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Procedural Executive Function, Part 2
The Off Road project has since been folded into Rethink Wellbeing, but I’ve continued working to better understand and treat Executive Dysfunction. You can read more about the project’s origins here, as well as the start of my overview and exploration of ED. Part 1 can be found here.
TL;DR – Self Monitoring is your ability to notice what you’re doing at any given moment so that you can ask yourself whether it’s actually the thing you want to do.
Impulse Control is the ability to decide whether to turn impulses noticed through Self Monitoring into actions.
Emotional Control involves awareness and acceptance of what you feel, so that you can experience your emotions fully and decide which to act on without feeling overwhelmed or controlled by them.
Before I continue to divide the executive function into parts that I consider roughly sequential in how people experience “deliberately doing something,” it’s important to take an extra moment to re-emphasize that I perceive executive function as a process with multiple steps. Part of what I hope people learn from this series is to better understand which aspect of the process is blocking them when they feel stuck with their own, unique executive dysfunction, so that it’s easier to notice pitfalls and figure out how to avoid them.
So if I focus on a certain aspect of the process and share a perspective on how to help ensure that part goes smoothly, that doesn’t mean the assumption is everything will go fine as long as that one aspect does. For some actions you take, the whole process will go smoothly. When it doesn’t, the part that trips you up can change depending on context, personality, diagnoses, the type of action you’re taking, and more.
The point of examining these parts individually is to understand how they interact more systematically; no part of this process should be taken as a final, normative word on how your own inner workings must look.
(As a final note, I won’t talk about medical solutions to Executive Function, as it’s outside of my area of expertise. I hope to add more resources for that at some point.)
It’s worth noting that in the flowchart, Impulse Control, Self Monitoring, and Emotional Control are only vaguely sequential and are all bound together. But I’ve organized this post in what I believe is the best order to understand them before revisiting how they affect each other at the end.
Sometimes, once we’ve passed the Task Initiation stage of executive function, it’s smooth sailing. If it’s a short and simple task, like taking out the trash or doing the dishes or answering an email, it might just get done within a minute, or even within ten, without any further issues.
But the longer it takes to finish a task, and the more complex the task, the higher the chance of some step in the executive function procedure to go awry.
Of course, even relatively long and complex tasks can still go smoothly. Sometimes when we write, the words pour out as fast as we can type, with only occasional stops for focused thinking and imagining. When doing chores, each act follows the next like checking boxes down a list. (This is particularly true if we enter “flow state,” but covering that is beyond the scope of this post.)
Other times, we struggle to keep doing the same thing for more than a few moments, distracted by a constant stream of new thoughts, urges, or stimulation. Why the discrepancy, given how in both scenarios, our sensorium is constantly receiving input from our environment, and our brain is constantly churning through different thoughts or ideas?
First, it can be helpful to clearly define three particular terms:
Awareness is the umbrella term for the things you’re conscious of at any given moment, including your surroundings, thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations.
Attention is the selective noticing of a particular stimulus or thought process, at the mild-moderate exclusion of others. Attention can be both voluntary (e.g. choosing to read a text message) or involuntary (e.g. being distracted by a loud noise).
Focus refers to the concentration on a stimulus, thought process, or activity for an extended period of time. It is a more intense and sustained form of attention, often at the moderate-extreme shrinking of your awareness, that can require deliberate effort, but can also be the automatic result of intense interest or engagement.
To demonstrate the distinction, right now, as you’ve been reading, you’ve probably been focused on the words on your screen. But unless something is reflecting off it, the “screen” has likely been “invisible” to you while you do so; your attention was on the words. But now that I’ve called your attention to the screen, it will likely stay in your awareness for a while, even if your attention stays on these words, before eventually being filtered out once you’re back in a state of deep focus.
Our minds filter all sorts of things out of our awareness, all the time. You never stop receiving the physical sensation of your tongue in your mouth, or the clothes you’re wearing against your skin, but so long as nothing calls your attention to it, your attention will go to more productive things. Same goes for background noises, smells you’ve adapted to, and even thoughts that pass through your mind without snagging your attention. Our minds are sensitive to changes in our sensorium; without any, the default for our attention is to be smaller than our awareness even when not deliberately focusing on anything.
So, with all that said… what’s Self Monitoring?
The simplest way I can put it is that it’s your ability to notice what you’re doing at any given moment, not fleetingly, but enough that you can ask yourself whether it’s actually the thing you want to do. It’s effectively the thing that keeps you from being on autopilot all day, as well as a thing that helps avoid having your attention grabbed away from where you want to focus it. It’s often the desired effect of things described as “mindfulness” or “self awareness,” and it helps people create space in their own head to make deliberate decisions.
As an example:
Alice is sitting at her computer, trying to finish an essay that’s due tomorrow. She’s focusing on the words she’s writing, in a flow state of following a chain of ideas that she can easily put into words. While she writes, a friend sends her a message; the notification enters her awareness, and part of her attention is hooked on it even as she finishes writing the next sentence. Eventually she alt-tabs to check and sees it’s a post from reddit. She clicks through, laughs at the post, sends a reply to her friend, then starts reading the comments.
First off, I think it’s important to note that from my perspective, there’s nothing in the above that is inherently bad or wrong. As always, when I speak of Executive Function, I think it’s valuable to treat it as the process between one’s deep and “actual” desires and their actions; the critical part of this examination is what the person endorses, both in the moment and in the future.
Second, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s just one simple factor for why Alice’s flow state ended. She might have been sent a dozen similar messages up until now without her focus shifting. Maybe this particular friend’s messages are more important to her, or maybe her mind is closer to needing a break. Again, digging into this more is beyond the scope of this post.
But meanwhile, the example brings up two different ways to think about Self Monitoring: dynamic and frequent.
Dynamic Self Monitoring
An Alice with very high Self Monitoring would quickly notice that her attention is being grabbed by the meme, then decide if this is what she wants to do.
An Alice with high Self Monitoring might only notice once she’s opened Reddit, in the moments around the page loading.
An Alice with moderate Self Monitoring would probably only notice once she’s actively scrolling the comments.
An Alice with low Self Monitoring might notice after scrolling for a few minutes.
And an Alice with very low Self Monitoring might not notice until she’s on another page, or something else has caught her attention, and she realizes an hour later that she intended to finish her essay before doing anything else.
(These labels aren’t concerned with relative frequency among the overall population, I don’t have numbers for what the bell curve on Self Monitoring might look like, assuming it naturally even falls into a bell curve.)
Again, the measure of Alice’s SM is not what she decides to do upon noticing that she’s no longer writing her essay. It’s only in the noticing itself. Also, remember that everyone’s Executive Function is to some degree different for different tasks and in different contexts. An Alice that has low SM in this context might have high SM in another.
So a high SM Alice could notice when her friend messages her that she’s making a deliberate decision to change tasks, and then be okay with it. Then she might notice when she starts scrolling Reddit comments, and not be okay with that. Or she might be okay with it, and then another friend calls her and she decides she doesn’t want to do a call just yet, and endorses ignoring it.
The focus on dynamic triggers is meaningful because the transition from one sort of activity to another is often what causes people to pop out of autopilot and ask “What am I doing and why am I doing it.” But to model what might happen next, the frequency of her SM is also important.
A high dynamic SM Alice might be okay with reading Reddit comments “for a bit,” and notice consciously that she’s doing it rather than just autopiloting into it. But reading Reddit comments might still be the sort of activity that she has lower SM on from a frequency standpoint, because it’s the sort of task that will lead to autopilot for longer. This is why it can be practical to divide between dynamism of SM and frequency.
Frequent Self Monitoring
An Alice with very high Self Monitoring frequency would have a mental “check in” a few times per hour, whether she’s writing her essay or not, to decide if she still wants to or would rather do something else.
An Alice with high Self Monitoring frequency might only check in every ~hour or so.
An Alice with moderate Self Monitoring frequency might only check in every few hours.
An Alice with low Self Monitoring frequency might only check in a couple times a day.
And an Alice with very low Self Monitoring might go entire days without experiencing this sort of popping out, checking in, “What am I doing and why am I doing it” mental motion.
Again, the question of how long it might take for Alice to remember that she’d planned to finish writing her essay is a different one than whether she decides to save reading the comments for later, or reading the Reddit comments later, or even just take a break and walk around the block.
An Alice with very high SM frequency might very well be okay with taking a break from her essay for a while, and then (if her SM is high enough in whatever alternative activity she decides to do next) would re-evaluate even if no other new task triggers a dynamic SM moment.
It’s worth noting that, upon reading the above, some people might have very different experiences.
Some might read about the high SM Alices and think “Wait, people can actually do that? TEACH ME HOW!”
Or, alternatively, “Wait, people actually live like this? That sounds EXHAUSTING!”
At the risk of being too normative, I generally believe that higher SM, whether dynamic or frequent, is overall a positive trait to have. Some informal surveys I ran showed that the majority of people wanted more SM, even if they already ranked themselves as experiencing them “frequently.” Of those that didn’t say they wanted more SM, the majority still preferred keeping their amount of SM the same rather than reducing its frequency.
It’s worth noting that the qualia range between how different people experience Self Monitoring can be vast. Going too deep into this, interesting though it is, would be (again) beyond the scope of this post.
But while for myself SM doesn’t feel stressful or like it interrupts my life at all, for those who would prefer less frequent SM, the usual reason given was that their experience of it, rather than being “empowering” or “awake,” was more “anxious” or “disembodying.” It makes sense that if SM moments are too frequent and negative, they could reduce someone’s ability to enjoy films or games, prevent them from entering a prolonged flow state while working, or make it harder to get lost in the embodied enjoyment of swimming or sex.
So long as the SM moment is not much more than an “actual” moment, sometimes as quick and fleeting as an impulse, and not an anxious experience, most people do not seem to experience them as disruptive. There are even some who have mildly negative valence SM that still say they’re happy with how frequently they experience it, because it’s one of their strategies for managing ADHD.
In any case, it’s not a state that I believe can be held indefinitely. For SM to pop you “out” of something requires being “in” something engaging enough that, even if you wouldn’t describe it as “autopilot,” is not as fully self-reflective.
But I do believe the frequency and duration can be increased, and the quality of it can be improved. I used to have these moments once or twice on a bad day and three to five on a good day. Now I regularly have them about one to two dozen times per day, sometimes more if I’m doing a wide variety of things.
As for the use they have…
Now that we’ve covered Self Monitoring so exhaustively, it’s easier to zoom in on the specific value of Impulse Control. If Self Monitoring is the ability to notice impulses and actions, then Impulse Control is the ability to decide whether to turn those impulses into actions.
Not all impulses you have while doing something are disruptive, of course. While working on her essay, Alice might have an impulse to take a sip of water, or glance out the window. She might suddenly put some music on, or change the temperature, or get up and stretch. In addition, many decisions she makes for what to write next are impulsive, generated by intuitions of flow and sparks of imagination.
None of these impulses get in the way of her writing her essay; the ideal amount of impulses to have is not 0, even if that were possible.
Some impulses that rise up could be disruptive depending on context. The impulse to read the message from her friend is, sort of definitionally, disruptive, but it doesn’t have to actually derail her work. Believe it or not, some people actually work better with a semi-regular stream of such interruptions; it’s easier to focus on one track when it’s not the only thing they’re “expected” to focus on, and the extra stimulation draws their attention and feeds their brain dopamine without requiring a full focus shift.
This is an important thing to highlight because it shows why this is Impulse Control and not impulse obstruction.
Again, a breakdown through use of rough scale:
An Alice with very high Impulse Control almost always has at least a moment of consideration for whether acting on an impulse would suit her goals or values.
An Alice with high Impulse Control has a moment of consideration for most impulses she experiences, with the likely exceptions being while she’s tired, hungry, or otherwise under-resourced.
An Alice with moderate Impulse Control might only reflect on impulses when they’re for particular actions she’s on the lookout for; opening Reddit, for example, or having an unhealthy snack.
An Alice with low Impulse Control only rarely reflects on impulses, and probably just those that are fairly weak or fleeting, while
And an Alice with very low Impulse Control bounces from one whim to another as she has them. This Alice isn’t incapable of doing something for a long time, but those things she does do for a long time are things that are so engrossing they reduce the frequency of other impulses.
Again, it’s worth noting that while more of this sounds great to most people, the experience of being very high, or even high, might strike others as annoying, or even neurotic. For some the qualia is stifling/repressing, for others it’s empowered/agentic. The ideal version of this doesn’t keep you from having totally uninhibited moments of fun, particularly if you’re in a high trust and safe environment, but those could be rarer for some people than others.
Being able to consistently act in a way that’s aligned with your intentions requires being able to manage impulses in such a way that they’re an extension of your goals and values rather than intrusive or self-sabotaging.
Impulses are momentary things, however, there and then gone, whether they were acted on or not. Some impulses will self-repeat if ignored, but if they do that often enough it’s usually because there’s a deeper, underlying drive that’s at play. That’s why people with high Impulse Control can still struggle with…
Finally, now that we’ve covered the ability to notice and decide what to do, it’s time to talk about what actually affects which decision you end up making.
To begin, I think it’s important to establish that nearly all actions are driven by emotions/desires/urges. People with disorders affecting their ability to feel emotions invariably have difficulty with motivation. If you don’t feel, you don’t do. Our higher cognition, our reason, is used to decide between action and inaction, one decision and another, but these are always ultimately driven by different feelings.
People with anhedonia notice this most clearly with motivation related to things that used to bring them joy, but depending on severity, they might still be motivated by frustration or guilt. If the emotional deadening is severe enough, making decisions as simple as what food to eat becomes hard, and people tend to default to whatever is the most energy-saving. This is mirrored by the fact that the process for determining which emotion will guide your behavior can often take more energy than people have to spare.
As I’ve said before, “control” is not the word I like to use for this process. But it’s the commonly used and understood one for the concept of, in order from farther to closer to what I actually mean, emotional management, regulation, and integration. Rather than trying to suppress or deny emotions, what I mean by Emotional Control involves awareness and acceptance of what you feel, so that you can experience your emotions fully and decide which to act on without feeling overwhelmed or controlled by them.
But once again, the process of learning to observe your own emotional responses and finding ways to manage them in a way that feels natural and authentic to you is beyond the scope of this post, and so I’ll just point to some resources in the Suggestions, and give an abridged sense of what this looks like in the context of unblocked executive function.
Let’s talk about Alice yet again, and her ongoing decisions to write her essay or do other things. At the point in which she receives the message from her friend, there’s a number of things we could imagine her feeling:
- Anxiety over not finishing her essay in time.
- Anticipated-relief of eventually being done with her essay.
- Interest in the topic of her essay.
- Curiosity over what the message says.
- Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
- Awareness of potential bio needs (Thirsty? Hungry? Tired?)
And so on. Each of these emotions has a potential action that they can lead to, but before we go into that, it’s important to note that this is a pretty flat distribution. The actual experience of Alice might look more like this:
- HIGH Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
- MODERATE Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
- MILD Interest in topic of essay
- MODERATE Curiosity over what the message says
- HIGH Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
- MILD awareness of potential bio needs (Not really hungry but could snack…)
- MILD Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
- MODERATE Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
- HIGH Interest in topic of essay
- MILD Curiosity over what the message says
- MODERATE Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
- HIGH awareness of potential bio needs (THIRSTY)
- MILD Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
- MILD Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
- MILD Interest in topic of essay
- MODERATE Curiosity over what the message says
- MODERATE Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
- MILD awareness of potential bio needs (Kinda tired…)
For each hypothetical Alice, if you imagine an equal amount of Self Monitoring and Impulse Control, you could then wonder what she would endorse doing upon reflection… but insofar as she doesn’t just follow the strongest emotion she has, it’s because she has some amount of Emotional Control.
This is where reason comes into why we end up making the choices we make. Remember the factors that go into Task Initiation, such as the expectations of how positive or negative an activity’s outcome will be? There’s a way in which the whole Executive Function cycle plays out again in miniature for each potential action inspired by an emotion.
Some part of Alice is prioritizing, again and again, what she should do based on what she feels. Potential actions are checked against expected outcomes, and if one of those is expected to lead to a sufficiently positive outcome, it becomes much easier to switch to doing that in a “path to least resistance” way. So long as she’s not suppressing any of her emotions, each potential action has the opportunity to be balanced against each other and fully explored in relation to her goals and preferences.
The more time she spends simulating outcomes and reminding herself of what actions will actually lead to good or bad ones, the more the emotions inspiring those actions will shrink or grow, and the most compelling ones will shift her motivation to align with them.
There are a number of ways to engage in this sort of Emotional Control. Using some form of Internal Family Systems to treat each emotion as a part of yourself that can explicitly dialogue can help flesh out your expectations and resolve conflicts between them. Using something like Premortem on the expected failures can help you feel more confident in “harder” actions. Or you could just imagine all the bad things that could happen if you make the “wrong” choice… though I don’t particularly recommend that one.
In this way “Discipline” can be seen as a mental habit of using techniques and mental frames to reinforce motivation to take actions your meta-self endorses. Alternatively, Discipline can be seen as a form of “trusting” your past self’s model of what certain actions will result in, short-cutting the need to re-examine each emotion’s potential action in the moment… a sort of anchor-emotion that’s ever-present and can be defaulted to because it has deep roots in expected positive outcomes.
So, to show a bit more clearly what this can look like… you know the drill by now, but let’s flip it so we can go into more detail as needed, since the wide range of strategies available in this space make higher levels of Emotional Control look more and more different from a generalized baseline.
An Alice with very low Emotional Control would likely just follow the action generated by the emotion she feels the most strongly, not too differently from one with very low Impulse Control. If two or more emotions are roughly tied, she might feel paralyzed until some positive feedback loop or new stimulus edges one out over another.
An Alice with low Emotional Control is capable of at least noticing that she has different emotions/desires that she could ideally choose between. She might once in a while be able to remind herself explicitly of the things that make one choice better than another, either through imagining bad outcomes or, a bit more ideally, some form of regret-minimization.
An Alice with moderate Emotional Control is capable of a (quick) pro-and-con type evaluation of each emotion-inspired-action-plan. She can model some expected outcomes enough that she might notice if she really would benefit from a brief break or snack, or if working for a few more minutes will lead her to a better point to take a break in. She could even use a light precommitment tool, like 25-minute work timers, to give her mind an easy touch-stone for strengthening the emotions on the side of continuing to work.
An Alice with high Emotional Control is prepared for these sorts of reflections, knows the rough shape the emotional dilemma will take for her, and has some tools at the ready to explore her options and decide which action to take. She might already have done enough IFS to jump straight into a quick conversation with each part, or maybe she has a motto or mental habit that she uses to get in touch with certain emotions over others.
And an Alice with very high Emotional Control deviates even further from a general model. Maybe she’s deeply practiced in letting her emotions speak in an unconstricted way, such that she can evaluate each and decide on what will lead her to feeling the most fulfilled. Maybe she just runs down each emotion she feels, imagines the outcomes of each, then decides from there. Maybe she doesn’t really feel strong emotions in most circumstances, so deciding between them is easy. Or maybe she feels particularly strong emotions from expected rewards of doing work, and so it’s easy to stay within the action-space that will likely lead to that. Or maybe some combination of all of the above and more, or something else entirely.
I would be remiss not to mention the Dark Side of Emotional Control, which is more what the name implies; a form of resolving conflicting desires through suppression, fear, bullying, and other general forms of self-coercion. These strategies generally develop when people are young and in coercive or competitive environments that train them to ignore emotions that aren’t instrumental to the goals they’re most rewarded for pursuing.
These strategies, useful though they can be for succeeding on short timespans, tend to have diminishing returns or leave people burnt out eventually. Exploring how people sustain high productivity for years led me to the second crystalized bit of insight: Sustainably productive people spend most of their time doing what they find enjoyable, meaningful, or necessary.
When a goal or course of action doesn’t feel like any of those things, it eventually becomes very difficult to “control” the emotions that compel you toward things that do, and no amount of external motivation makes up for that gap.
At risk of being too preachy, this is why I believe, as noted in the previous posts, that knowing what you want and why is an important part of a healthy Executive Function pipeline (not to mention a generally happier life).
People are full of various wants and needs, on a minute to minute basis or on a year to year one, and each of those wants and needs are emotionally driven. Understanding how to integrate and manage those various emotions and wants is an integral part of aligning your goals with your actions.
Notice how often you check-in with yourself, and practice doing it more often.
There are a lot of different kinds of mindfulness practice out there. Most meditation is the most popular, a way of bringing awareness into our body and thoughts, while things like the Alexander Technique try to help people expand their awareness outside of themselves. Anything that helps people pay attention to their moment-to-moment experiences better, or understand and become familiar with the loops their thoughts can end up in, can help people improve Self Monitoring. The sequence on Naturalism is largely about noticing what your attention and thoughts are doing, and this video by Duncan Sabien does a good job of explaining another version of it. Posts tagged with “summoning sapience” tend to be about this, such as Val’s article on the Art of rationality.
Take a moment again, right now, to “pop out” of reading this article. You’re almost done, but still notice that you’re reading it, and ask yourself if you want to be reading it. My prompting you to do this might lead to you noticing other impulses you have, other things in your awareness, other drags on your attention. But you also might just notice your own thoughts, reading over these words, and your reactions to them. All you’re doing, when you improve your Self Monitoring, is learning how to notice certain types of thoughts or sensations that trigger this more often.
Maybe it’s discomfort in your body, or a leg or arm that’s falling asleep. You could use environmental cues, such as alarms or visual cues around you (printed out pictures, sticky notes, etc) can also help train the mental habit… though I want to stress caution in anything that leads to Self Monitoring that is largely anxious. The alarm should be a gentle chime, the visual cue should be a picture of a reflective lake, or even just a small mirror hung on your wall… if it’s hard to imagine the vibe, here’s Midjourney to lend a hand:
The purpose of self-monitoring, overall, is not to feel like you’re constantly vigilant or on edge, but rather to notice when you’re on autopilot more quickly so that you can decide whether you want to deliberately. A calm, embodied “What am I doing and why am I doing it,” more a notion than the actual words. Not “oh my god why am I doing this why aren’t I doing THAT instead what’s wrong with me…”
If you’re having trouble not having that be the tone of the check-ins, that leads us to…
Understand your emotions better, and find a constructive frame through which to understand and relate to them.
Internal Family Systems is something I recommend often, but The Art of Accomplishment podcast has good models for this sort of thing as well, and there’s a good Clearer Thinking tool on it too. My elevator pitch for the space in which they intersect is something like:
Understand that your emotions/desires/impulses each exist for a good reason. That does not mean that they’re automatically “correct,” but it does mean that trying to ignore or banish them entirely is not the healthiest way to deal with whatever is causing them to arise. Instead try treating them, and yourself, since that’s what they amount to, like a friend, one whose feelings you can validate and support without letting them overwhelm you.
An exercise you can try now:
- Notice if you have an inner narrator that’s harsh or judgemental or bullying toward any emotions or desires you have. Is there something you’ve been criticizing yourself for lately?
- Consider how you would talk to your best friend, romantic partner, or a child if they talked to you about a similar problem they were having.
- Write a short message to yourself using the same language you would use.
I plan to write more about how we relate to our emotions and how to understand them better, and will update this post with a link when I do.
The last part of this series will cover the last 3 aspects of Executive Function:
Part 3: Working Memory, Organization, Flexible Thinking
Great Therapists vs Great Coaches
I had a great conversation with my friend Tee Barnett about Therapy vs Coaching, including what makes for a “Good” or highly skilled one, and what they “should” cost. Hope it’s helpful to anyone interested in attending or doing either!
Also check out his site, Any Thoughts On, if you’re interested in learning more about professional coaching in general!
Procedural Executive Function, Part 1
In this series I divide the 8 aspects of executive function into three parts that I consider roughly sequential in how people experience “deliberately doing something,” from start to finish, to point out pitfalls and how they can be dealt with.
Before starting, it’s important to take an extra moment to specifically emphasize that this is a process with multiple steps. Part of what I hope people learn from this is to better understand which aspect of the process is blocking them when they feel stuck with their own executive dysfunction.
So if I focus on a certain aspect of the process and share a perspective on how to help ensure that part goes smoothly, that doesn’t mean the assumption is everything will go fine as long as that one aspect does. For some actions you take, the whole process will go smoothly. When it doesn’t, the part that trips you up will likely change depending on personality, diagnoses, the type of action you’re taking, or just the context of your life at that moment.
We’re first examining these parts individually so that we can then examine how they interact more systematically; no part of this process should be taken as a final, normative word on how your own inner workings must look. But I hope it will be helpful nonetheless.
(As a final note, I won’t talk about medical solutions to Executive Function, as it’s outside of my area of expertise. I hope to add more resources for that at some point.)
The first step of any intentional act can be called the “notion” to act. Notions themselves are involuntary, often vague, and not particularly compelling. They’re just an idea, summed up generically as a thought like “oh, that’s a thing.”
This sometimes comes with a should attached. “I should study” or “I should throw out the trash.” But the more neutral version is simply a could. “I could get a drink” or “I could watch some TV.” It can also be nonverbal; just an image of something, maybe with a vague sense of desire or worry.
Once the notion occurs, a few things might happen automatically (that is to say preconsciously):
- Our mind discards the notion, sometimes so quickly that a few moments later we might not even remember having it.
- Our body starts acting on it, such as by walking to the fridge or alt-tabbing to a web browser.
- Our imagination starts to plan out how we might do it, or simulate what doing it might be like, or envision what the outcome might be.
We often become aware we’re doing the 2nd one as we do it (though it can take a surprising amount of time), and then decide if we want to continue or not. If the thing is enjoyable enough, it might be hard to stop. This will be covered more in future articles.
The 3rd one, if noticed and latched onto, can then be continued consciously. This is the first point at which intention enters play, which makes it the first relevant step of executive function; by definition, something is only a result of executive function if it’s intentional.
It may seem strange to count “what you decide to do” as part of executive function, but this is why it’s important that Planning and Prioritizing are grouped together; before you decide how to do something you must decide whether you actually want to at all. And your reasons, context, and frame for prioritizing something is all upstream of how “motivated” you will feel to overcome the various other challenges that might come up during the process, including the actual initiation of the task.
So how do we do that?
It’s difficult to make a full list of things to prioritize for; there are multiple entire frames you could use before you even start listing things, such as short term vs long term, or selfcare vs productivity, or explore vs exploit. Or you can divide your life up into different areas and goals, such as Health, Work, Leisure, and Love and then decide what to prioritize based on which is lowest, or which feels the most valuable in the moment.
Whatever the category or specific thing being prioritized for is, the first step to avoiding executive dysfunction is recognizing what feels, for lack of a better word, alive. That can mean “fun,” even if challenging, or “compelling,” even if scary… these are just a couple of the many words we use to refer to specific emotions that make up the umbrella term “motivation.”
Motivation comes up all the time when talking about executive (dys)function. Sometimes it’s called “willpower.” Other times people refer to its absence, “akrasia,” when they wonder why they’re struggling to do things they, ostensibly, want to do.
But this is why distinguishing actual “wants” from feelings of “shoulds” is important. There will always be more notions to do things than things you end up having time to do, and always more “shoulds” that you will feel pressured to follow than the ones you endorse doing.
Again, prioritizing is crucial to executive function. It’s how you avoid not just decision paralysis on one hand or regret on the other, but also how you avoid motivation traps (simply not caring enough about the thing to do it, despite feeling like you need to). Trying to do something that doesn’t feel alive is similar to getting a car from one place to another without enough gas; the less you have, the more you’ll have to push.
So what does it mean to prioritize based on what you “want,” in a world that’s so often full of things you “have” to do just to survive, or maintain basic quality of life?
There’s no easy answer to this, as your wants are to some degree a reflection of reality. There may be some activities that just are more fun than others for you in the territory. There may be some outcomes that just are more scary than others for you. There isn’t anything wrong with recognizing this.
But we understand reality through models, and our maps of the territory can change as we gain new knowledge. Some activities turn out to be more fun than we at first think they are, either with experience or with the right knowledge of how to do them a different way, and our motivation to do them increases. Other times we reframe our expectations or experience of an activity, and it becomes more or less motivating based on the attitude we take, or the predictions we have, about it. Genuinely believing that failure is just an opportunity to learn and grow makes activities with uncertain success less daunting to try, but of course this is more difficult the stronger the negative consequences are.
This may seem obvious to some, but it’s worth spelling out that this means our ability to simulate what will happen if we do something, or don’t do it, is actually fairly important for how motivated we feel to do it. If you can’t clearly visualize the steps from where you are to where you want to be, it’s much easier to end up feeling stuck, lost, or adrift.
(For those with aphantasia, the alternative process might be similar to what you do when thinking of something in the future you’re excited about; I’m not sure how analogous this is, and would love to hear from anyone who has trouble with mental visualizations, or see research on whether there’s a connection between the two)
We can also find more clues to why things might be emotionally difficult to do by looking at the reverse: habits.
Endorsed or not, we tend to feel no particular rush of motivation or painful akrasia when doing habits because, in order for an action to become a habit, we’ve done it so often it has become predictable. There’s no chance of failure, and no need for thought to ensure a particularly good outcome.
(Probably worth noting, it seems that some people really just don’t form habits, or at least the threshold for forming habits is much higher for them such that the closest thing they experience to being able to do things on autopilot while thinking about other things is something like “walking” or driving.” This is also something I’m curious to hear/learn more about.)
All of which leads me to my first crystallized insight from research:
Executive Dysfunction most often occurs when the next step between where you are now and what you want to do is difficult to imagine, and/or painful in some way.
This, ultimately, is why a lot of the leading advice for clearing ugh fields are things like “break things down into smaller steps” and “check if there’s anyone you can reach out to for help” and “try approaching the problem from another angle.” It’s also why just talking through a fear and being reassured that the reality won’t be as bad as it seems can help people do things they’ve been putting off.
I suspect it’s also why just having company around can help people get through things they expect to be unpleasant. There’s a sense of ambient safety that comes from being around those we trust to support us, even if there’s nothing in particular they can do about the bad-stuff that we imagine. On top of that, as a separate thing, having pleasant company and conversation can just make unpleasant tasks easier to do.
This might seem really basic, but is worth highlighting as separate from social pressure or worries of how you’ll look to others, which tend to be how people perceive accountability partners or similar. Those can definitely have influence, but for many they’re aversive rather than compelling, and these more positive frames can be more valuable.
But those are all just a few ways to unblock the initial spark/decision/compulsion to do something you deliberately plan to do. If you don’t focus too much on deliberate steps of an action, you might find yourself able to do them more easily by just following notions; “non-doing,” or wuwei, is a phrase often used for this state. Of course, you also might find yourself non-doing something else other than the thing you “intend” to (that’s rather the point).
But that this “cheat” can work at all indicates again that there’s something about deliberate attention and focus that can evoke things which demotivate us, or paralyze us with indecision or fear. Acting before your conscious thoughts can get in the way is, in many ways like putting yourself in a state of total freedom from consequences; consequences only impact our behavior when we know about and believe in them, after all. This is a great strategy when the risks or consequences aren’t “real.”
Not that non-doing is fool-proof, even if you invoke it and and follow the “right” notion to, say, sit in front of your computer and open your email inbox; once you’re face to face with a difficult email, it might bring your attention back to the things that made it hard to answer them in the first place, sending your attention to something less uncertain or painful. But again, we’ll cover that in a later section.
How does task initiation happen at all, given the existence of multiple different possible acts you could take? What tips the mind in the direction of one over another?
At some level a calculation is being made from evidence accrued about what you want and how likely a given task is to get it for you, set against evidence of risk and consequences of failure. So all you have to do is find a way to make something seem more likely to get what you want, right?
Well, yes, except doing that is itself a task that requires initiation, which means it also gets stymied by next-steps that seem unclear or painful. It’s turtles all the way down.
But that’s not to say it’s hopeless; again, what frame you’re thinking of the problem in matters, as does real knowledge about what you want and how to get it, as do incentives.
So here are my practical suggestions, along with all the usual stuff like “reduce friction to doing what you want” and “set up good incentives” and “break tasks down” and “ask for help” and so on:
Suggestion 1: Distinguish what you actually want.
There are four things people confuse all the time, and use the same sort of language to express, despite them meaning very different things:
1) I want to do X.
2) I want X to be done, but don’t want to do it.
3) I want to be the sort of person who does or can do X.
4) I want to be seen as the sort of person who does or can do X.
It’s important to notice which of these actually applies to your circumstances, not just to better figure out what sorts of frames and evidence will motivate you to do it, but again to figure out whether it’s something you endorse trying to do at all.
(It’s also much easier not to beat yourself up over failing to be motivated to do something when you realize that you don’t actually want to, and realize what similar motivations might be crossed with the one you thought you were acting on.)
Always be clear whether priorities are guided by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. I don’t have a source on this, but in my experience and from reports by others it is genuinely easier for a lot of students to do bullshit busy-work when the people asking them to do the bullshit work acknowledge it’s bullshit and take a “let’s just get through this together” approach rather than a “you’re a bad person if you don’t want to do this” one.
Suggestion 2: Review the actual costs/benefits.
Whether you’re journaling, Internal Double Cruxing, doing Narrative Therapy, or exploring Internal Family Systems, there’s something uniquely powerful about letting your thoughts finish.
Our brains are great at blocking or hiding from unpleasant thoughts. It’s basic behaviorism, reflexive as catching or flinching away from rapidly approaching objects. So when we need more evidence that something is worth doing to feel motivated to do it, we might keep the examination of that evidence from happening without even realizing it if the information comes “packaged” with painful thoughts or feelings.
You never know what might tip the amount of evidence your brain needs to do something past the initiation threshold, so one of the ways that we can “amass willpower” is by putting all the information in front of our System 2 and giving it time to process. This is part of why just talking to a friend about something difficult to do can make it easier, and we can isolate the effect by noticing a similar value from writing out the thoughts about it instead, or doing Focusing on some felt-sense of urgency, or giving space to internal parts to talk to each other. These can all provide different benefits, but what they have in common is that they’re time spent actually reviewing, sitting with, and absorbing the reasons why we want to do something, if you do, or why we’ll be glad that it’s done.
Let your inner sim slide forward in time, not just to the activity itself (which will likely make your attention focus on things that are fun to do moment to moment) but also to the post-act feeling, which may motivate you by focusing your attention more on the “completed a challenge” joy.
Suggestion 3: Prioritize smaller steps.
This planning/prioritizing stage can be a lengthy process or a nearly instantaneous one. Many have had the experience of feeling like they want to do something, or should do something, perfectly visualize what it would take to do it, but are simply/just unable to move their limbs.
In an extreme version of this, I heard from someone who reported that they needed to charge their phone, and the charger was even in reach, but the actual act of moving to get the charger felt insurmountable.
As a form of “break the task down into smaller steps,” I also suggest “prioritize smaller steps.” Don’t just break the task down into “turn off TV, get up, go to the computer, open email, select first unanswered email,” etc. That can be helpful sometimes, particularly for complex or obscure problems like research projects or bureaucratic paperwork, but it’s not priming the motivation generator.
Instead, also focus on how each step is itself valuable to you. You know the positive feelings you get sometimes when you stand up after being prone for a long time? You know how being in a sitting position for too long is bad for health? Let your attention focus on those things, and prioritize the task of just getting up first. You know that feeling of pleasure you get when you check something off a list, or remember that you made some progress on a task today? Focus on those feelings, and prioritize just opening the email and reading it if you haven’t, or starting the draft if you haven’t.
In other words, seek the positive valence attached to each step of an activity and focus on those to motivate you from one step to the next. If you’re having trouble feeling anything while doing this, note what your body sensations are as a default; if you feel numb in general, it’s going to be hard to feel motivated to do anything, since you won’t have an associated felt-sense (this is likely why depression and low-motivation are so correlated) and thus none of the things you imagine will help you reach the activation threshold.
In that case, do something to help you get re-embodied. For some people this is as simple as dancing; put on some music that makes you move, or just notice your body and feel your feet and sway your limbs. For others it means grounding yourself in your breathing or heartbeat, and expand outward from there.
I’m labeling these “cheats” without malice or judgment, simply because I have no plausible explanation for them beyond “they trick your brain into being in another state.” Even the word trick feels perhaps too judgmental, as it assumes that any other state you could change to needs to have some difficult or explicable process. Maybe it doesn’t/shouldn’t, and in any case, it seems worth noting these strategies in case they’re helpful, or to flag them as interesting things to explore in case others have models information to share about why they work they way they do.
Music: The right music can motivate you to do all sorts of stuff. This likely is related to the positive-valence thing; music can often shift your emotional state, and this is a valuable tool in many cases, such as when you want to exercise, or clean the house, or do something that feels scary. I claim a big part of this comes from narrative power, particularly as music from movies or games or anime seem unusually effective, but it’s not exclusive to those.
It’s hard to shift entirely from one emotional mood to a completely different one, so if this seems like it doesn’t work for you, one piece of further advice I have on this is to pick a song that evokes an emotional frame that’s in the direction you want to go while still being in the venn diagram of the one you feel. So if you’re sad, and you know playing a super bubbly, energetic, positive song just makes you feel worse, or can’t reach you at all… instead try a song that’s at least melancholy, but with a hopeful or nostalgic or bittersweet tinge to it.
Totems: Objects can change your mood too; clothing, teddy bears, pictures taped to your monitor, etc. Anything that alters or changes your state of mind can be a valuable tool for enhancing executive function. If you’re having trouble typing in that journal app you keep insisting to yourself you’re going to do, but wearing a bathrobe and writing in a physical book with a quill by candlelight seems more appealing to you, then go for it.
Frames: I claim that frames are, quite possibly, the most powerful and ubiquitous psychotechnology there is, but that’s a claim for a bigger post than this. Meanwhile, my assertion here is that they’re not just very powerful for motivation, but also possibly very dangerous if used in the “wrong way.” There are often many different frames that people can use to recontextualize or view the things they “have” or want to do, and it’s worth noting when the narrative you’re telling yourself isn’t working so you can explore what others might feel more true or reach that positive valence tipping point.
An easy example of this is how many people manage to work quite hard for long periods of time, day after day, because they believe it will advance their career if they do, compared to those who believe they’re working on something vitally important to the world or their values, compared to those who do because they believe there are people directly relying on them to. These are all things that can motivate different people in different ways, whether true or not… and also, all three can be true, but which one someone’s attention naturally focuses on in any given moment might not be the most motivating one.
Gamification: Adding an extra layer of incentives or accountability can be fairly motivating for many people, and may seem less of a cheat, since it can be obvious why it works, but there are some forms of this that still feel “mysterious” to me, such as the idea of a “winning streak” that many apps use to keep people motivated to keep doing something day after day without missing one, even with no extra tangible reward. For many people, being rewarded with recognition of our effort, even if it’s just pixels on a screen from a computerized process, can still affect our expected emotional valence enough that it can tip us over the motivation threshold when we might not otherwise do the thing.
The next parts of this series will cover the other 6 aspects of Executive Function:
Part 2: Emotional Control, Self Monitoring, Impulse Control
Part 3: Working Memory, Organization, Flexible Thinking
And there’s a video I’d recommend if you’re looking for another take on Executive Function. It breaks it down into three areas of the brain:
- Frontal-Striatal Circuit: Response suppression, Freedom from distraction, working memory, organization, planning. “What” network.
- Frontal-Cerebellar Circuit: Motor Coordination, timing/timeliness, “When” network.
- Frontal-Limbic Circuit: Emotional Dysfunction, Motivation deficits, hyper-impulsivity, aggression. “Why” network.
And offers its own list of practical advice with some overlap:
- Reinforce yourself with rewards
- Use verbal self-encouragement
- Take 10 minute breaks between tasks
- Frequent 3 minutes of relaxation/meditation throughout day
- Visualize future benefits
- Engage in routine exercise
- Drink sugary drinks to keep your mental energy up
Edit: I’ve presented on this at a couple EAGs, one of which was recorded:
Executive Dysfunction 101
First things first; “executive dysfunction” is not a diagnosis. Executive functions are what govern our ability to plan actions, take those actions, maintain focus on them, adapt to changes, and more subtle steps between.
ADHD is a diagnosis that points to a cluster of common struggles with executive function: working memory, impulse control, and self monitoring. But there are plenty of other diagnoses that can impact one or more of those eight, and of course even things like lack of sleep, hunger, being irritated, disruptive environments, and other stressors can affect them.
So in general when we talk about executive dysfunction what we’re really pointing at is a symptom we witness when someone isn’t able to act on their desires, or on things they think they should do, or on things they think they should desire.
Which brings up the more philosophical question; what does it mean to “fail to act” on a desire? Does someone “have executive dysfunction” if they struggle to complete something they don’t want to do, but feel they have to? What about what they “want to want” to do, but don’t find interesting, even while they can still work on passion projects without issue? Or is it only executive dysfunction if they can’t bring themselves to work on something they feel a strong desire to do, in which case what does “strong desire” mean?
All this makes the question of whether someone struggles with executive dysfunction ill-posed. The better question is “in what domains or in what types of circumstances does someone struggle with executive dysfunction,” followed by narrowing down to which of their executive functions are the chokepoint. Organization? Task initiation? Emotional control?
(I’m also not a fan of “emotional control” as a phrase, as it implies something like stifling or dampening or wrestling with your emotions. This might accurately describe the feeling for some people, but integrating emotions in a healthy way doesn’t have to feel like any of that)
With this more precise understanding, the possible interventions also become more clear. Organization and planning skills can be learned, as can self-awareness and emotional integration. Multitasking and working memory, meanwhile, are harder to improve, and so reducing distractions by adjusting the environment might be more effective.
But most importantly, the question of whether the task is tied to a “want” or a “want to want” or a “should” can itself guide people to better understanding whether their struggle is one that is worth resolving at all, as compared to one that isn’t worth the costs compared to other actions or paths. Many people have pushed through some difficult job or university degree and were glad they did; others regret time wasted and emotional suffering endured for a goal that didn’t end up mattering to them.
Which is why executive dysfunction should not be treated by default as a difficulty that needs to be overcome. Instead it can also be a signal from one or more of your parts that the path you’re on is not the right one for you, and that you might benefit from searching for other, better roads, or even goals.
Along with depression and anxiety, additional factors can exacerbate executive dysfunction, such as perfectionism. The idea that anything tried must succeed, or be done perfectly, often leads to a feeling of dread or hopelessness at the prospect of even starting a task. This is particularly exacerbated by OCD.
Which leads to a general theory of treatment that includes things like exploring motivations and dissolving “shoulds” as a first step before taking for granted that failure to do something is about the person rather than the thing they’re trying to do.
Once that’s done, only then is it useful to focus on strategies for breaking tasks down into simpler versions of themselves, finding tools and contexts for improving focus and accountability, and generally working around that colorful circle up there as much as possible to improve all the ways executive functions might be disrupted. For example, since past difficulties can exacerbate this sense of predicted suffering or failure, it’s also important to focus on small, achievable steps that are more likely to succeed and thus increase predictability of success.
[The above refers to the parts model of the self, and to the therapeutic idea of systematically replacing the concept “should” with less normative framings. A lot of people find these helpful, but they’re not consensus views and they don’t work for everyone.]
To further explore this, I plan to write a series of posts on how to procedurally explore executive function within ourselves so that we can identify the places where we get stuck when we have trouble doing stuff we want to do, and have a better idea of what can help.
Procedural Executive Function: Part 1
Procedural Executive Function: Part 2
Procedural Executive Function: Part 3
Trust vs Trust
The word “Trust” was never quite operationalized as well as it should have been in society, and as a result it can now be used to mean two rather different things.
The first form trust takes is probably the most commonly understood use of the word; expecting someone to behave in a way that’s cooperative or fair. If you trust someone enough, you may enter into a business partnership with them or let them borrow your belongings or vouch for them to friends or colleagues. This trust can be broken, of course, if they start to act in ways other than what you expect them to, particularly if they start to defect from agreements. It is, ultimately, about how well you can model their ability to act prosocially.
The second form trust takes is much rarer, and yet somehow feels to me more like the “true” meaning of the word. It’s a level of trust that’s related to your confidence in someone’s character, sometimes despite their actions. It’s not about predicting what they’ll do in any given situation, but rather predicting the arc that their actions will take over a long enough timeline; trusting them, essentially, to error correct.
This may seem like it has the same outcomes, like if you trust them enough in this way you’d still be okay with lending them something, but it’s far less reliant on game theory or incentives, and far more about what you believe about what kind of person they are. In the first case, if the person you trust does not give back what you lent them, your trust is broken. In the second case, if they do not give back what you lent them, your trust endures, because your expectation is that their character is one who had a good reason not to give it back. This doesn’t require a resolution; it’s baked into the decision to lend them the thing itself, as you’d expect yourself not to regret lending it to them if you had all available future information, and are thus okay with not having that information.
That’s why, in this second sense, “Trust” really only has meaning if it’s applicable to situations where you might normally trust someone less or be unsure of them. If you can always know what someone does and why, your trust of them lacks the real power of the second definition. It’s only when someone is able to act without your knowledge, or acts in ways that you don’t understand, or even that seem like they harm you, that your “true” trust in them is tested, and either justified or not.
Because it can be unjustified. People can trust others in this “true” sense and still be wrong, and be hurt as a result. I think this is why it’s such a rare form of trust, in the end; it’s a more vulnerable stance to take, the same way an expression of love is different from an explicit commitment.
Which ultimately makes this trust about you as much as others. Whether you want to be the kind of person who trusts others to that degree or not is an orientation to vulnerability, and the deeper connections that can result from it. It makes sense not to grant it too often, but to never grant it at all would indicate either an inhibition of true connection, or a paucity of good friends.
Epistemically Honest Reassurance
There’s a problem I’ve been seeing a lot since I started doing couple’s counseling with rationalists: we are, on the whole, uncomfortable with lying, particularly to people we care about, even if it’s for a good cause. Being put in a position where someone asks you to lie to them can feel like a gear grinding in the head, or a disembodying from your true self, or a sense of suddenly walking on eggshells.
Not just rationalists feel this way, of course, but the following exchange is nearly ubiquitous in normal romantic culture:
“Do you think [bad thing will happen]?”
“Of course not, everything will be fine.”
On an intellectual level, the person asking often knows that their partner can’t actually promise this. But for many people, particularly in times of crisis, words to the effect of “Everything will be fine” are comforting, and all they’re really asking for in that moment is emotional reassurance. There’s nothing wrong with that, any more than there is a desire for aspirin when you have a headache.
Meanwhile, this is what might happen for rationalists:
“I’m scared of [bad thing happening].”
“Well, there’s a chance that it does, of course, but on net it doesn’t seem likely.”
or, if it does seem likely:
“Well… [brain lock]… Uh… [something meant to be reassuring but undermined by tone and affect].”
And sometimes the issue isn’t even about probabilities at all:
“Have I gained weight/does this make me look fat?”
“Are we going to be together forever?”
“Do you think they’re more attractive than I am?”
“Does it bother you when I get really sad for no reason?”
Again, it’s taken as the default in general romantic culture that what matters in responses are that they are reassuring, not that they’re true. Most people in normal culture would react with indignant outrage on their friend’s behalf if told that a spouse gave an honest answer to any of the above that reaffirmed the insecurity.
And again, even for other rationalists, the person asking may know that they’re putting their partner in a double bind, but the thing they want is not actually a “comforting lie.” Many people, particularly rationalists, really appreciate a partner who will be scrupulously honest with them.
But what still matters more than the object-level question is answering the implicit query:
“[I’m feeling insecure; do I have reason to be?]”
Which is why it might help to see the desire for verbal reassurance as similar to the desire for a hug; it’s about the sensation and the signal, and those can be provided without saying anything that feels false.
First, its important to reiterate that this is meant to be a way to reassure someone who is having a bad time, not a method of “fixing” underlying insecurities. Everyone needs a hug now and then, and sometimes all you can do for a cold is pop some aspirin. If there seems like a deeper issue at play then resolving that requires more in-depth discussion than this article is going to cover.
Second, I am not suggesting platitudes. If you can’t think of something both honest and reassuring to say, that’s a separate problem; if your partner wants reassurance that you love them or are committed to the relationship, and you can’t give that, don’t make it seem otherwise.
Third, remember to be ready to reverse all advice. Some people do actually want to be told “Yes, that makes you look fat.” But hopefully you will learn this through the relationship itself, and often even in those cases people don’t just want radical honesty, but also reassurance and understanding; this article is trying to help those who have already tried addressing the object-level and found their partner wasn’t reassured, without ignoring the possibility that they did in fact want object-level reassurance about improbability and wanted more emotional reassurance.
Speaking of which… a related problem is the one where people are unsure if their partner wants to “vent” or “problem solve,” and this post has advice on that which is very relevant here too.
…my answer is almost always “I want to understand my problem better, feel understood, and be reassured that the people important to me agree that this is a real problem, or at least that they support me in general. If understanding itself doesn’t solve the problem I will want to problem solve after I understand it”.
Similarly, people expressing insecurity through unanswerable questions often want to feel understood, and reassured, and maybe then also problem solve. That might look something like:
Am I getting fat?
What’s making you think that?
I no longer fit into these pants.
I’m sorry, I know you like those pants. I think you look great, but maybe we can find another pair you might like as much?
But that’s a nuanced and context dependent maneuver, not a one-size-fits-all password. The point of this post is to highlight to those who ask questions like this why their partner might have trouble answering them, and help those who are asked these questions understand what’s really being asked for is not always an answer to what’s being asked.
The root generator you want to tap into here is the one that creates your own optimism. What do you feel good/safe/confident about that you can share with your partner? What truth about yourself or your relationship do you want them to take comfort from?
“Do you think I’m going to get long COVID?”
“Either way, I’m here for you. We’ll get through it together.”
“Are you attracted to them?”
“Not the way I am you. You’re the only one I want to be with.”
“Do you think we’re going to make it through this?”
“I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m with you because I believe in us.”
“I hate how depressed I get all the time. I feel like I’m never going to be ‘normal.’”
“I know that must be frustrating, but I want you to know that I love you, and feel so lucky to be with you.”
And so on. For that last one, conversely, a bold prediction like “Don’t worry, I’m sure you will someday” could be counterproductive even in normal romantic culture. Some might want that object-level reassurance, but for others it would be missing the point; the actual thing they want is, again, to know that your love and support isn’t dependent on that happening.
Remember, try to find words that are true for you and feel right for your partner, and stay curious about what your partner is actually seeking in those situations; it may change over time, or be different in one context vs another. Then, once the moment is past, talk to them about it! Ask them what they felt when they asked something, what they meant by it, how your response was, what they would like to hear more of or less of.
There are also of course physical things you can and should do as well; touch is important for comfort and reassurance, as are gifts and acts of service. If you own a scale and your partner asks “Have I gained weight,” there are some pretty good ways to show that you find your partner attractive, and that question is a decent signal that you should do them more often.
Emotional/IFS Integration 102
(This is going to be another brief + tips oriented review of IFS concepts; be sure to read the 101 post if you’re totally new to this)
Not all parts that can exist inside you are naturally there or equally fleshed out. Circumstances in life will strengthen one or another, but like the saying about the two wolves inside us, you can also intentionally “feed” specific parts to make them stronger, and there’s one part in particular that your whole system will benefit from having strong.
Some call it the Ideal Parent Figure, others the Ideal Future Self, Inner Champion, Inner Mentor, etc. By some interpretations these could be considered “guides” or “critters” or “voices” rather than parts, in that they may speak to you but not want to act on their own, but that might vary per person. Additionally, their roles are subtly different based on the internal system they’re part of, but are still broadly those of Mediator, Comforter, and Encourager, whose primary value is their endless compassion for you and your parts.
Self-compassion is crucial to IFS, not as a prerequisite but as the primary ingredient for true acceptance of your parts/emotions, productive forgiveness for your mistakes, and a dignity that no one and nothing in life can take away from you. When you unconditionally love yourself, all sorts of healing and growth become possible, and you can create much stronger boundaries between yourself and harm.
Developing and feeding these inner parts can look similar, but experimentation can help find which works best for you. For this post I’ll just give brief advice for the first two:
Ideal Parent Figure is often a source of compassionate mediation between your parts. It helps you bring the Exiles in from the cold, soothe Anxiety’s fear of being ignored, understand Anger’s justifications, relax Firefighters’ vigilance, etc. Those who had abusive or distant parents often don’t know where to start with constructing this, unless they’re lucky enough to have met a friend’s parent or other mentor in their life who can serve as a model. Fictional characters can work too; Mr. Rogers is an example of someone widely considered a “platonic parental figure,” and many have found comfort and self-compassion by internalizing his “voice” and perspective to help replace some of the more harmful self-talk and their own (often well intentioned) imperfect parents left them with. You can also use this Protocol to help visualize what having a part like this could actually look like.
Ideal Future Self in many internal systems (my own included) serves identical purposes to the IPF; it’s particularly useful for those who had no sense of “parents” as a distinct emotional category, positive or negative, by instead drawing directly on your aspirations. Constructing and feeding your Ideal Future Self is done by thinking over and writing out what a version of you with all the skill and wisdom that you hope to develop would say if they were around and freely able to give it to you, all in a compassionate way. Your ideal self would not judge any shortcomings and failings you have, because they remember your journey and all the difficulties you struggled with along the way. They serve less often as the mediator for your other parts (those without “parent” as emotional category are more likely to act as their own internal mediator), and more a source of encouragement for you; they believe in you, and care about you, and are waiting for you, no matter how long it takes. This means that you can also develop them by writing to your past self, and telling them what you wish someone had told you, particularly in your darkest moments. Like with the IPF, it can often be very healing to deliberately imagine yourself hugging your past self as you deliver the words, and similarly imagine your future self using soothing touch as they comfort and encourages you.
Psychologically, whatever this part is called, it acts as a container for all the things you intellectually might believe, but still have trouble emotionally accessing at all times, particularly at your low points. Samples of the sorts of things they would often say include:
- “You don’t have to be perfect to deserve love and kindness.”
- “I know it’s hard, but I’m proud of the progress you’re making.”
- “There’s nothing wrong with your wants/feelings, even if they’re confusing.”
- “You made a mistake, but it doesn’t have to define you.”
- “You can get through this. I believe in you.”
- “It’s okay to hurt. I’m here. We’ll get through this together.”
It’s okay if you don’t believe these just yet, or if there are other voices shouting the opposite. The purpose of taking time to better build up these models and strengthen these parts is to help make these feel more real, particularly if you have memories of times they did feel true and spend time meditating on those experiences.
Once these parts are solid enough, they make practically every other aspect of emotional integration easier. It’s quite literally like having a perfect ally travel everywhere with you, ready and waiting to step in and help you whenever you need a steadying hand and comforting word.
(For further reading, here’s a good overview for why self-love and self-compassion is so powerful, with more good resources at the end.)
Emotional/IFS Integration 101:
(The following is my own understanding and practice of IFS, and may include elements that conflict with the standard model. In an attempt to keep these brief I won’t be going into much theory, and focus on what seems to work best for myself and my clients)
Internal Family Systems is a form of therapy that treats psychological or emotional difficulty as the result of disagreements between the “parts” that make you who you are. Sometimes these parts make themselves known as (disagreeing/discordant) thoughts, other times as (conflicting/painful) emotions. A variety of labels can be useful to identify and understand their effects and interactions; in the classic model, these are Exiles, Firefighters, and Managers, as well as the Self, which is the “part” that your conscious mind remains associated with even amidst fragmentation.
But there are many forms IFS can take, or layers that can be applied onto each other. For some, characterizing their parts as actual family members (Child, Teenager, Adult) is very useful. For others, a starship crew (Security, Engineering, Science, Captain) makes for easier internal communication. Whatever form these parts take, IFS can be valuable for many purposes, but the most straightforward one is simple “emotional integration,” which is to say, conversely, feeling more like a unified individual rather than struggling with emotional turmoil over some looming decision or past action.
The path to integration looks something like this:
Finally, Integration comes from practice, patience, and trust. As I said, it’s not always a steady progression. We encounter new things, life gets messy, parts get out of sync. But trust yourself, be patient with yourself, practice the skills, and the rest of you will be ready and waiting to re-integrate until you feel like unified again.
(You can learn more about IFS from this more in-depth article)
Nice Guy Anti-FAQ
“Nice Guy” is a pejorative label used almost exclusively to make fun of men who express frustration at the “unfairness” of the romantic world for good, kind-hearted guys. It comes from the saying “Nice guys finish last,” and many have attempted to defend the perspective and insist that the frustrations and beliefs at its core are genuine reflections of reality.
As someone who struggled with these sorts of thoughts in high school (classic story of self-believed nice guy in unrequited love with a girl whose boyfriend seemed to be mistreating her) but then quickly outgrew it (remained friends with girl through her breakup with first boyfriend and finding actually nice new boyfriend), I view the debate surrounding the worldview and its components with a mix of frustration and sympathy. So I thought I’d write this to help clear the air a bit, and hopefully convince some Nice Guys that their beliefs are largely the result of biased perspectives and limited information, so that they can also grow past them.
(Note that girls can be “Nice Guys” too. Plenty of girls have found themselves to be essentially invisible to guys romantically, despite being nice and caring and giving them a shoulder to cry on as the guys pined after other (often less nice) girls. This post is going to keep the genders static for simplicity, but most of it can be applied to the reverse situation as well.)
1. Why Do Girls Date “Assholes”?
2. Why Do Girls Claim to Like Nice Guys?
3. Why Do Girls Complain to Nice Friends?
4. Why Bother Risking the “Friendzone”?
5. Why Are Nice Guys Mocked?
6. Why Should I Believe Any of This?
0. What is a Nice Guy?
Everyone’s going to have different definitions of this, but the ones I find most useful/true tend to use some combination of the following tenets:
1) A guy who believes that being kind, polite, or caring are overall detrimental traits for dating.
2) A guy who believes that the things women claim to care about romantically (like being treated well) are not what they actually care about.
3) A guy who believes that women complaining about their dating life to nice male friends who want to date them are being hypocritical.
4) A guy who believes that being just friends with girls they are attracted to is either impossible, or too painful to be worth having them in their life (fear of the “Friend Zone”)
Additional tenets I often see attributed to Nice Guys that I don’t think are necessary to be one:
5) A guy who believes being friendly and spending money on girls obligates them to sex.
6) A guy who thinks women are only valuable for sex.
I only ever briefly held beliefs 1-2, and knew plenty of others who held 3-4 as well, but I don’t believe 5-6 are “core” parts to being a Nice Guy, and think the majority of the hate/disgust people have toward Nice Guys usually focus on their expressions of 5-6.
Explaining why 5-6 are harmful and obviously wrong beliefs is beyond the scope of this FAQ, and hopefully not necessary to most reading it. However, some combination of 1-4 are somewhat more understandable beliefs that are often the result of biases (sample, confirmation, and others) and pain/frustration/loneliness. Since 5-6 are the beliefs that cause the most harm to others, they’re the ones that tend to get the most attention, but when people assume that anyone who believes in 1-4 also believes 5-6, that makes conversations around the topic of “Nice Guys” hard to navigate.
1. Isn’t Tenet 1 true? I know plenty of girls who date assholes, and lots of them won’t date their nice male friends!
So there are two separate beliefs that combine to form the first tenet.
First, yes, you know plenty of girls who date “assholes.” Most people do. I’ve also heard girls talk about guys who date “bitches.” And guys who date assholes and girls who date bitches. Simple truth is, shitty people exist of all genders, and they are capable of finding someone to date them.
Sometimes the person they date is similarly shitty. But sometimes the sweetest, kindest people you know also date people who treat them poorly, or treat others poorly. Maybe because they don’t see how shitty they are, or they’re dependent on them in some way, or they have amazing sex, or because they don’t have the self-esteem to think they deserve better, or because they hope their SO will change, or because they’re afraid of being alone, or internalized societal messages about needing a “protector” (which can be confused for aggressive jealousy), and so on. People stay in relationships for a lot of reasons, but there are plenty of people who break up with shitty boyfriends and girlfriends too.
So let’s be clear: if someone ever told you that people only date nice people, they misinformed you. At best they were overly optimistic. At worst they probably just wanted to encourage you to be nice. It was probably your mother. Try not to hold it against them.
But just because a rule you were taught turns out not to be true doesn’t mean the opposite is true.
If Nice Guys just believed that being nice isn’t a positive aspect for dating, that would be one thing. Still wrong, but less wrong. To think it’s actually a detriment requires a second data point that seems to support this belief: that these girls have nice male friends, but they won’t date them instead of the assholes.
So, “some girls date assholes while not dating their nice friends instead” becomes “being nice is a detriment to dating.” It’s a leap in logic, but at least you could see why someone who only focused on these two bits of data would conclude that… especially if the nice guy is observing examples of niceness “losing.” An example of this is if a nice guy asks a girl out, gets a “no,” and accepts that, then sees another guy get a “no,” keep asking, and eventually gets a “yes.”
But again, it’s due to an artificial rule: the belief that being nice is the most important feature, translating to thinking that if you don’t choose the nicest person to date, then you must not care about niceness.
But “Nice” is not all you need to date someone. I wouldn’t even say it’s much of a positive. If I’m being brutally honest, if you consider “nice” to be one of your best features, you’re not saying much about yourself. Most people looking for a partner to go through life with consider “nice” to be a baseline attribute. Some combination of mutual attraction, interests, values, humor, and more are all higher on the list of what “matters” for most people. Again, not because niceness doesn’t matter, but because anyone not nice is often filtered out fairly quickly.
But again, Nice Guys who believe Tenet 1 don’t just think “Niceness isn’t the most important thing,” which is true. They believe it’s completely irrelevant at best, and a detriment otherwise.
Guys who believe that women who won’t date their nice friends must not care about niceness have only to ask themselves the same question: would I date a nice girl who I don’t find interesting or attractive?
Any guy reading this who says yes: think long and hard about every female friend and acquaintance you have and have ever had, every single one that was at all nice to you, and ask yourself if you’d really date them all just because they showed an interest in dating you.
Not just go on a date with them. Not just have sex with them a few times. I mean commit to a relationship, say at least a few months.
If that seems unfair, remember that not everyone has the same priorities as you. Assuming that girls should be willing to just “give a guy a chance” despite not being interested in him romantically is assuming that the girl is interested in casually dating someone she doesn’t see a future with. And any guy who asserts that girls should do that anyway, “just in case,” is just setting himself and his peers up for heartbreak.
Some guys will still say, yes, they would definitely date a nice girl who expressed an interest in them no matter what other factors about that person are true, and will believe they mean it. And for some this will be true.
To those people, I say kudos! To you, niceness is the most important factor for dating. That’s great!
But not everyone is like that. To plenty of people, it’s just not the most important factor, and they can no more force themselves to prioritize niceness above all other traits than you could force yourself to prioritize something else in who you’re attracted to.
In any case, even conceding that niceness isn’t the most important factor for dating for most people, that still doesn’t prove that niceness is a detriment for dating.
For that to be true, women need to actively turn away from niceness. They need to see two guys, equal in every way, but one is nice and one isn’t, and say “I’d prefer the one that treats me poorly, please.”
Again: I’m not saying this isn’t possible. People are weird. Some people get off on degradation, and others just don’t trust someone who isn’t as selfish as they are.
But if it’s your default assumption for how “most” people think and feel, or how women think and feel distinct from how men think and feel, then it’s probably worth unpacking what you think “niceness” even is. Not everyone agrees on it; on one extreme end, some guys see the disgust people have for macho-male sexuality and catcalls and unsolicited dickpics, and internalize “niceness” as not ever showing any romantic interest for fear of being “creepy.” On the opposite extreme, some people think being nice means being a doormat, having no boundaries, accepting anything other people do to you and making any sacrifice to fulfill even the smallest of gestures for the person you like.
Finding the balance between being confident in yourself and considerate of the people around you isn’t always easy, but studies show that both often affect the perceived attractiveness of potential partners.
2. If Tenet 2 isn’t true, why do women say they care about guys who are polite and nice caring, but date guys who treat them so poorly?
Again, some women do this, yes. As for why, the short answer to this is that people are complicated, and don’t always know what they want… but to be clear, deciding that you know better than they do what they want is the trap that many Nice Guys (and just generally unpleasant people) fall into.
The longer answer has to do with expectations versus reality.
People tend to have an ideal image of what their romantic partner would be like: attractive, romantic, funny, competent, generous, educated, etc. A lot of this is informed by things people are told are important by their parents, or peer group, or popular culture, and I can’t emphasize enough how damaging romantic movies are here. Most people are told at some point that porn is an unrealistic portrayal of sex, but it’s less commonly explained how misleading “romance” movies are in portraying healthy relationships. Hell, in The Notebook the couple goes out together for the first time because the protagonist threatens to kill himself in front of the girl if she doesn’t agree to go on a date with him… while she’s already on a date with someone else.
So yeah, some people end up with very confused ideas of what healthy, stable attraction and love look like, or what kind of attributes to look for in a partner.
But however they come by them, people ultimately form an ideal set of attributes that they will explicitly think or say they want. Some are generally applicable, others are more specific, like “Went to an Ivy League school” or “Plays an instrument,” but far less common are ones like “Went to Harvard,” or “Plays piano.”
Then, as they meet people who satisfy enough of their ideals to date, they make compromises. It’s okay that they’re not into the traditional romantic stuff. Or, it’s okay that they don’t give to charity. As they continue to date, there are often other things they didn’t expect they’d care about, and learn to appreciate. They get comfortable dating them. They know each other, have shared habits and friends and maybe even a shared apartment. Eventually they might even fall in love.
Maybe some time passes and the guy lets himself go a bit. Less focus on his appearance, gaining some weight. Or the girl spends less time studying or working, and lowers her aspirations. Or simple time changes their perception: his humor, at first unique and witty, now seems cynical or repetitive. Her competence at her job, at first impressive, now seems middling at best.
But if they love each other, they keep dating anyway. One or two things slipping a bit aren’t usually enough to break a relationship. Hell, even everything slipping a bit usually isn’t enough. Once people fall in love, it tends to take a long, steady decline in multiple areas for sufficient will to arise to change their pattern.
So here’s the thing: “niceness” is one of those areas.
Maybe the guy wasn’t really that nice to begin with, but they pretended. Forced himself to go to family events, held back criticisms of her, stopped himself from yelling at the waiter who got his order wrong, went out of his way to do nice things on all the major holidays, took her on dates because it was expected.
Or maybe things just changed. He doesn’t want to see her family as often anymore because he’s gotten to know them and doesn’t particularly like them, or vice versa. He doesn’t really care how her day at work was anymore because he finds her talking about it repetitive and trivial. He gets angry when she buys something expensive without talking about it first because now they have shared accounts.
If she saw these behaviors at the start of their relationship, she might not have gone on a second or third date. But once they’ve been dating for months or years, once love is in the picture and they live together and have a mutual friends and pets and even have kids together, it gets harder and harder to justify breaking things off and upending their lives and being single again, just because he’s not as “nice” as she’d like.
This isn’t just a story. This sort of thing happens all the time. I see it among couples that come in for counseling, know people who complain about it as a growing irritation they have for their SO. Unfortunately, it can even go on past the point of just not “being nice” to verbal or physical abuse. Sometimes people take years to leave a relationship that’s long since become toxic.
So, are girls lying if they say they like nice guys, even though they’re dating someone not all that nice?
No. But “I like nice guys” or “I want to date nice guys” isn’t the same thing as “I won’t date someone if they aren’t nice,” any more than “I like funny girls” isn’t the same thing as “I won’t date an unfunny girl.” For some people it does mean that, but even then, people compromise on their ideals all the time… especially for love.
And if you’re thinking “But what about girls who date guys even though they’re an asshole right away?” then you’re forgetting the first part of all this: people are complicated. Some think they can make them better people through dating them. Others have low self-esteem and don’t feel like they deserve people to be nice to them all the time: they’re just grateful that the boy is nice to them some of the time.
And ultimately, some really don’t care all that much about niceness. If these people say they do, they’re lying, either to themselves or others. It happens.
But that doesn’t mean all or even most girls are that way.
3. Okay but Tenet 3 is obviously true. Girls complain about their boyfriends to their nicer male friends all the time. Don’t they know they’re being hypocritical?
Let’s say a girl complains about how her boyfriend ruined their dinner when he tried to make it, and the friend she’s talking to is a great cook. Is that hypocritical?
Let’s say she complains about him not applying to a better job he said he would, to a friend who’s successful in their profession. Is that hypocritical?
If someone suggested that a girl should break up with her boyfriend because he’s a bad cook, and date the guy who’s a great cook instead, they’d be dismissed as ridiculous. But many seem to take it for granted that, if a girl is unhappy with her boyfriend’s not getting her a great gift on her birthday, or dismissing her interest to see a movie together, or not being nice to her family, everything else about him shouldn’t matter.
Don’t get me wrong: I think kindness should be valued far above cooking skill or professional aspiration. But it seems apparent that not everyone feels that way. And even if they do, as explained above, most girls who say they like niceness and kindness aren’t lying just because their boyfriends aren’t always as nice or kind as their male friends might be.
There are just other factors that are apparently strong enough to make them stay in the relationship. People complain about their SO to friends all the time. When a girl complains about lack of niceness to a nice friend, whether that nice friend wants to date her doesn’t change what she wants, and isn’t hypocritical.
Also, it needs to be said that if you’re a nice male friend of a girl you’re attracted to, and you think her boyfriend isn’t good enough for her and you would treat her much better, you should at least consider that you might be affected by some bias. Not just the “obviously I’m a better person than someone I have reason to dislike” bias, I mean things like confirmation and sample bias too. Some people are more likely to complain about their SOs to friends than talk about how great they are. But just because you’re only hearing about the negative things doesn’t mean that’s all there is.
Of course, if a girl knows her male friend wants to date her, talking to him about her boyfriend is probably not the most tactful thing to do. But that’s why it’s important for people to have mature discussions about boundaries if certain things bother them.
4. Why bother? Tenet 4 isn’t about objective facts, it’s about feelings, and if there are unrequited romantic feelings, isn’t that friendship just going to be painful and pointless?
This question could take a whole book to answer thoroughly (or at least it did when I tried), but the short answer to this is “it depends on the people involved.”
Friendship is great. Ideally, everyone should be open to more friendship. But friendship can come with costs. To end a friendship is basically saying “I don’t value what you bring me enough to justify what you cost me.” Which you should be able to say, especially if they’re abusive or shitty friends.
But sometimes what a relationship costs you is not always someone’s fault.
Unrequited love sucks. Really, really sucks. Comparing it to the loss of a loved one isn’t quite right, but it’s not far off either. It’s a whole stew of terrible feelings all mixed into one ongoing emotional torture: desperate hope, crushing loneliness, acidic jealousy, etc. It eats at your self-esteem, your self-worth. It sucks the joy out of things, concentrates them all in one place.
To get through that, to endure it, for the sake of a friendship is perhaps more than anyone should be expected to do. But I do encourage people to at least try to do it, because I’ve done it twice, and I’m glad I did both times. It helped me grow as a person and left me with two (or more, if counting their spouses) great lifelong friendships. I encourage others in the hopes they can benefit from them and keep their friendships too.
But I don’t judge someone for deciding not to put themselves through that. Because maybe it’s just not true for everyone, or every situation: maybe for some it’s a never-ending spiral of darkness.
But that’s unrequited love. If you like someone, have a crush on them, are attracted to them, or pretty much any feeling that basically amounts to “I would like to date this person, they make me feel good and warm and happy,” but they just want to be friends? It’s really hard to understand why that friendship would be “pointless” just because it never evolves into a relationship. If you’re heterosexual, and your best same gender friend admitted to attraction to you, you would probably be really badly hurt if after saying you don’t share their feelings they said “Whelp, guess this friendship is all worthless then if we’re never going to have sex, bye forever.”
So tenet 4 really comes down to the two individuals. For example, someone shouldn’t stay in a relationship where they’re being strung along, or where the other person is being insensitive to their feelings for them. This is where mature conversations need to be had: if you’ve never admitted how you feel and can’t bring yourself to say “Please don’t tell me about that guy you hooked up with last night, I have feelings for you and hearing about that feels like a stab to the gut,” or a less vulnerable version like “I’m still sorting out my feelings for you and things like this make it harder.” Otherwise it’s unfair to expect them to know better.
Ultimately, no one should feel obligated to stay in a friendship they don’t want to continue, for whatever reason. Where it becomes a problem is when, rather than a guy admitting that he ends his friendships with girls because he doesn’t want to deal with the negative emotions that are stirred up by them dating others, he blames the girl for not choosing to date him.
So yes, Tenet 4 is true… for most people most of the time. But it’s not an absolute, and without Tenets 1-3, it’s far less harmful. What causes Nice Guys to get flak for the belief is the way it turns to blaming women.
5. Why are Nice Guys mocked by women/men?
Again, hopefully I don’t have to explain why Tenets 5 and 6 are wrong and get judged poorly by others here. There’s no definition of “nice” that covers treating people like sex dispensers or believing they owe you things they never agreed to.
But there are a number of common threads I see in criticisms of Nice Guys that relate to Tenets 1-4, and now that I went over them a bit, I want to address why they elicit the reactions they do from others.
Women in general tend to dislike Nice Guys because their beliefs stereotype women and undermine their agency: Tenets 1-2 amount to “girls don’t like nice guys and if they say they do they’re wrong or lying.” Of course there are girls who like “bad boys,” and some who currently don’t may have done so when they were younger, but treating “girls prefer assholes” as a rule of dating makes women out to be either too dumb to understand themselves (the way the speaker can supposedly so clearly see through them) or too insincere to tell guys what they really want.
This is the equivalent of women saying that men “only care about looks.” Sure, it’s true for some men, even many men. But there are plenty of guys who genuinely care about their partners for more than just their looks, but who get irritated at women for assuming guys only care about sex.
Women tend to dislike Tenets 3 and 4 because they essentially make women out to be callous manipulators who go around breaking nice guys’ hearts for sport. Even if no malice is assigned to them by the guys, a lot of girls know first-hand how painful it is to have good friends cut them off just because the girl doesn’t want to date the guy, which is rarely acknowledged by the guys who are so focused on their own pain.
Even if the guy wants more than sex, and wants an actual romantic relationship, the distinction between friends and dating often comes down to flirtation and sex first, which means women have to deal with being “Relationship Zoned,” and only treated as worth friendship if it will lead to something more. Any guy who doesn’t think it sucks to meet someone and become friends with them only to get the cold shoulder as soon as they find out you have an SO needs to practice his empathy. When it happens constantly, some women get understandably bitter.
Generally, men and women feel safe acknowledging that people shouldn’t feel forced to stay in friendships if they don’t want to. Most agree that even if it sucks, it’s no one’s fault if a guy likes a girl who doesn’t like him back, and staying friends with the girl is too painful. Again, what reliably brings out the mockery and anger is when Nice Guys make out girls to be the bad guys for not being able to force themselves to like someone, or not giving their Nice Guy friend “a chance.” Some people feel okay with going on dates in an exploratory way, and might be willing to do so; others are afraid it will change the friendship, as it often can.
Also, rejecting guys can be scary. No matter how nice someone seems, it’s always a risk for women, and even if the guy doesn’t start insulting them or physically attacking them, it could lead to the guy cross-examining them about what “went wrong” or asking for another chance. For most people it’s just easier to not open that door.
Men who dislike Nice Guys tend to fall into two camps. The first generally disagrees with their beliefs, and finds them immature or sexist… in other words, not actually “nice.” They also might be guys who are, you know, nice and sweet and kind too… but have girlfriends, and so are living proof that “girls only date assholes” is just not true. So the perpetuation of the “nice guys finish last” myth kind of strikes a lot of guys as implicitly insulting, as if to say that they must not be as nice as all the single guys who want to date their girlfriends.
On top of that, guys who see Nice Guys complaining about how being nice doesn’t get them girlfriends tend to think that they’re only in it for sex/romance, and don’t actually care about the girls as people, so they find them somewhat hypocritical.
Another type of men who mock Nice Guys generally agree with their beliefs, but mock their decision to “stay nice” and be “beta” while encouraging them to abandon niceness. These tend to be advocates of Pick Up Artist communities who try to “game” women into sex, or Red Pillers who believe that women are biologically programmed to only care about looks and bank accounts, and insist that Nice Guys need to wake up to “reality” and embrace their (often harmful) definition of masculinity or gender relationships rather than whining about how unfair it all is.
The latter group, by the way, is a mixed bag in terms of value to guys. A lot of what they preach is basic positive stuff that everyone could benefit from: Get fit. Develop hobbies and interests. Have more confidence. Don’t put people on pedestals. These are all good pieces of advice to guys or girls who are romantically frustrated. The problem comes in when they sell this advice (which, again, is very basic and they did not invent) alongside suggestions for predatory dating practices, representations of females as biologically driven gold-diggers incapable of love, and promotion of one-size-fits-all ideals of good relationships.
And finally, there are just some people who mock “Nice Guys” because they’re mean people who like to make fun of others, or because they have bad listening skills/reading comprehension and see all expressions of loneliness as entitlement to others’ affection, even if none of the 6 tenets were invoked. Sorry about those people. They suck.
6. So now what? I’ve got these beliefs that you say aren’t true, I’m just supposed to believe you over my experiences?
I don’t expect anyone to believe a stranger on the internet, but I hope I can help people understand why even first-hand experiences can lead us to false beliefs if they’re not carefully examined.
Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. A number of our mental biases come from the mind’s tendency to take a subset of information and experiences, and turn them into a general rule. This is useful when you’re trying to survive in the wilderness, and seeing a couple people die after eating a spotted mushroom or wandering into the forest at night leads you to believe that “those mushrooms are poisonous” and “that forest is full of predators.”
Some of these beliefs turn out to be true, others false, but humans aren’t just pattern-seeking, we’re also risk-averse. Whether true or false, the beliefs we form off of anecdotal evidence are more likely to be be stubborn about updating if they help us avoid or minimize risk of being hurt.
So let’s look at how some romantic stereotypes form:
“Girls like to play hard-to-get” or “Girls find you more attractive when you aren’t seeking them.”
There’s a core element of truth in both of these: namely, desperation tends to be unattractive. Some people fall for each other immediately, but for people who take time to slowly warm up in their attraction, coming off “too strong” is definitely a negative. But they’re also somewhat contradictory.
So here’s a thing that happens sometimes which might cause those beliefs:
Alice is friends with Mike. Mike likes Alice, and wants to be more than friends. He makes some subtle hints, but Alice misses all of them, too caught up in her attraction with John. A year later, John is with someone else and Alice has begun to see Mike as more than a friend. Mike, however, has already given up on Alice, and is interested in someone else. When Alice brings up her attraction to Mike, he becomes upset that she “only likes him now that he’s not interested in her.”
Alice is hurt: she genuinely didn’t know Mike used to like her. Mike is hurt: he thinks she’s just playing with his emotions. In the best case scenarios, their friendship survives, and maybe Mike still feels enough for her to give the relationship a try. But if he really has moved on, he might become bitter about the year of unrequited feelings he had. He might be more likely to believe that “women like to play hard to get.”
Another thing that might happen is that women who have been hurt before, and/or heard lots of stories of guys who seem interested at first eventually get bored of their partner and move on, only feel safe with someone who expresses constant, passionate interest, such that they inadvertently (or even purposefully) turn dating into a competition for their affection. Even worse, many people advise women not to ever be the one to call or text first, in order to filter for guys who are genuinely excited about you, rather than a convenient person to sex zone (a common female concern , likely as common as the nice guy concern). It’s also more of a risk for women to be “too interested” first, as this might attract guys who will prey on their interest to use them; the way some guys worry about girls taking advantage of them for their money, most women worry about guys taking advantage of them for sex.
“Girls can have any guy they want, while guys have to jump through hoops to get a girl’s attention!”
There is, again, a core of truth in this, if you ignore a lot of factors that I’ll get to in a minute: As almost anyone who’s ever been on a dating site can attest to, even controlling for attractiveness, men and women have very different experiences. A reasonably attractive woman’s week-to-week experience on a dating site is essentially sorting through messages to find the few articulate, interesting, and/or amusing ones from guys they find attractive. Even a reasonably attractive guy’s day-to-day experience is messaging a dozen women and hoping one of them responds.
Some guys take this as definitive proof that dating is easier for women. I know these are often separate people from those that complain about being labeled as “only after sex,” but it’s still a point worth addressing. Many will refer to popular videos that show a guy going around asking random women on the street for sex and getting no positive responses, while a woman doing the same thing gets plenty.
And if sex is all that guys and girls care about, then it’s true: girls can get sex much easier than guys can.
But there’s a mismatch of expectations and standards here. The average man’s starting standard for “enjoyable sex” is far lower than the average woman’s. A healthy, sober guy will reach orgasm almost every time they have sex. But even though a girl’s enjoyment of sex doesn’t require orgasm, even if it’s not a goal, the sex can still be far less enjoyable for a wider variety of reasons.
(Research suggests that, on average, women are more sexually aroused by stimuli that include “mood” rather than men, who tend to be more easily stimulated by the merely physical or visual.)
Most guys who believe that women can get sex whenever they want fail to consider that women are far less likely to want sex whenever guys want. That’s not just a remark about sex drive, by the way: there are plenty of women who have higher libido than men. The point is that to find sex with a stranger or even new acquaintance desirable, even an attractive stranger/acquaintance, tends to be harder for women. Even if we ignore societal pressures against being a “slut,” even if we ignore the various different physical risks to women, they still can’t know whether the man is even skilled or generous enough in bed for the women to enjoy the experience.
It’s kind of like giving someone a Lifetime Pass to a particular movie theatre that plays movies at random, and mostly only gory horror movies, with a low chance of playing something else. But not everyone enjoys horror movies. In fact some find them, well, horrifying.
And for guys who love almost all movies, including gory horror movies, to look around and see women getting free movie tickets seems pretty unfair. It’s also hard to always see the strings attached: or rather, to see how often what you think are gestures of niceness and friendliness turn out to be strings. To paraphrase Chris Rock, encountering “Wanna grab some lunch? How ‘bout some dick?” and “Wanna see a movie? Wanna see my dick too?” almost every time a guy interacts with you can be exhausting, frustrating, and downright dehumanizing when one gets to the point where they have to constantly think about whether people are being friendly with them to just get some sex.
To simplify, a lot of guys imagine women being able to just walk into a video store, peruse the aisles, and walk out with the high quality movie of the exact genre they want. The reality is more like being constantly barraged with DVDs of random movies in varying quality. Even if such a service were available to them, they have to want what’s on offer to enjoy it.
So even the attractive girls on dating sites who don’t want a short term relationship, or don’t want to date someone who’s more interested in sex than in finding an interest they both share and can talk about, or actually want a romantic relationship with someone they can form a connection with… Their inboxes might as well be empty most days too.
To reiterate, I’m not saying it’s not easier for women to get sex, or even to find a relationship. I’m saying it’s not easier for women to be happy.
You can’t act like women don’t like the attention. I know a girl who’s leading three guys on at the same time, makes them pay for everything, and still complains about not being able to find a “nice guy!”
Yep, I believe it. I’ve known women who went from one relationship to another, cheating constantly and leeching off their boyfriends. I’ve also known guys who spent their entire relationship broke and jobless, living off their girlfriends’ love for years while doing drugs and being abusive all the while.
Selfish people exist. Toxic people exist. See above about why people date others who treat them poorly.
The point of this isn’t to say that these situations don’t happen: it’s to show how judging a gender by its worst members is, well, the definition of prejudice. Saying “Girls don’t like nice guys” or “Girls like getting attention” is no different from saying “Guys just care about sex” or “Guys don’t date to marry, they just marry whoever they’re with when they’re ready to settle down.”
There are too many arguments that essentially boil down to “guys and girls are just different!” by people who are not psychologists, let alone neurologists or evolutionary psychologists, and when you look for sources what you find tend to be dating manifestos or gender philosophies masquerading as science from decades ago.
This happens on the extreme end of the female side as well, whether it’s from cynical older women warning their daughters about how men are pigs or radical misandrists blogging about how all sex is rape. It’s worth pointing out not just because it should be called out on both sides, but also as a way to empathize: if you as a guy dislike it when people judge you by the worst of your gender, you should be capable of understanding why women feel the same way.
In truth, there are some research-backed differences between men and women, as linked to above. But the differences are not always biological, they are not nearly as absolutist and generalized as many assert, and they are often not even restricted to “men” and “women!”
One of my favorite non-fiction writings by Isaac Asimov was a letter in which he described the relativity of wrong, explaining that someone who says the earth is a sphere is actually incorrect: it’s an oblate spheroid, with mass concentrated more at the equator than the poles. But someone who says it’s a sphere is not as wrong as someone who says that the earth is flat.
Similarly, someone who says men and women are “the same” is wrong. But they are a whole lot less wrong than those who insist that men and women’s inborn psychological differences can be used to reliably predict any individual’s behavior or motives.
Almost every woman I know is like this. You’re talking about “unicorns,” but they’re the rare exception, and I’m never going to find one that isn’t already taken.
Beliefs about large numbers of people that don’t have some kind of falsifiable % put on them are kind of worthless. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that most women don’t like nice guys, the word “most” can mean anything from 99.999% to 50.001%, and not bothering to distinguish between the two means you’re okay with potentially being wrong as often as a coin flip.
It’s been said that luck is statistics taken personally, and in truth it is possible for someone to justifiably believe that girls who actually prefer nice guys are exceptions. Just by the sheer numbers involved in the amount of people around the country and world, there will be some Nice Guys who go through their early life encountering a majority of women who embody the worst stereotypes of the gender—guys whose mother, sisters, and early romantic interests all make them more likely to accept the idea that women are just interested in attractive assholes.
When such beliefs are formed and reinforced so early and consistently, it can be hard to see past the confirmation bias that develops as a result. But, again, it’s possible that this happens even in a model of reality that says that most women are not like that.
By contrast, the reverse circumstance isn’t broken by counterexamples. For people with lots of female friends who are dating genuinely nice guys, the idea that being nice is detrimental to dating doesn’t get proven by examples of abusive guys who have chains of girlfriends, or girls who claim to want nice guys but keep dating assholes.
This is all bullshit. I’m a smart, kind guy who’s in decent shape, has a good career, and a variety of hobbies. If girls actually care about that stuff, why can’t I get a girlfriend?
Oof. That’s rough buddy. I’d like to start by giving you a hug, because the place you’re in is shitty. I know how lonely it is, how frustrating. How the bitterness and desperation is sometimes your only defense against the pain. It really, really sucks, and this next part is going to seem cold. So bring it in.
The universe is an unfair place.
There are no soul mates. (Thankfully.) People are not destined to have fulfilling, lifelong romantic relationships, let alone entitled to finding such partners by the time they’re 20, or 30, or 40.
Maybe the perfect woman for you is on the other side of the planet. Maybe she lives in your apartment building, but you’ll never cross her path or have anything interesting to say to start a conversation that leads to a relationship.
Some people will meet their future wives or husbands in grade school, be married by college, and die within a year of each other when they’re in their 80s. Others will die within a year of being married. Others will never find a relationship that lasts longer than a few years. Others will never find a relationship at all. That’s life.
And if you’re about to say that you’re not talking about happily-ever-after, you’ll settle for just any relationship, just to have someone want to hug you and cuddle you and kiss you and love you for a month, a year, anyone, well, the above still applies.
Relationships are random. They correlate to things like physical appeal and intelligence and fun personalities and whatnot, but you still need to run across someone who’s attracted to you first. If you’re not okay with meeting online or doing long-distance, they need to be in your area. And even if you’re compatible, you need to meet at the right time where you’re both looking for a relationship, rather than being, say, 10 years old, or 13 and 18 years old, or in the middle of a different relationship already, or about to move away for college or a new job and not thinking about dating right now.
So if you’re 23, or even 33, or even 50, and haven’t ever had a girlfriend before, it might not be because of anything in your control. You might have just rolled a sequence of bad dice. With enough people rolling enough dice, it happens. I’m not saying this to minimize your pain, but it’s worth noting that some kids die of bone cancer before they’re even teenagers. The universe doesn’t care.
Take solace in that, if you can, because while there certainly are things people can do to improve their odds, blaming yourself can lead to some unhealthy depression and anger, and blaming women is the quickest way to ensure you’re stuck alone. Cold comfort though it may be, I believe that recognizing the unfairness of the universe is one of the ways you can potentially move past blaming yourself or others, and start really considering the problem in ways you can maybe do something about.
Because here’s the thing: if you really are a smart, kind guy of average attractiveness (or even below average attractiveness) who has a stable career but is frustrated by lack of romantic prospects? I’ll bet you a thousand dollars to one that I can find you someone who will be willing to date you within a year.
How? By lowering your (probably unrealistically high) standards. That’s all.
They probably won’t be someone you initially consider attractive. And they might not have any skills for employment. They might suffer from some physical or mental disability. They might have totally different taste in music and movies and hobbies. And come to think of it, they might not even be all that nice, when you really get to know them.
How much do each of those things matter, to you? Think about it. What are you willing to settle on, if all you really want is someone who loves you? Because this is an important thing to consider, when addressing the question of what the world owes us (nothing) compared to what we expect of it (quite a lot, probably, when we actually examine what we want). There’s nothing wrong with wanting a lot, but as the Buddha said, expectations, suffering, etc.
OKCupid used to have a research wing that analyzed the behavior of those on the site, and what they’ve found is that men tend to rate women as more attractive, on average, than women tend to rate men… but that men predominantly message women on the higher end of the attractiveness scale, while women are more willing to message men who are lower on the attractiveness scale.
Really think about that the next time you consider who among your female acquaintances and friends you’re romantically pursuing, opposed to which ones you’re ignoring that might be interested in you. And then think about whether you’d be willing to date the ones you’re not considering, if they expressed interest in you. Because while having standards is good, and having high standards is admirable, having high standards while bemoaning the lack of choices available to you is just bad math.
Tangential to the Nice Guy myths are a lot of others that deal with this perceived romantic imbalance between genders. Guys who refer to highly attractive women when they say “If only some girl would give me a chance,” or “Girls can get all the sex they want at any time,” while ignoring the existence of women below their attractiveness threshold, whose experience might better match their own frustrations.
So is it really all that strange that you haven’t found a girlfriend yet, if the only girls you’re considering and pursuing are all on the higher end of all the various criteria you consider important?
And remember, this isn’t an argument of “people can only date within their attractiveness level,” it’s an argument of “don’t form beliefs about a gender solely off of members of it you’re disproportionately focusing on.”
And if none of that applies to you, then you still might just have rolled a series of critical fail rolls. Hopefully you’ll regress to the mean soon; it feels cliché, but it’s still true that the more effort you put in the more likely the dice are to be in your favor.
But if it does apply to you, reconsider what you think you know about what girls “really” want and why, and consider more carefully what you really want, and why.