Still on Vacation, Self-leadership

The usual personal-growthy stuff is less on my mind than usual (despite having gotten some good related reading done), since I’m still in Maine on vacation with my family, and I once again didn’t get around to writing my usual Monday post. 

I’ll just throw out a brief story from my life.

I wrote a longish description of what “Self-leadership” means in IFS terms, but it bored me to reread it. Basically, it’s acting from your own best judgement, in a way that feels right and natural, devoid of “should” affect.

One of my historical patterns is getting upset to the point of crying when there’s something that seems important to me that I want from someone and am afraid I won’t get, particularly if I can’t “justify” the want. Unlike anger, sadness has been on my list of emotions to welcome and express for many years now now, which is one reason I’ve gotten a bunch of mileage out of using this pattern to short circuit angry feelings.

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Where I’ve Been, and a Brief Taxonomy of Bad Patterns

I didn’t post yesterday because I was traveling all day. I got up extremely early and took Lydia on a cab to SFO for a flight to JFK, then took another flight to Portland, ME, then another cab, then a ferry. Add in time being pushed three hours ahead, and that’s the day. I also didn’t have my computer last Wednesday-Sunday because we were at Ephemerisle, which we got home from late, with just barely enough time to nap and pack. The weekend before that, we went to Napa for my cousin’s wedding, and before that we were at the EA Summit…

Never being at home is pretty bad for getting writing done. But hanging out with interesting people all the time is good for generating ideas. I’ll sketch out at least one idea today and will state that it is my vague intention to get more writing done on this trip than I do in an average week.

There are many, many ways to divide up and classify destructive emotional patterns, but I’ll share one that occurred to me.

Some bad emotional patterns are, at their heart, crappy strategies. They’re likely outdated and originally formed by a less-resourced self, but I wouldn’t say they’re a result of trauma. The other month, I noticed that I was resisting changing my emotional state in the thick of discussions with Will because I wanted him to practice the skill of being the one to change the emotional tone.

It wasn’t working. Once I put my finger on what I was doing…I just asked Will to get better at that. And that seems to have worked pretty well. Much better than the other thing, anyway. I would call that one a bad strategy. There was no huge underlying childhood emotional pain to be processed. And I knew how to do something better, once I unraveled my reasons for not doing so. I’m actually pretty good at changing my state on command when my whole brain is on board with it.

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Being “Soulful”, Animal Training, and Finding Your Bottleneck

Ever since I had a conversation with Anna Salamon a few weeks about about “soulfulness”, my thoughts keep returning to the topic. I don’t have a great definition of what being soulful is, and I’d say that it probably lines up pretty well but not perfectly with most people’s intuitive definitions.

Anna explained it using a picture, which was helpful. I won’t try to replicate it here though, both because drawing pictures interrupts my flow significantly, and because I think I’ll personally get more value out of trying to use words.

I’ll take it for granted that humans have a bunch of subsystems. Insofar as this is just a metaphor, I’ve found it to be a very robust one. The subsystems don’t start out perfectly exchanging information–I can tell by observing my daughter that it takes a while for internal communication to come online. (For example, despite because physically able to clap, she seems so far unable to do so consciously. Whatever subsystem is hooked up with trying to make gestures for social reasons isn’t connected to the subsystem that moves her hands towards each other. On the other hand, she can point consciously.)

But, while communication doesn’t start out high bandwidth, that’s different from being actively blocked. That seems to happen to just about everyone, and it happens later. I’m a bit confused about how much of it happens when, but that point, while of practical importance to me, is not central to this argument.

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I’ve Been Resisting Unblending

There’s been a pattern going on in my own life recently that I’m going to try to articulate, mostly in hopes that doing so will help something shift.

There’s a sense in which I can always unblend from my current trigger, go into Self, get some more perspective, laugh at myself, and get into a good mood. But I don’t always want to. There’s something that feels newish about this way of being, and something that feels much older. I used to be much less emotionally aware, and I didn’t take the data from my emotions seriously. That changed in a big way a few years ago.

I am interested in the progression, even though I suspect it ultimately won’t inform my current situation that much. I think I used to be very practiced at stepping out of my emotions and saying something more aligned with my verbal loop goals and beliefs. Though it was also uneven. I was much more reactive and prone to emotional displays with my family than I ever was with my friends, and I remember knowing it was that way and wondering about it at least by the time I was 12 or 13. 

Then, I leveled up in things like NVC, IFS, and rationality, and I made a huge push to try to use those tools in difficult situations when I was feeling triggered.

I think I’m better than ever at those skills, since I still practice, but I’m also feeling a yearning, that I’m pretty sure has in fact been there all along to let my more triggered, vulnerable, reactive parts have more of a role in my life. But then, I have a decent amount of tension around this desire because intellectually I’m actually not all that convinced of the value of doing so, except in some more abstract sense that I’ve decided over the years to take my yearnings and intuitions more seriously.

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What Is Submission?

This weekend, I had a good conversation with a good friend of mine about the meaning of submission. I ended up clarifying my thoughts on the concept quite a bit, in a way that I expect to be useful, despite being pretty abstract and meta.

As long as I can remember, I’ve had pretty negative affect around the concept of submission. In my mind, submission has traditionally been mixed up with fear and shame. I associate it with an authority figure trying to intimidate me and get me to behave a certain way even though it goes against my own intuition about what to do. To submit would be to decide that the other person is scary enough that it would be worth it on my part to lose some status and take action that may not be in my best interest.

I knew that when people would talk about submission or surrender in the context of (among other things) Buddhist philosophy, they were talking something a little different, but I’d never sat down and unpacked what exactly I thought they meant.

My new framing of submission is simply that it happens when a process decides to turn a certain part of its job over to a different process. It’s not all or nothing, and it happens all the time. By this definition, I’m submitting to the timer on my phone when I decided to stop tracking when I put the scones in the over and wait to hear the beep.

Will and I have been talking about the letting go of control. My new best understanding is that it’s nearly impossible to do voluntarily unless I truly believe that something else can handle the task to my satisfaction. Of course we’re sometimes wrong about which process is most effective at handling one job or the other. A common failure mode is to assume that only the verbal loop can be trusted with some task or the other. I’d say that I currently alieve that isn’t safe to experience anger without my verbal loop holding the reins, so to speak. On the other hand, I accept that subconscious processes do fine to figure out when to breathe or not.

Given that we’re often miscalibrated about what we need to “have control over” (which I think usually means inhibit behavior until the verbal loop gives an explicit okay), we can sometimes gain wisdom by forcing the loss of control and seeing what happens. Useful, but that approach has its limits.

For this week, I will meditate on the areas where I feel I am leaving “control” in the hands of a too-narrow mental process and what it would take to trust whatever I think should actually be running the show. And what is actually running the show now. It’s very common for this tight control to be more of an illusion than a reality. Maybe the verbal loop is preventing me from talking much when I’m angry, but the more relevant factor is that my emotions are evident in my body language.

It helps for me to remember my Hayekian heuristics about the failure modes of central planning. The more I can keep things distributed and let whatever has the most information act, the better the system will work.

Feelings and Needs

I’m a huge fan of Nonviolent Communication. I think I forget how much studying it has changed my life, because I take a lot of its lessons mostly for granted these days. I’m pretty good at empathizing, both with myself and others. I’m much better than I used to be at expressing what’s going on with me without mixing in too much narrative (something I was pretty good at even before reading that book).

But I see the NVC basics as a core practice that it serves me well to return to from time to time. A few years back, I memorized literally hundreds of flashcards about NVC. I used lots of lists and sentences from the book, and I also memorized the huge lists of feelings (which I cobbled together into categories myself) and needs from the book.

I remember thinking at the time that I had a very limited emotional vocabulary. I often thought of my emotional state as being either good or upset, though I knew intellectually that nuances existed. I usually had no idea when I was angry. So, I decided to memorize a bunch of words for how I might be feeling, so I could mentally consult an extensive list. And I think I was even less aware of the unmet needs that my feelings might be coming from.

It still kind of surprises me how dramatically I feel a release of tension once I can pinpoint what’s really been bothering me and why.

I think the memorizing worked. I can’t still recite all the feeling and needs in order, which I think I could have actually done once upon a time, but it got internalized, at least a bunch of it did. They stuck around in my brain and sunk in until I found myself using the words in my thoughts and conversations. I recommend trying it, whiling keeping in mind that actually being able to pull them up from memory isn’t quite the point.

I’ve updated my feelings and needs deck (all taken from here), and you can download the deck.

Play around with it. Try some fill in the blanks where you say “I am feeling ____ because my need for ____ is not being met.” Or, “I am feeling ____ because my need for ____ is being met.”

The topic of Anki and self-improvement has been on my mind lately, so expect more posts on the subject in the coming weeks.

Moving Baby Posts

I’m trying out a new blog just about parenting stuff, so, starting this week, I’m experimenting with moving the baby summaries over there.

How to Keep Going When You’re Triggered

One of the topics I get the most questions about is what to do in the moment when you and your partner are both triggered. It makes a lot of sense that this would keep coming up, because this is the hard relationship/communication situation. It’s easy to deal with situation where one person is acting like an adult and the other person is acting like a child.

So, I thought I’d throw a few ideas out there from my list of things to try.

Try something new.

Anything works for this one. (Obviously don’t violate your ethical system or anything like that.) Give yourself permission to experiment. The thing about being triggered, is that nobody ever does anything terribly original in that state. That’s sort of the point. You go on autopilot. If you can’t think of anything that seems likely to work, just experiment. Physically move in a way you wouldn’t usually. Say what’s on your mind if you usually don’t. Keep quiet about the things you usually bring up. Change contexts. A good friend of mine once told me that “Consciousness is the ability to interrupt yourself.” Interrupt away, and don’t feel like you have to have a solution in mind. Do anything except for what feels most familiar and natural.



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34 Weeks of Lydia

I started last week’s update by saying that Lydia’s cold was a thing of the past. Ha! That cold is long gone, but, as of today, she has a new one. Oh well. I can feel what is almost certainly the same cold in the back of my throat, and am very much hoping I don’t get it. I had a few nights in a row of not enough sleep, but I think I’ve gotten back on track now with napping and going to bed earlier, so I think I’ll likely beat it.

I saw the first inklings of this cold yesterday, so most of this week wasn’t about that. At this point, Will going to work in the morning and coming back in the evening very much feels like the new normal. Lydia’s growing and changing, but I’d still say this has been a pretty easy period for me. She’s fussy sometimes, but I haven’t been getting overwhelmed with parenting in a while.

As I think I’ve said before, I’m still a bit confused about why having an almost eight month old is so much easier than having a pretty happy newborn that sleeps all the time. I have my theories, but I’m still a bit confused by the situation. I realize it also almost certainly depends some on the individual baby. So anyway, things are good.

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Having People You Can Talk to Matters

I had a really fun weekend, mostly because we had friends over Saturday through Sunday, and we just hung out and talked. And we have another friend who’s still staying on our couch, so I was just talking to him.

One of the big things that’s been on my mind recently is just how important it is to have people around that you can really talk to. People who will get what you’re saying, maybe say something useful, maybe reflect it back well, maybe ask a good question. Or maybe just listen.

I thought I knew how much this matters, but I’m coming around to the idea that I was underestimating this factor quite a bit.

There’s a Heinlein quote I enjoy about sleep that says, “Happiness consists in getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more.”

Sleep is huge, but I think happiness is more exactly determined by how much you have people around that you feel like you can talk to. What I remember of my positive psychology class from college tells me that their research pretty much supports this conclusion.

So that’s my super-unoriginal thought for this week. Remember who you have the best conversations with–ones that you enjoy while you’re having them and come away from feeling happier. Invite them over more! Live with them if you can! Call them on the phone! Set up recurring Skype calls with them!

I’m going to be doing more of this myself.