Six years ago, I suffered from crippling scrupulosity issues. Today, I don’t.
My symptoms were as I discussed in my old post Generalized Shame Disorder, which was based substantially on my own experiences:
Let’s be clear about how I’m using the word “shame” here. Shame is not the same thing as guilt, although many people with generalized shame disorder self-identify as having guilt issues. Guilt is a response to doing something wrong; while sometimes people feel guilty too much or guilty about the wrong things, in general, guilt is useful and healthy. Shame, however, is about fundamentally being a bad person. Guilt is “I made a mistake”; shame is “I am a mistake”. Guilt often motivates people to make amends and change their behavior; shame often doesn’t, because fixing a specific defect is much less daunting than fixing an entire defective self…
Commonly, generalized shame disorder seems to be associated with literal self-destructive impulses. Conventionally, the term “self-destructive” means doing things that have far more negative consequences than positive consequences, such as substance abuse; however, people with generalized shame disorder seem to literally want to destroy themselves. This manifests in a lot of different ways. Suicidal ideation is obvious. Some might have an eating disorder in the hopes that they can waste away until they stop existing. Some people may go to a psychiatrist in the hopes of getting medication that will cause them to be a completely different person. Some people make life choices that make them miserable because the complete opposite of themselves is the only good kind of person to be. I am sure there are others; we are nothing if not inventive.
Regardless of the preferred form of self-destruction (and most people with generalized shame disorder have more than one), the root thought is the same. In fact, if there’s anything besides “lots of shame” that defines this condition for me, it’s that: the urge, in some literal or metaphorical sense, to stop being you. It is very common for people to feel guilt about the fact that they can’t force themselves to be someone else or that they don’t want to.
I am not entirely recovered from scrupulosity. In fact, the evening before writing this post I experienced a minor relapse; I treated it promptly and was entirely recovered within a few hours. I have one relapse every three to six months, none of which last longer than a few hours. This is a level of pain I can live with.
Perhaps the greatest sign of how things have changed is that I’ve forgotten how much my shame and scrupulosity used to shape my entire life. Recently I had a conversation with a person who used to know me quite well, but who has been a distant acquaintance for the past few years. I made an off-hand comment about my self-acceptance and then they said “weren’t you the person who used to spend hours crying every day about how worthless you are?” and I suddenly realized that I don’t do that anymore.
So I am writing a sequence to explain how I recovered. I primarily intend this sequence to be helpful to those struggling with scrupulosity, excessive shame, and similar issues. However, I expect that many of the posts will be of interest to people who do not have similar issues; after all, the original Sequences were about what Eliezer discovered while trying to figure out how to create a friendly AI, and are of interest to many people who were not involved in creating a friendly AI at all. This is the index post and will be updated with links to later posts as they come out.