Steven Dean: A Quantified Sense of Self

July 21, 2014

At our 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference, as with all our events, we sourced all of our content from the attendees. During the lead up were delighted to have some amazing interactions with attendees Alberto Frigo and Danielle Roberts, both of whom have been engaged with long-term tracking projects. This theme of “Tracking Over Time” was nicely rounded out by our longtime friend and New York QS meetup organizer, Steven Dean. Steven has been tracking himself off and on for almost two decades. In the talk below, Steven discusses what led him to self-tracking and how he’s come to internalize data and experiences in order to create his sense of self.

Quantified Sense of Self
by Steven Dean

Twenty years ago, I was in grad school getting an MFA. I was making a lot of objects that had very strong autobiographical component to it. Some I understood the source of. Many I did not.

So, I spent a lot of time doing a kind of archaeological dig on my self and then expressed it through the kinds of forms and objects I made. It was very intense and personal work. It was a mix of self-disclosure, self-revelation, with lots of self-doubt.

I experienced a whole range of emotions that led to bad feelings, worry, obsessive thinking, and a really tough time talking about what I was experiencing, let alone feeling.

I asked for help.

I saw a psychiatrist. She diagnosed me and prescribed medication. And then every week for a year I saw her. In these weekly sessions, she asked me the same 30 or so questions. She’d say, “In the last 7 days, how much time did you spend thinking about X, Y, and Z? And in the last 7 days how much time did you spend doing A, B, and C?

So, every week, for a year, we tracked my answers to find out if this particular medication was working or not. Twelve months later I didn’t feel as if I had any better sense of my self – what was causing my obsessive thoughts, my reactions to things, my worry and anxiety. Except to the degree to which the medication had helped or not. The conclusion from the doctor was that there was a slight improvement. I thought less about X, Y, and Z. And spent less time on A, B, and C.

So, that’s how I got started.

I was trying to get a better sense of my self from counting things about my thoughts and activities. But what I learned was less about my sense of self and more about the effectiveness of the treatment, the medication. I felt really dissatisfied. At this point I had two observations.

First, I realized that I had developed a really deep curiosity around why I behave in certain ways. Why some things set me off. Becoming more and more conscious of my patterns, my drives — my sense of self.

Second, I now had a sense that tracking things over time seemed important somehow to know whether I was improving or not toward a goal.

But then something unusual and unexpected happen. I gained a lot of weight suddenly. The reasons weren’t as important as how I handled it. I was devastated. For the first time, I become aware that the body could break. In my mind I saw a 30 pound weight gain a breakdown of the body. For the first time in my life, I was faced with needing to change my body. I had lots of questions.

How did I gain so much weight?

How do I keep from gaining more?

How do I get back to my original weight?

But more importantly, what were all the feelings I had about it? I wasn’t ready to face that. So, I set about on a journey the way a lot of people do.

I went on a diet.

And the body weight scale, the original QS device, made its way into my life. When I stand on a scale, it’s a confirmation of what will be a “fact.” I gained a pound, or two, or five in the past week or so. The immediate confrontation with the number – my body weight – is the sense of my self that gains weight. Am I able to have an internal conversation with that sense of self that puts on the pounds? Or do I have a shut-down relationship with that part of my self that gains weight?

And I’ve experienced both.

This is where I feel having a sense of self and a language for selfhood becomes important to the process of recording my weight and keeping track of it. I eventually lost the weight about 15 years ago but have had to remain vigilant ever since. I didn’t maintain a practice of weighing myself every day or every week. When I know I’m gaining weight, I will avoid getting on a scale. I have this internal conversation that I know that I’ve gained weight. I already feel bad about it, and so I don’t need another source reminding me. I avoid the scale. Until I make myself. And when I make myself, I know immediately that:

– It’s going to be up

– I’m not going to like the number I see

– I’m going to feel bad about myself initially

– It then takes me a period of time to internalize the fact — the number.

– Then ultimately I’m glad I did it.

– I confronted myself.

– And I go about my business doing what I need to do.

– Eat fewer carbs. Stop eating late at night. Curb the snacking. Get my exercise routine back on track. And so on.

So, tracking has always seemed essential to changing my behavior. But having a sense of self to internalize the facts that come from tracking seems really important to me. And, I think, maybe essential to long-term change.

I’ve learned to value the whole emotional response to getting the number off the scale. And have developed the emotional capacity to make myself look at the fact. And then to let myself have the feeling about it.

Over the years, I’ve done this…

With weight.

With spending.

With exercise.

With online distractions.

With blood sugar.

With ketones.

and with food.

So, I start tracking to get at the facts. Then, depending on where I am with that sense of self in relation to the fact:

– the amount of weight I gained
– the amount of money I spent
– the amount of time distracted
– and so on

I may either have a shut-down relationship to that part of self. Deny it. Ignore it. Find a way to soothe over any pain associated with it.

Or I set up about internalizing the fact. Relating it to that sense of self that

– gains weight
– spends too much
– is distracted

And that leads me to an internal conversation with my self where I let myself have a full emotional response to the facts.

I let myself have the feelings about it.

And ultimately it leads to self knowledge.

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