Living Amongst Racists

“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”

Maya Angelou (American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist)

Is this racist or my imagination?

Usually, I don’t write on topics like this, but in light of the recent events and my absolute exhaustion from keeping my mouth shut, I am doing to write about how to deal with racism.

At least, how I deal with racism.

Recently in the United States, there’s been an uptrend in racially motivated hate crimes towards Asian-Americans and I can’t help but see parallels to what’s been happening to African-Americans.

Maybe the attacks are due to resentment built up over the past year from the COVID-19 lockdowns and people are blaming Asians.

Maybe the violence is correlational and it has nothing to do with race at all.

The question of “Is this racist or is it just my imagination?” is always buzzing around when you’re a hated minority.

Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t matter. All that matters is how we act in the face of the unfairness.

Right now, I’m watching my fellow Asian brothers and sisters respond to the violence in a way that I’m compassionate for, but must caution against.

I want people who read this to take a few things from this piece:

If you are lucky enough to not deal with racism frequently, then I would like to invite you to reflect on a time when you felt similar to some of the things I’ll talk about. If you can’t remember a time, then imagine your child dealing with those feelings and be thankful you don’t have to experience them. Find compassion for those living in fear, anger, and injustice. It’s tough to be hated for reasons that you cannot control and when that hatred is carried out by the rest of society it eats at every part of your life.

If you are experiencing anxiety or rage because you are part of a hated group, then I would like to invite you to use some of the methods that I talk about later in the post to cope with it. It’s not glamorous and it doesn’t solve a lot of problems outright, but I believe it’s a good enough way forward.

Right now, there is no perfect solution.

Some of My Racial Experiences

I can speak on this because I’ve grown up around racism. In every facet of my life, there have always been questions raised regarding my race. My dad is from Africa and my Mom is from the Philippines. I grew up in a city that’s mostly white and conservative. I’ve dealt with racism at every age and I’ve seen it more than someone growing up in my time would expect. For context, I was born in 1994.

I’m one of few Black people on my Asian side and I’m the only Asian (other than my sister) on my black side.

I’m no stranger to the awareness of my individuality and the knowledge that I’m different.

I was first called a nigger when I was 4.

I’ve been called a nigger countless times since then. The word is almost meaningless to me now.

Every time I meet someone, I have to prove that I’m not dangerous nor stupid.

I’ve had cuffs slapped on for WWB, walking while black. It’s a thing if you aren’t already aware. According to the cops, I looked “dangerous and suspicious.”

In stores, Loss Prevention follows me around – meanwhile little teenage girls all over the world are stealing millions of dollars of makeup.

I grew up ashamed of my hair, my skin, my “exotic” features. There was no Zendaya and it wasn’t always cool to be Black.

Girls didn’t like me because I couldn’t spike my hair. Girls didn’t date me because they didn’t what to be known that they like Black guys.

Because back then (the early 2010s), dating a nigger was enough to taint your reputation. In some places, it’s still that way.

It’s like I’m living in a monster that’s occasionally trying to eat me. Sometimes it is, sometimes it just seems like it is.

It’s impossible to know the difference with certainty.

Repression

For a long time, I was angry about it. I hated who I was because I wasn’t like everyone else around me. The worst part, was I couldn’t do anything with the anger. I didn’t even let myself feel the anger and pain for longer than a few seconds.

I wasn’t allowed to complain about it. I could talk to my dad about it, but it’s not like he could make the anger go away.

He was dealing with it too.

Every Black person I knew was dealing with it.

There was no clear answer.

The rage grew and grew and I kept it all inside. In time, I learned how to sublimate it into work. My father always told me that I would have to work 7x as hard as a white kid to get the same opportunities. (So far he’s been right.) So I turned my rage into work. I worked as hard as I could to prove that I’m not some useless nigger. I worked hard to prove that this nigger is actually much smarter than anyone around him.

This was easier to do when the racism was latent.

But sometimes the injustice was too much.

Sometimes I cried about it. Sometimes I was bitchy.

Sometimes I would get so angry I’d scream as loud as I could.

Sometimes I wanted to kill myself.

Never did I shoot up a school. Never did I take out my anger on other people. Even if they seemed like they deserved it. If no one has said it now, I’ll be the first to stand by this – dealing with racism will incite enough rage in an individual to shoot up a school. That being said, under no circumstances will that make anything better.

Constraining the evil within is fundamental to maintaining peace and harmony.

Besides, if I didn’t handle my feelings properly, I’m just more of the nigger they think I am.

Racism engulfs your life whether you like it or not. Do this and you’re a nigger. Do that and you’re not a nigger.

No matter what everything is in the context of “more or less nigger.”

It wasn’t all rage though. There was also self-doubt compounded with external verification.

Part of me was worried that the racists were right.

Maybe I really was inferior. It certainly didn’t help Blacks were often portrayed as criminals and low lives. The “maybe they’re right” thought came up often enough to stop me from taking opportunities. Looking back, my life may have been different if I saw myself as someone who belongs to the society they’re living in. But that doesn’t matter now. The older I get, the more I realized that this isn’t the case.

Nothing about my ethnic heritage places me above or below anyone else.

I wish I lived in a world where every human being comes to that conclusion. Perhaps we will build one in time.

I’ll say it again for the people in the back –

Nothing about my ethnic heritage places me above or below anyone else.

How I Cope with Racism

“To bring about change, you must not be afraid to take the first step. We will fail when we fail to try.”

Rosa Parks (American activist)

It wasn’t fair, but I learned a few ways of dealing with it. These are no means a perfect solution, but I’ve fought this uphill battle my whole life.

These methods are what I’ve learned over my experiences. I currently use these practices to deal with the consistent hum of racism that underscores my entire life.

This is how I know how to constructively and effectively cope with racism.

The reason why I’m writing about methods to deal with racism is that if we use the methods that feel natural to us, we end up creating more pain and suffering in the long run.

If we react with our feelings, we will only prove the racists right. They will only see those actions as proof of their ill-informed beliefs.

Focus on Unity Instead of Hate

“An eye for an eye makes the world blind.”

Mahatma Gandhi (Indian lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist, and political ethicist)

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King Jr (African American Baptist minister and activist)

Even though it’s incredibly tempting to. Focusing on the hate only adds to the problem.

It’s so easy to just say “White people did this” or “white people are trash,” but that type of behavior is the same type of thinking that perpetuates the issue of prejudice in the first place.

Assigning people to groups and using them as representations of the entire group is a horribly destructive way of conceptualizing the world.

If you don’t think so, answer this question:

Would you pay for the crimes of someone else with your same eye color?

The beautiful part about the world we live in today is that most people aren’t racist. Being a beacon of light that illuminates our unity in this dark world will attract a lot of supporters who will join us in building a better tomorrow. It’s going to be a long and tough battle, but I do believe in time racism will disappear.

In my post, The Hero of Heroes: Marduk vs. Tiamat & The Significance of Speech, I talk about how people spend at least half of their existence in the world of conversation. Our lives are shaped by the conversations we participate in just as much (or even more) than our physical environments.

That being said, focusing on the hate will just add more hate to the conversation. Focusing on unity will add unity to the conversation. In my experience, paying attention to the nature of our conversations is crucial for not only living a life by design but also combating racism and ignorance.

Aim to Change Individuals, Not Groups

It’s not likely that one person will single-handedly end racism. It needs to be a group effort. Groups on their own do not respond well to change, but people do. If we are going to exterminate racism, it must be done one person at a time.

Groups are solidified in their stances. The beliefs of individuals, however, are more subject to change, especially when factoring in personal experience.

I met a lot of people with prejudices who’ve changed their opinion after spending some time with me. It’s all about connection and showing them that we’re more alike than different.

This doesn’t work in groups. We need to feel a personal connection to change what we believe and that connection is easier found on the individual level.

Sympathize with their Ignorance

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

Audre Lorde (American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist)

I know this is asking for a lot and it’s not something I’d suggest for most people, but if you are capable of doing this it can save you so much wasted energy on hatred and anger.

Turn the hate into pity.

Racists have not known, and will never know if they don’t change, any of the pleasures that your culture has contributed to the human experience.

I love so many things about my heritage that the ignorant have missed out on. Honestly, I feel bad for them.

I have great pity for anyone who hasn’t engaged an educated Black person in meaningful conversation. Black Africans intensely value education and the conversations you can get from them are stimulating to the highest degree.

I have great pity for anyone who hasn’t had Filipino food. Filipinos are amazing cooks and essentially hold food as a virtue. People who close themselves off will never try chicken adobo.

Honestly, racists have a duller experience of life.

Show them what their missing.

Don’t be angry at them. Don’t be afraid of them.

Have pity for them. The poor animals locked themselves in a cage.

Find the Bigot in You

I got this piece of advice from Dr. Edith Eger, a holocaust survivor. She used this method to deal with the Nazis while she was in Auschwitz. If she could practice this while being dehumanized in a concentration camp, while they murdered her family and loved ones, then we can certainly find the strength to practice this in the face of modern racism.

While it’s easy to think that another person holds racist and irrational beliefs, it’s much harder to recognize that that person is just like us or rather that we are like them.

Each of us, no matter how “woke” or “conscious” has a little bigot inside of us.

We’re all a little unreasonable attached to a belief or opinion.

The only difference with racists is that their beliefs are prejudiced against a certain kind of people. To the racist, their beliefs are no different than ours and until we can understand that, we will further perpetuate the outgroup vs. ingroup dynamic.

Change Minds Slowly

Everyone does things at their own pace. There is nothing we can do to force that. At a certain level, how someone changes is entirely up to them and most people won’t change quickly. Most people will only change when it’s convenient for them.

That being said – shoving things down people’s throats only creates a backlash.

This is why I’m not trying to promote any hashtags like #blacklivesmatter or #stopasianhate because they will create more of the exact thing they are trying to destroy.

When Black Lives Matter started getting popular, I was worried that there was going to be a backlash. People hate when they can’t choose and everyone in the country was forced to see Black Lives Matter everywhere.

While I agree with the mission (obviously, I’m Black and hurt by racism just as much as the next guy), but I’m don’t support bombarding ideas in people’s faces. That is not the same as spreading awareness. BLM became the “Pop-Up” Ad version of anti-racist movements and it made people mad.

Suddenly, Blue Lives Matter appears. Because you can’t say White Lives Matter or Black Lives Don’t Matter – that makes the reaction too obvious. Even in some of our most disgusting social games, we have a little class.

Blue Lives Matter was not created to support law enforcement.

It was a reaction to Black Lives Matter, and I was terrified of what a racial backlash would look like.

We’ll we’ve seen some of it, but there are other effects that are less obvious.

Now people can put bumper stickers that proudly display their opposition to anti-racist movements. Which is terrifying to see all around you. Where I’m from, people have that black and blue flag everywhere.

It’s both terrifying and disgusting.

Racists now have a unified symbol for hating black people that’s socially accepted and guised under the support of law enforcement.

Blacklash is almost always a result of “forced feeding,” so to speak.

If we shove ideas in people’s faces when they aren’t open to them, we piss them off and they swing back harder.

Back-lashes are everywhere and the best way to stop them is to change minds slowly.

True social change happens slowly anyway.

So let’s tread a little more intentionally and mitigate the damage.

I say this now because I really don’t want to see an anti-Asian backlash.

Be an Exception to Their Rule

“Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism.”

Oprah Winfrey (American talk show host, television producer, actress, author, and philanthropist)

Focus on being the example of what a “good one” would look like if they existed. People are more likely to change their minds through personal experience. That being said, if someone is to change their mind, they can only change it by their own volition.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with racists and they tell me exactly what they think of Black people or “farmer” Asians, but in the same breathe will tell me that I’m the exception to their rule.

“Oh you’re not one of them Chris.”

“You know the other niggers, not you. You actually care and have respect for people.”

“You’re not even Black, you’re white on the inside where it counts.”

I knew their ignorance wasn’t physically dangerous, so it wasn’t worth getting upset over their statements.

Being “the exception” is me showing them proof that people who they hold in contempt aren’t what they think they are.

Once we see one example, others start showing up more and more. I strive to be good enough to open the door so they can have another positive experience with someone else like me.

I try to plant seeds for a garden I’ll never see.

Ask Questions

In the words of the brilliant astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “It’s not enough to be right, you also have to be effective.”

Telling someone they’re wrong or that they don’t understand something will not bring awareness to their ignorance.

Rather than attack or accuse, ask questions.

Just ask them a question that proves they think the same way as you.

This can be tricky at first, but with some practice, it’s extremely effective.

In conversations, people have two orientations: peace or combat.

When someone is oriented to peace, conversations are easy and smooth. Misunderstandings are no big deal and the stakes are low.

However, when someone is oriented to combat, everything becomes a battle of life and death.

This is when people become defensive or offensive. It’s much harder to change minds or learn something new when people are oriented to combat.

Asking questions pacifies people (orients them to peace) and allows them to come to conclusions on their own. Which is the only way anyone can understand anything. When we hear a question, our brain immediately goes to work on finding an answer.

The magic happens when we don’t have an answer.

Suddenly, we discover that there are things we don’t know and we open up to new information.

This is when people are most likely to change their minds or learn something new.

For example, if someone says they don’t believe in global warming, ask them if they’re still willing to buy a beachfront house even though the water levels are rising due to polar ice caps melting. In the context of race relations, it’s much more difficult to come up with questions but it’s so worth it.

This is one of my favorite techniques and I use it for much more than just dealing with racism. It’s fantastic for dealing with ignorance of all kinds.

Respond, Don’t React

Mindfulness is everything.

Pay attention to how you make others feel and pay attention to how they make you feel.

Monitor your behavior so that others don’t feel threatened. That sounds like a cop-out, but people can only respond well to something that they don’t deem as a threat.

Appear innocuous, change their perspectives. Additionally, mindfulness helps us from reacting in a way that either justifies their (incredibly ignorant) perspective or escalates a situation.

When I hear a racist spout their ignorant beliefs, when I see those Blue Lives Matter flags, I want to beat the hell out of those people. I want to drag them on the ground and curb-stop their faces.

Let me just say that the anger I feel when I’m around those ignorant bigots is intense, but I also know it’s dangerous.

If I act with my reactions, I continue the war, perpetuate hateful ideas, and prove the racists right. However, if I respond in an intentional way I’m much more likely to connect with them and create genuine lasting change.

When I get angry in the face of racism, I use mindfulness practices and ask myself “Is what I want to do a reaction or a response?” If it’s a reaction, I stop myself. Not to be a bigger person (although that’s a good reason), but because it could cost me my life. I’ll say it again because I don’t think people understand how serious that is –

Reacting incorrectly as a hated minority could cost you your life.

That’s the self-preservatory reason to respond rather than react. But there’s another reason too.

People are more likely to positively respond to a response as opposed to a reaction. Most of the time, people will act reasonably with someone who is being reasonable with them. Although, it would require “more reasonableness” to control your reactions in the face of racism. There is a moral and self-preservatory responsibility and in this case, the burden falls on the hated minority. This is why mindfulness is key to fighting racism, we must be aware of what we are even when the world tries to lie.

Pick and Choose Battles

Not every hill is worth dying on. If I stopped to fight every person who’s called me a nigger, I’d never get anything done.

That being said, sometimes it’s worth it to stand up and say something.

Not every hill is worth dying on, but some are.

When choosing to fight, be mindful of the methods I listed off earlier. Respond, don’t react.

Ask questions.

Understand where they’re coming from.

Be an example of excellence.

Find the Humor In It

Dave Chappell is the perfect example of this. He’s taken all of the injustice, ignorance, and evil he’s seen and sublimated it into a beautiful art form.

Pain and the fear of not belonging is at the root of all of these racial jokes.

The jokes aren’t just a way to sublimate the pain. They’re also our best bet in protecting our mental health.

Finding the humor in the darkness keeps things bearable. Being able to laugh in the face of racism, not only makes it easier to not react but also keeps our heads above water. It’s so easy to let anger and fear dominate our minds but if we actively find the humor, we don’t let it win.

Laugh about it. As painful as it is, it’s also absurd and ridiculous and sometimes absurd and ridiculous things are funny.

Allow the Challenge to Make You Better

You must work at least 7x as hard as a white kid to get the same respect, the same chance, the same rewards, everything. It’s unfair, but it’s what is. Accept the challenge, step up to the plate, don’t complain. Complaining just makes you look more like a nigger.

My dad told me that when I was 4 years old. I internalized it and it’s been true for most things in my life. It’s the perspective that fuels my seemingly high levels of conscientiousness.

Being exceptional is a necessity, not an option.

Rather than reject the reality we’re given, it’s much more constructive (and healthy) to accept the challenge and allow it to grow us.

Now, it’s important to not have this spiral out of control and get stuck in a cycle of always trying to prove ourselves. I did that for a long time and it’s exhausting and not sustainable.

Human beings can adapt to extremely uncomfortable environments. We can thrive in seemingly impossible situations. For anyone who doubts this, I highly recommend reading writings from Holocaust survivors, specifically Viktor Frankl and Edith Eger. We can adapt to unfair, unjust, and inhumane conditions and, as Nietzsche would say, it makes us stronger, as long as it doesn’t kill us.

Now I don’t want to make this sound like it easy or that it’s what we’re built for. All I know is that we can adapt if we need to. It’s extremely difficult and even harder to do when under the real-time pressures of racism and bigotry.

I’ve recently found great solace in knowing that our ancestors never gave up, despite enduring more suffering than us modern people, and we have their blood coursing through our veins.

It is up to us to create an environment for other people to feel their feelings without being judged.

We can kill with just our eyes, but we can also love too.

Choose love. Choose unity.

Suffocate the hate. Suffocate the ignorance.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Martin Luther King Jr (African American Baptist minister and activist)

On Trials and Stumbles in Creative Pursuits

“Frightened by the loss of our familiar mooring places, shall we become paralyzed and cover our inaction with apathy?”

Rollo May (The Courage to Create)

This is the first blog post that I’ve posted since mid-February, which means I haven’t published something in well over a month. This on its own isn’t a very big deal, especially since my priorities have been elsewhere, but I feel like it’s too big to just simply ignore.

Originally I wanted to just jump back right into my regularly scheduled content, but I feel like there are lessons to learn upon reflecting on my short absence. So I’m going to slow down and take the time to reflect.

When I started my blog, I intended to write a blog post every week.

No matter what.

I even lowered the standards for what a blog post is. I told myself that a blog post can be about literally anything. I set the bar low, so I can actually hit it every week. I try to optimize my systems for consistency, not necessarily quality. I figured the quality will come with multiple iterations. I like to rig the game to win, especially games that I play on my own.

Unfortunately, the lower standards didn’t matter and I still didn’t post over the last month and a half.

When I first started writing, I knew that there were going to be times when I was going to be tested. I knew that there were going to be weeks when it felt impossible to put out a blog post, but I expected myself to step up to the challenge. When I started this blog, I was excited to see if I actually could step up. I kept it up for over a year and I was pretty proud of myself. There were weeks when it was hard, but given the nature of the things I was writing, it was too hard for me to stop writing and create a relationship with myself where I know myself as someone who doesn’t step up to the challenge.

Recently, I feel like I’ve been truly tested and I let it take me out for over a month. (I’m hoping I can publicly speak on this in a few months.) I reluctantly admit that I’ve allowed the chaos of life to interrupt what I was building.

In fact, I let the chaos convince me that what I was building wasn’t even worth the energy at all.

This was the worst part. I fooled myself into believing that nothing was better than something. This gave way to nihilism, victimization, and apathy. All three of which I don’t have the luxury to entertain.

Once I realized that these were just ideas going on in my head, I was able to separate my actions from my thoughts.

A wise man never believes every thought that enters his head.

Now I’m in a place where I can actively choose to not let this take me down. I can more effectively resist the temptation to self-destruct or abandon all commitments.

The chaos of the recent months is not going to destroy my blog, my YouTube channel, or any of my other creative pursuits.

I cannot let it, especially since the chaos is not of a tragic nature. The disarray is not tragic and, if I can help it, the results of it should not be either. I shall not let a good thing destroy creation. I must look deeper within myself to find the strength to choose to contribute to “more life” rather than death or “less life.”

I can detach from the part of me that wants to give in and make room for more intentional thought habits.

We can overcome trials with a certain level of detachment.

When we’re tested, there are perspectives we can take on that will crush us under pressure and ones that allow us to act with more freedom.

Detachment can be a fine line. Seeing the situation, not from our own perspective, but from another point of view that doesn’t take our personal feelings into account gives us the freedom to act in an intentional way rather than reactionary.

However, it’s possible to be too detached. I feel like that happened to me over the past few weeks and it’s the underlying cause of my stumble.

If I allowed myself to simply give in to what I felt I needed, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post, nor have plans for future blog posts. The real tragedy would be the premature death of all of the other creative works I’ve planned around this blog and the lives that would have been touched by those works are left without its influence. I felt like I needed to stop writing and focus on more practical elements of life, but that’s not meaningful enough for me.

While there are practical elements to consider, completely abandoning my creative pursuits would be me choosing “less life”.

It would be meaning dampening down my will.

Extinguishing the white-hot fire within me that makes me human.

It would be destroying my own potential.

Now, I have to give credit where credit is due because I did not come to this conclusion completely on my own through a detached perspective. There were a series of external influences that helped push me in this direction.

I have to thank my students and my fellow writers for reaching out to me during my hiatus. Although no one was explicitly concerned that I wasn’t writing anything or even knew that I was considering dropping it altogether, they all showed me that my work matters way more than I thought it did. The combination of people emailing me to write for my blog and my students asking me about my books and music showed me that I do not create in a vacuum.

I will also have to give a mention to Rollo May’s The Courage to Create. It’s full of fantastic quotes that I felt were pertinent to what I was dealing with.

“If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also you will have betrayed our community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.”

Rollo May (The Courage to Create)

My creative projects have a nontrivial influence on people and I cannot throw that away simply because I’m overwhelmed.

In the thick of my trials and tribulations, I forgot about the world I’ve been working so hard to create.

I forgot that I had a vision for a better future.

I forgot that I sacrificed day in and day out to bring about this vision.

I forgot that I sold other people on this vision – a world where people can live their life by design.

I forgot that I actually love writing and sharing ideas.

I forgot that being creative revivifies me and imbues my life with meaning.

And so I humbly admit that I’ve stumbled.

I did not have a perfect run of things, but that is okay because I am standing back up. I will be up and running in time, but I have to acknowledge that I’m not as strong of a writer as I was when I was being consistent.

However, I do have something new to bring to the table – more wisdom and a more experienced perspective. I still have the willingness to improve, which is the most important ingredient to getting back on my feet.

I’m going to start slow, aim at consistency, and remember that creativity makes me and the world better.

I’m going to fall back in love with the research, learning, and writing process.

I’m going to let go of the judgment and contempt I have for myself in failing to reach my commitments.

Forgiveness of the self is crucial.

While I acknowledge that I probably have enough to finish my book, I want to work on learning more and synthesizing these ideas deeper. I want the process to be full of passion so the book comes out that much richer.

While I learned a lot during my hiatus, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that my younger self has real wisdom in him. Usually, when I look back on younger versions of myself, I can’t believe how foolish I was. But now, for the first time, I am surprised by the wisdom and forethought I had. For the first time (that I’m aware of), my future self wasn’t as wise as my past self and that makes me really happy. To me, it’s evidence that I’m growing and I have my own best interests at heart (which isn’t always obvious to me). I’ve developed a new trust in myself that I cannot accurately describe and I hope to take it with me during this journey.

We’ll be tried. We’ll stumble. We’ll rise again.

I’m excited to get back into creating and I hope it’s a fruitful as it once was.

I’m placing my bets on my ability to get back up and I think everyone else should too.

Our Reward Value System

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910)

My recent days of research and reading have led me to unpack the unexpectedly dense world of rewards and reward systems. I’ve been trying to understand how our brains decide what’s rewarding and what isn’t. This has lead to me ask questions like –

Why do we prefer donuts to spinach?

Why are some things more rewarding than others?

My last post was about the importance of understanding rewards and how rewards can trigger consummatory behaviors within us. This post is going to focus more on why we like some things more than others. Hopefully, with this understanding, we can hack our brains into actually enjoying things that are good for us and reduce the friction to creating a life by design.

A big thanks to Dr. Jud for helping me understand this.

In order to understand how our brain’s reward system works, we have to first look at habits. I’ve written a few posts on habits, I recommend checking them out. They are Types of Habits and Designing Our Lives and Understanding Habits and The 1% Rule. Habits are fundamental to our lives and understanding how they work gives us the ability to design our lives.

Basically, we need habits to get through our everyday life. We use habits as a way of saving energy. Let me put it like this, if we had to learn every single thing we did every day, then we’d be exhausted by noon! It takes a lot of energy to do or learn something we haven’t done before and it takes little energy to do things that we’re familiar with. This is why it isn’t too exhausting for most people to get up and get ready for the day. It’s a habit and habits don’t take much energy to do.

But not everything we do is turned into a habit, only some are.

So how we do know which actions to turn into habits and which ones to not?

It all depends on how ~rewarding~ it is.

Our brains have a way of rank-ordering rewards as more valuable and less valuable. This is known as reward-based learning and it has 3 parts.

Trigger

Behavior

Reward

Let me give a few examples of this: Let’s say our alarm clock goes off and we hit the snooze button to stop it. The trigger was the alarm sound. It’s annoying so we want to do whatever we can to stop it. The behavior is hitting the snooze button to stop the alarm as fast as we can. The reward is the alarm stops. This is known as a negative reward – we got our payoff when something is removed from the situation, in this case, the alarm. Now that we got our reward, we are more likely to use this method again in the future to deal with the same situation. This is why hitting the snooze button is so addictive. Every time we hit it, we get our negative reward which reinforces the behaviors to get it.

Let’s look at this from another angle: Let’s say I study really hard for my exam and I get a higher score than I was expecting. The trigger is the awareness of the exam. The behavior is studying for the exam. The reward is a high grade. This is known as a positive reward – we get the payoff when something is given to us or when something is added to the situation that we wanted. In this case, the high grade is something that we got as a reward for our studying. Now in the future, we are more likely to study when an exam comes up.

I want to emphasize that the reward reinforces the behavior that led up to it regardless of what it was. If we cheated and got the grade we wanted, we are going to be more inclined to cheat again. Rewards will reinforce anything, it doesn’t matter what it is.

These rewards can also be intrinsic or extrinsic. I talked a little about that in Consummatory Behavior and Rewards. Intrinsic rewards are rewards that relate to improving the self or other internal gains. These are extremely motivating and rewarding in the long term, but we have to want the intrinsic reward by our own volition. Extrinsic rewards related to anything that is externally given as a result of an accomplishment. These are great for motivating people who aren’t interested in the intrinsic gains from a given activity.

Bottom line: extrinsic rewards are great for the short game. Intrinsic rewards are great for the long game.

Additionally, the more rewarding the behavior, the stronger the habit. I touch on this slightly in my last post as well.

This plays off a system in our brains that we used for survival as cavemen. Back when food was scarce, our brains would prioritize eating sugars and fats so we can get the highest calories possible. This means that when we’re presented with choosing between donuts and spinach, we’re wired to want the donuts every time.

But it doesn’t just stop there.

We also assign reward values to all the people, places, and things around us. Our brain can combine good feelings of donuts, the fun of celebrations, and the friends around us all into one composite reward value which we also give to the donuts. So to us, donuts are much more than delicious balls of fat and sugar, they are also everything great about eating a donut.

In addition to the caloric bias, most of the associations we make with donuts are more rewarding than spinach. There are subliminal factors that play into our love for donuts, and they come from everything around us. Not to mention, we form positive associations with donuts more frequently than we do with spinach, and reward value increases with repetition.

Over time, these associations can become habits as well. We can mindlessly associate eating donuts with a good time and equate eating donuts as feeling good. This leads to mindless consummatory behavior, which can spiral out of control.

Consummatory behavior on its own is natural, but when it becomes mindless it starts to become dangerous.

So how do we stop automatically consuming things?

Some people say “just use willpower” but that doesn’t work in the long term. I’m sure most of us know this from experience. Every time I try to change a behavior purely off willpower, I end up going back to my old ways in about two weeks.

To change a behavior, we can’t just focus on the behavior itself. We have to pay attention to how it makes us feel, specifically how rewarding it is. If we could just focus on the behavior, then we could just tell ourselves to stop doing any of our bad habits and we could live happily ever after.

Updating our Reward Value System

We can update our system by adding one simple thing to the situation – our awareness and attention. I talk a fair bit about the importance of attention and awareness in my post The Heroes of Hero’s: The Osiris Myth & Attention. Attention is like our superpower! It gives us the ability to cast out will into the future, but more importantly, we can use it to change what we find rewarding.

The only way we can update our brain systems is if our brain determines that what it already knows is outdated and doesn’t work.

This requires giving it new information.

This new information will come in the form of mindful consumption, as opposed to mindless consumption.

According to Dr. Jud, “paying attention to the results of the behavior in the present, we can accurately determine how reward a behavior actually is rather than just run our old automated reward values.”

Let me give the example of smoking a cigarette. I’m using this example because I used these methods to quit my fairly heavy cigarette habit back in the day.

To the habitual smoker, smoking is the behavior that fixes everything. The smoker’s reward value system places cigarettes at the top, smoking is the ultimate reward. But if that smoker were to practice mindful consumption – paying attention to all of the sensations and feelings we get when smoking – the smoker will find that the cigarette isn’t actually very rewarding at all. The smoker will rediscover that smoking makes it difficult to breathe, the chemicals are strong, there’s tightness in our chest, the smell lingers, it costs money, and so many other new things.

Our brains can now take this new information and use it to update its reward value system and place the cigarette in a more accurate position, probably (and hopefully) somewhere near the bottom.

When we practice mindful consumption, we give our brains a chance to rediscover how rewarding (or unrewarding) something is for us now.

No longer do we have to be chained to our past experiences. Through mindfulness we can create new associations.

When I practiced mindful consumption with cigarette smoking, I was able to see that I had so many other associations with smoking. For example, the satisfaction of my oral fixation, the feelings of acceptance I felt from my peers, and the opportunity to be someone who was cool and rebellious. Maybe smoking was rewarding to me when I was younger, maybe even necessary, but today it’s not so much. Once I internalized this realization, I stopped smoking naturally. I remember the moment when I took a drag and immediately felt this disgusted feeling. I thought “what the hell is this doing for me?” I noticed that it really just smelled like stinky cheese and it made it hard to breathe. I was able to put it down cold turkey with a little craving for it later.

Awareness can reset our reward value system.

We can change bad habits by paying attention.

There have been studies that demonstrate that cravings and habitual consumption lowered by as much as 40% just after practicing mindful consumption as little as 10 times. This means we can change our habits without resorting to using serious willpower and it’s all using the already built-in systems that our brain has.

Understanding our built-in systems and how they work gives us an edge in creating our lives by design. We don’t have to work uphill. Our bodies, our brains, our minds are beautiful inventions that have stood the test of time.

Let’s use its miraculous engineering to supercharge our intentions.

Consummatory Behavior and Rewards

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.”

John Ruskin (1819 – 1900)

Our brain has entire systems dedicated to reward and motivation. If we can understand how it works, then we can “hack” our brains to actually like doing challenging things. Understanding how to reward ourselves in an intentional, informed, and natural way will give us an edge in staying motivated while designing systems for ourselves. Whether it’s business, academics, athletics, or anything else, understanding how to properly reward ourselves is critical and will change how we approach situations.

In my other posts, I talk in-depth about designing our own systems to fit our specific needs, and rewarding ourselves is a huge part of that. If the reward system we create is compatible with the one that we have in our brains, then we can run our systems indefinitely and use them to reach our goals.

So what are rewards and how do they fit into our lives?

A reward is the attractive and motivation quality of something that can induce consummatory behavior.

Rewards are the reason why we do anything we do. This reason can vary depending on who we are and what we want, but everyone wants the reward.

Consummatory Behavior

In order to understanding how rewards work, we have take a look at why we love them so much in the first place. Consummatory behavior is extremely motivating. This is what is responsible for making rewards seem so appealing to us in the first place.

Anything that we take in can fall under the category of consummatory, the most common being food or drugs. But we consume much more than just food and drugs.

A consummatory behavior can take the form of buying material items, going on social media, or watching tv. Consummatory behavior can pretty much apply to everything that we love in the short term.

A few different things happen when we participate in consummatory behavior. Consuming a reward shuts off the motivation systems and reinforces the behaviors and neural patterns associated with and leading up to that moment of consumption. In order words, once we get our reward we stop searching and feel like everything we did to get it was good, even if it wasn’t.

This is partly why some people have issues with addiction. It isn’t just the rewarding hit of the drug that’s driving them, it’s also the reinforcement of everything leading up to taking the drug that’s working against them too.

For example, let’s say we’re about to take a hit of some cocaine. When we take that hit, we’ll feel really good and our brain will remember what made it feel so good so it can come back and do it again. It keeps a record of where we were, what made us feel good, what we did to get there, the time it happened, and so many other things. As a result, anything and everything we were doing up until we took the cocaine will be reinforced because it was rewarded. This makes it more likely that we’ll do those actions again and less likely that we won’t. This is how addiction can spiral out of control. Let’s say we lie or cheat or steal to get our consummatory reward, next time we’ll be more motivated to do those things again. Being rewarded for terrible behavior get our lives off track in a serious way.

Paying attention to when we are rewarded is crucial for maintaining natural and genuine motivation.

Additionally, our motivation systems will shut off. Our motivation systems were specifically designed for food and survival, so it makes sense that once we found the consummatory reward we don’t need to keep searching.

If we’re hungry and we haven’t eaten yet, it’s almost impossible to not think about food. But once we’ve eaten and we’re full, food is the last thing on our minds. We simply don’t need it at the moment so our brain isn’t going to spend energy trying to look for it. This is why consummatory behavior shut off the motivation systems.

Now that we undersand why rewards are so attractive, let’s take a look at two different types of rewards.

Intrinsic Reward vs. Extrinsic Reward

Extrinsic rewards refer to a tangible or visible reward given to someone for an accomplishment. These types of rewards can take the form of money, food, awards, bonus, etc.

Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, refer to psychological or personal reward obtained from an accomplishing meaningful work. These types of rewards can take the form of personal growth, pride in your work, feelings of respect, trust, knowledge, satisfaction, etc.

Time & Place

Extrinsic rewards are a great tool to use, if we use them at the right times. They are great for getting momentum started. Sometimes people need a little incentive to get started and extrinsic rewards will get that done. They can even be used to enforce certain cultures or behaviors. However, it’s important to keep in mind that extrinsic motivators have a limited power and will not work in the long run.

Keep in mind that extrinsic rewards can trigger consummatory behavior, which consequently shuts off our motivation systems.

Intrinsic rewards are the tools we need to maintain sustained changes in behavior. They work well in the long term and motivate people more powerfully because they carry with them inherent meaning. The positive emotion received from intrinsic rewards is much stronger that extrinsic rewards.

I would say the best use of each of these rewards is to use extrinsic rewards to get the ball rolling in the short term, but use intrinsic rewards to keep the ball rolling in the long term.

There are a few ways we can facilitate intrinsic rewards:

  • Prioritize autonomy – telling ourselves what to do is the only way the motivation from within. Taking orders from someone else automatically makes a task extrinsic.
  • Focus on being self fulfilled and purpose driven – this is what will give us the positive emotion. No purpose, no goals. No goals, no happiness.
  • Paying attention and taking opportunities for advancement – We have to keep an eye out for the things that will take us where we want to go. We can use the same systems that we use to seek food and use them to see opportunities.
  • Prioritizing our own well being, leaning, and development – this makes everything else in service to our own personal development. Growing ourselves, working on ourselves, is a never ending job and it’s progress brings immense reward. Aiming to make ourselves better, by our own definition, is a game we can always play. There’s never a definitive end and we can always improve, which means we can always be intrinsically rewarded.

Opponent Processing

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (German Philosopher)

This is an idea I’ve had a hard time researching. Despite my best efforts, I can’t find any “official” research on this phenomenon, but I find it to be worth sharing. After all, just because something hasn’t been peer-reviewed and studied by a university doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but that also depends on who you ask.

I’m convinced opponent processing is real in a similar way that Jung was convinced that archetypes are real. There is no scientific evidence that says it is so, but there are many correlations. There is some science that points to opponent processing, but the correlation is not causation.

I say all this just to say verification isn’t always needed.

Sometimes things are what we see.

Take this post, as all my others, with a grain of salt. I am just a man bounded by my myopia, limited experience, and perceptions. But I do believe this is something worth paying attention to.

Essentially, opponent processing is the idea that things become more precise when working against an opposing force.

We can see this pattern in many different places; literature, television, drama, economics, business, medicine, sports, and so many other places.

I believe that this is true partly because we are dynamic creatures that exist in relation to everything around us. Being able to relate to something helps us regulate ourselves and keeps us sane. It’s no surprise that struggling up against what we relate to makes us stronger.

Signs & Correlations

I like the idea of opponent processing because it gives inherent low-level meaning to all forms of struggle and struggle is all around us.

Everything is a struggle and everything is struggling.

But why?

That’s a big question and I’ll never know the answer but I can speculate. Perhaps it’s because they’re better for it in the end; it makes them better.

Sometimes I think that’s my naive optimism, and other times I think not.

We can see signs of opponent processing through examining different parts of life and observing what becomes more precise as a result of the opposing forces.

Humanities

Drama. Literature. Myths. Religious stories. Built into all of them is opponent processing. A struggle, tension, is born and we have to see it through. We see the hero become a better version of themselves after triumphing over their antagonist. This is almost always because they learned some kind of lesson about how to be or act in the face of danger or temptation.


“Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting, but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no narrow illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of the night; we wake up to it, forever and ever; and we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.”

Henry James (Theory of Fiction: Hendry James)

We see it in every story we hear. Stories grip us because there’s tension and we have to stick around until we get a release. That’s drama, a series of tension and release. And after those exchanges, the characters learn and grow.

I’ve been taking some screenwriting classes and I was so shocked to discover that characters are simply just their methods of dealing with the obstacles to their intentions. Characters are developed from how they deal with their obstacles.

Character is developed from how we deal with opposition.

We can see the same kind of drama played out in less dramatic ways too. In normal everyday life, people are working up against opposing forces. Sometimes we admire these people, and sometimes we don’t. I assert that the people we admire earn our admiration through becoming better as a result of opponent processing. In other words, we admire people who struggled up against something and came out the other side better and stronger.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

I talk about this idea in my post How to Conquer Test and Performance Anxiety. The Yerkes-Dodson law of arousal points to the idea of opponent processing but doesn’t explicitly prove it’s existence.

Yerkes–Dodson, in a nutshell, asserts that we need a certain amount of stress to work at our best. Too little and we aren’t aroused enough. Too much and we breakdown. But if we get just the right amount, then we’re off to the races.

This fits well with opponent processing, if more precise is considered favorable then a little bit of stress will make things better.

Economically

We can even see opponent processing play out economically. In a free market, competition between businesses keeps prices regulated and enhances quality. Each business forces the other to become better and more refined for the consumer and the community.

One could argue that the competition is doing harm to the businesses, but I would say that they’re just put in a position to grow in a way that they didn’t expect. The business, when dealing with competitors, has to create and innovate ways to deal with the opposing force.

Romantically

We can see this play out in romantic relationships too. In a romantic relationship, each person makes the other better through a struggle of wills. If the relationship is healthy, it resembles a wrestling match where one is constantly contending with the other.

But why would we want to be dealing with our partner like this?

The same reason for everything else, it makes us better people. Providing small amounts of adversarial energy in a relationship helps both people grow.

Let me put it like this, the average person has a fair amount of flaws. Their ways of looking at the world and their methods of decision making can only take them so far and will reach eventual limits. But let’s say this person pairs up with someone else who is also flawed, but they are flawed in different areas. Let’s say they’re even flawed in complementary areas! The man is impatient and the woman is too agreeable. The woman teaches the man to be patient and the man teaches the woman to be assertive.

A healthy romantic relationship is two imperfect people coming together to make each other a little more functional so when they have to raise a child, the child doesn’t have to deal with just the flaws of one parent. The parents act as a proxy for the child to interact with the world and when two people come together the child gets access to a more refined, more precise, version of that proxy.

This is all because of opponent processing. Our relationships need to be a struggle, but like all other forms of opponent processing, too much struggle will break. I think I heard somewhere that the optimal number of positive experiences to have in a relationship is 7/10, where the other 3/10 are negative experiences. That 30% of the time our partner is not going to let us get away with our nonsense and it is up to us to grow.

People love to think the perfect relationship is all rainbows and candy, but the best ones have a little bit of conflict.

Personal Experience

Personally, I find this to be true in my own life. I perform better, my nervous system feels more activated, when I’m working up against something. The most frequent observation I made that supports the idea of opponent processing, is when I’m exercising. I literally feel weaker before I start a workout, but once I introduce a little struggle, I immediately get stronger. It’s like part of me activates once the stress some on.

Additionally, I think opponent processing can go deeper than just physically moving with more precision. It can provide access to more precise ways of acting and thinking. The struggles in my life have made me better. Everything I encounter shapes and molds me in a small way that’s up to my discretion. My studies, work, relationships, responsibilities, duties, hobbies, and passions have all imposed a sort of force that I’ve had to struggle with. And in the struggle, I came out better.

My struggle as a Black man in America has shaped me in a similar way. It’s a significant reason why I was such a high performer in school and why I work so well as a tutor now. The added struggle of having to work harder to get the same reward made things more challenging, but that made me a stronger person. Today, I’m a better problem solver, thinker, and learner than I would be if I wasn’t Black.

We are Anti-Fragile

If I was in charge of the fortunes and misfortunes of my life, I would not have given me what I’ve been through. I would have thought it was too big of a burden and it would break me. The stress would be too much, the unfairness would weigh me down, and I would crumble underneath it all.

But I didn’t. And many other people overcome much more than they believe every day. What people are able to accomplish and endure never ceases to amaze me. Actually, I believe it’s part of the human condition to rise above seemingly impossible conditions.

Why didn’t I break? Why haven’t I broke? How are people overcoming the impossible every day?

American social psychologist and professor, Dr. Jonathan Haidt, talks a bit about this in his book, The Coddling of the American Mind. He points out that American’s are seeing record levels of hospitalizations due to poor mental health and that is, in part, due to the idea that we treat children like they’re made of glass and the world will break them.

He suggests that if we want to build stronger children, then we need to approach child-rearing from the position that they are anti-fragile.

Dr. Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote an entire book on anti-fragility and defines it as “Things That Gain from Disorder.” We can think of stress as a representation of disorder in our lives. In fact, we get stressed because we find ourselves in the presence of disorder, what is unknown. Haidt asserts that children are antifragile up to a point.

Things that are fragile get weaker when they’re exposed to stress.

Things that are anti-fragile get stronger when they’re exposed to stress.

This falls in line with what Yerkes and Dodson were saying too. When we’re stressed, we can lean into it.

When we want to improve, we just need an opponent.

Words of Warning

We get better through struggle, but the struggle has to match our abilities or we shut down. There was a study done that proved our brains have a limited capacity to deal with opponents and if we push them too far, then the nervous system will shut down and may experience damage.

I’ve said this a few times, but it’s worth emphasizing. Putting on too much stress will not make us better. We aren’t completely invincible. There is a difference between stress that helps us grow and stress that hurts us and it can be tough to tell the difference, especially at first. When I’m dealing with this, I try to ask myself:

“What can I actually do to make this better?”

“What is in my control?”

If I come up with an answer, I focus on that. If I can’t, then the stress is too much and I’ll try to get rid of it ASAP.

A Sweeter Victory

There is something to struggling that reaps a greater reward. Earning something is so much better than just getting it.

Someone told me once that working for something is so much better than buying it. I didn’t understand that for a long time, but I get it now, and as backward as that sounds, it’s true.

Our beds feel so much better when we go out and have a long day. Also, staying in bed all day actually feels pretty shitty. It’s much better to strain ourselves, then allow time for recovery.

When we do difficult things and overcome them, we see ourselves as stronger than we thought and that is a great feeling. Those are some of the feelings we live for.

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow.”

Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809)

There are many ways we can use this knowledge to make ourselves better. We can lean into the stress a little because it will make us stronger. We can use this knowledge to elevate our positions in society, make us more effective and a positive influence. Providing a healthy amount of oppositional force will grow every one.

It could be as a tutor! The tutor plays the role of the opponent during the tutoring session in order to create more precision with their student, but responsibly. That’s what I do with my students constantly. I like to just ask questions that force them to think a little deeper, especially when they come to overly simplistic conclusions.

We can also do it as a boyfriend, or husband, or friend, or business partner, whoever. We can make ourselves, our loved ones, and our associates better by allowing each other to make each other better, by playing the role of the adversary, the opponent.