How to do self-therapy on Twitter

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I have been doing self-therapy on Twitter for several months. It's been going super well, much better than any actual therapy I've been to.

It's best to create an anonymous account ("alt") for the therapy. Being Your Selves: Identity R&D on alt Twitter makes a very good case for it. Read it first if you're not convinced.

The ultimate goal of self-therapy

The goal of self-therapy is to discover what you feel, want, etc., and become free to act on it.

When I don't know what I want, it's usually either because I'm forbidden to want it, or because it conflicts with something else I want. Observing the conflict is enough to change my behavior.

Here are some self-therapy threads I did:

“People often ask to call when I would've preferred a chat. Am I just a baby who is scared of calls? Or are there genuine reasons why I could refuse a call?”

“Do I want to block people on Twitter more often? Maybe I should overcome myself and use bad interactions as an opportunity to grow up. Or maybe blocking them is actually a better way to grow up?”

“I am really upset about people who like privacy. But I'm clearly wrong and everyone else is clearly right about this, so I should just hide my feelings. Or.. maybe some parts of my dislike are valid? And maybe I want some level of privacy too?”

“There are so many people around me who also do therapy and slowly work on improving themselves. Is it possible that me — and them — are doing it all wrong, and there's actually a much faster way to level up?”

The danger of thinking that you know what you feel

It's entirely possible to know what you feel very poorly, and still think you know yourself well. I spend my whole life feeling like this. Here's a story.

When I was a kid, introspection was my gimmick. I wasn't good at anything, other than a) telling stories about my life, and b) describing what was going on in my head.

Some people were really into it — I had found several close friends largely thanks to me enthusiastically sharing a huge part of my inner life with them. So I turned that up to 11. Asides piled upon asides, footnotes in text messages¹. Childhood stories, rehearsed multiple times, retold to every new acquaintance.
¹ Like this.

I did sometimes share shameful things, but only to boost my self-image of "somebody who can share literally anything". There was no purpose to introspection — I simply felt being as open as possible was the. coolest. thing.

I recall walking down a hill with my then-girlfriend and spotting another couple; we looked at each other and said:

— Look at them! They don't know what goes on in each other's heads. I'm so glad we do.
— Yep, I was thinking about it too! [aww]

When I was in actual therapy, I used the same approach. I was proud of knowing what I felt, and wanted to impress therapists with not being like “those other clueless patients”. So I would come, open my mouth, spend an hour describing what I felt and what the potential solutions could be, close my mouth, leave. Here is a good description of what I was doing, from Gendlin's Focusing (CFAR handbook, p. 65). Are you doing the same?

[…] patients who tended not to find value in therapy were those who already had a firm narrative with little room for uncertainty or perspective shift:

“Okay, so, I had another fight with my mother last week; she continues to make a lot of demands that are unreasonable and insists on pretending like she can decode my actions into some kind of hidden motive, like the dishes thing secretly means I don’t respect and appreciate everything she’s done for me. It’s frustrating, because that relationship is important to me, but she’s making it so that the only way I can maintain it is through actions I feel like I shouldn’t have to take.”

Overall, I did not make any progress in therapy. 

How to actually figure out what you feel

At some point I started getting into internal double crux and other Focusing-adjacent topics. Internal double crux is a technique for discovering or resolving internal conflicts — you write down statements from two sides of the argument inside you, and let them fight. Each side has to empathize with the other side's statement before responding.

It was working pretty well — better than therapy.

And I discovered something super awesome: talking is how I figure out what I think.

Before, my view of talking-as-activity was "I know what I think, so I'm gonna tell that to others". I did not see talking, or writing, as a way to generate new thoughts or discover anything. I was doing thinking on my own, and then communicating the results to people.

Nowadays I write things down, and then listen to a feeling that says "wait, this part isn't quite right". Then I rewrite it. Or I replace it with a question mark, post the tweet, and it gives me extra motivation to keep thinking.

[Gendlin] noticed that the patients who tended to make progress were making lots of uncertain noises during their sessions. They would hem and haw and hesitate and correct themselves and slowly iterate toward a statement they could actually endorse:

“I had a fight with my mother last week. Or—well—it wasn’t exactly a fight, I guess? I mean—ehhhhhhh—well, we were definitely shouting at the end, and I’m pretty sure she’s mad at me. It was about the dishes—or at least—well, it started about the dishes, but then it turned into—I think she feels like I don’t respect her, or something? Ugh, that’s not quite right, I’m pretty sure she knows I respect her. It’s like—hmmmmm—more like there are things she wants—she expects—she thinks I should do, just because—because of, I dunno, like tradition and filial piety, or something?”

The shift towards "expressing thoughts is how I arrive at better thoughts" was slow — a year of different fingers pointing at the moon. Noticing that “wow, my writing is better and more interesting when I explain stuff to people!” contributed as well.

Why Twitter?

This Twitter account is the best therapy experience I've had, better than writing in notebook or talking to friends or therapists. And it's due to a combination of four factors:

  1. It's always available, whenever the inspiration strikes;
  2. There is no specific person I am tempted to woo (in therapy, I want to woo the therapist);
  3. Somebody can still reply to my tweets, so it's not like talking into a void;
  4. And, tweets are bite-sized.

The last part is very important. I can only think about what I have just said when I'm done saying it. For this, I need a clear "done". 280 characters is just the right size for a thought; once a tweet is posted, I can start thinking whether what I said was bullshit or not.

This post was originally a thread. And I could not have sat down and written it as a post; a temptation to make a Grand Point would have prevented me. But you can't make a Grand Point until you've figured out what it is!

Blog posts do occasionally work for me when I'm trying to figure something out — something abstract, usually. But Twitter threads are much better for figuring out things about myself.

Miscellaneous advice

Important: your therapy is your responsibility

Nobody but you can choose — when to tweet something, or talk to a friend, or your partner, or a diary. When to sing, when to cry, when to punch walls. When to have a public meltdown. Your therapy is your responsibility. This applies to actual therapy too, by the way — it's possible to spend years in therapy without getting anything out of it. “Insight plenty, but no change”.

If somebody on Twitter replies to your thread with an observation of their own, and it's not a useful therapy prompt, tell them: “Sounds reasonable! Sorry, I've already gone down a different branch though.”

If somebody outside of Twitter complains "Why didn't you talk to me about X? Why did you go on Twitter instead?", they are not helping. If somebody, god forbid, asks you to read your diary — “but I would have let you read mine if you asked!" — run away from them.

Also important: don't define yourself by your therapy

There are so many ways you can fuck up therapy. Becoming an “eternal therapy patient” is one of them.

Therapy is both a field of study, and a skill. It's fun to talk about it, and it's fun to show off your skill. But if you forget what you are doing therapy for, and switch to "I'm doing self-therapy to become 'even better than I am now'", or "I'm doing self-therapy to show others how to do self-therapy" — all is lost.

Yudkowsky gets it. From Mandatory Secret Identities; this is about rationality and not therapy, but they are similar:

Among the failure modes of martial arts dojos, I suspect, is that a sufficiently dedicated martial arts student, will dream of...

...becoming a teacher and having their own martial arts dojo someday.

To see what's wrong with this, imagine going to a class on literary criticism, falling in love with it, and dreaming of someday becoming a famous literary critic just like your professor, but never actually writing anything. Writers tend to look down on literary critics' understanding of the art form itself, for just this reason. (Orson Scott Card uses the analogy of a wine critic who listens to a wine-taster saying "This wine has a great bouquet", and goes off to tell their students "You've got to make sure your wine has a great bouquet". When the student asks, "How?  Does it have anything to do with grapes?" the critic replies disdainfully, "That's for grape-growers! I teach wine.")

Similarly, I propose, no student of rationality should study with the purpose of becoming a rationality instructor in turn. You do that on Sundays, or full-time after you retire.

If you're doing it on Twitter, it helps a lot to put a reminder in the name or bio. “I'm doing self-therapy so that [I can be happier]”. Can be anything instead of that.

You can change the goal at any time (and you will change it many times), but it is not the same as “you can do whatever you want”. Separate deciding what you want to achieve, and executing it — that will work much better than doing both steps at the same time.

Even more important: do therapy well

A different failure mode of public self-therapy is — when you stop caring about therapy after a while. When you turn your therapy account into a purely conversational account, or into a ranting account. When you try to show off how good you are at therapy. When you try to get more followers.

"Pretending to be a quick study about things you actually already knew about" is a thing I used to do a lot, with therapists as well as with everyone else. It's very counterproductive. "Oh! So.. um.. you mean that my super-ego is [something]?". Shut up. "Sure, I heard about [this], yes, Piaget. *makes a thoughtful, agreeing face*". Whenever you start with “Sure, I heard about this”, your therapist should punch you.

Don't be funny or self-deprecating about your problems, it's often a great way to not solve them. Sure, sometimes there are things you can't acknowledge at all without preceding them with “yeah, my mind is broken”. But there's no need to do it more than once. Once you've acknowledged the problem in a funny way, you're ready to be serious about it.

If you want to bitch about something, think “is it going to help my self-therapy?”. If you find yourself bitching anyway, reflect on your feelings in a separate thread.

Don't optimize for likes. Don't optimize for others' benefit. You can make friends, you can help people, you don't have to be focused on therapy 100% of the time. But when you have to make a decision — “should I post X?”, “should I restrain myself from talking about Y?”, etc, remember this mantra:

“This is a therapy acc. It's not for your entertainment.”

Tell that to everyone. Put it in your bio too — that would help.

Not so important, but still: if somebody pisses you off, mute them, then reflect

If you're having conversations on Twitter, somebody will inevitably either annoy you. That experience can be a good therapy prompt, but to solve it, you have to distance yourself first. Optionally mute them, then quote-tweet and start a new thread: “This pissed me off. Hm, let me think about — why?".

And remember the mantra. Your therapy is not for someone else's entertainment, it's not for fun conversations, etc.

Every interaction can be used as a prompt for therapy, so don't be afraid to interact with people. It works the same way with actual therapy — the therapist examines their own relationship with the patient (transference, countertransference) and uses it to figure out what might be going wrong in the patient's relationships with other people.

Giving advice is okay

Turning into a “wise” advice-account is not useful. But sometimes saying things you already know is useful — because saying them solidifies them in your head.

Try to say them more confidently than you are comfortable with. The phrase “working hypothesis” works well for me — see all instances of me using it.

Sometimes, change everything and keep going

I read an interview with Michael Schur, creator of The Good Place, a while ago. Not an exact quote, but he said: "when it gets boring, we just change everything and keep going".

Whenever you notice you're doing too much of the same thing, say so, publicly. Start a tweet with “Tweeting is getting too comfortable. How about this?” and then see what comes to mind.

I did it twice so far:

“I'm done with ‘doing therapy to deal with recurring things’. The new focus is ‘doing therapy to get better at things’.”

“If you had one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it, or just let it slip?”

“So, did it all work for you?”

It did. I have graduated from therapy on April 12, 2020; read the link for the conclusions.

Now I'm figuring out how to become awesome fast — using the same account, @TheOrangeAlt.


Examples of other people doing self-therapy:

If you have other examples of people doing public self-therapy, either on Twitter or elsewhere, DM me.

Update: August 29, 2020

I am still doing therapy here and there, occasionally, or just trying to figure out what I think about X or Y. But mostly the acc serves a different purpose now: I write down what I have already figured out — to solidify it. By tweeting, I make some paths slightly more likely than others.