When you can’t find the edge of the frame

I had a recent experience which is prompting this blog post, although I’ve thought a lot about the bits and pieces of it already. I’ll get to the recent experience in a bit.

Un-identifying with thoughts

Kaj Sotala started a fantastic thread on the CFAR alumni mailing list about un-identifying with desires. He described how when he experienced himself having conflicting desires in himself, he realized he could “step outside the two desires, and stop identifying with either one.” Instead of being one of the desires, he wrote,

“I was an external observer, watching two parts of me mutually figure out whose suggested course of action would be more useful for the organism’s overall well-being.”

Other highlights from the thread were some relevant questions and observations, including:

  • How does this relate to Kahneman’s System 1 & System 2? (roughly intuition vs analytic thinking) Sometimes the conflict appears to be framed as S1 vs S2, but there is actually some emotional resonance with “S2’s side” as well.
  • Mindfulness meditation seems to be about this disidentification. I totally agree with this, and will say more about it later.
  • This might be helpful for handling some experiences of anxiety
  • This seems very related to internal family systems (IFS)
  • It takes practice to do this consistently. While there can be an epiphany-like quality to realizing shifts like this, ultimately your habits are still what they were until you train new ones.
  • The act of un-identifying with our experience is kind of like waking from a dream. (The writer suggested that perhaps this was the reason for the title of Sam Harris’ recent book Waking Up)

Frames for identifying and not identifying with your experience

(This section was my contribution to the thread.)

I think that this ability to model yourself as having multiple parts and to step outside of being a particular one is really, really fundamental… to rationality and to a lot of other core skills such as relating with other people.

A recent anecdote:

I was hanging out with two people I’m close to, let’s call them A & B, and something happened that I expected to potentially produce discomfort for A. B left the room briefly for unrelated reasons, and I said to A: “I’m really curious what feelings came up for you during that…” A started to talk about their experience of it. B then came back, and I gave them the context: “We were just talking about what feelings were there for A during that.” B turns to A: “Oh, how did you feel?”

Note the difference between how I asked A versus how B asked A. The framing that B used, of “how did you feel?” make it really easy to be the feeling. Whereas by talking about the feelings as being something that A was experiencing as an agent, the phrasing I used invited A to decouple themself from the feeling and share it without feeling a need to defend it as having been “how they felt.”

Writing this blog post, I’m realizing more clearly how there are subtle implications to that phrase. Our sociolinguistic context is full of maxims like “that’s just how I feel” or “I can’t help how I feel” or [INSERT OTHER EXAMPLES]. We don’t necessarily take them seriously, but they add to the confusion of what someone might mean when they say “I feel X”. A bunch of questions you could (mentally or verbally) ask in response:

  • do you endorse feeling X? do you think that feeling X makes sense?
  • would you like me to address (my reassurance, etc) towards the feeling, towards its causes, or towards you as the experiencer of the feeling?
  • is that all you’re feeling?
  • how do you feel about having that feeling?
  • do you see a way out of the feeling or does it feel all-consuming or inevitable?

These questions are a rough stab of pointing at the part that’s missing when we just say “I feel X”. By saying “I’m noticing a feeling come up of X,” there’s a lot more space created around the feeling, which can be helpful as a listener because you get a better sense of how the person is relating to the feeling. So that can be a helpful reframe, both to use internally and to use when talking with someone about their experience.

There are also more specific reframes, that allow you to label the part of your mind that you understand as being responsible for whatever thought or feeling you’re experiencing, and thus to become the observer:

  • “…but that’s just my OCD talking” (used to refer to actual OCD or just to similar structures of thought)
  • “My dopamine system really wants another piece of cake”
  • “I think I’ve internalized an expectation that…”
  • “I dunno, I have badbrains right now”
  • this image on the right

When you can’t find the edge of the frame

These are great, and I’ve made extensive use of this sort of thing, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like part of my brain… it just feels like my entire experience. It doesn’t feel like an interpretation, but just how things are. It doesn’t feel like a frame, it feels like everything.

I was having an experience like this in a challenging conversation. I was realizing I didn’t care about something in the way that I might be expected to care about it, but I couldn’t locate a nexus of apathy or anything like that. When I inspected my experience, I got “I just don’t care.” I tried to find an edge to this, so I could grab the frame, and climb out, but it stretched as far as I could see. It filled my entire experience so that, as far as I could tell, it was just how things were.

And somehow, I found the capacity to manage that feeling. To maintain a sense of skepticism, not trusting what I was experiencing as being the only reasonable interpretation. A sense that there could be other ways that it could make sense for me to feel about the situation—ways that would also feel like truly me—even if I had no idea what they were or how to access them. That my potential mindspaces were not limited to the convincing fishbowl I found myself in.

It still didn’t (and doesn’t, though I’m not trying at this moment) feel safe to actually let go of my apathy, here. It has been a strong protector for me. I get that. I can imagine that it wasn’t willing to let me peer through the cracks into other options for how to feel. Maybe there’s some new skill I need to unlock first, in order for it to be safe to leave this frame-that-feels-like-everything. For now I feel patient and curious. And simply glad to not be assuming that this is all there is.

(Fascinatingly, in writing this, I’m noticing a sense of my brain clinging to the exact experience I was having at the time, even though I think the writing is helping me move past it. But this clinging feels like a different mental pattern (more related to “this experience gave me a blog post idea therefore it must be valuable and worth keeping around”) so I’m not going to go into that.)

If you’ve read about Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory (or even just this post of mine on subject-object notation) you might recognize a connection here. SO notation is used to denote the relationship of someone with some particular structure of thinking. For a person shifting from structure X to structure Y, the stages are X, X(Y), X/Y, Y/X, Y(X), Y. Normally, X(Y) is used to indicate the stage at which a person is starting to sense the limitations of X, and to get a glimpse of what Y is like.

I think what’s happening here is that, with respect to this shift, I’m still stuck at stage X. I haven’t gotten that glimpse of what’s beyond, and I only very abstractly have a sense of the limitations that my current frame is giving me.

What I do have is a mindset beyond the assumption that there is no stage Y at all. Which is keeping me sane even though this frame feels overpowering.

EDIT: I’ve written an extended post outlining many levels of dis-identification with thoughts

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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