Feelings … whoa-whoa-whoa feelings

by Carl Dyke

This is a crosspost of a comment on the relation of feelings to analysis I just made at scatterplot, in a fallout post from the dead ape / racism cartoon discussion previously mentioned. People there seem to be getting sick of the conversation, whereas I think that after all the predictable posturing and bad reading that basically boiled down to the narcissism of small differences, we’re finally starting to get somewhere.

I’m posting here to get this archived for my own reference, to add some orienting links, and because it captures pithily some things I often think I think. I won’t be sure I think them until they’ve passed through conversation with intelligent others. As I said there, this is informed by a mid-longish lifetime of both trampling upon and elaborately cherishing the feelings of various others. Quote:

I heard an old (Black) guy talking about conditions of work once. He was bemused by the younger generation and put it this way: “Used to be, guys just worked. Now guys got feelings.”

I’m with just working. This position is properly called stoicism, a venerable and coherent philosophy of life. On this view, feelings are what they are but generally irrelevant to whatever the task at hand is. We are each responsible for managing our own feelings. Trying to make tasks-at-hand about feelings is inherently counterproductive and, at minimum, RUDE, because now for everyone else in the situation the task becomes whatever it was in the first place PLUS managing the feelings of others. This should be an embarrassment for competent adults.

Anyone who’s been around 2-year-olds knows how important feelings are, how tyrannical they can be, and how welcome it is to emerge from the chaos of feelings into the light of a more systematic and truly dialogic reasonableness. Yes, a whole wave of feminists pointed out in relation to the Enlightenment that “Reason” can also be tyrannical. And Horkheimer and Adorno showed that reason ultimately loops back and collapses itself. And Damasio showed neurologically that reason cannot generate motivation, only emotion can. But in an open, moderated form dispassionate reason is really all we’ve got to work with when there’s disagreement, short of escalation into shouting or generic uncritical empathy, which in principle all humans deserve.

There are two kinds of conversations I have: polite ones where there’s nothing at stake and feelings can be ventilated freely; and serious ones where there’s something at stake so the task at hand requires the full focus of calm mindfulness. I was reading recently about people who function well in crises. They’re not the ones going all frenzied, who tend to get themselves and others killed. They’re the ones who zero right in on the details of the situation and get down to business.

Unquote. On that thread, olderwoman made a really nice point about how often the people (generally men) who say they don’t want feelings in the workplace really mean that they don’t care about anyone’s feelings but their own. I’d say this is the difference between stoicism and privilege, which may otherwise look the same. This leads me to a further reflection on how feelings were, are and might be handled in academic settings. For the purposes of this discussion I’ll define an academic setting as one in which there’s critical analysis to be done where getting it right may conceivably be of some importance.

In the bad old days, elite white men ruled academe. They had all sorts of feelings and occasionally shouted them at each other, or sulked them at each other, or used them to stab each other in the back. But they also had all sorts of conventions of conduct that deflected or bracketed emotions in favor of getting work done; and because they were a nasty little inbred elite, those conventions were largely shared and effective. The work they succeeded in getting done was often appalling by current standards, of course, as our own will be to later judges.

The grip of elite white men on the academy began to weaken in the 50s when working class white men enabled by the G.I. Bill, the rise of consumer society, the expansion of higher education, and so on began to show up. Soon after, women and race/ethnic minorities also began to push / be pulled into the academy in large numbers. Along with all the morally and pragmatically good things about that process, they brought chippy rejection of everything those nasty old farts stood for, including their nasty old conventions of emotional bracketing, which were pretty clearly artifacts of white male privilege — as could be plainly seen from their products.

The thing is, those conventions got the decks cleared and allowed a lot of work to get efficiently done. The content of that work is a separate issue. So how might we get those clear decks back, without reprivileging the particular neuroses of nasty old white guys?

31 Responses to “Feelings … whoa-whoa-whoa feelings”

  1. I would add that the implicit feelings/reason (irrational/rational) split is somewhat beside the point here, since the “feelings” we experience are already the products of “rational” culture-industry manipulation. This is as true for feelings of righteous indignation as it is for jealousy or love or whatever. In fact, the entire debate over how this cartoon makes you feel and how everyone is expected to evaluate this feeling would be inconceivable without the media-produced “therapeutic discourse of the self.” Check out Eva Illouz’s Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism on this–it’s fantastic.

  2. Thanks Greg, I will check out that reference (when I’m not watching The Wire, that is). I had you in the back of my mind for this post, and my earlier post on therapeutic history in which I also tried to get some analytical traction on the givenness of feelings. I agree completely on the constructedness of feelings and their special suitability for manipulation.

    In general I find the argument that we should each be responsible in detail for recognizing and avoiding each others’ emotional triggers incredibly weak – perhaps not morally, since that’s a nice ideal, but practically, in three senses. First, because it radically underestimates the vast diversity of feelings and triggers in the world — people who make this argument usually turn out to have very narrow exposure to very well-defined ‘others’. Second, because it assigns agency for our feelings to others and makes us hostages to their goodwill. And third, because it privileges those areas of our cognition in which we are most vulnerable to manipulation by those who know how to push our buttons. I’ve also written about these doubts in the context of offensive language here.

    All sorts of prudence and parsimony suggest it would be better for us and others if we just managed our own dang feelings.

  3. I think two of Epictetus’s observations in the Enchiridion are particularly apposite here:

    16. When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead, or because he has suffered in his affairs, be careful that the appearance may not misdirect you. Instead, distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, “It’s not the accident that distresses this person, because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.

    42. When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.”

    What is important, I think, is that the Stoics see emotional questions as intimately interwoven with epistemological questions. In other words, the debate about the cartoon inevitably regresses to “I have a right to feel this way, and don’t you dare deny it!” versus “You’re exaggerating, you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously!” because emotions are the product of judgments and opinions about the world, which cannot be justified even in principle. At that point, all we have left is the question of pragmatics: what kind of judgments should I be making in order not to be excessively disturbed? That’s your position, and mine.

    But then there is the fact that some people, many people, are addicted to indignation. They make judgments of victimization because they derive pleasure from their distress. So by attempting to empathize or suffer together with them, we’re actually misinterpreting what they feel. None of which is to say that this is a bad way of feeling–I personally love getting all lathered up about something. It just means that other people’s judgments are outside of our proper epistemological scope.

  4. …and because it captures pithily some things I often think I think.

    This neatly captures my very own motivation for blogging, actually. And accidentally it sort of makes me feel all strange because you just captured my motivation for blogging, I’d describe it as “feeling violated”…

    I agree with two kinds of conversations – polite with nothing to lose because nothing is invested and calm mindful ones with things as stake – but what about their evil twins: passionate argument with nothing at stake and lots of feelings, you’ve covered that one, but what about the ones where everything (or something important) is at stake and mindful/calm just isn’t doing it? Is there a sense in which, say, yelling achieves a purpose, even if it ceases to be communicative, where calmness and mindfulness fail? Or, is it just a sign of insecurity as in “Jupiter, you are angry and therefore you are wrong” (Dostoevsky reference, not sure if it makes sense in the non-Russian contexts)…

  5. Misha, glad to hear my voodoo powers are working on you. I am inside your head. You are in my power.

    You’re right about the conversational evil twins. About the fourth I remember an argument early in my relationship with my ex-wife in which, at a certain point of escalation, she calmly asked me if I expected to win just because I was louder than her. I have never been shut up more quickly or justly.

    Now the ironic coda is that eventually we got to where we were having lots of mutually loud arguments, and it was because on some issues we were just fundamentally in disagreement. It was even ok with us that we were in disagreement, we saw each others’ points and liked each other anyway. But when those were the topics, we’d exhausted reason and there was nowhere to go but loud.

  6. Sometimes loud though is what makes the difference, especially in a political discourse – I suppose my Habermas learning tells me otherwise, but it seems that once the agreement/consensus is no longer an achievable goal, there’s plenty of room for loud-for-the-sake-of-loud action. All I’m saying that it’s seems unwise to exclude it completely, there’s still some value to them, it seems…

    This makes me think about a cool new version of Stoicism – Loud Stoicism – in which you passionately and loudly argue for the disavowal of all emotions and the need to just calm down. And it’s not as though that never happened before…

  7. Loud Stoicism sounds like it ought to be a grunge band. Opening for Sonic Youth, with special guests the Shy Courtneys.

    Plenty of room for loud-for-the-sake-of-it, yes. That’s where most of the room is, which is why so many of the folks on that scatterplot thread gave up so easily. They’ve seen it all before, but more importantly it’s their own default; they don’t actually know how to press through the emotional response to keep the analysis developing. Not that it’s always possible, but it’s worth a try or two. So what we get is little insular discourse communities that talk to themselves as if what they’re saying is completely sensible and dispositive, and instantly melt down into caricature and name-calling when faced with any kind of dissent.

    In the Nietzschean tradition there’s nothing remotely surprising about this, of course.

  8. “Sometimes loud though is what makes the difference, especially in a political discourse”

    Yes. And the problem with this is that fascists are always the loudest; and to beat them, you have to join them.

  9. Greg, pushing your suggestions further and mixing in some Mikhail I’ve dredged up an older post that’s on point, part of a series on offensive language and entitlement (I linked another one above in #2). Here it is (to get the links back check the original), starting with a meditation on the Victorian gentleman:

    No one was more careful with their language around ladies than these profoundly sexist patriarchs. After all, they thought, proper ladies are delicate flowers of virtue for whom fainting couches and smelling salts must be provided lest the slightest vulgarity upset their fragile equilibrium and bring on the vapors.

    Women were actually being used symbolically there (or participating actively in a class and family project that gave them some relative perqs; analyses differ in their subtlety on this point) to demonstrate the distance of the Victorian bourgeoisie from vulgarity on two fronts: the working class on one hand and their own non-noble pedigrees on the other. Propriety was the thing – a very strict, gendered discipline the middle classes deployed to leverage themselves into position as the heirs of the civilizing process and the rightful wielders of power and status in the new modern world. This discipline may have had its origins in the protestant ethic, but its elective affinity with the industrial and financial bourgeoisie’s rising entitlement and the marginalization of the old nobility fully vested only in the 19th century. The new elite took over the old one’s touchiness about honor and propriety as part of their power grab.

    Working women and the working class in general were a different story. Their feelings were not the issue. They were expected to get on with the task at hand regardless. This attitude persisted well into the 20th century. I vividly remember hearing an old working-class black guy marveling (critically) at the younger generation: “Used to be guys just worked. Now guys got feelings.” Beside this stoicism fractions of the working class trending upward struggled to create spaces where they could support their own hierarchies of offendability, while others resisted the class stigma by reveling openly in their vulgarity and toughness, e.g. by ritualizing mutual insult in games like ranking or the dozens.

    This contrast is instructive, because it spotlights the class and gender relations behind aversion to coarse or vulgar vocabulary. In terms of Western cultural history there are two kinds of people who can lay claim to offense at the words used around them: the delicate, and the entitled. Both delicate and entitled, the ‘ladies’ of the Victorian bourgeoisie enjoyed the kind of defenses against upsetting verbiage that had previously been reserved for princesses, although in both cases because of the delicacy it was men’s job to do the actual work of policing interactive entitlement.

    Of course, the luxury of touchiness is rooted in economic power and a certain leisure. People with imperative stuff to do can’t afford to be touchy. The ability to enforce rules and vocabularies of interaction and to take offense at their breakage, i.e. to become ‘classy’, looks like a victory for the oppressed in the 20th century, and in a sense it is. But the success of this strategy lies in its dependence on the expansion of the capitalist global economy. History is chock full of impressive freedom-fighters who never got much of anywhere with it; conditions have to be right. In the core of the global economy women, the working class and minorities have been pulled into and up the professionalization scale of the production side by this expansion, and entitled on the consumption side by their paychecks and access to credit. Despite wage gaps and credit crunches more people are more distant from the vulgarity of starvation than at any time in history.

    In this process women, the working class and stigmatized minorities are following the trajectory laid out by the European bourgeoisie in the 19th century. Although gender delicacy remains as a culturally-embedded interpretation of insistence on linguistic propriety around them, the dominant dynamic is one of class entitlement.

    But because everyone is now entitled, power is spread very thin and there’s little discipline to be found anywhere. Funny.

  10. What is important, I think, is that the Stoics see emotional questions as intimately interwoven with epistemological questions. In other words, the debate about the cartoon inevitably regresses to “I have a right to feel this way, and don’t you dare deny it!” versus “You’re exaggerating, you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously!” because emotions are the product of judgments and opinions about the world, which cannot be justified even in principle. At that point, all we have left is the question of pragmatics: what kind of judgments should I be making in order not to be excessively disturbed? That’s your position, and mine.

    But then there is the fact that some people, many people, are addicted to indignation. They make judgments of victimization because they derive pleasure from their distress. So by attempting to empathize or suffer together with them, we’re actually misinterpreting what they feel. None of which is to say that this is a bad way of feeling–I personally love getting all lathered up about something. It just means that other people’s judgments are outside of our proper epistemological scope.

    Slawkings, this is an interesting observation. It seems to me that the cult of the victim is actually a response to the collapse of identity in late capitalist modernity. As Marx had already observed in the famous passage from the Manifesto, capitalism has the positive feature of undermining traditional and idyllic identities, equalizing people according to the same criteria (money for labor). I call this positive because it now becomes possible to envision rearranging society not according to hierarchies of identity (for example, a particular ethnicity being the ruling class), but in terms of concepts such as rights. In this process of the dissolution of identity, predicates that once seemed natural and essential (male, female, black, white, jew, christian, etc) now come to appear contingent (not unlike the Stoic conception of station).

    However, it appears that there’s a dark side to this whole process. The dissolution of identity is also accompanied by extreme ontological anxiety, such that there is a pursuit for some sort of stable and enduring identity. In our time, I think, identity is now constituted by being a victim. One’s ontological stability is established by occupying the position of the victim; or rather one gains being by being a victim. If you’re a victim you know what and who you are. Reference, as it were, is fixed. This is a pervasive phenomenon that isn’t restricted to vanilla leftist circles (I refer to a position as “vanilla leftism” if it restricts questions of politics to questions of identity politics). Thus, interestingly, everyone, left and right, portrays themselves as victims. Not only do we have the victim discourses of various marginalized groups, but also we increasingly see Christians (who are by far dominant in the United States) claiming the status of victims, and even, humorously enough, white men! In other words, the discourse of the victim cuts a transversal across class and political orientation, appearing at all levels of society.

    I am not, of course, suggesting that there aren’t real victims and real injustices, only that there also seems to be an additional level of processes going on in the discourse of the victim.

  11. White men can be victims too – for example, I was getting all worked up about an article that indignantly reported that in these difficult economic times some universities dare hiring foreign workers while American fresh-minted PhD are left without jobs and suffering in this economy, how dare they! I thought and then I remembered that the article meant me and those like me, “foreign workers taking away American jobs” – boy, did I feel awkward? So some white men are better off than other white men – is my skin not as white as your skin, brothers?

  12. Maybe – we just can’t see it behind that cartoon Rasputin beard.

  13. Levi, I agree completely with your analysis although my training says ‘existential’ rather than ‘ontological’ here.

    This is also something like what Durkheim meant by anomie, I think. And didn’t we get a bit into the kind of identity-anxiety and victimhood you’re talking about here some time ago in the context of discussing the thrall of difficult texts?

  14. Carl, trust me, I’m the whitest man on earth, when I am exposed to sun even for a bit, I burn and if I manage to get even a slightest tan, it disappears as soon as the sun goes down. When I was in elementary school, I remember a rather embarrassing episode when a teacher called me to the front to show everyone what ancient Slavs looked like – blue-eyed and blond, and very white…

    If I were a teenager in the early 90s in Moscow, I would most certainly be featured on a neo-Nazi poster like this one.

  15. Carl,

    There is something to be said for acknowledging feelings, naming feelings and accepting their reality, as a step toward cooling down to allow reason to work. The Stoic-wannabe may be denying feelings that blind him or her to things that reason should be considering.

    Nothing new in this thought. It’s the fundamental rationale for non-directive (and properly done non-diagnostic) therapy of the type that I was trained to do for a telephone crisis counseling line. Twenty years on the line indicates that it does, in fact, work a lot of the time. Ditto for lots of business and political meetings after I took the training.

    This strikes me as another one of those cases where setting up the problem as a binary opposition, reason vs. emotion, stands in the way of both better understanding and the practical business of reaching the agreements needed to live in harmony and get things done.

  16. John, you’re absolutely right. I hope you know me well enough by now to know that I just use binaries to set up contrast spaces. All of the interesting stuff is in between, in the play of dispositions and interactions.

    It’s interesting that you shift the ground to therapy, because that’s really the notion I have in mind also (as linked above in the ‘therapeutic history’ post as well). The contrast space that I’m ‘really’ exploring here is between therapeutic and activist praxes, and the context for this exploration was a post with an ostensibly activist orientation in the form “this is true, therefore that must be done.” Well, is this true? Would that be a wise thing to do? If we’re in an activist praxis, we get right to those questions. With therapy, not so much.

    I’ve done a fair amount of non-directive therapy myself, both as a friend and as a teacher. Plus I’ve done a lot of sales. It does work. And you’re quite right that it’s ideally non-diagnostic, and I’m not even opposed to the idea that all of our relations should be so. Except that as the therapist we always stand in a diagnostic relation with our ‘patient’, who is someone we diagnose as having some emotion problems that need resolving before we can get down to whatever the task at hand is. This means that a therapeutic mode is always asymmetric, although it may be reciprocally so.

    I have two basic problems with this. The first is that although I am very good at this kind of therapy, I find it exhausting. I find it exhausting because I am myself quite an emotional person and managing my own shit is something of a full-time job. I give whatever headspace I have left to others, but that always leaves me with no headspace. It would be nice to have some headspace to work with, which means it would be nice to be around people who are also managing their own shit. The second is that I take the activist questions seriously, which is a major character flaw of mine. So when people say it’s actually important to do this or that, fix this or that, counterproductive flailing and dissipative angst really bug me. In this respect you have diagnosed me quite rightly as a Stoic-wannabe. I’m working on it. Any tips? Perhaps I should focus on cooking small fish?

  17. Carl,

    Therapy is exhausting. That is why I’ve never, ever considered becoming a full-time therapist. I wouldn’t last a week. A few hours, a couple of times a month, telephone-not face to face-that’s about my limit.

    Being an activist can also be exhausting, especially when that counterproductive flailing and dissipative angst seem like all that’s happening. An Obama, who can stay cool, cool, cool, I am definitely not.

    But again, therapy vs. activism. My recipe is a bit of both but, as the folks in the therapy trades say, also taking care of myself. I’m lucky to be married to someone who also needs her space, so it’s not a problem the two of us being in the same room quietly doing our own things. My headspace just now is filled with the social network analysis component of my current research project; quantitative research can be so cool. Today I ran a degree distribution analysis on seven networks and have every one turn up the predicted near-perfect power law curve. I had this big silly grin on my face.

    I was babbling to Ruth as we went shopping for supper. I’m doing things that we couldn’t have dreamed of when I was in graduate school and doing something with a computer meant programming in Fortran and waiting overnight for your big decks of cards to run. Now, thanks to the folks who developed Filemaker Pro, Pajek, DataDesk and a super little utility called Text2Pajek, I can extract a network from my data base, do the social network stuff in Pajek, copy the result into DataDesk, choose a non-linear model and plug in the variables I want to check. Takes like 20 minutes max. Makes it really easy to get into flow. What if I did…It’s doable, right now.

    Not saying that this should be your cup of tea. I once asked my Dad why he went fishing so much. He said, “If I just went out on the river and stared at the water, people would think I’m crazy.”

    But in this crazy world, where there is always too much emotional static flying around, making some space for yourself can be a really good idea.

  18. John, that’s really cool. The research part and the headspace-simpatico-with-wife part.

    I guess like most things it’s best to balance. When I get too much me time (e.g. over an academic summer) I can go positively feral. The me without the I, in Mead’s sense.

  19. Carl, you are right. Too much me time can be a killer. I’m at my absolute worst when I’m sitting around with time on my hands and thrashing about what I ought to be doing. That’s one reason why I like to have a big project underway. It seems to work for me the way that knitting works for Ruth. There is always something handy to pick up and work on a bit. Fills time, fills the headspace, and shuts out the bloody world for a while.

  20. Reason vs. feelings –

    I also find that the assumption that these must be incongruent with one another is erroneous and misleading.

    I find it is useful to distinguish between emotions and feelings … emotions being reactions to events, i.e. fear, anger, etc. … and being ephemeral. Emotions *are* often irrational, misplaced, destructive/distracting, etc., even though they of course have their uses. Feelings on the other hand are more abiding and more true, and they can be rational or congruent with reason (and no, by reason I do not mean rationalization).

    I say this contra much current and recent psychobabble that assumes reason and rationality are inauthentic, falsifying, etc., and that emotions or even histrionics get closer to the truth of things. I think that’s a gross distortion and oversimplification.


    Haha, this is also me:

    “I give whatever headspace I have left to others, but that always leaves me with no headspace. It would be nice to have some headspace to work with, which means it would be nice to be around people who are also managing their own shit. The second is that I take the activist questions seriously, which is a major character flaw of mine. So when people say it’s actually important to do this or that, fix this or that, counterproductive flailing and dissipative angst really bug me.”

    Perhaps I am also a Stoic wannabe. It’s why university committees drive me batty: much discussion, and even plans of action, and then no follow through … then lather, rinse, and repeat !!!

  21. The distinction between the hasty reaction (here called “emotion”) and the enduring mood or motivation (here called “feeling”) is a useful one. Does more abiding, however, always imply more true? Consider the paranoid’s enduring and pervasive fear, the obsessive’s compulsion. Are not psychiatric diagnoses a rich array of descriptions of feelings that endure but are seen as not true?

  22. Interesting question, John McCreery. Re the obsessive and the paranoid, I would say that is precisely what makes them mentally ill. I take back my earlier word “ephemeral” and replace it with “superficial” … the paranoid and the obsessive have let what would be better left at the surface turn into the depth. ?

  23. Damasio supports this distinction between emotions, which is what he calls the raw physical responses to stimulus, and feelings, which are our mental representations of those physical responses and reflections on what they mean about our bodies and situations. Some version of the distinction, however named, does seem important to me, if nothing else to ‘denaturalize’ our affective perceptions and interpretations so that we can work on them.

    About surface and depth, Cero, I tend to think it’s about feedback loops. Paranoia is what happens when raw threat emotions are accepted and amplified into feelings by cognitive processing (or vice versa), then fed back as new threats producing new emotions, and so on. This is very motivating and healthy when the puma is in midair, less so when the threat is more diffuse and tractable. So what healthy people do in normal situations is use cognition to process and damp down the threat response rather than amplify and backfeed it. In essence what paranoids and obsessives do is exceptionalize every situation: they normalize crisis.

  24. Carl,
    I like your description of feedback loops; it captures well the process by which many people with chronic emotional difficulties create and maintain a host of disturbed feelings. Such feedback loops are also why non-directive counseling sometimes isn’t very effective. Restatement and reflection hold up a mirror to the person; for them to use that feedback to process the feeling they are having, they need to have some sort of internal cognitive mechanism that helps them eventually get to the point where they can say, “I feel better; maybe things aren’t as bad as I first thought.” Those who are obsessive, paranoid, avoidant, and the like often never get to that point; they may calm down eventually, but still retain a memory of the situation unchanged from their initial take on it.

    I’ve spent most of my adult life doing therapy full time; though it can be demanding, I never found it to be exhausting. It’s true that you have to lend lots of your headspace to others, which can be a problem if you want to use it at the time. Mostly, though, I don’t make particularly good use of my mental space, and am happy to lend it to others. Therapy isn’t a passive process; the challenge is to fully empathize in a way that isn’t judgmental while at the same time challenging the person to envision a place that’s better than where they are at and helping them get there (or at least start in that direction).

  25. Bob, that’s an interesting point about the limits of non-directive counseling. Even in my casual experience I’ve seen that over and over; maybe it’s why John and I find counseling exhausting? Teaching is also a form of therapy but it’s more directive, and I mostly don’t find it draining (or moreso than any work).

    I wonder what that reflective cognitive mechanism is, and how we do or don’t get it? Its absence strikes me almost as a kind of self-autism, a fundamental disconnect from the meanings of a whole class of stimuli, replaced with a rigid rule structure.

    As I understand it there’s possibly a physical basis for autism, but in the impaired self-awareness I’ve seen there’s been a common developmental history of high stress, abusive environment in which cognition is trained outwards to detect signs of threat, while feelings are sealed in against external attack and self-nurtured (perhaps as the one true and reliable thing). Does that sound right? I wonder if there’s a kind of brain that’s more likely to take this developmental history and turn it into the more florid psychoses?

  26. Carl, You describe several of the elements that seem important in creating this sort of inflexibility and lack of self-awareness. There’s no lack of theories that offer explanations for how people become this way–Freud and Adler began the discussion (though they used different terminology) a hundred years ago.

    Some of the more interesting recent theories come out of the Cognitive Therapy camp. Marsha Linehan, writing about borderline personality disorder (which is probably the prototypical example of this sort of pattern) suggested that a combination of two elements are needed: biological predisposition to be overreactive and erratic and an invalidating environment. In other words, some kids inherit nervous systems that produce overly intense and unstable reactions to events; if these kids have parents who are harsh, critical, or even abusive, they will develop the borderline response pattern. Another view is that of Jeffrey Young, who claims that the problem is what he calls Early Maladaptive Schemas that are resistant to change. The schemas are ways of understanding oneself and the world; Young lists about 20 of them. In Piagetian terms, people with these schemas handle experiences by always assimilating, never accomodating.

  27. Feedback loops, makes sense. Ooooh now I want to study clinical psych.

  28. Cero, I think you might really like Bob’s blog, Life Assays. His topic is ‘happiness’, its various definitions and experiences, but he doesn’t at all assume that it should be our goal.

    Bob, I haven’t found the right wording but basically I’ve been thinking of genetic/epigenetic interactions. Wouldn’t it be the case that these patterns would ‘run in families’ both ways – the sins of the fathers, so to speak, as intense kids get borderlined by their borderline parent(s) and then become borderline parents themselves? Not talking about destiny, of course, just tendencies.

  29. Carl,
    Absolutely, it’s epigenetic in nature. If you’re unfortunate enough to inherit genes for emotional disequilibrium, you probably have parents who not only have the same genes but don’t know how to modulate their own responses to a kid who is overreacting to minor frustrations. Thus, you wind up with a training program in which kids with a propensity for developing extreme, irrational feedback loops are helped along in the process.


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