Saturday, June 12, 2010

Self-judgment and the balance of power

Earlier this week I met with my graduate studies advisor, and returned armed with a number of books on organizational development and systems theory, so my daytime reading (as opposed to my morning reading) has most recently been all about positive and negative feedback loops.

To give a very brief summary (so as not to overwhelm either you or this post), we start with the basic assumption that things are always changing. A negative feedback loop helps to maintain stability in spite of changes. It's a bit like riding a bicycle: you feel yourself start to wobble, and you correct for that. A shift happens, and something in the system compensates, negating the change so stability is restored.

A positive feedback loop, on the other hand, accelerates change and growth. The simplest example is to think of money gathering interest, or rabbits multiplying: basically, the more you have, the more you get.

Okay. So then, this morning, in Soul Without Shame, I read about the difference between attack and judgment. When most animals -- including humans -- are attacked, Brown says, unless the threat is extreme or overwhelming, they respond immediately with increased awareness, energy and presence: that whole adrenaline rush thing. But when we feel that we have been JUDGED, we have a tendency to react (as I did in that incident I described yesterday) by becoming sluggish and constricted, pulling into ourselves.

When you are criticized, what do you do? If you produce a poem or a work of art, and someone in authority says it's not good enough for publication or display, what do you do? Ideally, if it were me, I would like to get energized by that response, to see it as an opportunity for growth, and say, "Thank you so much for that feedback. Can you tell me anything specific about what didn't work for you, and how I might improve it?"

But more often I turn the attack into a self-judgment: they didn't like it, therefore I am no good as a poet/artist/photographer; I'll never amount to anything (shrink, shrink, constrict). And OMG, Byron Brown explains WHY THAT HAPPENS!!!

"It is important to recognize that self-judgments served a very useful purpose for you as a child...The sense of invasion, rejection, or hurt caused by the parent's critical energy was often overwhelming to your sensitivity. So distancing from yourself (self-rejection) dulled your awareness of the attack to help you survive what was intolerable or unstoppable. In extreme cases of abuse and trauma, the only way to survive was to completely dissociate from reality in the moment. ...Your engagement with judgment is a mild form of dissociation, in that you lose touch with the experience of being attacked and the resulting damage. Instead, you take on the content of the judgment and the judge's perspective of what is important, and the instinctual movement to respond appropriately is blocked."

Okay. So hang with me a moment here, and let me explain this connection I'm seeing. By perceiving and interpreting an attack as a judgment, we essentially create a negative feedback loop for ourselves and negate the possibility of change. We go rolling along on our creative path, we create something slightly new and different, we get maybe a little excited about it, someone comes along and puts it down, we go into it's-no-good/I'm-no-good mode, and pull back from that exploration, returning to our previous stable -- if unfulfilling -- state.

But if we instead perceive the judgment as an attack, and respond appropriately with increased energy and presence, then we can gather data about how to improve this new and different thing we have created, then create more (and, presumably, new and improved versions) of these things, then it becomes a positive feedback loop, more about growth and change and risk and potential than about maintaining a steady -- if self-defeating -- state.

It seems to me that the primary reason to retreat into self-judgment rather than rising to the occasion has to do with this notion of unless the threat is extreme or overwhelming. Doesn't that mean that these self-defeating behaviors may be about a sense of powerlessness, or at least about perceived imbalance of power? Could it be that the very sensitivity that enables us to respond to our environment with art, poetry, and music also makes us hyper-sensitive to power imbalances and then disables us with self-judgment when we perceive ourselves to be under attack? And wouldn't it also be true that victims of abuse, having already gotten into the habit of dissociation, would be even more prone to self-judgment?

Interestingly enough, it says in my book, Systems 1: an Introduction to Systems Thinking, that power is a positive feedback loop "which has created problems for people since before the beginning of civilization... Because power can accumulate so rapidly, any society which is trying to avoid a dictatorship must find ways to control and restrain this positive feedback loop. In fact, democracy as we know it today is a direct result of a series of inventions (like free elections and independent judges and civilian control of the military) which people have learned through painful experience are necessary for controlling this tendency for power to accumulate in one place."

So. The challenge for me, and for each of us as artists and as individuals, is to come up with mechanisms to control this tendency for power to accumulate in one place -- or at least, in a place outside ourselves. I find myself thinking of those wonderful words from Eleanor Roosevelt: "No one can make you feel inferior unless you let them." But how can we get -- and remain -- strong enough to NOT "let them"?

It seems to me there are two obvious answers which also explain why you and I find ourselves together on this page: faith, and community. We support and empower one another, and find strength -- and empowerment -- in our sense of relationship with the Divine. And now I see why those words from The Seeker's Guide which I quoted in last Wednesday's post -- God connects, relates, weaves all things together as if one -- become so important and resonate so clearly: if all things are one, then there can be no imbalance of power. And then growth and change can happen in a stable and balanced way. Which would all be good!


Maureen said...

All so fascinating. I like how you interweave your academic and spiritual studies and then bring the points together into that wonderful conclusion about connections.

Excellent post, Diane.

Louise Gallagher said...


Brilliant. I like how you shine and illuminate my path!

Thank you.

I need to think on what you wrote as it is pretty profound!