You are probably underestimating how good self-love can be

post by CharlieRS · 2021-11-14T14:47:41.370Z · EA · GW · 10 comments


  What is self-love?
  But won’t I turn into jello?
  How to self-love
      Nick thinks that the two most promising avenues are solo MDMA trips and metta (lovingkindness) meditation.
    Other things that might help
      Other books:

I am very grateful to the following people, in general, and for their helpful feedback on this post: Nick Cammarata, Kaj Sotala, Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg, Sam Clarke, Mrinank Sharma, Matej Vrzala, Vlad Firoiu, Ollie Bray, Alan Taylor, Max Heitmann, Rose Hadshar, and Michelle Hutchinson.

This is a cross-post from LessWrong [LW · GW]. I almost didn't post here, since this type of content is a little unfamiliar to the forum. But it saddens me to see my friends pour their hearts into the flourishing of humanity, and yet hurt so badly. I write later in the post:

A lot of people go their whole lives making their self-worth conditional in order to act better: they take damage--dislike or judge themselves--whenever they act imperfectly or realise they are imperfect or don’t achieve the things they want to. In a world as unfair and uncontrollable as this one, I think taking so much damage is often not that functional. Moreover, I claim that you can care deeply while feeling worthwhile and suffused with compassion and affection and joy

It is hard to do the most good when depressed, burned out, or feeling worthless. Even if this is not you, I think self-love might be worth aiming for--especially if you want to do something as difficult as saving the world.  

I was on a plane to Malta when I realised I had lost something precious. I was struggling to meditate. I knew there was some disposition that made meditation easier for me in the past, something to do with internal harmony and compassion and affection. Alas, these handles failed to impact me. On a whim, I decided to read and meditate on some of my notes. 3h later, I had recovered the precious thing. It was one of the most special experiences of my life. I felt massive relief, but I was also a little scared--I knew that this state would likely pass. I made a promise to myself to not forget what I felt like, then, and to live from that place more. This post is, in part, an attempt to honour that promise. I spent most of my holiday in Malta reading about and meditating on the precious thing, and I now feel like I'm in a place where I can share something useful.

This post is about self-love. Until recently, I didn’t know that self-love was something I could aim for; that it was something worth aiming for. My guess is that I thought of self-love as something vaguely Good, a bit boring, a bit of a chore, a bit projection-loaded (I’m lovable; I love me so you can love me too), and lumped together with self-care (e.g. taking a bath). Then I found Nick Cammarata on Twitter and was blown away by the experiences he was describing. Nick tweeted about self-love from Sep 2020 to May 2021, and then moved on to other things. His is the main body of work related to self-love that I’m aware of, and I don't want it to be lost to time. My main intention with this post is to summarise Nick’s work and build on it with my experiences; I want to get the word out on self-love, so that you can figure out whether it’s something you want to aim for. But I'm also going to talk a little about how to cultivate it and the potential risks to doing that. One caveat to get out of the way is that I’m a beginner--I’ve been doing this stuff for under a year, for way less than 1h/day. Another is that I expect that my positive experiences with self-love are strongly linked to me being moderately depressed before I started.

What is self-love?

Self-love is related to a lot of things and I'm not sure which are central. But I can point to some experiences that I have when I'm in high self-love states. While my baseline for well-being and self-love is significantly higher than it used to be, and I can mostly access self-love states when I want to, most of the time I am not in very high self-love states, because my attention is elsewhere. Some of the following experiences point to the core of what self-love feels like, some are actions or tendencies that self-love spins up out of, and some are consequences of self-love. It is hard to untangle these categories so I don’t try to. 

But won’t I turn into jello?

It’s easy to imagine that, if you feel unconditionally worthwhile, if you have access to a deep source of self-compassion and affection and joy, then you will care less about changing or pursuing your goals. This was my worry, so I want to tackle it head-on. 

I think turning into jello is a very understandable worry. A lot of people go their whole lives making their self-worth conditional in order to act better: they take damage--dislike or judge themselves--whenever they act imperfectly or realise they are imperfect or don’t achieve the things they want to. In a world as unfair and uncontrollable as this one, I think taking so much damage is often not that functional. Moreover, I claim that you can care deeply while feeling worthwhile and suffused with compassion and affection and joy. All that said, messing with the strategy that helps you act better is a big deal (see Risks). 

I don’t have any good arguments about how often we’d expect people to turn to jello, besides looking at the people who have walked the path. However, I’m confident that more self-love does not necessitate less caring, because I and many others have experienced that more self-love leads to more caring. Nick Cammarata says that he has never seen people turn into jello, and that, “In fact, it usually pushes [people] far in the other direction”. This accords with the behaviourism literature (at least as summarized in "Don't Shoot the Dog [LW · GW]"), which claims that both animals and humans are best trained by only giving them rewards and no punishments. This probably generalizes to internal rewards and punishments, which are largely learned and internalized based on how people have treated us in the past.

I’m reminded of Nate Soares’ writings on Replacing Guilt. He writes that it's you that cares about your goals, that wants to become stronger or save the world. Those things that you actually care about won’t go away with more self-love; what changes is your strategy for pursuing them. You no longer pursue things in order to feel worthwhile, but simply because you want to. Indeed, it is not self-loving to shut down those parts of you that care about things. An essential component of self-love, as I see it, is being there with and feeling fully whatever is happening for me, especially when I want things to be different.


How to self-love

I’m really confused about this, sorry. The path is muddy, at least to me. That’s why I focused on describing self-love. I realise that this might be frustrating, especially if I managed to get you excited about self-love. That said, I decided to write something here rather than nothing. Please take this section with a bunch of salt.

Nick thinks that the two most promising avenues are solo MDMA trips and metta (lovingkindness) meditation. 

MDMA: I am not recommending that people take MDMA, because that would be illegal, and because I have no idea what your situation is. If you intend to take MDMA, please do some research on safety (e.g. read at least this and this) to get a sense of the costs, and because you can substantially reduce risks and side effects if you do decide to take it. Here is my impression of the benefits: MDMA makes you feel a lot of love--very likely a lot more than you’ve ever experienced, possibly orders of magnitude more--including self-love. I’ve seen and heard of many people experiencing extremely large and lasting improvements to self-love when they take MDMA alone, close their eyes, and focus on investigating their experiences--including how they relate to themselves. This accords with preliminary research on the efficacy of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD. My guess for why this happens is that MDMA is extremely good at memory reconsolidation a la Unlocking the Emotional Brain [LW · GW], presumably because it makes painful experiences/memories safe to look at and the love makes them easy to rewrite. Another benefit is that it gives you some information about what it’s like to have self-love--for example, you might for the first time experience complete self-acceptance while also caring deeply about doing things and changing, and that’s cool if that was a crux for you wanting more self-love. It also substantially clarifies what to aim for when sober, which is important: 

Nick: “I can't overstate how impossible it would have been for me to get to a state of self-love without MDMA, even after hundreds of hours of metta (which I did before the MDMA). Not sure it'll be the case for everyone, but I suspect it makes things way easier”.

Lovingkindness meditation (metta): Metta is a slower way to increase your capacity for love, albeit substantially. You could think of metta as doing reps to strengthen the love muscle (but more beautiful than that). Alongside love, metta also builds awareness, indistractability, sensory clarity, and equanimity--all of which are pretty useful for self-love. Below, I discuss some introspection techniques that might be useful. One reason to expect metta to be better than those techniques is that, when you’re good at it, metta has feedback loops that can get you into very high self-love states. Resources: The canonical metta book is this one, but I think it’s mostly good for giving you models and not for practice. Kaj Sotala says that lots of people find TWIM really effective. Here’s a guided meditation and here’s one with a different style. You can do concentration meditation with love as the object of concentration instead of the breath, and can get coaching for that here


Other things that might help

I wrote this section for someone like me a year ago--someone who strongly wants self-love and is desperate to read anything they can about how to get it. Consequently, this section is long and lower-quality; feel free to skip it!

Deepen your understanding of self-love: If you have an hour or two, searching for ‘@nickcammarata self-love’ might be the best use of your self-love time. You could also try to spend lots of time with/read/take workshops with/take retreats with people who are really good at self-love. I don’t know of specific people but you might find some within Nick’s Twitter circles and (lovingkindness/metta) meditation communities (Tara Brach, Sharon Salzburg). 

Be with yourself: Being with yourself (your experiences) is the training ground for self-love. It is hard to become your best friend if you do not know yourself. Being with yourself requires some baseline self-love, though--it might not be good or advisable at first. One idea is to walk around without external input when possible. You can also be with yourself whenever you notice suffering, or even moment-to-moment (e.g. while working)--though this requires some skill to be able to do with little cost (see this course). I refresh my awareness about my experiences very frequently, and sometimes the awareness is roughly continuous.

Figure out what you believe: The ability to self-love seems strongly mediated by ones (implicit) beliefs about whether it’s safe and good to do so. So I would focus on figuring out what you believe. Indeed, many of the introspection techniques I list below work to facilitate this process, and could be done with this process in mind. You can ask yourself, with gentle curiosity, why you don’t want self-love or why you think it’s good to make your self-worth conditional. This is important because there are probably reasons, and your current set-up might be doing something very useful (such as guilt-based motivation). And until you understand those functions it will be hard and maybe bad to shift things up.

Introspection/therapy techniques: Explaining each technique well is beyond the scope of this post, but I have linked to a short blog post and a more comprehensive resource where possible.


Other books:


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comment by Kat Woods (katherinesavoie) · 2022-01-12T16:15:52.153Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In part inspired by this post, I did one hour a day of loving-kindness meditation for ten days and the results were phenomenal. It's too soon to tell if it'll stick, but I think it's fixed about 80% of my impostor syndrome and anxiety around impact, which have been a major source of stress for me for years.

I've tried everything before, like CBT, ACT, concentration practice, IFS, exercise, therapy, etc etc. Nothing had worked. And this has been by far the most successful thing I've tried.

Will be writing about it in more detail on LessWrong when I write the review about the Finder's Course in a few weeks. Thank you so much for writing this article that gave me the extra push and framework I needed.

comment by Max Görlitz (MaxG) · 2021-11-21T10:14:46.361Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I enjoyed this post and really appreciate all the great resources! Recently I have also been thinking about this and just posted a short article on how to make metta meditation a bit easier for people who struggle with it. Maybe it will be useful to some of you, I would love to hear your feedback.

Here is an excerpt:

Instead of beginning with yourself, you first picture someone with whom you have a really uncomplicated and positive relationship. Wishing them well is much easier. Not only does this help with getting into the groove of building up the feeling of metta, but a certain framing can help you transition the focus to yourself more easily. Personally, I find this works best with a pet.

For example, I may start with thinking of my dog and wishing him well using my preferred metta phrases. Then I try to imagine viewing myself through the eyes of my dog and also silently saying phrases like "May You be well." To me, it comes very natural to imagine that my dog loves me a lot and is really happy to see me. Because of that, it isn't hard to put myself into the position of my dog, imagining him e.g. being petted by me and wishing me all the best.

Now comes the interesting part. Mirghafori gives the instruction of "joining voices" with, in this case, my dog. That means switching the phrasing to "May I be well" instead of You. Instead of viewing myself from the outside perspective of a friend, I now try to have a loving awareness of the body and mind which I experience from the inside.

Replies from: SamClarke
comment by Sam Clarke (SamClarke) · 2022-03-03T11:36:36.225Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I found this helpful and am excited to try it - thanks for sharing!

comment by MaxRa · 2021-11-15T13:13:44.925Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for writing about this! :) I used to spend more time with loving kindness meditation and explicitly being nice to myself, and your words motivate me to do this more again. I really like the idea about taking walks without input. A pretty influential part of me protests strongly about the articles and audiobooks I could be listening away in that time, but I think I would do well to internalize that spending time like this is well spend.

Replies from: CharlieRS
comment by CharlieRS · 2021-11-15T18:31:30.573Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

and your words motivate me to do this more again.


but I think I would do well to internalize that spending time like this is well spend.

You can test it maybe! It might not be better but it might be really beneficial. Sometimes people need to escape into distractions, and sometimes it's nice to be with our pain, especially when we have the tools to comfort ourselves. Good luck!

comment by Linch · 2022-01-12T19:35:31.560Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm curious what the path to impact here is. Have people tried this and found themselves doing directly more impactful work, having more creative + useful research, etc? 

Replies from: SamClarke
comment by Sam Clarke (SamClarke) · 2022-03-03T11:56:57.373Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

After practising some self-love I am now noticeably less stressed about work in general. I sleep better, have more consistent energy, enjoy having conversations about work-related stuff more (so I just talk about EA and AI risk more than I used to, which was a big win on my previous margin). I think I maybe work fewer hours than I used to because before it felt like there was a bear chasing me and if I wasn't always working then it was going to eat me, whereas now that isn't the case. But my working patterns feel healthy and sustainable now; before, I was going through cycles of half-burning out every 3 months or so (which was bad enough for my near-term productivity, not to mention long-term producitivity and health). I also spend relatively less time just turning the handle on my mainline tasks (vs zooming out, having random conversations that feel useful but won't pay off immediately, reading more widely), which again I think was a win on my previous margin (maybe reduced it from ~90% to ~80% of my research hours).

I'm confused about how this happened. My model is that before there were two parts of me that strongly disagreed about whether work is good, and that these parts have now basically resolved (they agree that doing sensible amounts of work is good), because both feel understood and loved. Basically the part that didn't think work was good just needed its needs to be understood and taken into account.

I think this model is quite different from Charlie's main model of what happens (which is to do with memory consolidation), so I'm especially confused.

I haven't attained persistent self-love of the sort described here.

comment by Kevin Kuruc · 2021-11-15T14:57:44.519Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm glad you posted this here! This is super useful stuff to think about. Thanks :) 

comment by tobyj (tobyjolly) · 2022-04-08T11:55:11.265Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for this post Charlie. I've been consuming some of the resources since I first read it and have found them really valuable. I'm pretty convinced of the central idea that self -love and compassion can form the basis of large improvements in well-being.