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Why Your Mistakes Matter Less Than You Think

An insurance claim and the structure of reality

The mistake

For a few days I couldn’t quite work out what was bothering me, though the events themselves were simple enough. In a nicely ironic postscript to my last post, the wonderful if expensive ski holiday is looking like it’s going to be a bit more expensive: I realised when we got home that I’d left my custom-made orthotic insoles in the rental boots when we returned them, and the rental company hasn’t been able to trace them. Maybe the travel insurance will cover some of it, maybe it won’t. It’ll be about £400 ($500) to replace them, so it’s a substantial amount of money, if not the end of the world. (I realise I’m fortunate to be able to say £400 is not the end of the world. For some people, £40 would make a substantial, noticeable difference to quality of life; for other people, the amount to make a real difference would be £4,000. The precise numbers change some things, but what I’ll be saying applies at least in part to them all.)

Since discovering my mistake there’s been the drawn-out hassle of ringing the ski shop, being told the boots aren’t their stock because we had them delivered to the chalet, trying various phone numbers for the online people we booked through, getting through to someone who located the boots and worked out who they’d been rented to since but couldn’t find out what might have happened to the insoles, asking her to write a letter for the insurance claim, not hearing from her again, getting through only ever to voicemail on the number that had worked before, trying the generic info@... email, getting one reply and then silence, being told they can’t possibly write this kind of letter... It’s irritating, all this kind of thing, but last week I began to realise that there was a familiar structure to my irritation – and that it had a lot to do with anorexia.

The money

Money has a very particular power to get under our skin. It’s so powerful because it’s so abstract. It means nothing in itself; it is a theoretical entity, a convention of exchange. But it stands for most of the things we learn, in a capitalistic context, to want and need for our lives, from clothes to houses to central heating to evenings out and haircuts. On the other side of the coin too, earning money is inseparable from the idea of needing a job or a career, and therefore from the overarching structure most of us impose on our lives, willingly or not. Any numerical amount of money can be translated into infinite imaginable realities, or parts of reality: £400 could have bought me a return flight LHR-LAX, or 40 cocktails, or £400 worth of notional security to invest in my future.

There are all kinds of ways to let money mess with you, from measuring any potential reality obsessively against the amount it will cost, to ignoring your cashflow until your submerged anxieties about it overflow. But I realised last week that my way of letting money make me vaguely unhappy was by accepting the illusion that it is meaningful to treat the spending of money as a preset baseline from which deviations are to be avoided, because they can’t be undone.

I’m finding it hard to put this into words, but what I mean is that my discomfort these past couple of weeks comes from the thought that if I hadn’t made the momentary mistake of leaving the insoles in the boots, I’d now be £400 richer. What’s the problem with this? Isn’t it quite obviously and unthreateningly true? Why should having a predefined expectation about how much things will cost be problematic?

Well, the first part of the trouble with the baseline is an insidious asymmetry.

The first asymmetry: Credit and debit

In my preoccupation with this mistake, I haven’t taken time to congratulate myself on all the things I did right which made the holiday both (relatively) affordable and (profoundly) enjoyable: researching the best Californian ski resorts, spending time on AirBnB looking for accommodation, buying an annual travel insurance policy last summer, driving to the supermarket and making picnic lunches instead of relying on mountain restaurants, etc. etc. As soon as those things are done, they’re forgotten, taken as read, and contribute to defining and adding to the set of things you expect of yourself as a responsible adult. Unless you make some very obvious huge saving or great decision that could very nearly have turned out awful, you don’t congratulate yourself. (At least, I don’t.) But as soon as you do anything that falls in the debit rather than the credit column, you reproach yourself for it. It’s as if the credit column is greyed-out and barely visible unless you have reason to peer closely, while the debit is constantly highlighted with garish red capitals and flashing $$$ signs.

What does this have to do with anorexia? Of course penny-pinching is a common feature of anorexia, extending from an unwillingness to spend money on food for oneself to an unwillingness to spend money on oneself to an unwillingness to spend money at all. But I have in mind a more fundamental structural similarity: the idea of the brittle straight line.

The control thing

The idea of the straight line goes right to the heart of the idea of control in anorexia, and it’s evident above all in attitudes to food. What I was being reminded of, when I fretted now and then about this mistake having cost me £400, was the feeling in anorexia that it was not acceptable to let chance occurrences dictate what and how much I ate. I must not run out of my special milk, because then I’d have to use my family’s high-fat one. I can’t eat this little biscuit they’ve given me with my coffee, because they could so easily not have, and then I wouldn’t have ingested those calories. I can’t say yes to going out for lunch, because then I’ll already have eaten hours before I’m meant to, and then my late-night eating won’t be as miraculous. The crux of it all was: my intake was determined in advance, so any change to it would be an error, a failure, an uncorrectable digression. The line would be broken, displaced, ruined. These sentiments leached out from food to money (I have to go to that third supermarket, because what if the loaves of white sliced bread are reduced in that one and I could save 25p, and over time think how much those meticulously listed 25ps will add up to?), and from there to everywhere else (I can’t go on holiday, because I won’t have my usual foods, and it’ll cost so much, and who knows what else will be different, and how will I cling on to any of my baselines – food, money, exercise, working hours, anything?).

I still feel a reversed echo of those compulsive forms of control in the little thrill of recognition it occasionally gives me now to realise: gosh, if we’d had more bagels in the kitchen cupboard, I’d have had a whole one instead of a half with my egg and cheese this morning, and that would have been fine too, and I don’t really care either way. Or: if I’d chosen a different restaurant for my birthday meal, I wouldn’t have been able to order a tower of onion rings, and I might have eaten a completely different kind and size of meal, and it would doubtless have been lovely wherever we’d gone. It’s actually the littlest things that are most likely to remind me of anorexia and being free of it: the bagel thing, or the time when I hurriedly have some yoghurt or nuts or something before I go out (and so easily might not have), or the point of deciding whether to have seconds or save what’s left for another meal tomorrow, or the choice between having some alcohol after dinner or not. At times like this I have a brief flash of recollection that this would during my recovery have been agonisingly momentous – and then there's a gentle glow of happiness as I realise these questions no longer matter to me.

The thread through all of this is the subtle notion that there is a normality, a standard case, a default setting, from which everything else is a deviation that cannot or should not be accommodated. There’s some mental image lurking half-hidden for me, dancing away when I try to see it head-on and pin it down, of a life lived according to plan, a straight level ribbon of a road in which any wiggle or bump is a little failure. It doesn’t exist for me any more for food, but a slightly gentler version of it does, I realise, for money. I can even kind of imagine me ten years from now, in some undefined circumstance where the absence of the £400 makes a difference that is totally tangible to me then, even if right now unimaginable. Even though all past experience suggests that once money is spent, whether planned or not, it’s adjusted for and forgotten, it clings on, this model of life as mapped out in advance, of bank accounts as having set withdrawal patterns, of there being a right amount to spend on living and then wrong amounts immediately above it (and probably even righter amounts below it), and never any wriggle room.

The same thing applies to time, too, and still has something of a hold on me there. The idea that there are certain numbers of hours that should be spent doing certain things, like working, can become a chain around your neck – a reason to focus on the hours themselves (like the money, like the calorific energy) rather than what they make possible (work, play, achievement, experience, life).

The missing link: Feedback

The second part of the trouble with this way of thinking, in all these contexts, is the great fallacy of neglecting feedback: failing to recognise that every single thing which happens has effects which in turn have effects of their own, just like the famous flapping of the butterfly’s wing. If I make a mistake that means I spend more this month, I could (though I won’t) make a detailed plan for how to save that amount over the next few months. More fluidly, I might instinctively buy one or two fewer ‘unnecessary’ things next month. And I’ll probably have my insoles very squarely in mind next time I travel with them, so might save myself from losing my other pair too. And I’ll appreciate the other pair I still have in my lifting shoes, and maybe I’ll bother to do a bit more yoga and foam-rolling because I know I’m doing my skeleton less of a favour at the moment in this other way. On this visible scale and also at the cognitive microlevel of fluctuations in attention allocation, memory salience, reward priorities, and so on, this event has had and will have changes that mean nothing in my life will ever be the same as it would have been otherwise.

The same goes for food, in many ways which are easily measurable and predictable and many which are not. If I do only have half a bagel this morning, I might well be a bit hungrier at lunchtime, and have more then, or this evening, or tomorrow. If I do eat something before leaving the house, my digestive system will adjust to make sure it gets processed, and my metabolic rate will shift in response; if I don’t, homeostasis will be preserved in contrasting ways.

Just as the homeostatic principle governs everything that goes on in our bodies (and minds), so the whole universe is full of feedback structures: structures where an output from a system is fed back into it as an input. (I’ve talked about their importance specifically to eating disorders in posts including this one.) The science and the mathematics of feedback systems tells us that there are multiple mechanisms in my mind and body and environment dedicated to preserving stability. They include ‘reference tracking’ (following the desired value, like a 37C body temperature), ‘disturbance rejection’ (minimising the effects of perturbations to the system, like drinking a hot cup of tea), and ‘robustness’ (coping with a range of unpredictable contexts, like suddenly moving to California). Sometimes these mechanisms work using ‘positive feedback’ (where changes accumulate in a self-feeding spiral); more often they work using ‘negative feedback’ (which is self-correcting).

So, there’s no action without a reaction. No narrow fragile line that is your life. Instead, broad regions of attraction. Diversions that lead sometimes to new norms. This might seem frightening. If error is just one more input, how do you know when you’re on track? But ultimately, for me at least, it’s comforting. There is much in all these dynamics which is too complex for me to understand or even detect, but that is beautiful, because I understand enough to know it’ll probably sort itself out. There is no brittle and singular and predetermined success; I cannot fail. (Or if I do, who's to say it's a bad thing.)

The second asymmetry: (Self-)forgiveness

Thinking about life in terms of shifting dynamics can also alert you to cases where habitual forms of self-monitoring are concealing deeper realities. When I talked about this whole incident with my partner, he asked me a question that made me realise it’s not about the money at all. He asked: if you could blame it on me, would you feel better about it? And it was instantly obvious to me that if it had been his fault – if he’d returned the equipment on his own, and I’d entrusted him to take my insoles out and he’d forgotten, say – I’d hardly have cared at all about this happening. I’d have let him do the phoning round, maybe, and helped him with it if he wanted, and if I’d had to write off the £400 in the end, I wouldn’t have minded. Partly my implicit reasoning might have been: if you have relationships with people, you rely on them in certain ways, and sometimes they make mistakes. Having those relationships is worth far more than this trivial amount of money (and most larger amounts). Who cares. Life happens. What I think would have been central to the difference, though, is the fact that it would no longer have been my ‘stupidity’ that was responsible.

With him, of course, I wouldn’t have called it stupidity, and when he felt bad and apologised, I’d have reassured him that everyone makes mistakes. In fact I did have to do just that, on this same holiday, when on the fourth day’s skiing he fell over (not even very dramatically) and lost one ski in the deep snow. We hunted around for it for a good long while; we even returned the next day with a shovel to dig systematically; but we never found it, and he was charged $420 for the pair. He said what bothered him was partly a feeling of having been stupid – and that he’d have felt marginally less stupid if someone had crashed into him and made him fall. But mainly he felt guilt at having made my mother and me waste time looking for it and reporting it lost when we could have been skiing. (Probably the ignominy of having to piggyback down the mountain on the backs of mine and my mother’s skis didn’t help either; here’s a photo just to rub it in.) Happily, the ski was found and returned by some nice person a few days after we got back, but by that time he’d long got over it. So maybe the nature of the feelings is pretty constant between people (or maybe he and I just respond the same way to stuff), but how long they rankle differs.

Emily Troscianko
Source: Emily Troscianko
Emily Troscianko
Source: Emily Troscianko
James Anderson, used with permission
Source: James Anderson, used with permission

So, I told both him and myself that everyone makes mistakes, and eventually I fully accepted it about myself too. But when added to the asymmetry related to credit and debit, this second asymmetry is striking: not only do I give more weight to my mistakes than to the things I get right, but I also explain away, forgive, accept others’ mistakes far more easily than my own. This differs from the dietary context during my illness (being forced by someone else to eat something unplanned wouldn’t have been any better), though it’s the same as the financial side of things back then (I’d spend money on presents for other people without hesitation).

The letting-go

It makes complete sense, then, that a turning point early in my recovery came on the day I realised that as soon as I stopped weighing any one of my daily foods, weighing the others became meaningless, because once you don’t know one number, you can’t know the total, so what’s the point in doing any sums at all? Maybe it’s taken me all these years since to join up the dots about the financial case, but now that I have, that moment when one card made the house of cards come tumbling down feels intimately linked to something much later in recovery (starting four or so years in). One of the important ways in which I got beyond recovered to well again was by spending a lot, almost recklessly, for a few years after I was physically better: on food, drink, clothes, trips, adventure. I was spending money partly saved up through long years of spending nearly nothing. And letting myself do that was nearly as important as letting myself eat unrestrainedly. It was a rejection of the fiction of a life lived according to preset numbers. And it was an embrace of the truth that money means nothing until it is spent, just as calories are only notional until ingested by your particular body at a specific time and place.

James Anderson, used with permission
Source: James Anderson, used with permission

I feel I’ve learned something from this little episode. That everything teaches us something. That every deviation from that nonexistent thin red line is an opportunity for self-knowledge or even sometimes adventure. That I still have a lot to learn about myself and how to be happy and relaxed and more consistently self-accepting. That there’s no way in hell I’d have missed that ski trip if I’d known this was going to happen. That I can still, almost, three weeks later, remember the heady thrill of that new snow under my skis. That the line never needed to be perfectly straight, that the world bounces back more dependably than you think, that if it doesn’t you’ll never even know, because you’ll already be living on the new route that came after.

Of course, even writing this post is in one sense an attempt to compensate for my loss: to draw something worthwhile out of what would otherwise still bother me more as a regrettable mistake. But the irony in that is OK: it’s just how things work.