How to identify flaws in your own reasoning

Here’s a crummy photograph of a painting I did over a week ago that I thought was pretty cool. Today’s blog post does not entirely explain the painting, but after I’d written the blog post I decided to add this because the painting and the blog post are a nice match. Read on to find out. (If you like this painting, you can get a poster of it in my shop.)

How often do you Google for the opposite of your own opinion? Not to pretend to be all holy and saintlike, but I sometimes do. I would love to say it has made me omniscient, but obviously it hasn’t. I have my biases.

What I also tend to do, which is not always a pleasant experience, is check my own written words after I’ve sent them out. It may sound uptight and controlling, but I read my own blog posts about five times while typing and at least three times after posting, to see if I made any errors. When in doubt, I search online if I can find articles that confirm and oppose my view (hint: you can always find both). I especially do this after I have pressed ‘publish’. Why? Because somehow, I look at my own blog posts differently once they are published. While I am still writing them, they are an extension of myself. Once I’ve published it, a profound shift occurs: it is almost as if I am reading someone else’s words. I have the same with e-mail. After I’ve sent an e-mail, I read it again. I always thought this was wrong of me, because obviously I often found fault in my own words, it made me anxious and I received comments at how long it took me to write an e-mail and raised eyebrows when it was noticed that I read my own e-mails again, maybe even twice if something about it bothered me but I hadn’t figured out yet what it was. (Yes, it sounds really self-absorbed, I know) I think these responses and my own berating myself for doing it actually made me more anxious than the original action did. Nowadays, I fully agree with myself: I think it’s a good thing to check what you wrote. It means I can correct my words when I find they don’t express what I really meant to say. Also, by reading my own ideas, I remind myself of the standards I want to live up to. So, when it comes to my blog posts, if you come back a day or two later, you’ll read the final version. In the first two days, you can count on it that I will be making minor edits, applying sandpaper to smooth over some rough spots.

Yesterday, when talking to a friend about recognizing when you are judging yourself fairly versus unfairly, I recommended him to use an audio recording device to record their own conversations for a few days and to then listen to themselves having conversations with others. I’ve been doing that the past year and it’s a great way to both affirm yourself and look at yourself critically. When you record yourself and hear yourself speak, your brain and nervous system interprets this as someone else and yourself at the same time. (It can be profoundly uncomfortable, in part because the bone reverberation of your voice is missing and you sound very different while also knowing it’s you. Cognitive dissonance at its best.) This means that when you hear yourself say things you agree with, you feel a sense of external affirmation, and it can help you realize that you have some valid points there. On the other hand, listening to yourself speak also means you might hear the holes in your own arguments. Whenever you use your emotion to make a point that doesn’t hold up logically, you’ll hear yourself speak in that infuriated or choked up manner and something will feel off. (You may feel that emotion again when you listen to it.) This is a way to gauge whether you arguments come from a balanced place or whether you’ve got some emotional turmoil underlying them. One of the symptoms is that you are unable to hold two opposing ideas in your mind and juggle them together.

This shift in perspective – looking at yourself and your interactions from the outside – is, I think, one of the most important things to be very aware of. Why it is so important is because you may find out that the person you hear talking on that recording – you, that is – has drawn some really weird conclusions about their own and other people’s state of mind. I think in the end this is the most difficult thing we human beings have to grapple with and it’s something we are neglecting. We just blunder our way through life and social interactions and although it goes well enough most of the time, there is a crucial understanding that we are missing. Once you see it, you will see that the one who was holding you back was you all along.

What you think the other thinks is nothing but your own opinion

There is you, the first layer. Then there is a second layer: how you think about you and about others. The third layer is how you think others think about you and about themselves.

That’s it. That’s all you have. Important to realize is that your ideas about what other people think are just that, your personal ideas. This picture of someone else is not that person! It is a picture. If you’re often in an empathetic state, there’s a good chance your rough estimate of their thoughts is an adequate approximation. But that’s all it is, a rough approximation. It probably does not cover even 1% of what this person thinks and feels in their life. Someone else’s thoughts are not yours. In reality, you have no fucking clue what they think about themselves or what they think about you. The biggest mistake you can ever make in your life is to take up residence in what you think others think of you.

In these three layers, there are 4x2x3 possible combinations. Only one of these combinations is correct, all the others contain a flaw in at least one spot.

Four ways to get it wrong

You could have any of the following four things wrong

  • Who you think you are. I’ve dedicated an earlier post about getting your story right. When you are living in the wrong story, when the things you tell yourself about yourself are wrong, you will interact badly with yourself and inevitably also with the world.
  • Who you think they are. Be aware, this is separate from who they really are. It’s just your picture of them. Also, the question of whether you perceive them accurately has very little do with whether they perceive themselves accurately. (In fact, get it right and you might be more right than they are. Conversely, others may be more right about yourself than you yourself are.) When you get it wrong, though, when you find out that your image of the other person was wrong, you’ll often find that the reasons for that are closely tied to your own view of yourself as well. Most of the time, you will start doubting yourself. When someone acts in a way that does not match the picture you had of them, and you feel deeply uncomfortable as a result, you need to search in yourself why you are so uncomfortable with your incorrect picture of them. You built that original picture and you’re the one feeling uncomfortable. Why? We tend to think of other people as static. They’re not. They change, just like you. The art is to figure out if you can incorporate those changes in your view of the world. The real art is to stay balanced, even if your idea of other people crumbles.
The reversed image. This is inaccessible to you. It is only accessible to them.
  • Who you think they think they are. This, like the previous one, is not about their real thoughts. It’s your perception, it’s what you think they think about themselves. The interesting thing is that how they really think of themselves is that second layer inside themselves, in the reversed image. You now build a picture of their picture of themselves, a picture of a picture. You have two sources: They act in certain ways and also talk about their own motives and behavior. The former builds your picture of them, the latter builds your picture of their picture of themselves. This gives you a possibility to do some validation there. You have built up two pictures of them: Your direct observations, and a twice-derived image of how they observe themselves. You can often spot hypocrisy that way (if you can do this you can’t help but detect your own hypocrisy, too, and that kinda hurts). Like two mathematical functions that should yield the same result via different means, you can check whether their behavior matches what they tell you about themselves. It does not actually define them, or gives any objective assessment of them, but if the two pictures match, at least you know that as far as your interactions with them are concerned, their behavior is consistent with who they claim to be.
  • Who you think they think you are. This is the most precarious of all. From their interactions with you, you build a picture of who you think they think you are. It is important to realize their interactions with you do not only stem from their image of you, but also (and perhaps most of all) from their image of themselves. If others treat you unfavorably, it’s best to assume that it’s not you, it’s them. (Likewise, if you’re finding you’re responding to people in a manner that is highly emotionally charged, it probably has more to do with you than with them.)

Since you can get either of those four wrong, the number of possibilities is 4×2: Four positions, and either you’ve got it right or wrong.

Of course, you can extend this picture to include more people and then every person who knows every other person gets a “What I think they think about each other”-cloud as well. I’m not including it here but you can do the math, things get even more complicated really quickly 😉

Taking up your position in those layers

That extra ‘x3’ I added to the original ‘formula’, illustrates the problem you can create for yourself if you take up the wrong position. In each of the situations, where you may have some things wrong about yourself or others in the four ways described above, you can either stay grounded in yourself, or you can slide to the second or third layer of hell. You can end up in a state where you have a wrong picture of yourself and you’ve set up camp in there.

Don’t set up camp in layer 2 or 3, it’s a recipe for disaster

Even if the picture of yourself is pretty accurate, when you live in 2, you’re not in a stable spot. When that secondhand image of yourself starts to shift to the wrong direction, when self doubt creeps in, you’ll tend to believe it because you haven’t switched to the true first person view. Then there’s the possibility that you believe what you think others think of you, camp 3. That’s the worst of the two. You’ve imagined in your mind how others see you, and you’re unable to recognize that you’re treating that as truth, rather than a second-hand idea that lives in your imagination. When how you think others see you goes downhill, and when you are unable to divorce this idea from your inner untouchable core, this is where you either let others dictate what you should do, or you start to do what you imagine others want from you, or you overcompensate and you start to dictate others how they should act around you.

Of course, in childhood, this is all you have to work with, and you build your picture of yourself based on how others interact with you. First you look at their interactions with you, and your image of yourself is built up from the social interactions in childhood. I think this is why it’s so difficult (at first) for people with childhood trauma to figure out who they are, because the interactions that others had with them were not a reflection of who the child was, but who the adult was. You couldn’t help but base your self-image on your interactions and so your image of yourself stems from what you think others’ image of you is. No wonder one of the characters in Sartre’s play ‘No exit’ exclaimed that hell is other people. You know that you are seen by others and that they build a map, and you sense how their perception of you impacts you. When others look upon you and accurately perceive you, this is the start of accurately perceiving yourself. When you lacked accurate mirroring in childhood, however, there’s a high chance that as an adult you are unable to sense whether your own perception of yourself is accurate, when to adapt what you think others think of you and most crucially you may not understand that these three you’s in the picture, are three separate states. The mistake I made was to take up residence in layers 2 and 3. I strongly recommend against it. I also know from experience how long it takes to step out of those picture frames. It takes quite some time.

Other ways to complicate it further

The other person could make any of those four mistakes as well, and could take up three positions as well, so actually there are (4x3x2)x(4x3x2)-1 = 575 combinations to have a miserable experience. That’s when your social life consists of only one other person. Oh joy.

Furthermore, there are people who actively try to pull you from your center and try to distort your mental map. If this happens to you without your noticing, you may not realize in which of the manners your map is wrong. The most dangerous people are those who purposefully attempt to distort your mental map without you knowing it. Luckily, those are few and far between.

Freedom of speech

I think we, today, have no idea how to get out of that distorting mirror that we have built in our own heads. This seems to me a major fault in our ability to reason about the world. We seem unable to tolerate other people’s opinions because we either think an opinion says something about who we are or we cannot handle that said opinion does not fit in how we thought other people thought or how we think they should think. We need to come to terms with the fact that the world you look at and interact with is the one you’ve built in your own head. Instead, we get stuck in the second and third layers. We don’t even know that the first layer exists or how to get there. Not only do we treat our second or third layer image of others as truth, in the sense that we do not even accept any counter-evidence to the picture we built – we overrule any evidence that would require us to change our worldview. We also sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that if only… if only we exerted enough pressure on the other person, then the other person would magically make it so that this idea that we have in our own head, of both ourselves and them, would be changed by that other person. We’re out of our minds. We’re making someone else responsible for our inner world. This is some serious mindfuck and lack of boundaries there. If the other person suggested to us that we should change our behavior to make the other person’s idea of us more pleasant, we’d be shocked at the suggestion.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t difficulties in life. That some things couldn’t be improved. However, if we were more aware of when we step into our own inner hell, we would be less eager to claim that it’s someone else’s job to change their opinion in order to make us feel comfortable again. We would worry about whether our current perception of who we are aligns with our actual actions in the world and, secondly, whether that aligns with our values, instead of insisting that someone else should think about us in a certain way.

Our societies are built on crimes defined as physical actions. Some people desperately want to make laws for emotional violence. As the survivor of intense emotional violence, I will tell you this: It’s not possible. You’ll create a toxic atmosphere. Free speech is slowly coming under attack, with some people absurdly claiming that free speech shouldn’t be used to offend. Of course it does, why else would you have free speech? To stop people from being nice to each other? Free speech exists precisely so that people are free to express things that may make someone else uncomfortable. Love speech doesn’t need protecting, I don’t remember who said it in the documentary ‘No safe spaces‘ but I thought it was brilliant. Who hasn’t been in a Facebook discussion about some topic or other, where at least one person throws the ‘I’m offended’-card? Being offended is nothing special. Everyone can do it. Resolving your emotions so that you become peaceful inside yourself again, without trying to make someone else disappear from your sight, now that’s special.

For victim-survivors of emotional violence: Yes, emotional violence hurts, more so than physical violence, actually. Emotional violence distorts the way you look at the world, and therefore changes the world you live in, because the world in your head is the one you live in. Emotional violence hurts long after the fact. However, not everything that hurts is violence. Insisting that the other person changes their opinion for your comfort, is exactly where you’ll end up when you take the idea seriously that everything that hurts you was an act of violence. We need to get away from that preposterous idea.

If you have a good relationship with yourself, you don’t have to push or pull at these ghost images you have in your own head. You’ll know that you cannot change anything in anyone else. The only thing you can change is your own mental picture of the world. The only person you have control over is you. Once you come to grips with that and accept it, you’ll stop shouting indignantly when someone says something that makes you uncomfortable. You’re not a victim. Not even when you were a victim before, you’re not a victim now. The world can be changed to a better place, by working hard at your own mental map and acting from a more realistic world view in your own life. You can then stop twisting other people’s words into something they didn’t really say, stop rewriting stories to exclude the other person’s point of view. You’ll no longer avoid the discomfort of having to update your image of the world.

How do you identity flaws in your own reasoning? Record yourself, re-read your own messages from last week or maybe even years ago. Inspect your own thinking to figure out: Who am I talking as? Am I speaking as myself, or am I speaking from a place of affirming or denying my own beliefs about myself? Am I fighting or affirming the image I imagine someone else might have of me? Am I speaking my own beliefs, or am I speaking what I think are someone else’s beliefs? Am I centered in who I really am, or am I stuck in the second or third layer of hell?