Admiration is a Poisonous Crack-Sprinkled Doughnut

Admiration is a Poisonous Crack-Sprinkled Doughnut 1
Are you a sucker for admiration? Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

My local Aldi, despite being a regular old budget supermarket nestled amongst the modern apartment blocks of West End, Brisbane, is a hotbed of exhibitionism. It isn’t uncommon to witness a female wrapped so tightly in clothing, with flesh spilling over so generously, that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the bananas to start peeling themselves. Hoards of beady-eyed men are tracking her, their attempts to be surreptitious hopelessly botched, with every look repeatedly captured, collected, and deposited as self-esteem — a reserve most precious, and frequently in danger of being exhausted. One of the primary oglers is a perfectly-clipped gentleman in a Hugo Boss suit, who appears embarrassed to be shopping at such an establishment, but compensates for it by twirling his BMW keys around his fingers as he steals longing glances at the girl’s shapely buttocks. His perversion is disrupted by repeated doubts about his own intelligence, which assault him like the thundering cannons of an 18th-century French revolutionary force, day-in and day-out, never in danger of being defeated by an expensive German sports car. In the freezer department, a chap with an alarming fake tan and arms like over-inflated balloons is reaching for some hash browns, after apparently having spent the last two hours taking a nap nestled among the satsumas. As he locks eyes with the girl and reveals his gleaming veneers, she returns the compliment with a coy smile, and they slowing gravitate towards each other — two like-minded souls, finding lust in unexpected places.

Within this collection of marginally-altered apes that we call humanity, the need to impress appears loud, mighty, and determined, like Hulk Hogan in the 80s. For those whose self-esteem is teetering on empty, admiration can taste like a doughnut sprinkled with crack, containing nothing nutritious, and forming a nasty, skin-scratching addiction. Repeated consumption may result in years of punishing gym time, body ravaged in the quest for the perfect physique; endless twilight hours at the office, striving frantically for a brag-worthy job; or decades worth of social media posts, cooking up grams of claps on a rusty spoon, sucking them into a syringe, and spiking a collapsing vein. Admiration is a rotten, subpar source of confidence, yet one that we reach for time and time again, with desperate hope of being permanently raised from the depths.

My own fierce desire to measure up comes in the form of being intelligent, something I’ve never been fully convinced of. As a kid my dad would matter-of-factly tell me that I was smart, but without any common sense, pointing to my academic success and embarrassing ineptitude at anything practical. Having grown into the maturity of adulthood, and having had the time and wisdom to understand him more thoroughly, I suspect that much of this can be attributed to psychological projection: pointing out other people’s insufficiencies in order to suppress his own. While on holiday with the old rascal a couple of months back, as we were checking into a hotel, he somehow managed to walk completely the wrong way, and when he finally found us, the embarrassment from his foolish moment created a spew of self-righteous rage at having been left behind, directed primarily at my darling mother, who has more patience than all the saints in Heaven. Though he probably knew it was his fault rather than ours, he’d rather appear smart and angry, than stupid and humble. Such is the power of insecurity to warp our behaviours into something toxic. Every nagging doubt can create a collection of pretentious behaviours which, rather than alleviating the concern, pump it full of protein until it’s a bloated, gesticulating mess, impossible to ignore, and glaringly obvious to the rest of the world. All the lipstick in the world can’t hide the fact that there’s a pig underneath.

Nurture can’t be blamed entirely for our insecurities. Doubt may be born from a selection of naive comments, but its basis in reality gives it strength to endure. Sometimes I marvel at the retarded things that I do — for example, earlier in the week I missed my appointment to become an Australian citizen, because I misjudged the dates. I was able to easily reschedule, but the stinging embarrassment that I felt as I relayed the mistake to my friends and colleagues could only be numbed with bouts of humour, and pretending not to care about the fact that I’d been hopelessly inept — a languid smokescreen that disappears all-too-quickly. Attempting to quash our insecurities with approval is like trying to fight a Balrog with a rusty coat hanger.

Long-lasting confidence and self-esteem can be gained not from the admiration of the whimsical crowd, but from standing upright to the bounteous personal challenges that appear, lion-hearted. As a frightened, skinny 20 year-old kid I went to Ibiza to try my hand at DJ’ing, returning with a head full of confidence after spending a debauched summer spinning vinyl in the Balearic sunshine. Every drunken cheer from the swarming crowd, every hand grasping at the neon green lasers, and every smile from my cocaine-ravaged Spanish boss was proof of my capability — a challenge initially terrifying, but triumphed over spectacularly, with a burning sensation in the groin area to prove it. 15 years later, mustering the courage to hit the publish button on Medium yielded similar results. Who knows what challenges lay in the future, and the treasured confidence they’ll bestow? The social approval that tends to accompany an action is nowhere near as valuable as the personal achievement one feels when trying something difficult, and succeeding. Self-esteem obtained from the masses seems precarious, liable to dissipate at any moment. Hard-won achievement, on the other hand, is often entirely within our control, proving to be a reliable, tenacious source of confidence. The exhibitionists of Aldi are putting their money on a three-legged horse, when they could be entering the race themselves. They might crash spectacularly, faces in the dirt and moonish buttocks akimbo, or they might go for broke, straining every muscle in their bodies, and coming away with the win of their lives.

Why you should distrust your beliefs

argument.jpgImage from Farnam Street

“The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.” — H. L. Mencken

The evidence is overwhelming: Trump is an imbecile, and a dangerous one. The frequency of his lies are astonishing. For a (supposedly) sane person like me, the fact that he was ever voted into office, and continues to serve as the head of state, beggars belief. How can his supporters continue to stand by his side in the face of the lies, scandals, and clear evidence of Trump’s hilarious incompetency? How can they be so stupid?

Social psychology has the answer, and its implications are frightening. The phenomenon is known as motivated reasoning, and it causes us to blankly reject solid evidence that challenges our beliefs. Clearly, this can be a dangerous cognitive failing at certain times, such as voting for a president. There’s a few reasons why this phenomenon occurs:

Cognitive dissonance
This is the mental discomfort that you experience when your beliefs are challenged. Few people like discomfort, so we’ll do whatever we can to reduce it. The quickest way to neutralise cognitive dissonance is to simply reject the challenging idea; no effort needs to be expended to figure out whether the challenge is accurate. We can simply reject, regain our comfort, and move on. Default notions are much easier.

The alternative way to dispel discomfort is rationalisation, which we consider to be logical and accurate, but is actually just another way for us to reinforce our own idea. Reasoning is permeated with emotion – our feelings about an idea surface much faster than conscious, logical thought, so our first reaction to them is emotional, and therefore less likely to be based in reality.

“Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” —Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber

Our delicate egos
Much of our confidence is hinged on being right. Challenging a strongly-held belief is like taking a large stick and bashing somebody’s self-esteem with it. We want to protect ourselves at all cost, and the way that we do that is by rejecting conflicting evidence and holding onto our beliefs ever more tightly. In a sense, our beliefs are our identity, and threatening our identity is a dangerous attack which we’ll defend against using the strongest means possible: outright rejection of the belief, or rationalisation.

“The reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth.” — Jonathan Haidt

Our tribe protects us
Our primitive times instilled a sense of tribal loyalty, which ensured our survival. If we were foolish enough to have coveted our neighbour’s delectable chimp wife, and upon discovery were cast out of the tribe, that probably would have meant death. To this day, our tribal instincts are incredibly strong. Republicans stick with Republicans, Democrats with Democrats. If you challenge a core belief of my political party, I’m very likely to outrightly reject it.

We’ve confirmed our beliefs extensively
“I don’t care whether you’re presenting overwhelming, contrary evidence to me, I’ve spent hours reading about this topic myself.”

What has actually happened is that the hours were spent reading every piece of content that agreed with my opinion, and completely ignoring that which disagreed. This is known as confirmation bias. 

1_yN2Xhv-M5PPerWzDVNt3sw.jpegImage from Chainsawsuit.com

We’re far from logical
Though we might like to consider ourselves as straightforward, logical people, the reality is that much of our decision making involves a good deal of emotion. We wouldn’t even be able to make a decision if we were 100% logical, as discovered by an unfortunate gentleman with a brain tumour. Clearly, the ludicrous man that is Donald Trump isn’t a logical choice for president, but emotionally, his supporters think that he is.

As an intelligent human, you might assume that you’ll be able to outsmart the devlish process of motivated reasoning. You’d be totally wrong – smart people are even more susceptible, because their increased levels of knowledge just make it harder for them to let go of their belief.

We have a stake in the belief
Maybe we just purchased a gleaming, curvaceous diesel Jaguar XE, and desperately want to believe that climate change is nonsense, so that we don’t feel bad about pumping diesel fumes into the atmosphere. Climate change is invisible and intangible, but our sense of moral worthiness is close to hand. The scientists must be wrong.

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Motivated reasoning is one of the culprits behind absurdities such as flat-earth theory, anti-vaxxing, and climate-change denial. The first is mildly humourous, the second will kill innocent children, and the third might end up killing a quarter of a million people a year. Obviously, what we choose to believe can have a devastating impact on our species, so being aware of motivated reasoning, and knowing how you might be able to combat it, is of urgent importance.

Here’s some ways in which you might battle your own destructive biases:

Be skeptical about your own beliefs
In light of the fact that our identity is pinged on our beliefs, this can be immensely demanding. We want to believe that we’re smart, reasonable human beings with a good idea of what’s going on around us. Being skeptical about our own beliefs might be a form of self-flagellation, in which we inflict bloody pain to cast out sinful, factually incorrect demons. Casting intentional doubt on our beliefs will cause us mental suffering, but the reward is more accurate reflection of reality, which could be the difference between life and death.

Check the credibility of your information
Tabloid newspapers aren’t credible. The ten facts about immigration that your redneck cousin posted on Facebook probably isn’t credible. The mysterious bleatings of an evangelical Christian on TV isn’t credible. It’s your responsibility to figure out whether your information is coming from an unbiased source, and so much of what we receive every day is biased. Everyone has desires that they’re motivated to achieve, and they won’t think twice about bending the truth in order to achieve them. Even if the person you’re speaking to isn’t trying to achieve a conscious desire, they’re still unconsciously trying to affirm their beliefs in order to protect their own egos.

Watch out for cognitive dissonance
When your beliefs are challenged, feeling uncomfortable is a cue to be cautious – you’ll want to seek out affirming evidence to remove the uncomfortableness. At this point you might try to deliberately soften your attitude, and consider whether the opposing belief may be correct. The more value that you place on your belief, the stronger the cognitive dissonance, and the harder it’ll be to persuade you otherwise. Keep a close eye on this, and have the courage to change your mind if you’re faced with strong opposing evidence.

Consider how your belief might be benefiting you
What do you gain by holding onto your belief? Maybe your entire family are republicans, and by switching sides, you’d no longer have their loyalty or respect? Maybe it’s just peace of mind? For climate-change deniers, the idea that we’re destroying our own planet has distressing consequences for us, and we’d rather not believe it to be true.

Work on your self-esteem
Research has shown that the better your self-esteem, the more willing you’ll be to accept threatening information, because you won’t need to be so protective of your beliefs. A much easier way of doing this is to consider something good about yourself; some personal value that you’ve achieved. This improves your confidence and makes you more accepting of challenging arguments.

Get off social media
Social media apps are motivated reasoning on crack – your friends probably hold the same beliefs as you, spread the same beliefs as you, and reinforce the same beliefs as you, regardless of whether they’re true. The Russians knew this, and used it effectively to help Trump win the election.

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It’s easy to poke fun at Trump supporters, until you realise that we’re subject to the exact same cognitive biases as them. In another life, you could have been a Trump supporter, or a pitiable flat-earther. Fighting the phenomenon of motivated reasoning is difficult, but a worthy pursuit. Without this laborious undertaking, we might find ourselves harnessing a belief that will literally help to destroy our own planet. It’s urgently important for us to reject bad ideas and promote good ones. The truth is out there, and much of it doesn’t yet reside in your head. Have the courage to pursue the truth, and in the process you might just help to save our species.

The usefulness of discomfort

1_QvUoi5AspQrQuxCD1ZR2tgPhoto by Jonathan Rados on Unsplash

Problems are recognised as inherently negative beasties. They usually involve a great deal of doubt and uncertainty, and so we want them as far away from us as possible. Rarely have the words “I wish I had more problems” been uttered.

When an inevitable problem arises, we quietly swear and curse its existence. We’d hire a charcoal assassin to put a bullet between its eyes, if we could. Instead of tackling it, our brain reminds us that we haven’t checked our social media in the last 15 minutes, and that this is the prime opportunity to do so. Memes are much more fun than problems.

We do this because we absolutely hate discomfort, in any form. Our immediate reaction is to escape – into social media, alcohol, drugs, or whatever else floats your boat. But doing so only brings temporary relief, and the discomfort usually has to be dealt with eventually.

Discomfort is no big deal. Escaping is just running in the opposite direction to what will, in essence, grow you as a person. By running from discomfort, you’re choosing to be stunted, like a 10-year old boy who smokes 30 cigarettes a day. Every cigarette prevents the mind from growing; becoming more complex; more interesting; more fulfilled. Every time we take the easier route, we’re weakening our fortitude, and strengthening our cowardice.

Discomfort of any kind should be viewed as an opportunity to bolster our fortitude. The people written into our history books probably had this skill in common. Darwin didn’t ask the captain of the HMS Beagle to turn the ship around when the sea got a little rough. Instead they pressed on through the danger, and the entire world benefited.

Mindfulness is an invaluable tool to build fortitude, because it teaches you to catch yourself in the act. You realise that you’re about to do the thing that you’ve done a thousand times before: escape into something easier. Rather than going ahead, you might decide to do the difficult thing instead, and achieve something worthwhile. Mindfulness also helps with staying in the moment. You can detach yourself from the discomfort that you’re feeling, and recognise that it isn’t anywhere near as bad as you thought.

In addition to teaching you to be more conscious of your thoughts, practicing mindfulness has a ton of other benefits, including lowering stress, enhancing self-esteem, improving your memory and focus, reducing anxiety, and increasing your energy. Many psychologists recommend that you incorporate it into your daily routine (along with exercise), due to its bountiful, scientifically proven perks.

By practicing mindfulness, we can catch ourselves in the act of escaping discomfort, and slowly come to realise that problems aren’t the demons that they’ve been portrayed as, but invaluable opportunities to build fortitude, and become better people.

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Addiction

A friend of mine has severe depression, a debilitating drug-addiction, and a gambling problem of epic proportions. Over the last two years, he’s alienated almost every one of his family and friends, disfigured his nose by snorting obscene amounts of cocaine, and lost over £100,000 (profit from the sale of his house). At the moment, he lives with his parents, both of who have come to detest him, but can’t stand the thought of him living on the streets.

His downward spiral has been happening for a long time. He loved drugs from a young age; always indulged in any kind of escapism, anything that numbed the pain of existence. Challenging/worthwhile things were ignored in favour of something easier. He never learned to persevere. He only ever headed in a single direction – the easiest one. He never learned that a great deal of happiness is to be found in doing what’s difficult.

I can’t imagine what it feels like to be in that kind of situation; the helplessness of it all. An awful sense of pity and frustration washes over me whenever I think about him. Every person who cares about him knows what he needs to do: rehab, and ongoing therapy. Yet he refuses. He continues to live a life that simply isn’t worth it, because it’s easier.

An addict can’t be forced to seek treatment. We’ve tried every persuasion technique possible. We’ve been patient and compassionate; furious and coercive. Nothing gets through. The affect that he’s had on his family has been heartbreaking to witness.

By allowing him to live in their home, his parents are keeping the situation stagnant. He has no responsibility to feed and shelter himself. He often sleeps all day, because he can. They’ve paid off his drug debts (£15k+) multiple times, and every single time that they do, they’re helping to kill their own son.

So a battle is being fought on two fronts: convincing his parents to stop funding my friend’s drug habit, and convincing him friend to get professional help. They seem like hopeless tasks, and I’m now starting to wonder whether this is something that I need to walk away from, for the sake of my own mental health. But doing so feels like giving up on someone that I love.


Are you suffering from any of these problems, or know somebody who is? You might be interested in the below.

Suicide prevention: https://www.lifeline.org.au/
Alcohol/drugs: https://adf.org.au/help-support/
Addiction: https://au.reachout.com/tough-times/addiction

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Perseverance

1_9oXP0Q6up4Qn3VQ_9WcDoQPhoto by David Boca on Unsplash

Procrastination is one of our worst enemies. If it were a person, it would be best friends with Donald Trump, cancer and ISIS. It would eat nothing but brussel sprouts, and regularly drown kittens. Why do we entertain such a rogue so often?

If we didn’t procrastinate as much, we’d get more shit done. We’d feel more confident in our ability. Others would admire us more. We’d know more stuff. The list of positives goes on, and yet we continue to put off what’s difficult, despite the fact that we’re quite clearly sabotaging our own happiness.

Procrastination has an arch-enemy; a challenger which aims to send it back to the fiery pit of hell, where it belongs. It’s called perseverance.

Persevering during times of struggle is very difficult to do. We instinctively want to run away; to get away from the discomfort. It’s helpful to remind ourselves why we should persevere, and the following should assist with that.

Helpful reminders on why you should cultivate perseverance

  • Remember that at times, you will fail. You’ll embarrass yourself. These are risks that come with doing anything worthwhile.
  • The brave aren’t fearless, they just continue despite their fear.
  • Understand that perseverance is the right quality to move you forward in life.
  • “I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost anything, even nature.” – John D. Rockefeller.
  • Being comfortable is overrated. Nothing worthwhile is achieved through being comfortable.
  • “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”-Martin Luther King.
  • “A river cuts through rock not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” – Jim Watkins.
  • Realise that if you stop the difficult task, you’ll never know the outcome. You could be missing out on a great deal of satisfaction.
  • Anything worthwhile takes time, and perseverance.
  • Struggle and patience are gateways to victory.
  • “Perseverance is failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th.” – Julie Andrews.
  • “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” – Robert Collier.

In addition to the above, we might want to consider the following methods as ways to encourage perseverance:

Methods for cultivating perseverance

  • Do what scares you. Do what makes you uncomfortable.
  • Start the task. Don’t hesitate.
  • See the task through to the end.
  • Once the task is over, you’ll realise that it wasn’t as bad as the stories you were telling yourself about it.
  • Return to the task. Examine your uncomfortableness closely. Embrace and accept it.
  • Look back on what you’ve achieved by not running away.
  • Do the thing, don’t do the other thing that you’re using as an escape.
  • Don’t let your mind run wild with imagined failures; excite it with anticipated victories.
  • Examine the uncomfortableness closely. How does it feel in your body? How does it feel in your mind? How does it make you act?
  • Make what makes you uncomfortable a habit. It’ll become easier with practice.
  • Meditate. It’ll help you become more aware of your self-talk. It’ll also help you focus.
  • Don’t rush, it’s much more enjoyable and less stressful taking your time (even on an uncomfortable task).
  • Consider the rewards of achieving the task.
  • No matter how daunting the task is, just take the first step, and keep on putting one foot in front of the other.

As long as we’re being challenged, we’re always going to want to procrastinate. But the more we practice perseverance, the more likely we’ll be to just get the fuck on with it. And every time that happens, we’ll feel a bit better about ourselves.

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Chasing happiness

1_VWcdxFLzSx2VvoEkMevAdQPhoto by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Most of us spend our lives fruitlessly chasing happiness, to our everlasting detriment.

It seems the natural thing to do; why on earth would we seek pain? Wouldn’t that make us debased masochists, delightfully sweating in anticipation of a jolly good bit of suffering?

Only pursuing positive experiences, it turns out, is a foolish endeavour. We’re robbing our lives of depth, because most things worth doing involve some degree of pain. It’s tempting to spend our days scrolling through social media like zombie consumers, safely protected from the possibility of a negative emotion emerging in our heads. But nothing is achieved by doing so; no sense of fulfilment will ever arise.

Alain De Botton says it better than anyone else:

The most fulfilling human projects appear inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…

Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfilment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.

– Alain De Botton

We must have the grit and fortitude to battle through pain if we want to achieve anything worthwhile. Sadness is not a disorder to be cured, it’s the path to a more fulfilling life.

The daily struggles that we have with our negative emotions only serve to exacerbate the very problem that we’re trying to solve. Pushing against unfavourable emotion, rather than accepting it, simply makes us feel worse. It’s as though we’re desperate to split ourselves in two: remove the undesirable, sickly sides of ourselves with a rusty blade. Trying to cut it away just poisons us.

It isn’t possible to be half-human. We must accept the parts of ourselves that we loathe; stop resisting the so-called negative aspects of our being. We cannot remove the bad. It’s useless to even try. We’ll live with embarrassment, shame, fear, unwanted desire, sickness, anxiety and every other despicable thought or feeling that we can imagine. The great George Orwell once said:

“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or very foolish imagine otherwise.”

– George Orwell

What makes us so arrogant to think that we can dispel unhappiness from our lives? This misguided quest of attempting to make every single moment the happiest it can possibly be only results in inevitable disappointment; a bad taste in our mouths that we’ve been trying to wash out since adolescence. We’re destined for a rollercoaster of emotions:

“Fate guides the willing, drags the unwilling.”

– Seneca

We can battle fate and exacerbate the pain, or instead make the choice to spend our lives with an attitude of acceptance. Only by embracing the latter can we truly be happier.

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