it is the driver for most women, especially given that women continue to maintain their appearance once they are “spoken for”.

So there, most people who like make up are hobbyists.

For some reason this is a revelation to me. I guess I am a goal directed type, so I don’t really engage in too many hobbies. Reading is a hobby, but really it has the goal of understanding how people think. Blogging is a hobby, but really it serves as a chronicle and a place to bounce of likeminded individuals.

I think the closest thing I have to a hobby is food and drink – and the way I feel about a nice bottle of Chianti is similar to how I feel about a Dior eye cream.

VI.

Why am I worried about all this?

Well, I got it into my head that I want to learn about the concept of image this year, in a sort of New Year’s resolution.

Why? Because it seems that I am less concerned about it than a lot of people I hang around with.

This involves all kinds of 3-step routines and other rituals, so I became curious as to why millions of people bother when for me it is a conscious effort.

VII.

On a practical level, I buy make up and end up not using it because I get excruciatingly bored with the smell, so I gave into Facebook’s targeted advertising, for the first time in my conscious memory, and signed up for Birchbox (misspelt this as Bitchbox at first OMG ROFL.) My experience so far has been very positive and I plan to remain subscribed all year.

I shall also follow religious quotidien routines, exfoliate like my life depends on it and document any insights I gather on the way. I will update you no more frequently than once a month, so don’t unfollow just yet.

For the scientific method sticklers, here are my quasi-scientific details:

Null hypothesis: for a woman with no obvious image problems, there is no benefit in working on her image by using popular make up routines.

H1: for a woman with no obvious image problems, there is a benefit in working on her image by using popular make up routines.

Another question that’s on my mind is whether there is a qualitative difference to skincare vs make up proper in the value I would derive from it – all with a proud n=1.

why do women love cosmetic products

 

1. Azazel taught women the art of deception by ornamenting the body, dyeing the hair, and painting the face and the eyebrows, we are told. The art of deception. Interesting take.

2. It’s painful to watch how easy it is to convince someone of something and have the person believe that they independently arrived at that conclusion. And so when we are repeatedly told that we are worth it, we buy it. We buy the association between worth and looking great. Which, in a way, exists, to be fair.

3. “Нет на свете прекрасней одёжи, чем бронза мускулов и свежесть кожи” – В. Маяковский. This is from a poem and roughly translates as “There is nothing more beautiful in the world than the bronze of muscles and freshness of skin” by Vladimir Mayakovsky

Critical thinking or empathy?

Another thought experiment, inspired by a conversation with this blogger*.

If you had to live in a world where, compared to this one, people had

A. 50% more critical thinking and 50% less empathy

B. 50% more empathy and 50% less critical thinking,

which would you choose?

I would choose A. I sometimes find myself in situations where I can barely talk to people who others consider “aww, they’re so nice!”… Makes me feel like I am a cold b*tch, but it is because these people would choose to live in A.

In B, you side with the first person you meet.

Empathy, today, is being used as a word for kindness, but it isn’t. Kindness is an outcome. Neither is empathy conflict-aversion. Some have began talking about effective altruism as an upgraded version of empathy. Problem is that effective altruism is as close to empathy as effective evilness. Empathy is just the ability to understand the feelings of another person. It leads to a congruent emotional response.*

People assume that once one understand how someone feels, one will immediately want to side with them. That simply can’t be.

Spite is the ultimate proof of this: you need to understand your opponent very well in order to be spiteful. The most spiteful are the most empathetic, not the most psychopathic. Psychopathy isn’t necessarily evil and empathy isn’t necessarily good.

Who is the most caring person in your life? Have you ever seen them being spiteful to anyone you know?

A resident of B wants better outcomes for people they feel a kinship with. In other words, they feel spite for people they don’t feel close to – there is no other way in a zero sum short term scenario. They are the ultimate tribalists.

An empathetic person with deficient critical thinking can never agree to disagree.

Good critical thinking is not exactly a solution to a lack of empathy. It’s virtually impossible to become part of a tribe if you’re a deficient in empathy. Critical thinking also loses its potency if you can’t understand the other guy’s feelings. The decision making process is much slower in an unempathetic person. A lot of problems, in short.

Daniel Goleman talks about how members of the “dark triad” become great at social skills because they learn the stigmata of common emotions which is a legitimate way around it for unempathetic people.

It’s like hardcoding vs proper code. Empathy is hard code: quick, unconditional and generally correct.

I know some people who are almost 100% empathetic, but I’ve never met anyone who has 0% empathy, which makes me think empathy is an older, more important trait (quick decisions, Kahneman’s system one, etc)

Obviously, you would prefer to be optimally capable at empathy and critical thinking, but if you had to choose, which would you choose?

Some other places talking about empathy:

The Atlantic, ViceThe Guardian

* I made the point that non-religious people can be “religious” about certain things, e.g. politics, e.g. in WW2. He made the point that it’s down to a lack of critical thinking.

** George F.  brought up the point that the definition of empathy is not only the understanding but the sharing of a feeling. I think that’s a step too far if taken literally. There is some intermediary step where a person can appreciate the feelings of another and either decide to take them as their own or else to revel in their misfortune. We don’t just literally take other people’s feelings as our own, we just get a good insight into them. The most empathetic of people would be rather harmful if they literally shared the feelings of someone in need of help.

A little thought experiment

You’re about to open results of psychological tests comparing atheists and agnostics. What do you expect to find?

I wonder if agnostics are more conflict averse, better at abstract thinking and have a sense of humour.

Also, how do atheists who have children deal with the concept of Santa? Santa is a real world conspiracy theory – and possibly a much more pagan one than a Christian one. I imagine that there has to be a “herd immunity” for the concept of Santa to survive in creches and primary schools. Do religious parents arrive at the door step of atheists and be like, stop your child from spreading heresy!..

P.S. It is snowing in Ireland. I was in the Midlands today and it’s a Winter Wonderland.

IMG_7942

 

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.

The ROI of beauty

Empirically, the most accomplished, intelligent people I know couldn’t give two fks about beauty standards.

All the same, it is super popular and desired. Being beautiful seems to serve a purpose beyond health and attraction. I am wondering what that is.

I followed Jessi Kneeland a few years ago after seeing a recommendation on Greatist. Obsessed with HIIT, the fitness-junkie in me rejoiced at finding her, fit as a tennis ball.

 

So many women- clients, friends, and strangers- off handedly apologize to me or feel shame for not "having their shit together" like I do. Which always strikes me as strange, because I don't have my shit together either. We all have gifts. I just found a way to pursue and teach mine. But trust me, I have just as many "issues" as anyone else. I like to think I deal with them compassionately and patiently, but that doesn't mean they're not there. I don't see any particular reason to spend time lamenting stuff I suck at, because focusing on my gifts is so much more fulfilling! So I guess what I'm saying is this: stop giving all your power to the stuff you suck at. Stop comparing your gifts and weaknesses to other people's gifts and weaknesses. Just find some shit you're amazing at, and do more of it. Focus on your gifts, and enjoy the absolute shit out of sharing them. #mindset #selfesteem #confidence #dharmayogawheel #yoga #bodyimage #remodelfitness #gifts

A post shared by Jessi Kneeland (@jessikneeland) on

In the last year, she switched from being a fitness guru to a body image coach:

“Here are some of the boxes which a modern woman must check in order to be hot. (You’ll notice that many of these are actually “achieved” through effort, skill, time, and money, rather than inborn):
➡️A thin/toned hourglass body
➡️Big perky breasts
➡️Long femme smooth hair
➡️Youthful appearance
➡️Big doe eyes
➡️Kardashian level makeup
➡️Smooth and hairless skin
➡️Well-fitted clothing and high heels
➡️A particular way of moving, speaking and posture.” Source

I think this is a really interesting point: hotness is down to the amount of energy you put into it. My personal experience would be congruent with her ideas.

“Women were taught that our purpose in life was to be desirable enough to “snag” a good partner.”

That is certainly the idea being thrown around by “empowering” publications. I think any woman who was told this and bought it already had issues with her self-respect.

I went through a rebellious phase when I was around 12. Sporting short hair with a touch of pink, I was asked to stay behind after class. The teacher didn’t bring up anything academic. She told me that she does not approve of my image and that women ought to have lovely long hair.

I told her that I don’t subscribe to her standards of what women “ought” and could she please refrain from biting into my after school time unless absolutely necessary.

Being a rebellious teenager seems to be like chicken pox. It’s better to get over it when you are a teenager.

I’m not immune from societal expectations. I do admit to feeling a little ill when seeing some of the casual modelling that goes on on Instagram.

But if I were to feel bad when watching the Oscars for not being a movie star or feel bad when going to a gallery for not being an artist, that would be silly.

It’s best not to confuse societal expectations and your own. But this is where it gets interesting:

“Beauty standards got invented to help women be more competitive in the man-snagging market, and the whole thing escalated endlessly until we all have to look like airbrushed celebrities in order to be “good enough”.

Indeed, what is the point of beauty standards if not to attract a partner?

“I wondered if women who aren’t attracted to men might worry less about looking “hot,” since the whole women-as-beautiful-sex-objects thing was made by and for men, right?”

Basically, she asked LGBT women. As an experiment, this didn’t control for the “looking for a partner” aspect, only for “looking for a male partner”.

“The feedback I got proved this shit has nothing to do with men at all: being gay does *not* seem to offer ANY freedom from the pressures of the male gaze, beauty standards, or insecurities…

It’s not for men. So then what are doing this all for?”

What if we tried to control for “looking for a partner”? Ask married people? Well, they still have to “maintain a parter”, so that’s out.

So why do women do it?

A lot of men do the male equivalent, but it seems that that’s not quite as common.

Is it literally being gullible? These standards are floating out there, so we adapt them with the idea that… That what? It will make us better people? Plug holes in our self-esteem?

Or is it literally just down to being a more attractive partner? But that doesn’t add up because (from what I can tell) a lot of men don’t like women who fulfil the “hotness standards” outlined above.

So, either the purpose of looking hot is to find/maintain a partner, only the method is miscalculated, or there is some other reason. Let’s consider proving your worth as a reason.

Traditionally, men had other ways of proving their worth, e.g. their work. That’s increasingly popular with women. In that case, looks should be less important in today’s society than they were 200 years ago. I have no way whatsoever of testing that.

It’s well known that beautiful people are assumed to be more persuasive, trustworthyintelligent and generally better.

The question then arises: is it worth it?… Cause it is hard work – as Jessi has shown us above.

Curious as to what you think!

UPD: This is a really interesting perspective on gender issues.