3 Loops of Expressing Feelings

By request, a published resource elaborating slightly on my response to a question a friend asked in a groupchat:

A lot of advice is some variation on “express your feelings to not be haunted by them forever,” but what do people mean by ‘express’ here? On one end there is being alone in a room and naming the feeling silently in your head, on the other end is telling your married boss you’re crushing on them, in between is stuff like journaling or going into the woods to scream and writhe or talking it out with a friend.

One model is that the key is to “let yourself fully feel the feeling” and the relevant sense of expression is whatever moves you towards that. Another is that feelings are for taking action in the world so apply appropriate thoughtfulness and discernment to avoid being rash and stupid but ultimately figure out what this trying to make you do and do it, and that will be the relevant expression. Does anybody find this advice helpful and wanna try to convey what it actually means for me?

From my perspective, there’s:

  • a loop that just involves yourself
  • a loop that involves a third party
  • and a loop that involves the person who the thing is about (eg the boss you have a crush on)

I’m calling these loops because they all have a kind of feedback loop quality to them, even though the feedback is quite subtle. There’s a sense of something landing.

AI art by me, generated as 3 separate images that I then composed

I mean what I mean

The first loop is about cultivating the sense of “I mean what mean“. Articulating something. Modifying it if it isn’t quite right. Trying again. Saying it out loud and feeling if it resonates. Getting to the point where you’re like “Yeah! THAT!”

Think of a time when you try to explain something to somebody, and they didn’t get it. Whether that was a model or a framework, or some emotional or relational thing or whatever.

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2023: Allowing Diligence

My 2023 was unequivocally awesome.

It’s a testament to the ways in which having a few key things go right makes any other mistakes or problems or challenges feel navigable.

Themes & dual meanings

I started 2023 with a theme in mind, which was Allowing Diligence. Coincidentally, like my friend’s year theme “Play With Responsibility”, this has a dual meaning:

  1. allowing myself to have diligence
  2. having diligence about allowing

One of the things I had in mind when I oriented to allowing myself to have diligence was that I’d get more on top of my email inbox, which for the past few years has been more like a stream I’d dip into every couple of days to glance for possibly-relevant-and-actionable items, and a repository of things I might search for. I’ve had a few alerts for specific kinds of emails, including any replies to messages I’ve sent, but otherwise… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ And last year for some reason I felt like it was a good time to get on top of stuff. I intended to be diligent, set up some new systems, have consistent routines or habits…

I failed at this. I’m as on top of my email as I was a year ago. And… I’m okay with that. Maybe at some point I’ll get inspired to rejigger my email system, but it doesn’t feel like something I want to make a point of doing.

Part of why I’m okay with my distant relationship to email was that I had the experience a few times of telling people about it and hearing them get hugely envious. Somehow I’m getting away with not checking my email. I feel it too, when I say it: a bit cheeky. High status, like Christopher Nolan, who famously does not have an email address (obviously somehow he has an assistant or something). Sometimes I drop balls, but on the whole this has been worth it for me in order to not be addicted to inbox zero, which has happened to me many times in the past. It’s compelling, but a to-do list that anybody can put stuff on is a distraction from proactive intentionality. Obviously there could be better solutions, but for now, this is mine. If you want to reach me, DM me on twitter or text.

Part of me is tempted to say that this conclusion was a win by the other meaning of Allowing Diligence: having diligence about allowing. But it’s not really the main point in that direction either! But I did perhaps get better last year at allowing the reality that I can fail at stuff.

I figured it would be appropriate to make this year’s post image using an AI image generator, since those really took off this year. This is an image I generated sometime in December, not for something but just as part of moodboarding & envisioning something about the vibe I want my life to have, and it’s apt for this post. Regarding images, you’ll see various photos below, many of which are contextualized by the adjacent paragraphs but some aren’t. They’re all basically in chrono order though. Think of it as a way I’m saving a few thousand words.

generated by DALL-E with the prompt 'a regal beam of light shining down onto a single eye of awareness, suspended in the air above waters that are tranquil in the middle and stormy further out'

The story of 2023, starting with the end of 2022

In my yearly review last year (2022: Deepening in a Different Direction) I noted how the editorializing process leaves out details for various reasons, and how that had historically included any of my struggles that I hadn’t figured out how to frame (read: rationalize) in a positive optimistic light. And before I can talk about what happened last year in anything resembling chronological order, I need to fill you in on something that happened in 2022 but which I left out of the blog post, that shaped the arc of my entire 2023:

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Merely getting everybody in touch with their own knowing isn’t enough

Part 8 of “I can tell for myself” sequence. Previously: The eyes-open student: “I can see things my teacher can’t acknowledge”.

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Even those of the intelligent who believe that they have a nostrum are too individualistic to combine with other intelligent men from whom they differ on minor points.

— Bertrand Russell

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the messes wouldn’t end if we could just somehow get everybody (within some context) to have grounded confidence in their sense of “I can tell for myself” even when others say something that seems to contradict it (or find enough people who already have it and herd them into the same room).

Instead we get new messes!

If I can tell for myself that “X”, and you can tell for yourself that “Y”, and it seems to us that it’s not possible for both X and Y to be true at the same time, then we’re going to be pretty stuck! The resulting communicational impasses can be pretty intense, depending on what’s at stake (and how emotionally resilient participants are, such that physical stakes feel more or less gripping). I described above how it tends to play out when there’s a major power imbalance on some relevant axis. What happens when there’s not?

When the conflict isn’t too central, what happens is: they have relationships that work out. This is pretty good! They have enough overlap in what they each want, and how they each already see the world, that they’re able to found a company together or get married and have kids, or co-run a community or some other kind of project, or just be lifelong friends. There may be other arenas where they don’t see eye-to-eye, and can’t figure out how to bridge, but those arenas are sufficiently inconsequential to the relationship that they can be ignored (or periodically explored in a low-stakes way, as friends sometimes do with philosophical questions).

But when the conflict is at the core of their identity and/or purpose and/or worldview (which is broadly the case when we’re talking about spiritual teachers and/or those who are aiming to discover and embody pragmatically & philosophically workable answers to life’s big questions (I count myself as one of these))… well, I may be missing something, but as far as I can tell what usually happens is, oddly: “nothing”. The really high-self-trust people just don’t interact that much. They keep to their own contexts where nobody is self-trustfully challenging their worldviews that are based on generalizations of their direct-knowings. They run their training center, or monastery, or company, or online community, or whatever, where their wisdom can flow and so can others’… to the extent it doesn’t contradict theirs. These contradictions may not even be on the level of “what’s so”; they can even just be “what’s relevant”.

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The eyes-open student: “I can see things my teacher can’t acknowledge”

Part 7 of the “I can tell for myself” sequence, picking up where Guru dynamics: “I can show you how to trust yourself” left off:

To the extent that the person in the more student-like role is able to stay in touch with their own direct-knowing even though it conflicts with what they’re hearing from the teacher-role person… now what?

I’ve studied in depth a handful of cases of this (firsthand and secondhand) which is more than most people but not a lot, so I may be missing something major here. These situations can come from the situation described in the previous post, where the student develops self-trust while already inside a container that they had previously been more naïvely surrendered to… or it can involve someone who already has sufficient self-trust to listen to themselves consciously stepping into a learning environment with someone else who also has a lot of self-trust.

In these contexts, where one person is the official or de facto authority in the space, what I’ve seen has tended to involve what-the-authority-knows being the sort of dominant view, with the other person’s knowings (where they contradict, which won’t be everywhere) getting a lot of questioning and suspicion, or treated as irrelevant. This is functionally a form of “oppressive culture”, even if it’s actively intending to be a welcoming culture.

And it turns out that the main approaches are basically the same: stay & pretend, say the unsayable, or leave. But they look a bit different in learning community than in a kind of default societal context.

  1. Stay & pretend to go along with the authority’s worldview, so that they get to stick around. I said in the “oppressive cultures” section that it’s best to leave, but that was intended to be more referring to a situation where someone doesn’t have enough self-trust to be able to hold their own worldview even in the face of outside pressure. But if someone has that, and has enough time & freedom to journal or talk to people outside the context of this dynamic, then it can make sense to stick around at least for a little while.

    Someone’s reasons for sticking around might include one or more of:
    1. wanting to learn from the person’s wisdom (“yeah he’s belligerently confused but he still knows stuff I don’t, and I trust myself to learn safely in this context”)
    2. wanting to learn from interacting with the person’s confusions (“I’m honestly just trying to understand how someone can be so wise and so foolish at the same time”)
    3. wanting to reconcile the relationship and the viewpoints (“I want to get to the bottom of why that rift years ago originally happened, and have more ease”)
    4. wanting something out of the relationship or context, whether material or social or whatever (“people keep ignoring the obvious, but on the whole this is still a better place to live than any of my other options, for the time being”)
    5. wanting to keep an eye on the person and their context and make sure others are okay (“this former student of mine is getting into risky territory in her container, but if I say everything I’m seeing she’ll just kick me out and then I won’t be able to advise her at all”)
  2. Say the unsayable. Speak to what you can tell for yourself, ideally in ways that also make space for what the blindspots are protecting. This is usually an unstable approach; eventually it converts to pretending or leaving, although with enough trust-dancing/bridging skill I think it can theoretically result in insight and healing.
  3. Leave the context. Sometimes this happens with a lot of anger and resentment, from pressure built up from months or years of pretending not to notice what one notices—particularly if someone had years of being unconsciously in this culture where they repeatedly denied their own knowings—in the name of learning how to trust themselves!

I did a mix of all three of these when I had my own self-trust breakthrough in 2020, as I wrote about somewhat hotly just after I moved out and more spaciously 2 years later. That’s a great example of a context that was attempting to be welcoming everything but in practice didn’t know how to welcome many things. And there were many aspects of me that could tell they were uniquely welcome there, which is part of what made it all so confusing. And when I tried saying the unsayable there, it was difficult of course, but we were able to sincerely approach the challenge together to some degree. There was no “you can’t say this”, just a “you can only say this if it also accounts for this other thing that’s really important” which was around the edge of my ability.

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Guru dynamics: “I can show you how to trust yourself”

Sixth post in “I can tell for myself” sequence. On the last episode… Reality distortion: “I can tell, but you can’t”, which opened up our exploration of interactions between one person who is in touch with their own direct-knowing and another person who is more just taking others’ word for it. With this post we’re finally reaching some of the core ideas that the other posts have been a foundation for.

(I left “guru” in the title of this part, because “guru dynamics” are what I call this phenomenon, but I decided not to use the word “guru” in the body of the text. It’s a loanword that originally means “teacher” but of course in English has the connotations associated both with spiritual teaching in particular and thus also with the dynamics I want to talk about here, some of which are well-documented in The Guru Papers. To be clear, I don’t think guru’ing, as a role, is necessarily bad—it’s just extraordinarily hard to do well. But “guru” as a frame… the roles are probably best not thought of as a student-teacher relationship at all. Instead, perhaps, “one who’s remembering” and “one who’s reminding”: ancient wisdom tradition words for this like “sati”, and “aletheia” mean “remembering” or “unforgetting”. Those are awkward though.)

Things get weird when a person who has consistent access to their sense of “I can tell for myself” across many domains—especially spiritual, interpersonal, esoteric, subtle, ineffable., ones—finds their way into a position where they’re trying to help others develop this capacity for themselves.

This happens remarkably often! There are many factors that contribute to this, of which here are six:

The many reasonable roads into this attractor

  1. Lots of people want to learn how to trust their own experience more, and will gladly sign up for (and in many cases pay quite a lot for) instruction in it. They may even demand it from someone who clearly has some wisdom but was uncertain if they wanted to teach it or would prefer not to be in an authority role for whatever reason, who then reluctantly assents.
  2. Many spiritual knowings are only grokkable via direct-knowing (and taking someone’s word for it is not just irrelevant but a distraction — “the dao that can be named is not the dao”) so reminding people how to tell for themselves emerges as either a precondition or a byproduct of pointing out some other spiritual knowing.
  3. Having fluent access to one’s own knowing is obviously very precious and beautiful, so a kind person would want to share the experience with others!
  4. It seems pretty apparent to many people who are in touch with their own knowing that there are forms of social organization that only work when everybody involved also is, so since there aren’t a lot of such people, it becomes a practical project to train more of them.
  5. It can feel lonely to be the only one in a room (or community) who is experiencing contact with one’s own “I can tell for myself”, so there’s a natural desire to help others develop this same capacity! In addition to being lonely, it can also be risky for one’s own sanity, as the following bullet illustrates:
  6. Getting to be the massive one who gets to exert a lot of pull on the conversation can satisfy many shadowed desires, whether for control or attention or just to have their experience repeatedly validated in regions that they don’t know how to do for themselves. (For most kind people, this is not how they get into the situation in the first place, but it can be something that inadvertently keeps them in it because they’re able to meet certain needs in this social context that they can’t meet outside of it.)

So it’s very common for someone who has developed their sense of self-authored direct-knowing to find themselves surrounded by a bunch of people who also want to develop this capacity. (We’ll explore in a later post why there’s often precisely one teacher per learning context; the previous post also hints at it.)

The paradox of teaching self-trust

But attempting to teach “I can tell for myself” (or self-trust, or whatever you call it) leads to what is nearly a paradox:

  • How do I tell you how to tell for yourself?
  • If I tell you how to not take my word for it, will you take my word for it?
  • Of what relevance is my trust in my own experience to your trust in your own experience?

Suppose that when someone says something you don’t understand or resonate with, your two available moves are either to reject what they’re saying or “take their word for it”—a condition which is tautologically the starting point for someone who has learned to not trust themselves in the face of what someone else is saying, and is wanting to develop that self-trust—then if I’m trying to convey “how to tell for yourself”, you’ll either… reject what I’m saying as senseless, or… take my word for it that this is in fact how to tell for yourself and you just need to do it exactly as I say yessirree!

…which is not “I can tell for myself”. Or is it?

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Reality distortion: “I can tell, but you can’t”

5th in the “I can tell for myself” sequence. Previous post: The primacy of knowing-for-oneself

This is a short post that introduces the second half of the sequence. The first half focused on what it means to have a sense of being able to tell something for yourself (direct-knowing or “gnosis”) as contrasted with taking someone’s word for it, and how people get out of touch with their own knowing, in many little moments as children and structurally as a society. The remainder of the sequence investigates interactions between people, tensions that arise depending on how well each person is tracking their sense of being able to tell for themselves, and possibilities for collective direct-knowing: “we can tell for ourself”.

So. Sometimes one person can tell for themselves, while another is taking others’ word for it. There are a few ways that can go. Sometimes the asymmetries are simple, functional and productive; well, relatively—there are a few caveats. These simple functional asymmetries are what this post is about—companies being one example.

Lopsided conversations

When there’s a conversation between one person who is consistently checking everything that’s being said with whether it accords with their experience, and another who isn’t, the conversation can easily become lopsided, with the person who is grounded in their own self-trust ending up with a position of authority. That’s not the only place that social authority comes from (institutional power, or pure charisma spouting bullshit, work just fine for that) but I would say that it produces a kind of authority that holds up under quite a bit of inspection, which naturally engenders a kind of sustained trust from others.

When this is the case, the person who is uncompromisingly checking everything with their own experience ends up exerting kind of a large gravitational force on the conversation, and people let them do this in part because they don’t know how to access their own full weight, and in part because the other person does seem to be speaking with a kind of grounded honesty.

Prompt: A dramatic scene depicting two men in a conversation. One man stands on the edge of a rugged cliff, dressed in casual hiking gear. His posture is assertive, and he is making strong gestures with his hands. Facing him is another man standing on a towering pile of speech bubbles, symbolizing an intent verbal exchange. The speech bubble pile is as high as the cliff, putting both men at eye level. The background features a dramatic sky with dark clouds, enhancing the intense atmosphere of the scene. Both men are of average build, one with short hair and the other slightly longer.
AI-generated by ChatGPT+DALL-E with my prompt: a guy standing on a cliff’s edge, arguing eye to eye with a guy standing on a pile of speech bubbles (view image alt for the full prompt used)

And so this authority may override what others say since the others don’t trust their own “I can tell for myself” sense, so they speak in a kind of flimsy floaty way (not to say it might not sound confident, just that its source of confidence is not in the room). Simultaneously, the authority may not be bothered by people attempting to put out ideas, because they’re grounded in what they know rather than subject to some ideology that they need to uphold in order to maintain their legitimacy. And in technical domains where there’s a clearer sense that we can converge on the right answer, there can be lively debate and the authority will recognize “oh wait, you’re right, my bad”. In general, conversations in technical domains tend to have more sense of everybody involved having at least some sense of “I can tell for myself”.

My guess is that a lot of (relatively) healthy companies have a bit of this going on, and it’s not ideal but it’s legit better than a company where everybody is bullshitting, like I described in the oppressive cultures post. And there are definitely attractors, but there’s no clear binary distinction between any of the dynamics I describe anywhere in this sequence. Many situations could be analyzed through the lens of different kinds of dynamics, and multiple elements might be present or relevant at the same time.

The stability & simplicity of asymmetry & hierarchy

It’s been observed by many people over the years that while consensus has various kinds of appeal, it is often much less efficient and effective than having someone who is in charge for some scope of project or whatever, and can decisively choose what’s going to happen. There is a deeper level of complexity possible, of collective consciousness or co-what-now’ing, where everybody is fluidly organizing and integrating and differentiating and so on—the fully meta-rational workplace—but that’s hard and even the forefront of development of our species can only kinda do it sometimes. So it’s often more workable to just have one person call the shots—at least at a given level; maybe someone else calls the shots within their subproject, etc.

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I know what Knowing isn’t

A tangent off the “I can tell for myself” sequence, between post 4 & 5.

There’s a thing it feels like to know 5+5=10.

Wait—that’s exactly the opposite of what I mean. There are many things in feels like—in some sense at least one per person who’s ever known it, in another sense as many as times it’s been known! And while I can know 5+5=10 is so true that I can be certain that if you know what I mean by 5 and + and = and 10, that you’ll agree… my knowing and your knowing are still different.

Concretely, I might be knowing 5+5=10 from a verbal memorized table that never did me wrong, and you might be imagining two nickels and a dime. Or one of us has an experience of beholding 10 fingers, 5 on each hand, the other has a sense of 5 having a halfness to it, in relation to 10, related to thinking in decimals for a lifetime. But those are just four abstract descriptions, under which many yet-unique experiences of knowing 5+5=10 could be binned—and many could not. And either or both of us might go about knowing 4+8=12 very differently than we know 5+5=10.

And those knowings are likely yet different from what it would feel like to know such a thing together

This applies to all knowings: mundane and spiritual, mathematical and episodical. My knowing is not your knowing, and neither one is our knowing. And they aren’t the thing that is known.

Knowing is different from truth

Something can be true without being known: I could write a computer program that would generate a true statement that nobody had ever seen or known (such as 12364871317234+1=12364871317235, but imagine it’s longer and more convoluted) and it would still be true within that formal system, but it wouldn’t be known unless or until someone went and knew it. It could be true that there’s life on a particular exoplanet 51 Pegasi b, but it’s not currently known (as far as I know—if I’m mistaken, pick a different exoplanet). There are philosophical questions about who counts as “someone” and I am mostly going to say “definitely at least humans, in some cases animals or parts-of-humans”.

In the previous paragraph I was talking about things that are true but not known by anyone. There are also true things that are known by someone but not by someone else. You can even know OF a “true fact”, without actually knowing it. Here’s one: I’m typing this paragraph while listening to Tycho’s album Dive. One of my favorite albums. You could memorize this fact and perhaps pass it onto many other people… and maybe you even have good reason to believe me, because I’m a pretty honest guy in general and have no incentive to lie or whatever, but you don’t know it. Not directly. You can’t tell for yourself, but you can take my word for it.

A kid can know that “Santa comes on Christmas eve!” The question of whether Santa is “real” in the same senses in which the kid’s parents are real is not vital to the kid’s knowing—the kid knows that there are presents from Santa, and various other evidences such as cookie crumbs or in the case of very theatrical parents, sooty bootprints or whatever… insofar as the phrase “Santa comes on Christmas eve!” refers to that event, the kid can tell for themself that that happens. Santa sure doesn’t come on a randomly selected Tuesday in late April, for the purpose of leaving broken toasters on the lawn!

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The primacy of knowing-for-oneself

Fourth in a sequence:

  1. “I can tell for myself”
  2. How did you forget how to tell for yourself?
  3. Oppressive cultures: you don’t get to know what you know

In the first piece, I distinguish between two kinds of knowing, one that I call “I can tell for myself” and the other that I call “taking someone’s word for it”. These are my approach to speaking in plain language about what’s sometimes called gnosis (as contrasted with perhaps “received knowing”).

In the second, I explore the many pressures from childhood, teenagerhood, and spiritual communities, that lead to people taking someone’s word for it even when it contradicts what they can tell for themselves, and how that leads to habitual ignoring of being able to tell for oneself. In the third, I explore the systemic double-binds of culture that shear peoples’ knowing from their honesty.

This post, the primacy of knowing-for-oneself, is more technical: to investigate the relationship between these different kinds of knowing, and make it clear how while words can be used to guide people into being able to tell for themselves, telling for oneself goes back further in evolutionary history, and that without it we wouldn’t even be able to take someone’s word for it.

This section is a response to this comment by a draft reader (who was not my wife when she wrote this comment but is now) on the earlier posts:

My theory: taking other people’s word for it is the default way of knowing things (that we have to rely on when we’re children) and developing the capacity to know for ourselves (and to know when to trust our own knowing) takes more development.

Insofar as it might seem like “taking someone’s word for it” is the default, my guess is that it’s because the phrase “I can tell for myself” is already contrasting itself with something else. And it is the case that we aren’t born knowing how to deal with conflicts between what we can tell for ourselves and what others tell us. That’s something we have to learn, whether by cultivating it the whole time or by having a sudden waking-up experience as an adult where we realize we’ve been ignoring ourselves.

It seems overwhelmingly obvious to me that knowing for ourselves is the functional default way of knowing, and prior to taking others’ word for it in all ways: evolutionarily, developmentally, and experientially/ontologically. (However, in the same way that someone can have an unnatural and unhealthy habit that is nonetheless a default in some sense, people can develop a “default” way of knowing that involves taking others’ words for it).

First, about words. Since this is an essay, everything I’m saying is expressed in words. However, the knowing is not in the words. “I can tell for myself” knowings can be referred to by a proposition (eg “I can ride a bike”, “it is raining outside”, “my mom loves me”) but they are grounded in the other kinds of knowing: procedural, perspectival & participatory, to use Vervaeke’s model. And the ability to be able to tell if a given proposition is true/relevant is part of the sense of “I can tell for myself”, and is not itself made out of propositions, even in domains of logic or mathematics.

Second, about defaults. Consider animals. They can tell for themselves nearly everything they need to know. They periodically do some interpretation, perhaps of a mating call or a warning call, but it seems to me that this is still better understood not as “taking someone’s word for it” but simply “acting on the basis of what is implied by the sound”. They’re not forming generalizations or having “beliefs” about things elsewhere and elsewhen, on the basis of these sounds. But when the animals are direct-knowing, they aren’t thinking “I can tell for myself”, they’re simply knowing. They don’t have a “taking someone’s word for it” to contrast this more basic kind of knowing with.

Baby humans start to discern for themselves that they can move their limbs and see stuff, and that they’re hungry, well before they can understand language and be told anything true or false. They can tell for themselves that faces are important. They can tell for themselves that boobs are great. They can tell for themselves that having a dirty diaper sucks. And they can tell for themselves a lot of subtle stuff about the attention and vibe of the people around them—more than most give them credit for.

Third, about meaning. The only way we can take someone’s word for it is on the basis of what they appear to us to mean, which is a kind of knowing that is much more like the “I can tell for myself”. It’s just that we often take this part for granted. We usually don’t realize the active interpretive role that we are playing in being able to know anything on the basis of someone else making mouth sounds.

Having said all of this, yes, as humans we do need to rely a lot on taking other people’s word for it. Humans live in cultures, and there is no default human behavior absent a culture, nor a default culture for humans to live in. And in particular, our sense of social expectations comes in large part from the words of others, whether that’s an adult enculturating a kid or an employer enculturating a new hire. Sometimes this is benign. What I want to highlight is that every time we take other people’s word for something in a way that (seemingly) contradicts what we can tell for ourselves, we introduce a confusion into not just what we know but into the very means by which we go about knowing things and trusting ourselves.

It seems to me that even though we do need to tell kids a bunch of stuff and have them use those knowings even though they can’t yet tell for themselves, we could also do so in a way that 100% respects their experiential frames—not trying to force an override. We can point things out to people (kids or otherwise) and we can guide them into having experiences that will allow them to tell for themselves, and this is different from trying to force them to see something a particular way. (This is adjacent to how in coercion in terms of scarcity and perceptual control I talk of coercion as trying to force a certain behavior.) We can do this by acknowledging uncertainty, different perspectives, and where we missed things… and by supporting kids to back their own knowings when they differ from ours, even if we say “and right now I have to make the decision as the parent/teacher/etc, and this is the call I’m making”. However, attempting to form such a pocket of sanity in a larger culture that’s oppressive can have additional challenges. Somehow a kid would still need to learn in which contexts they can safely be honest about what they’re seeing.

As I said at the top, insofar as it might seem like “taking someone’s word for it” is the default, my guess is that it’s because the phrase “I can tell for myself” is already contrasting itself with something else. To some extent I chose it for that purpose, because a lot of the adult quest of developing and refining one’s knowing involves rejecting a bunch of stuff someone else told us when we were more impressionable but which we can now tell doesn’t hold up. Because while animals and newborns can tell for themselves, newborns have no idea how to integrate what they can know directly with what others tell them. This must be learned. How do I generalize what I can tell for myself, while acknowledging that it also seems to contradict what you’re telling me?

In any case, our societies currently mostly teach the opposite of that, in the way that they go about teaching us the cultural knowledge we’re supposed to have. And it’s important to convey this knowledge to people—that’s utterly central to what it means to be human. But at this point in history, it’s possible to convey most of the key cultural knowledge while also conveying how to sanely relate it to your own knowing. It’s not about the overt messages but about the relationship we’re trained to adopt between what we’re told and what we can tell for ourselves.

There are some pitfalls, however, when trying to create learning environments for people to develop this new capacity…

Next post in sequence: Reality distortion: “I can tell, but you can’t”

Oppressive cultures: you don’t get to know what you know

Third in a sequence. Earlier posts:

  1. “I can tell for myself”: how direct knowing is different from knowing because you took someone’s word for it.
  2. How did you forget to tell for yourself?: nobody can take this knowing from you, but they can get you out of touch with it, and here are dozens of examples of ways that happens.

This post continues the “why isn’t everybody already in touch with what they can tell for themselves?” question and highlights how in addition to all of the little moments named in the previous post, many cultures have a more background pressure against knowing what you know.


A lot of contexts require everybody, to greater or lesser degrees, to diminish either our sense of “I can tell for myself” or our honesty—where by honesty I don’t just mean “not lying” but “saying what seems true and most relevant”. In these contexts, if we name what is obvious to us, what happens is some mix of:

  • others ignore or deny it (or its relevance)
  • we get punished (socially or materially)
  • we get removed from the context

Consider the child who highlights hypocrisy in their parents or teachers, or the institutional whistleblower, or the challenge of highlighting the baselessness (let alone falseness) of assertions being made by politicians or religious leaders, or a domineering boss at work (whether the claims are about the work itself or about society). And of course in extremely oppressive regimes, saying the obvious gets people killed. And I don’t want to say these are the same, or equally bad, but they have similarities.

What do we tend to do when we’re in oppressive contexts?

If we can leave to a better alternative, and the stakes are high, we tend to leave. Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote The Body Keeps the Score, has said “healing from trauma amounts to learning that it’s okay to know what you know and feel what you feel.” Part of why a lot of trauma occurs in childhood is that we don’t have the option (psychologically or physically) to leave. If we’re in an environment where we aren’t allowed to know what we know, and we have an option to go to one where we can, this tends to be better for us. It can be scary to leave an unhealthy relationship (even if it’s just warring blindspots, not abuse) but once we take the plunge, things do often lighten up. Part of why people stay stuck though is that there may not be a better option, and even if there is it can be hard to imagine.

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How did you forget to tell for yourself?

I can tell for myself” is the kind of knowing that nobody can take away from you.

Nobody can take it from you, but they can get you to hide it from yourself. They can put pressure on you to cover up your own knowings—pressure that’s particularly hard to withstand when you’re relatively powerless, as a kid is. This pressure can come from the threat of force or punishment, or simply the pain of not being able to have a shared experience of reality with caregivers if you know what you know and they don’t allow such a knowing.

Ideally, we integrate others’ word with our own sense of things, and smoothly navigate between using the two in a way that serves us and them. Others would point out where they can see that we’re confused about our own knowings, and we’d reorient, look again, and come to a new sense of things that’s integrated with everything else.

But, if you’re reading this, you were probably raised in a culture that, as part of its very way of organizing civilization over the past millennia, relied on getting you to take others’ word for it even when you could tell that something about what they you being told was off… to the point that you probably learned that your own knowing was suspect or invalid, at least in some domains.

Did you cover up your natural sense of appetite, with politeness, when parents or grandparents said “You haven’t eaten enough! You have to finish what’s on your plate.”? Did you cover up your natural sense of thirst when parents or teachers said “No, you don’t need a drink right now.”? Did you forget how to listen to the building pressure in your lower abdomen, in the face of a “You don’t have to pee! You just went!”?

Did you override your sense of relevance and honesty when someone said “You can’t say that!”? Maybe someone close to you said “You didn’t see that!” or “you didn’t hear that!” or “that didn’t happen!” — as a command, not a joke… did that make it harder to listen to your own senses or vision or hearing? Not altogether, but in situations where you could tell others wouldn’t like you to know what you know. Did someone say “Come on, you know I would never lie to you,” twisting your own sense of trust in others’ honesty and dishonesty, around the reality that you did not, in fact, know that, and (since this was coming up at all) may have been doubting it?

AI-generated digital art, with the prompt: a kid in a classroom, wearing a blindfold with eyes printed on it, and ear protection with ear icons printed on them
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A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.

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