(Better said in the Inner Game of Tennis)

When you’re doing a trust fall with a friend, you stand close to them, facing away, with your body stiff. Then you allow yourself to fall backwards towards where their arms will be, allowing them to catch you.

Relaxing is the skill.

If you decide you trust them enough to try a trust fall, the way to do it safely is to have faith. Flailing at the end can lead to you whacking your friend. You’ll stumble. If they were going to drop you, you don’t even get to learn that. At the end, all you know is that you didn’t trust them in your gut as much as you thought.

Nice, reason-loving rationalists such as myself love making sense of the world. Why did I drink coffee this morning? Because I have a habit, both physiological and mental, because I think that it helps me be more productive, because I like it, etc.

In the Elephant and the Rider metaphor of our brain, our elephant is hauling off the direction it feels like (coffee), while the Rider spits off justification for why they wanted to go in that direction in the first place (productivity!).

In the coffee case, I’ve spent time examining myself. I’ve been in contexts where getting coffee feels good, bad, and everywhere in between. I paid a lot of attention to this particular habit, and at this point I can feel reasonably confident about my inferences.

This makes the world legible. When I can understand and predict myself, everything seems so much simpler.

Sometimes we don’t have the right concepts. Maybe we’re missing something important that would make our behavior apparent (“Ohhh, I was lonely!”). It might be tempting to wait around for more information or to jump to a justification. But we may never know why, and we do not have time to wait.

The concept I want to elucidate is trustfalling with yourself. I can’t give you a complete model of how it works, but it seems like an attitude with a lot of potential upside.

Not choking up

It’s easy to walk along a beam when there’s nowhere to fall, but add a chasm and what was simple becomes a shaky ordeal. We have very little practice walking along beams while shaking and quacking.

There might be something there

I was on a bus going towards Prague, a city I’ve never been in, exhausted and without any friends or plans for where I was sleeping. Normally this would bother me. So why wasn’t I making plans? This looked like procrastinating.

Rather than push through my “procrastination,” I decided to trust it. And it worked out! I found a place to sleep by going to a talk and chatting with the people afterwards. If I had pushed through my resistance, I wouldn’t have found that out. And, worst case, if I was stuck in Prague at night with no place to sleep, I would have learned something. Finding places to sleep might be more motivating after that.

With procrastination, frustration, anger, annoyance, and host of other emotions, there’s an urge to push away. By not pushing it away, I challenged an assumption and opened up a new degree of freedom.

Reducing inner friction

If you’re talking to someone and feel a strong urge to say something rude, the normal response is to clamp down the rude words. I think this might be a bad idea sometimes.

  • That rude impulse might not actually be rude. Sometimes we’re not calibrated about these things.
  • That impulse might have important information. Maybe it’s something other person needs to hear. Or, the impulse is telling you something about your feelings and needs.
  • Blocking that impulse might also block a gift, such as a sense of humor. Blocking things too much can turn a chatty person into a hesitant, quiet person quickly.
  • That block takes energy to maintain. The impulse might get louder and the block gets thicker, until it’s exhausting to be in a conversation at all.
  • That part could learn. By allowing it to speak and get feedback (regret, joy, pain, sadness, playfulness) about how its actions impacted others.

While we’re blocking that part, we don’t know what’s in there! None of this is an excuse to go around being rude or whatnot.

Less stressful decisions

We can’t have all the information, and if we ever did, it would immediately become outdated. Even if we don’t entirely trust our decision-making process to be excellent, if we can trust that it can improve over time, going with our impulses might be the best bet.

We make choices without all the information. To keep sane, we might deliberate once, and not revisit the choice again until the circumstances or information change in a big way. Trusting past-you to have made a good decision and letting it be frees up more energy to focus on the present.

Leaving space for a better understanding

A lot of hasty justifications color or block our information gathering about the world and ourselves. If I go along with the elephant, giving up my stories and interpretations for why it does what it does, I might learn something new about elephants.

I opened this up by saying the thing to do was to relax, but in the spirit of trust falling with yourself, that’s not exactly right. The thing to do might be to trust the part of you that wants to flail. And if that doesn’t go well, that part might realize the best thing is to keep your core tight and relax.

In rock climbing, it seems like some people have more of something like “faith” than other people. The people with more faith are able to do things outside what they think is possible. Or even what you, the observer, think that they can do. On the other hand, when climbers have little faith, your words of encouragement hardly help. Even if you know they could absolutely can grab that next hold, they’ll give up anyway. Most people are in between.

The person with too much faith might get injured and the person without enough will always have the defense that they were playing it safe, when anyone asks why they didn’t reach further. I think in general we err on the side of playing it safe.

When there’s nothing to do but trust fall into the future, the first step is to trust.

The Secret-Box

Some information needs to be kept silent, siloed. Most information in that category is of no importance. There’s no desire to pass it on. But some information are secrets that burn hot in the stomach, like toad swallowed whole and ready to push its way back up, flinging itself wide into the world at a moment’s notice.

When I have these types of secrets, I clench my jaw shut and swallow it down again and again, becoming exhausted from the weight of it. It’s not sustainable. It would not scale if I became the keeper of more secrets.

Some secrets can be refused, and it is often wise to refuse those heavy gifts courteously.

But sometimes secrets happen, and part of being a good ally is to keep them safe.

How do we get better at carrying them?

I had such a burden recently. I accepted it without understanding exactly how heavy it would feel. After a week of struggling, I realized I had to do something about it.

This seemed like a good time to visit my memory palace, the house on the hill. I sat down on the couch, closed my eyes, and began to space out hard. My friend was in the room too, co-working. Yep, I looked weird, flopped back, limbs limp.

The climb up to the house had was easy enough, scrambling up some mossy granite. No wind that day, just scattered wispy clouds in the sky leaving a slightly grayed-out sunlight. In the cabin the fireplace was burning like always, with the mantle full of pointers to the memories I wanted to keep safe.

The first step was to make a container for the secret. The secret deserved a beautiful box. I spun up an image of an intricate and extraordinary box with a large cutout of a keyhole. Really, the box itself represented the secret so fully, it itself was a part of the secret. This would serve well as a link to and from the memories I needed to put away.

The next step was to watch for pieces of secret and gently guide them into the box, one by one. Wait, find another, and put that one in too. The secret was an extensive tangle of feelings and information. It was made of fear, joy, confusion, facts, physical objects, and a memory. Some of the tendrils were tied to things in the physical world, and I carefully pruned those associations to something manageable. The ones that were necessary parts of the secret went in the box.

What it felt like I was doing was experiencing a relevant sensation, memory, association, or anything else that related to the secret. I’d have a sense of that feeling in physical space, and would visualize guiding it into the box. This part of the technique requires visual imagery, but creating a very strong association with words other sensations might suffice. It was important to know that I was respecting every bit of the secret, and that it would actually be safe in this box. I avoid compartmentalizing if I’m going to forget that the compartment is there. The memory palace would keep that compartment safe.

The box, closed, needed a hiding place within my memory palace. I went to the fireplace, the heart of my house-on-the-hill, with the mantle full of memories. A specific blueish stone near the hearth became free of its mortar, revealing a hollow pocket. I put the box in that pocket and replaced the stone.

As I turned to go, a wave of sadness arose. Parts of this secret were beautiful, after all. But it would be safe here, and I could visit it at any time. I put the stone back in place and returned to reality, blinking into awareness on my couch in late afternoon sunlight, lighter.

It worked. I no longer have urges to relieve myself from that informational burden. I can carry it.

Overall, this process took around 15 minutes. With practice, I think this process could go faster. But that hopefully won’t be necessary. My memory palace isn’t a junkyard for secrets foolishly accepted.

This technique is precise and self-aware compartmentalization, with a recoverable compartment. In general, compartmentalization is a powerful tool, but I avoid using it except when necessary. Overuse can lead to weird memory problems, personality shifts, dissociation, and general disintegration as a person.

Instead, I try to use it consciously and carefully, with the smallest viable chunk of experience. The information should be recoverable, so we can come back to it, and temporary, so that it can get reintegrated later.

The other way this seems to work is the slightly placebo magic of “Oh, I dealt with that already. It’s not a problem now, because it’s dealt with.”

Really, this is all damage control. The more important technique to making secret-keeping sustainable business is to refuse all but the ones that matter. If information would cause you to have to compromise your values or sacrifice your honesty, it is better refused as the weighty gift it is.

The next thing to learn is how to tell the difference.