I was one of those people that thought that being in lockdown would trigger hyperproductivity: it didn’t. As many others found, I was victim to motivational inertia when it came to writing. Working for a full-on growing startup in the corner of my bedroom every day meant it was difficult to sit down to more computer, and more writing, in the same spot in the evenings. I was still very active, ploughing my time into getting properly fit for the first time (going from unable to run 100m to now 2x5k a week), organising an event in the summer, and raising money for a refugee charity by reducing my food intake down to a pile of rice and lentils for a week. With encouragement from my whingy no makeup vlogs, you guys donated £2,120.80 to help support the health of refugees globally. Thank you all, so much.
I’ve always found that periods of food restriction and fasting put me into a mode of very deep thinking, and a lot of personal and philosophical insights pop into my head. After spending a lot of time researching health hacks and life extension, a week of calorie restriction made me realise that many of the activities that are healthy for us are those that demand we endure great discomfort: exercise, fasting, cold shock therapy, breathwork, sauna. It made me think a lot about psychedelic therapy too, which triggers great emotional breakthroughs by encouraging participants to lean into dark feelings and move through them to lessen their impact on day to day life.
Conversely, the usual reaction to being uncomfortable is to seek comfort: staying in bed, eating junk food, or maybe numbing ourselves with alcohol or drugs. All of these we know are not good for our long term health, but they feel good at the time.
In short, I thought: keeping a healthy mind and body is all about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Since then, it’s become a mantra for me in dealing with difficulty and overcoming unhelpful default reactions, so I thought I’d try and explain more deeply how I got to this conclusion, and how it can be useful if you’re going through difficult thought patterns and emotional experiences. The following is a sort of reflective essay which collects some of my main themes of thinking or realisations over this year — sorry if it seems rambling, but this pandemic lock-down thing has scrambled my brain and I couldn’t do any better.
The filters of your mind are easily corrupted and reality is a co-created agreement.
Every day, our brain chooses what to attend to so that we can act upon the world and achieve goals like not dying, eating to stay alive, and procreating. These filters help us to not feel constantly overwhelmed so that we can get shit done.
Sometimes, however, these filters can become a little corrupted. They cause us to see what’s happening in the world through a dirty window of past experience, prejudice, bias, fear, and desire. Sometimes, that window becomes so caked with overthinking that you can’t even see through it to what’s actually going on outside. All you can do is guess from the filth, which becomes the totality of the experience itself, and so solidifies further the accumulation of mental gunk that you have going on.
Recent models have proposed that psychedelics open up the usual brain filters that make us ignore some things and focus on others, depending on what’s important to us. Rather than our usual narrow modes of operating, we get all manner of sensory information pouring in. Our beliefs about the world seem to fall into their constituent building blocks and it’s hard to understand how one fact relates to another. By relaxing all this, therapeutic psychedelics give patients the chance to reset their filters — or clean their windows — so they can start seeing and connecting with reality again. I’ve written more extensively on this here.
Side note: There are of course philosophical arguments about whether a ‘reality’ even exists. Lots of people talk of a co-created ‘consensus reality’, where everyone has an unconscious agreement about what is real and what is not, and that’s how we all go about our lives. People of course will see and believe things outside of this consensus, and may even start establishing their own communal realities. QAnon or 5G conspiracists are interesting examples of where this has been facilitated by the internet, which has made it much easier to find others who share your unique view of reality.
Does denying darkness and discomfort make them our master?
One of the first things I did this year back in January was going to the London opening of a documentary called Dosed. The film (which you can watch on Vimeo) follows a girl called Adrianne who is suicidal with a daily heroin habit. Desperate to avoid death, she follows a suggestion from her documentary making friends that she might want to try psychedelic therapy. She begins with a psilocybin (magic mushroom) trip, before progressing to a series of ibogaine trips — a psychedelic which has been notable for its ability to curb heroin withdrawal and facilitate recovery.
A key part of the documentary is various people trying to understand the source of Adrianne’s trauma: a potential painful experience that has fallen out of her conscious memory, but has driven her to seek pain relief for the remainder of her life in the form of drugs.
Throughout the process, she digs through her memories and vaguely recalls a house she feels bad about. But nothing really comes of it in the way a lot of the facilitators want. When talking about her childhood, she professes she can’t really understand it — she had a lovely upbringing with wonderful (yet separated) parents, lots of friends, and was great at school. She had some unfortunate relationships with guys who cheated on her, but nothing that other teenagers have gone through and not ended up suicidal.
And yet, whilst enjoying great academic success and becoming a lawyer, she became addicted to alcohol, then cocaine, then heroin.
There’s a lot of discussion about what causes some people to go through trauma and come out stronger for it, whilst it becomes a consistent source of pain for others that prevents them from living normal lives. One quote from Adrianne, before her first mushroom trip, particularly struck me:
I just generally don’t like experiencing any negative emotions. I usually avoid those. Quite a bit. By any means necessary.
It reminded me of discussions I’d had with people who had come from privileged backgrounds with great parental relationships, successful educations, good careers — and yet, had somehow found themselves feeling dead inside emotionally, or with alcohol and drug problems. They seemed somehow far more troubled than those I knew who had objectively traumatic childhoods: parental death, family bankruptcy, violent assault, car accidents.
After that line from Adrianne, I wondered — was her fear of bad feelings, which caused her to numb herself before they could happen, because she’d never learnt to deal with them? Had she lived a life so devoid of traumatic experience, that she’d been deprived of learning how to deal with hardship when it did arise? Were these people I’d met, whose parents had strived to take away all troubles from their children, numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol to hide from the terror of an imperfect, flawed and challenging world which they didn’t know how to handle?
If you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. — Neil Gaiman
We’ve become terrified of our own feelings.
When I talk to people about the therapeutic potential of psilocybin and other psychedelics, there is almost always an initial assumption that the process is a completely passive one and it will magically take away ‘bad emotions’ and replace them with ‘good ones’. If you hear anyone who has been involved in psychedelic therapy for a time talking about their work, you will understand that the process is in no way passive, and the trip is just the beginning: the opening of a door to a longer process of integration, healing and recalibration.
I think this default about the process springs from the Western expectation that we can and should have control over our bodily and mental states, flicking switches on and off in order to optimise us for a range of situations. That we can caffeinate to wake ourselves up, or drink alcohol to wind ourselves down. We’ll gorge and indulge with sugar and fat to comfort ourselves, but pummel ourselves in the gym and eat only chicken for an endorphin kick and a feeling of elite status when we hit the beach. A lot of grief gets directed at the Ubers and Amazons of the world for treating their employees like robots, but we also seem to internalised this attitude towards ourselves and assume we too can be finely controlled and optimised like machines.
In a world that pushes us constantly towards perfection and makes us believe that such a state is possible, we’ve come to expect comfort and convenience not only as a norm, but a right.
Anything that feels bad or negative is almost an enemy of progress and a threat to our rosy view of the world and gets curtained from the world or from ourselves. To me, this was more apparent than ever in 2020. As people were dying and businesses were going under, many drew rainbows and clapped in the streets. They enthusiastically gave £20 to an elderly man walking up and down his garden as though that was somehow a more noble cause than risking death, long term health issues, or mental and emotional trauma.
Whilst Captain Tom got primetime television spots, the more difficult facts of our nation were quickly forgotten. Where was the flyover for Belly Mujinga, who died in the line of duty at Victoria train station, where someone with Covid spat at her for keeping the country from collapsing? Why hasn’t Marcus Rashford, who took on the entire British government to push through long term institutional change on child poverty at only 22, got his own gin brand? Why hasn’t the Black Lives Matter activist who saved a far-right counter-demonstrator from being beaten up been squired to Barbados on a seat embroidered with his own name?
Because Captain Tom helped us continue the belief that our own problems and bad feelings can go away with a bit of cash. What began as a lovely man making a kind and very sweet gesture, somehow became the mascot for a populace dealing with anxiety and guilt. He kept the promise of Twee Britannia going, and it was like an addictive painkiller to many — and as profitable, as the gin brand and corporate sponsorships showed. Captain Tom was the 2020 opiate of the masses.
But so what? Aren’t we told to preserve our sanity by not reading the news? Wasn’t lovely old Tom the good news story that kept the nation from bursting into tears? In the short term yes — but such a strategy might be damaging us for the long run. Stay with me on this one.
If we don’t allow ourselves to feel bad, we block ourselves from personal growth.
There’s a concept in psychology called experiential avoidance, which describes the avoidance of feared thoughts, feelings and sensations. Although it seems like a good tactic to stop us from feeling bad, it actually paradoxically worsens our negative feelings by reinforcing a notion that the world is not safe, and there’s a lot to fear. Examples of avoidant behaviours are:
- Putting off an important task because of the discomfort it evokes.
- Not taking advantage of an important opportunity due to attempts to avoid worries of failure or disappointment.
- Not being a full participant in social gatherings to avoid worries of embarrassment or rejection.
- Inability to connect and sustain a close relationship because of attempts to avoid feelings of vulnerability.
- Staying in a ‘bad’ relationship to try and avoid discomfort, guilt and potential feelings of loneliness from a breakup.
Kashdan & Kane (2011) studied students’ development of ‘post-traumatic growth’ — the ability of an individual to weather traumatic experiences (such as sudden death of loved ones, motor accidents, witnessing domestic violence, natural disaster) and turn them into an opportunity for personal growth. They found that the greater the distress of the incident, the greater the post-traumatic growth and meaning in life, but only in individuals who reported low levels of experiential avoidance. In other words, horrendous experiences led individuals to become stronger, wiser and more loving than others who had milder trauma, but only when they didn’t avoid the negativity of their emotions. The flip side was also true — if individuals avoided negative feelings, distressing experiences led to low personal growth and life purpose. Although they are effective for escaping stress in the short-term, research shows that these behaviours lead to higher baselines of stress in individuals in the long-run.
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. — Viktor Frankl
Are our cartoons setting us up for failure?
So if learning to embrace negative emotions rather than avoid them is key for dealing with the adversities of life, should we be making more of an effort to teach children how to deal with their problems head on, rather than trying to hide them from hardship?
If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales. — Albert Einstein
In this regard, it’s interesting to contrast the saccharine positivity of a lot of modern cartoons and kids shows with old fairy tales like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I had a few of these in books or on VHS, and recall vividly being deeply disturbed by them. They were dark.
The author of wisdom digest Brain Pickings, Maria Popova, proposes that these dark stories give children an ‘existential intelligence’:
Fairy tales — the proper kind, those original Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen tales I recall from my Eastern European childhood, unsanitized by censorship and unsweetened by American retellings — affirm what children intuitively know to be true but are gradually taught to forget, then to dread: that the terrible and terrific spring from the same source, and that what grants life its beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet.
She goes on to explore the words of Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska in an essay called ‘The Importance of Being Scared’. Speaking of Hans Christian Andersen, she sees his work as presenting to children the whole spectrum of life, including the unavoidable tragedies that lie ahead:
He speaks to them not only about life’s joyous adventures, but about its woes, its miseries, its often undeserved defeats. His fairy tales, peopled with fantastic creatures, are more realistic than whole tonnes of today’s stories for children, which fret about verisimilitude and avoid wonders like the plague. Andersen had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn’t believe that you should try to be good because it pays (as today’s moral tales insistently advertise, though it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way in real life), but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.
More sorrowfully, she also comments:
The character who turns up most often in death, an implacable individual who steal unexpectedly into the very heart of happiness and carries off the best, the most beloved.
Perhaps when we have overprotective parenting that prevents children from going out and hurting themselves physically and emotionally, children are prevented from establishing where their own boundaries for true pain line. Instead, they grow up inheriting or imagining where that pain could be, resulting in feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and paranoia, and a lack of connection to the real world.
Do we need to start telling our progeny gloomy yet witty fairy tales again, with a modern twist? I’ve thought of some examples here to help inspire you:
- How they may spend all of their lives working hard, only to have their beautiful spouse stolen by their cruel and dishonest boss.
- How, after the tragic death of their mother/father, their remaining parent remarries someone awful who bullies them secretly. The child, however, has inherited a great cunning and is able to fight back — possibly resulting in murder, or public shame and humiliation.
- That you may one day be made redundant and become so poor and unable to feed your own children that you take them out for a long walk in the woods and leg it, never to return, leaving them there.
How to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
1. Lean into our scary stories by writing them out.
For you personally, writing about your own doom and gloom can be incredibly beneficial. Building on the findings of experiential avoidance and how embracing your negative feelings can be incredibly nourishing in the long run, an exercise called expressive writing encourages you to write about an emotional topic for 15–20 minutes each day. This has been shown to help people create meaning from their experiences, allowing them to better relate to both positive and negative emotions.
2. Delve into our unconscious to psychologically rewrite our stories.
Another option for helping you deal with your demons is to take psychedelics, but only in a therapeutic context. Trying it unguided can leave you worse off than where you started. These substances can help you to lean into the darkness, confront it, and help turn it into a positive experience.
3. Punish the flesh.
When we live a life of comfort, we often respond to negative feelings by numbing them with things to try and make us feel comfortable — drugs, alcohol, needy relationships, sugary/fatty foods, lying on the sofa doing nothing. It’s pretty common knowledge that these are not good for us, yet modern life endeavours to make them ever more convenient for us. When these become our default response, it gives rise to our modern plagues: addiction, obesity, depression, anxiety.
On the flip side, a lot of the activities that are really good for our health in the long term — exercise, fasting, sauna, cold water immersion or chewing cups of broccoli sprouts — are all things that are extremely uncomfortable. Anyone who likes to indulge in these activities will tell you that there is a battle against your natural impulses and a sense of pushing through barriers of discomfort. The more we do it, however, the more our bodies adapt and become resilient to these challenges, and we start becoming much more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
What’s even better is that these activities can help us become even more resilient to the emotional hardships of life — whether it’s that exercise, fasting and broccoli sprouts have antidepressant qualities, or that sauna helps bathers to endure stressful situations with less anxiety.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
So, next time you feel misery approaching — whether it’s learning to ski, an awkward social situation, a breakup, a horrendous boss, or the death of a loved one — lean into it fully and accept that these situations were always going to be incredibly painful. Have faith, that the more you face your fears, the more you are learning and growing as a person and the more courage you’ll develop to navigate the darkness by yourself. In fact, the more painful and miserable the situation, the more opportunity you have to become an outstanding human being.
I definitely had a lot of discomfort just learning to…be still or be with myself and not have an escape. That’s part of recovery and it’s very uncomfortable. It takes time to get used to that. I was always used to having some kind of coping mechanism that took me out of myself, that just helped me not feel uncomfortable or whatever negative feeling I was feeling. So that’s always a challenge and there’s no shortcuts to that — you do have to just learn to be in your body and feel feelings, which I did not like very much. But, you know, it gets easier over time.
— Adrianne from Dosed
2020 has been the first year in decades where it can be reliably assured that everyone has had a terrible time. The year was never going to be anything but a series of disappointments, shocks, tragedies and adjustments. Many will have had to endure the excruciating pain of a death in the family, the break down of marriages or watching a self-made business disintegrate into nothing. If you’re feeling dreadful — you’re supposed to be. Trying to pretend you should be anything else could be doing you more damage than you realise.
2021 doesn’t look like it’s going to be much different from 2020 for a while, even with the arrival of a vaccine. But it will pass, and you’ll be able to emerge from it a better person if you let yourself. Look after your health, take up some Wim Hof, do lovely things for other people, forgive yourself and others for not being at your best, and make time to feel really horrible. You’re worth it.