Akrasia and Anxiety

I’ve written before about mental illness, beeminder, and how I try to organize my life (https://inconsistentuniverse.wordpress.com/tag/mental-illness/) and I wanted to talk a little bit more about akrasia and how I experience it at someone who has pretty severe anxiety and other mental health issues. These are things I’ve said before in pieces but I don’t think I’ve ever quite put the picture together before.

First off, akrasia is basically the phenomenon of making choices that are a short term good that are bad choices (or at least less good) in the long term. It’s something I think we’re all familiar with and a lot of times its just a simple matter of momentum. There’s something you know you want to be working on or doing but building overcoming the million little reasons why you weren’t already doing it means that you have to do a lot to get that initial push. Reading through the old essay the beeminder folks wrote about akrasia, I think a lot of the examples about akrasia and procrastination are more about choosing short term pleasure over short term pain and effort. That’s not really how I experience it, though, even though the end result probably looks the same.

You see, when I’m avoiding working on something it’s not because I “don’t feel like it” but rather than I’m utterly terrified. Any time I try to write down my ideas into a paper draft or a blog post, I’m constantly hearing real and imagined people challenging my every assertion, questioning the worth of what I’m saying, and even yelling at me for being arrogant enough to think I should be heard. I literally woke up at 5am with a panic attack because I was working on a draft of a paper yesterday. If it sounds absurd, that’s okay. I pretty much constantly think it’s absurd. I know the reasons why my brain works this way, so I’m left trying to live with it.

So for me and my fear-based brain, commitment devices like beeminder are about trying to counter one kind of long-term terror with a more immediate short-term terror of “failing” at something I said I would do. The end result is pretty much the same as what anyone else gets from commitment devices, but the internal experience I think is pretty different. I’d like to not be motivated entirely by different kinds of fear, but that’s more of something to work towards in the long term.

Which brings me back to my early post on why I’m doing this blog. One of the major goals of this blog is, basically, a kind of exposure therapy. Every time I share my opinions and the universe doesn’t end and no one shows up to scream at me for being arrogant, it’s getting a little easier. I really did expect that yesterday, after writing about my opinions on suitable languages for teaching a new programmer, that somehow I was going to get massive amounts of hate for it and everyone would disagree with me and that forever-and-ever-amen would I be known as the crazy lady with stupid opinions. I’m dead serious. This is what I thought would happen. It’s completely irrational, but twice this week I’ve had my goal for writing blog posts spur me on with its counter-fear into some vague semblance of rational behavior. So that, in a nutshell, is what commitment devices have done for me and my anxiety.

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2 thoughts on “Akrasia and Anxiety

  1. The panic about being hated on by everyone after publicly airing opinions? I get that too.

    TBH, I’m really not sure how to deal with it. It comes and goes overall, though it’s been ramping up again just recently. For me it’s often tied to a sort of paranoia, activating echos of my PTSD and all the maladaptive coping mechanisms that go along with that. The positive responses and agreement I get, don’t seem to assuage the anticipatory fear from waiting for the trolls to show up. I read too much subtext into what people say. I make inappropriate apologies, unable to discern whether my words were offensive. (And then, when people get that confused look and tell me they thought it was eloquent, I feel guilty for having made them feel awkward.) I break off discussions, muting everyone, hiding for it to all blow over. It’s a terrible mess.

    It seems like this sort of thing is fairly common, especially among women in tech and among survivors of abuse. I haven’t heard much about it “in public”, but various friends have talked to me about their experiences. Despite its prevalence, I don’t think it has a name yet. It’s in a similar vein to impostor syndrome, but the specific details of how it works (the etiology, the triggers, the course of response, the subjective experience,…) are different enough that I feel like it should be distinguished.

    I’m tentatively debating starting up a discussion about it on Lambda Ladies (psst, you should join us!), but hesitating for all the reasons I hesitate to bring it up anywhere. While a few of the aforementioned friends are on the LL list, I’m not sure if they’d really be interested or comfortable in discussing it further. And I’m not really sure what the goal of starting such a discussion is. Like, part of me wants to be all “this is a thing!”, but without being able to offer some kind of concrete guidance I’m not sure if that’s worthwhile? And now I’m rambling. But anyways, yeah; it’s totally a thing, and I feel where your coming from.

  2. Pingback: Why I Can’t Relate to Most Motivational/Organizational Writing | Inconsistent Universe

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