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How I Overcame Anxiety
Why you are pathologically risk averse, and the problem with "mental health"
Do you want to be like me? Do you want to be able to say whatever you want, constantly troll people, and get them to hate you with a passion, with all of this having no impact on your mental stability or functioning as you snort at them with contempt? Probably not. But if you’re like most people, you probably wish you had more confidence and peace of mind.
I wasn’t always like this. Growing up, I had what any psychiatrist would have classified as crushing social anxiety and depression. Talking to people for short periods of time would cause rapid hard palpitations and was generally unpleasant, so I avoided interacting with others when possible. But I felt in the back of my mind that I should have social experiences, so I tried to force them, and you can imagine how poorly that turned out. I would say that while as a teenager I was probably in the top 5% of the population in social anxiety and self-doubt, today I am now easily in the bottom 5%. No one can with certainty know other people’s mental states, but I think most individuals have enough of a theory of mind to compare themselves to others, and based on my experiences I have an extremely high level of confidence in those estimates.
I share the basic outlines of my story and some mental hacks I have found useful in the hope that this essay can be of benefit to others.
Why You Are Pathologically Risk Averse
While in college, I read The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. The author was Neil Strauss, a journalist who as a New York Times columnist had achieved some level of professional success but had bad luck in his dating life. He started out by doing research on the “seduction community,” a group of men that in the early days of the internet got together to figure out how to meet and attract women. Strauss becomes fascinated by these types and attends a seminar where a pickup guru named “Mystery” takes men out to bars, has them approach attractive women, and tells them what they did wrong (this would become the basis for a reality TV show). The author is given the nickname “Style,” gets close to Mystery, and moves in with other pickup artists (“PUAs”) as he becomes one of the leaders of the seduction community.
As someone who was not good with women, or people more generally, the message that men could improve themselves socially was very appealing. Upon reading Strauss’ book, I bought Mystery’s DVD series. I found that PUA shortcuts generally didn’t work, but that the advice they gave for improving one’s “inner game” was generally helpful. As I set out on my own journey of self-improvement, I came to the radical position that “inner game” was pretty much the entire game. The specific tricks and lines taught by PUAs were generally useless, but the advice to become focused on self-improvement and the mental modules they provided were extremely valuable.
I don’t remember much from the Mystery Method DVD series, but one rant stuck with me through the years. At some point, Mystery says something like “Yes, you’re going to be nervous when approaching a pretty girl. You know why? Because in our evolutionary prehistory, if you saw an attractive woman, there was a good chance she was partnered with the strongest man in the tribe, and if he didn’t like you talking to her he’d hit you over the head with a club and you would die. But that’s not going to happen today, so force yourself to make a move.”
I’d already read a bit of evolutionary psychology, and this theory made perfect sense to me. It tracked perfectly with some indisputable facts about social life. We are nervous and careful around those we consider high status and calm among those of lower status. This must be because higher status people have the most ability to hurt us, or at least get their caveman boyfriends to do it. So we walk on eggshells around them.
This line of thought led me to consider the question of anxiety more generally, not just in dating or social life. Evolutionary theory would suggest that most modern humans are too anxious, and therefore pathologically risk averse. For the vast majority of our species’ existence, individuals have lived on the edge. Financial ruin, physical injury, or shunning from the community could mean literal death. At the same time, there are by definition possible upsides to taking risks, in the form of gaining status, resources, or mates.
For someone living in a modern first world country, the most important downsides to risk are gone. No matter how much you fail at life, unless you join an inner-city gang or overdose on fentanyl you’re probably not going to die as a result of your mistakes. We’ve eliminated starvation, and rates of violence are a fraction of what they were in previous centuries and especially our deep evolutionary past. Instead of living in a parochial village in which any wrong step can follow one around forever, we live in the immediate vicinity of millions of people and can pick and choose which relationships to cultivate. The things we feel nervous about on a daily basis like someone making fun of us on Twitter or a romantic rejection are treated by our defective brains as issues of life and death, when in reality they matter very little. At the same time, the potential upsides to taking risk – money, power, sex – are all still there for the taking.
After coming to this realization, I didn’t just want to get to the 50th percentile of anxiety and self-doubt. The 50th percentile is pathological and ill-suited for modern life. If you want to truly succeed, you have to set out to kill anxiety. It’s certainly possible to overshoot that goal and become too risk acceptant, just as how it’s possible to become overly focused on losing weight and become too skinny. But due to our evolutionary past in which calories were much scarcer than they are today, there are many more fat people than there are anorexics, and for similar reasons you are much more likely to have too much anxiety than too little. It’s hard to think of large groups of people that are clearly too risk acceptant in modern society. The criminal underclass probably qualifies, but they’re a minority. Anxiety is bad both because it’s emotionally unpleasant in and of itself, and it sabotages everything else you want to do in life.
If you want empirical evidence that you should take more risks, Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt asked people who were on the fence about making a major life decision to flip a coin. Those who got heads were to make a change, while those who drew tails were to maintain the status quo. Whether or not they flipped the coin, those who ended up making a change ended up happier. Generally, the status quo tends to be the safe path while change tends to entail risk, so the results here back up the theory that we are pathologically risk averse most of the time.
One may notice a seeming contradiction within this fusionism between genetic determinism and self-help. Anxiety is deeply hardwired in us and afflicts most people to a pathological degree. That might make us pessimistic about the possibility of overcoming it. Realizing that anxiety was a pathology did not immediately solve all of my problems, any more than understanding the evolutionary reason why so many people are fat automatically makes one lose weight. But understanding where anxiety comes from and why it needs to be overcome gave me a constant focus as I went through life, and also a scientific detachment from challenges I would face. Every time I felt nervous around other people, I would remind myself of the evolutionary model, and try to force myself to pursue the relationships and goals that I wanted. Over time, the anxiety faded into the background. One thing mid-2000s PUAs would recommend was for men to approach random women in public places and try out different things. This is one of those things that’s a no-brainer: you gain a potential relationship if the girl is receptive, and experience and real world feedback if she isn’t. The only potential downside is you’ll help turn a woman into a Slate columnist writing humble-brag essays about how hard it is to go through life while being so hot.
Against “Mental Health”
To understand why anxiety can be overcome, I would make an analogy to the fear of flying. I can think of few things that evolution was more likely to equip us with than a fear of being 40,000 feet in the air. When planes were invented, one could easily imagine someone having predicted that while the technology certainly worked, human nature would never allow it to become a success. Apparently, about 40% of Americans feel some anxiety about flying, while the number experiencing an actual “phobia” is in the single digits. Despite this minority, it’s amazing that, given our evolutionary history, millions of people fly daily without giving the potential risks of doing so a second thought.
Why is social anxiety so common, when fear of flying isn’t? I’m convinced it is because society tells us the former is natural and inevitable, while ignoring the latter.
One overcomes social anxiety in the same way one overcomes a fear of flying. Understand that your fear is irrational, don’t make excuses for or indulge in it, and then just practice the thing that makes you nervous. Eventually, it gets through even the thickest skull that nothing bad is going to happen as a result of flying on an airplane. This is the idea behind “exposure therapy,” which the PUAs seem to have independently discovered on their own.
If we told people that fear of flying was something everyone struggles with, that it was the result of what others have done to them, or structural racism or whatever, I’m sure we’d get more of it. Imagine further if TV, music, and movies taught kids that fear of flying made them deep and interesting, and schools and universities had fear of flying awareness weeks. This is pretty much the modern approach to mental illness. Our tendency to discount the benefits of exposure as a natural way to reduce anxiety and naïve faith in the professional management of the human psyche help explain mistakes in how we have responded to covid. It’s been a massive experiment in which we have taken away people’s ability to socialize normally with others – and no, doing so while wearing a mask is not anywhere near normal – with predictably disastrous results.
A series of data points converge on the idea that navel-gazing and the medicalization of things like anxiety and depression are themselves major causes of the conditions they are meant to fight. I see nothing else that can explain why we see such skyrocketing rates of mental illness among young people today. If it’s all explained by the rise of the internet, one needs to explain why the mental health crisis hits liberals so much harder than conservatives.
One possibility is that some of this may be due to young people and liberals supposedly being more likely to report honestly on negative feelings, which could be healthier than suppressing them. But there’s no reason to think that rates of what we call mental illness are constant in different populations. Other pathologies that we can measure more accurately than mental illness – suicide, murder, drug abuse, etc. – fluctuate wildly depending on time and place. I see no reason why traits like anxiety and depression would not similarly be expected to do so, and the evidence indicates that they do. See Ethan Watters on the socially constructed nature of mental illness.
Even the phrase “mental health” is part of the problem. Think about how we speak about health in other contexts. Whether someone has a healthy heart or spine has nothing directly to do with their ideological, moral, and spiritual commitments. The individual is an observer of a mechanistic process. Maybe you eat less to take better care of your heart, but there isn’t an intimate relationship between how you perceive the organ at any particular moment and its overall functioning.
Another misguided metaphor, one that’s always particularly bothered me, is when we say “drug addiction is a disease.” What an insult to people with real diseases! The difference here is that if you put a gun to a cancer patient’s head they don’t stop having cancer. But drug addicts clearly respond to incentives, which is why Mao’s method could work only on this “disease” and no other. Their pathological behavior is therefore more analogous to the everyday choices we make about our lives than it is to a person being overcome with a physical illness.
The mental health module could be excused if it led to positive outcomes. But I don’t think it does. I believe that it crowds out superior frames through which to understand the human psyche, ones that form the basis of myth, ritual, and religion and have withstood the test of time. The language of medicalization – bureaucratic, self-pitying, distant, and sterile – crowds out the language of virtue, which has the power to move people.
Think about a friend who is acting pathologically risk averse by being too afraid to do something you know that they should do. You can tell them “stop being a wimp,” and that gives them agency. The framing is judgmental – there is a right and wrong way to behave, and you are incentivizing them to make the correct choice. In contrast, a medicalized way of understanding the problem relegates your friend to the status of helpless observer, provides no immediate psychic penalty for doing the wrong thing, and prioritizes one’s current emotional state and immediate comfort over the action ultimately taken, when simply taking the action itself has the potential to change one’s inner condition for the better.
In addition to always reminding myself that anxiety is in most cases irrational, what works for me – and I’m open to the possibility I am very unusual here – is a constant internal monologue that makes harsh judgments about my feelings and behavior. Through these and a few other mental hacks, I’ve spent my adult life making incremental improvements in reducing my baseline level of anxiety. The results are barely noticeable year-to-year but have cumulatively created a completely different person.
Applied Anxiety Minimization
None of this is to advise recklessness. For example, while there is virtually zero downside to trying to talk to any attractive stranger you see, the same isn’t going to be true for co-workers or others you are forced to manage long term relationships with. One should sometimes act with prudence, but that prudence should come from a careful consideration of the costs and benefits of each important decision, not emerge from an irrational fear based in evolutionary hardwiring that is today ill-suited to help one live a flourishing life. Being self-aware and honest with yourself is the only way to know when you’re being prudent and when you’re being a coward.
To put it in stark terms, if you are a single male, every time you see a woman that you might be interested in dating and you don’t at least talk to her, you have failed on a moral, intellectual, and spiritual level. There’s no nice way to put this, and realizing it will make you better off. The same is true more generally in any circumstance in which you have limited time to pursue a relationship that can be beneficial and you don’t do so out of fear.
I think I have publicly demonstrated my strategy of anxiety minimization, but it’s probably useful to make it explicit. Sometimes I will want to send a tweet or write an article that I’m afraid will make people angry or – and this is one of those cases – subject me to ridicule. When I feel that fear, it activates a challenge mode in my brain. I’ll say what I wanted to say, and usually make sure to do so in a way that’s even more offensive than I originally intended. I’ve surely said some things I shouldn’t have, but it’s impossible to calibrate these things perfectly, and my belief that it is better to err on the side of bravery than fear has worked out well enough so far.
There’s also a self-fulfilling component to these kinds of social processes, in which if you express insecurity or fear, your potential opponents will be more likely to attack and neutral observers will be more likely to think you did something wrong.
Where have I shown prudence? Well, there are three or four topics I refuse to write about. I am at the point where I could emotionally take the pushback, but broaching these issues would be counterproductive towards being able to influence the people I want to reach. I’m never going to win over socialists, feminists, or wokes, so offending them is less of a problem than offending conservatives, and that must be considered. Every writer, or public figure for that matter, makes these kinds of calculations, and it’s better to do so through conscious deliberation rather than responding to an emotional feedback system that puts an undue emphasis on pathological risk aversion. We are talking apes who in the day-to-day of life can do little better than rely on simple heuristics, and I think mine are better than the alternatives both for individuals and society as a whole.
Every time I’m attacked by a Twitter mob, I see an opportunity to become stronger. The first few times it happened, it gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that lasted for a few days. But I reacted in the way I always do when having negative emotions, and said to myself “ah, this is that pathological risk aversion/cowardice/weakness I’ve always struggled against. If I let it beat me I would have to admit to myself that I am no better than neurotic women with blue checkmarks, a fate worse than death.” I kept tweeting the way I wanted, and before long what strangers said on the internet didn’t bother me anymore. Now there are sometimes multiple internet mobs in a week, some of which are purposefully provoked, and I often don’t even notice them. It’s very fun to go through life like this.
If you work a regular day job and are trying to move up the corporate hierarchy, obviously you’re not going to want to be as open about your views as I am. My theory is that most people are too risk averse most of the time, whether in their personal or professional lives. That doesn’t mean that CEOs of Fortune 500 companies should be tweeting hot takes on the issue of the day. Instead of having three or four topics you don’t talk about, maybe it should be 20. But almost everyone reading this should be braver than they currently are, without behaving in a way that is reckless given their circumstances.
All the obvious caveats apply here. Don’t go around stalking women or groping them because I told you to stop being risk averse (do give the question of how you can be better with women serious thought and attention though). And what has worked for me may not work for others. After all, I am a sample size of 1, and psychologically far from the human norm. But the human norm sucks, particularly in our current year, and you should aim for something better. Hopefully this piece can provide some guidance and inspiration for those that do.
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