Parts of you haven't grown up yet
This is another post resurrected from the paid archives that I wanted to share more broadly. It was originally written in May 2021, and has been no more than lightly edited from the original version. If you were a paid subscriber (back when I had paid subscribers) you’ll have likely already read this.
A lot of my writing is very explicitly about things I wish someone had explained to me sooner. The model target audience is myself of years prior. This works pretty well for other people too because none of my problems are particularly unusual, they’re just the natural consequence of the society we live in.
Unfortunately, this creates a problem, both for me and my readers. More accurately, it reveals a problem that was already there: We have not fully grown up yet, and there are many things that we still need to learn that in an ideal world we would have learned years ago.
This is often uncomfortable to realise, both because of what it tells us about ourselves now, and how our lives could have gone differently.
Why am I only learning this now?
Often I learn things where I feel like a right idiot for not having learned decades ago.
For a trivial example, take one of the things I learned in How to do everything, the trivial insight about vacuuming or sweeping before mopping. As I put it on Twitter:
Anything that fits the “How to do anything” model seems heavily optimised for making you feel like an idiot, because they’re reducible to simple facts that you’ve somehow missed out on learning. Certainly that’s how I feel when I encounter these things.
The charitable reading, which I’m very good at applying to others and mostly able to apply to myself, is that if you’re missing basic knowledge it’s probably not because you were an idiot, it’s more likely to be because society was bad at teaching you that knowledge.
Unfortunately “It’s not your fault, you’re just on the receiving end of a massive systemic injustice in how we teach people” isn’t exactly comforting.
Being a good person
Unfortunately, it gets worse when the problem isn’t reducible to some simple learnable fact and is in fact a complex body of theory and practice that you can’t really learn without doing it.
When I learn a fact I missed I feel like an idiot. When I appreciate the depth of my ignorance when it comes to e.g. social skills, or relationships, or planning, or even something like paperwork, I don’t feel like an idiot, I feel like a bad person.
Visa had a tweet recently about how people often feel like a bad person when they’re just incompetent:
This rings extremely true, but I’m not sure it helps.
I did a short youtube video recently about Julia Annas’s “Intelligent Virtue”1 in which I ask “OK, but what’s the actual difference between being incompetent and being a bad person?”
Julia Annas’s take (which is a position that dates back to Aristotle) is that virtue is very like skill: It’s something that you have to work at and learn and grow into, and it also literally involves skillfull practice of the actions required for virtue.
Under this view, being a bad person is literally the same as being incompetent, if you take being a bad person to be synonymous with being lacking in the virtues.
Fortunately I don’t think that’s the intended read. A child lacks the virtues, but is not a bad person. To the degree that there is a meaningful notion of “being a bad person” in virtue ethics, it’s not so much about being unvirtuous as one’s orientation towards virtue.2
One of the key differences between incompetence and being a bad person is what you do in response to it. If you’re incompetent in a way that has morally significant consequences, if you don’t try to get better at that then that probably is something you’re morally culpable for.
I’ve definitely known people I’ve judged this way: Any given action that they’ve done I can excuse as incompetence, but the fact that they keep failing in the same way over and over again and don’t seem to see a problem with it or make any attempt to improve, and that certainly makes them a bad person.
In Being disappointed in people I talked about anti-role models. An anti-role model is:
… someone who you can look upon with a certain degree of love. In your heart you are able to think “I see you, I respect you, I believe I understand you, I recognise that which is common in us. I am glad that you exist. I value you as a human being. Your choice are your own, and I acknowledge your right to make them, and I expect no dominion over you or your life. And, with all of this in mind, and with love in my heart and determination in my soul, I will dedicate my very existence to ensuring that I never under any circumstances become you.”
A number of people who are anti-role models for me have failed morally in this manner: They are incompetent, and they have chosen to remain so. I suspect in many cases this is some mix of learned helplessness and fear. I understand that, and sympathise with it, but that doesn’t make it not a moral failing, it’s just that the moral failing in question is cowardice.
In committing not to be those people, I commit to a healthy relationship with disappointment in myself and guilt over my actions, and to acknowledge my failings and work to get better in areas where I have failed others.
This is good and proper and righteous and by god is it hard, and I sure wish someone would give me a bit of a hand in doing this, but as far as I can tell we have literally constructed our entire society around making this sort of thing difficult.
Growing up all the way
A useful model of a lot of therapy is that you are divided into many parts, and some of those parts haven’t fully grown up yet. They got to a certain point, and then for one reason or another they got stuck.
A lot of the therapeutic methods involve personifying these parts as subpersonalities in their own right and treating them as people, but I think this is mostly just a useful metaphor for most people rather than true plurality.
My mental model of how it actually works is something more like “the brain is very modular, and parts of you have learned emotional lessons that you have retained from childhood, and it can be worth thinking of those emotional lessons embodied in a child”. This is, more or less, what I outlined in Emotional reactions as legacy code and Your emotions are valid but probably wrong.
This particularly comes up in Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, which helps you identify “exiles”, parts of you which you have split off from the rest due to some form of trauma (It doesn’t have to be some big dramatic event, it can just be a bunch of emotions you don’t like and try to ignore).
I sometimes facetiously describe IFS as “Identifying the parts of yourself that need a hug and giving them that hug”. It’s about directing unconditional love at the parts of you that need it. This is a very good strategy for many problems, but I think it’s missing something.
A lot of the time when some part of you stalled, that’s not because of some traumatic event, it’s just because that part of you didn’t know how to progress. You got to a point where you were as good as you were going to get in the environment you had available to you and then stopped.
Those parts of you don’t just need the spiritual/emotional equivalent of a hug. A hug would probably help, in that they have problems they feel bad about, but the hug is not actually going to solve the problem! At best it gets them ready to work on a solution to the problem
The virtue ethics “skill analogy” helps understand this I think. Consider, say, someone who stalled in acquiring reading skill in childhood. Maybe they just didn’t have much opportunity, maybe they had undiagnosed learning disabilities, maybe something else. No matter how much you help them cope with their emotional difficulties that result from or lead to their lack of reading ability, they’re still not going to be able to read well.
When learning to read in adulthood, it generally is important to learn to deal with e.g. feelings of shame around that, but no matter how well you process those emotions you won’t solve the whole of the problem, because the problem is not just that they feel bad about not being able to read well, but that they actually can’t read well.
This pattern reoccurs with, well, everything, because when you resolve an emotional issue that’s holding you back you don’t suddenly acquire all of the life experiences that issue deprived you of. e.g. Just because you fix your social anxiety doesn’t mean you’ll know what to do at a party, because all your (possibly very limited!) experiences of parties is hard to apply because it was learned under a very different set of constraints.
Helping each other grow up
Another thing that I think the reading example makes clear is how utterly unreasonable it is to expect people to be able to do this on their own. Clearly almost nobody who makes it to adulthood unable to read is going to be able to learn to read on their own, no matter how many examples of reading and writing they’re exposed to. There might be some good YouTube videos on learning to read or something, but how are they going to find them?
Social skills are like this too. You end up with a lot of people who have, for one reason or another, never really learned workable social skills growing up. Where are they to learn these given that they need to find people to socialise with?3
Unfortunately, even just finding people to socialise with is usually not enough, because what happens if you’ve grown up without adequate socialisation is that you’re genuinely quite hard to do deal with, and most people can’t be bothered.
This is in many ways another variant of the problem I talked about long ago in Touch starvation and group responsibility. No individual person owes you this social education (except possibly parents and teachers growing up, but if you’re at this point they’ve clearly failed to meet those responsibilities), but I think collectively we still owe this to people, and I don’t know how to achieve that.
This, again, recurs in moral and emotional spheres, and countless others. We’re all trailing this long history of parts behind us of those times where parts of us stalled, and we’re all desperately trying to hide those parts from others.
I suspect this is the underlying emotional problem when people complain about “adulting” - what they really mean is “this part of me that stalled is being made to perform at a level of adulthood that it’s not prepared for, and nobody will show me how”.
I’d quite like us to show each other how.
I feel like I’m still fumbling around in the dark trying to figure out even what the problem is, let alone how to solve it, but I can’t see a way out of this other than to start by recognising each other’s ongoing developmental needs, and helping those we care about to find their way upwards rather than staying stuck.
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When not writing for the internet, my day job is consulting. I help software companies get better at making software. This post isn’t really about that, although a lot of my work is about helping software developers “grow up” into senior developers, and helping people in senior positions learn the lessons they wish they’d learned years ago.
(Seriously, book the calls. They’re free and usually extremely helpful to people, and I don’t mind at all if it doesn’t result in any ongoing consulting work, I enjoy talking to people about their work problems)
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Additionally, by being part of the community you get the uh privilege of seeing these posts when they’re much worse, as I tend to post first drafts there. Thanks to everyone there for reading a first draft of this post and helping me improve it.
I’ve continued posting draft bankruptcy pieces on the notebook - things that were unfinished drafts from the newsletter that I’ve given up on ever finishing. This is now complete or nearly complete - I’ve got exactly one draft left, and I’d like to finish it, but if I don’t it will get draft bankruptcied at some point in the next week or two. In the meantime, I’ve posted the following drafts:
There’s also Leaving shiny things behind, which isn’t a draft just a short notebook post about something I’d noticed and wanted to give a name to.
The image for this post is Child reading book by Widad.sirkhotte, made available under a Creative Commons License and obtained from Wikimedia commons.
Note from the future: I have a much worse opinion of this book than I did when I wrote this piece. I still think it has a lot of interesting ideas, and I basically stand by the things I say in this post, but I think the version I’m talking about is a heavily distorted read of the actual contents of the book.
This may be a highly nonstandard read, I’m not sure. I’m far from a learned scholar of virtue ethics.
This is, fortunately, mostly not my problem. Through a mixture of luck and judgement I got a remedial course in social skills in my 20s. I do have some pretty major gaps in them though.