Depersonalisation is a useful tool for self-improvement until you eventually “step back into yourself”.
To illustrate what I mean by this, try this exercise from Eckhart Tolle’s “Power of Now“: Consciously watch what thoughts are passing through your mind. Don’t judge or control them, or attempt to find out from whence they occur – simply observe. You will eventually become aware of the existence of a separate “I” – one part of you is operating on a lower level that experiences most of your thoughts and performs the bulk of your actions, while another is operating on a higher level and almost watching yourself from afar.
Tolle goes on to use this experience to draw out conclusions about the ego and the self. This material is definitely worth a read (though it’s heavy pseudoscience) for idea generation, but I want to focus more purely on depersonalisation for personal development in this particular post. Understand that I’m not attempting to prove that there are really these different levels of consciousness – even if they are only illusions, they should be sufficient to get my point across. I’ll leave further detail to trained neuroscientists.
Attempting to change yourself while operating at the “lower level” of your consciousness can be difficult. We tend to get caught up in the moment and continue to run our usual routines and personality by default. Doubtless you have realised long after a situation that you could have seen and acted within it in an entirely different fashion – this path was simply hidden in a blind spot to you earlier.
Trying to take a step back, disassociate with the thoughts and actions running at a lower level of your consciousness, and watching yourself from afar can help illuminate these blind spots. For example:
You notice yourself dwelling on negative thoughts after you see the boy you like kiss someone else at a party. After “watching” these thoughts run through your head for a minute, another thought occurs to you – there are dozens of positive stimuli around you (e.g. other partygoers) that simply aren’t registering in your mind. Regaining control of your lower level of subconsciousness, you drag your attention to those positive stimuli and try to become more positive again.
This, of course, is much easier said than done – even on the realisation that “I” am theoretically the one in control of my lower level mind, rather than that mind itself (in that I can actively experience a sense of hierarchy and authority over it), it’s still quite difficult to actually exercise that control. To visualise that better, picture yourself as a little person sitting in your brain, pushing and pulling levers that work your body – they’re definitely there, but the levers still get stuck sometimes.
Making those levers easier to control is simultaneously a pursuit of spirituality and generic discipline building, which I’ve covered elsewhere on this site (and will do again in future). Instead, I want to focus on a necessary prerequisite – you can’t really pull the levers at all if you’ve forgotten that they exist. Before you can exercise control, you actively need to put yourself in a mindset that forces you to realise the potential for control is there.
One method I’ve been using to accomplish this lately could be labelled “Biomechanical Optimisation Exercises”… which is basically needlessly complicated terminology for “pretend you’re a machine and try to make it work better” that happened to fit better as an article title. Before I elaborate on it for general personal development, I’m going to explain it through its origin (for me) – powerlifting.
Mechanics in Powerlifting
A primary reason I now enjoy powerlifting-style training so much is because it’s also a fairly satisfying mental pursuit. There is a surprising amount of technical and thoughtful analysis that goes into developing a “Platonic form” of each lift itself – how basic laws of physics and mechanics should operate to lift a weight most effectively. Here’s an example diagram from one of my favourite books, Starting Strength:
Perfecting a lift gets complicated even further when you take into consideration:
- Individual anthropometry (limb proportions, etc.)
- Biomechanical realities (muscle activation, need for stability, etc.)
- Loading realities (change in center of gravity with more weight, etc.)
- Idiosyncrasies (maybe I lift better with a narrow stance for no discernible reason, etc.)
- Probably dozens of other factors
And trying to fit these lifts into an extended training program makes it seem unbearably difficult when you factor in:
- Optimal set and repetition structure
- Optimal balance of exercises for your goals
- Periodization and progressive overload of your training
- Nutritional requirements for repair
- Sleep requirements for repair
- Motivational demands
- Structuring training around your schedule and other life goals
- Literally thousands of other factors
Of course, it isn’t unbearably difficult – powerlifters have performed some incredibly impressive feats of strength by managing to draw out common themes and principles from these discussions, then apply them to their training, without having to overanalyse every single tiny decision they make. The idea, though, is that we’re dealing with an optimisation exercise – we’re trying to take a bunch of interfering and competing factors and balance them to get a best possible result.
Take, for example, the balance between intensity on a particular workout and overall progress in a training program. From my understanding of the sport, the optimal method of making progress after just one workout would be to:
- Give 100% intensity on that workout (weight, reps, sets, etc.)
- Target as much of your body as possible
- Eat and sleep in abundance afterwards until fully recovered
And yet, serious powerlifters will almost never take this approach in their own training. Instead, they’ll split up their training, use challenging weights but nothing crippling, and likely train again while still recovering from the last workout. Some measure of restraint is necessary to prevent them burning out which would cripple their training more in the long term.
The opposite end of the spectrum also has an obvious pitfall – if you didn’t work out at all, you’re unlikely to overtrain, but equally unlikely to make any progress in the sport. Determining the exact balance you should strike requires some analysis of all the factors listed above (e.g. your current work capacity), combining that with a theoretical understanding of how those factors are likely to evolve with further training (e.g. you can’t yet handle 10 sets of deadlifts, which would burn you out, but 3 might improve your work capacity in a sensible fashion), and then actually testing that in the gym and refining your understanding further.
I think that’s probably enough coverage of powerlifting to convey my point here: We’re pursuing personal development by treating our body as a machine to be adapted to certain stimuli, to achieve a certain goal. There’s relatively little room for considerations of “What do I FEEL like training today?”… it’s moreso a dispassionate analysis of our bodies’ actions and attempt to optimise them further.
Now, remember that I didn’t just want to show you that this sort of analysis is possible. Rather, we want to constantly remember this fact, so that we can constantly position ourselves better in life. Accordingly, I’m going to answer one final question – what actually makes me remember that powerlifting is a technical and mental pursuit?
Perhaps the key theme is that I treat every nuance of my actions and thoughts while in the gym as potential room for improvement. This isn’t just an abstract knowledge that I could improve there, either – I’ve spent enough time in the gym by now that it’s my very first reaction to those stimuli. As soon as I feel my bar path wobble on a bench press, for example, I start mentally correcting several cues (elbow position, touch point on chest, etc.) to fix it next repetition.
In summary, then, we want to:
- Clearly identify methods of improvement
- Repeatedly attempt them so it becomes ingrained
Back to Personal Development
By now, I trust that readers will be able to start applying those principles to personal development in general, with a little thought. I will, however, depict a social example to give you some clearer picture of how I would analyse myself while in full “depersonalisation” mode.
Let’s say I’m at a house party, and am not in a particularly social mood (maybe I have work to do). This will reflect itself in my subcommunications to others, and give the impression that I don’t want to be there – hey, it’s true – thus potentially ruining their night as well or having them dislike me. I’d like to think I’m not a buzzkill, so it would be beneficial to consciously try to improve my behaviour to bolster the party vibe.
The problem is, I’m not currently aware this is needed, because my lower level thoughts are all dwelling on “fuck this party, I want to go home”.
What might eventually rescue me from this dilemma is any number of triggers I have installed that will drag me into a depersonalised mindset (treating myself as a biomechanical machine), from which I can alter my behaviour more consciously and effectively. I might realise:
- I’m speaking with an abrupt tone
- I’m avoiding eye contact
- I’m only talking to my friends
- I’m not smiling or laughing
- I’m not saying “yes” to any fun activities
- I’m not making any jokes
- I’m not touching anybody in a friendly manner
- I’m standing far away from people
And so on. All these triggers are flaws I have consciously tried to correct in the past (when I was particularly concerned about becoming more apparently social and attractive) and still notice today, which would call out “fix me” in a relatively short period of time. Once I’ve noticed one symptom of antisocial behaviour, I can then start looking for the rest.
From this point out, it’s an optimisation exercise – what is the best next course of action?
It could be to go introduce myself to more people, and build social momentum… or it could just be to pay more attention to the person speaking to me, and smile more at their conversation… or it could (legitimately) be to go grab another drink because I’m just in a shit mood that night and it will take the edge off.
Perhaps more subconsciously than consciously, I’ll run through a number of determining factors (type of party, number of people in attendance, are others currently in conversation, could I start being more physical in a friendly fashion or would it come off unnatural, etc.) and select the most optimal course for my personal machine to take next.
At this point, I’m giving extremely generic personal development advice (which, incidentally, should be a clue to you that you don’t need to overcomplicate everything – just act). The addition I want to make is that it can be helpful to port the mechanical analysis from powerlifting over into less intuitive situations.
It can be very difficult to just think “smile more” and then will yourself to do it – you don’t want to, you’re depressed, there’s nothing to smile at yet, I’ll wait for them to make a joke, and so forth. You’re still concerned with traits of personhood like caring about your actions or trying to make them seem natural. These are obviously usually beneficial values, but if they’re not working here… jettison them.
You’re now a machine.
Your little man with the levers in your head decided you should smile more? Take those relevant muscles in your face and physically yank them into a position that resembles a smile. The little man decided you should walk over there and introduce yourself? Your thoughts are now purely “What are the mechanical procedures for walking? Complete these. I am now there – what are the mechanical procedures for opening my mouth and talking…?”
The idea is that negative emotion is a barrier to taking right action. Literally pretend you’re a machine for a little while, and the barrier dissolves a little or completely.
Practice this skill and visualisation. Don’t take it so far that you’re constantly thinking of yourself as imperfect – that will only hurt your confidence. Take a break to be human. Similarly, don’t take it so far that you’re actually speaking to people like a robot, for example. While hilarious, this would impede the social improvements you likely wished to make.
Rather, simply get used to encountering the barrier “Human [Jack] does not wish to do this”, and replacing it with “Mechanical [Jack] is now doing this” until you can resume normal function again. If things aren’t working out with your lower level consciousness in control, temporarily seize control (as a pilot of sorts) and get it back on track. If you’ve ever heard the quote “treat yourself like an employee”, it’s much the same concept – you’re turning that little observer man you sometimes notice in the back of your head into a source of authority, which you’re then blindly obeying by pretending you’re a machine at his service.
Yeah, yeah, it’s a little bit of a messed up way to interact with the world… but it’s one perspective that occasionally helps me, so I figured I’d share. Use it as you will – or rather, as your personal machine pilot wills.
Note: Feature image is of myself trying DMT for the first time, during which I encountered some reasonable depersonalisation and self-awareness along the lines I mention here. Very interesting experience which I might write about eventually, we’ll see.