posttitle = Subject-Object Notation: a case study on defensiveness and curiosity titleClass =title-long len =68

Subject-Object Notation: a case study on defensiveness and curiosity

What makes the difference in what someone says in response to criticism? Or even what they think in response to imagined criticism?


Talking about personal growth is easier when you have better language for it. One component of this is using words and phrases that are more conducive to growth mindset. Another aspect is having more nuanced terminology to refer to concepts, to allow us to talk about (and think about!) growth more effectively.

This post is also designed to serve as a standalone introduction to the subject-object distinction which is central to Constructive Developmental Theory, developed by Robert Kegan and others. I’m going to elaborate on that model in future posts and connect it to other models, but this sub-component is helpful on its own. I’ll start with the in-depth example, and then talk about the more abstract model behind it.

Case Study: Moving from Defensiveness to Curiosity

First: what do I mean by defensiveness? I mean a reactive quality that creates a feeling of unsafety or instability and responds out of a place of feeling threatened. It’s often associated with a sympathetic nervous system (stress) response, or a feeling of againstness. This is not a response that’s useful for much of anything. Maybe survival 50,000 years ago. It interferes with learning, because it makes you irrationally averse to integrating others’ perspectives, both casual and in the form of directed feedback, instead preferring to assert personal rightness. It can wreck relationships by causing disagreements to escalate into conflicts then into fights.

Under this definition, we might ask what kind of quality of response you might prefer? What’s the opposite of defensiveness? Hint: it’s not offensiveness. That’s… I’m not even going to go there. Instead, I propose it’s curiosity. Unlike defensiveness, where your mind is closed to new information and insists on proving itself right, in a state of curiosity your mind is open to updating itself and is ready to reexamine its own assumptions. Curiosity also has another specific property we’re looking for here, which is that it’s a broader outlook than defensiveness. This is necessary for what we’re about to do.

Okay. With this distinction highlighted, let’s talk about the qualitatively different experiences between the two ends of the spectrum. The story we’re going to use as an example:

Jamie is on a bus, travelling home for Thanksgiving, when she realizes that she left a bunch of stuff out in the kitchen. Her roommates are likely going to be annoyed.

stage D

Defensive. When you hear feedback or even imagine someone else being critical of you, you immediately start thinking (and perhaps speaking) reasons why that’s invalid and you’re still essentially right. It doesn’t even occur to you that this might not actually get you what you want in the long or short term. Or get you anywhere.

Jamie, thinking to herself: “I mean, I was in a huge rush today… it’s not like I could take the later bus… these tickets are only good for a specific one, not all day… and anyway, Cristina called me when I was about to head out… so it’s not my fault. Besides, she always leaves stuff out.”

If we consider the alternate universe where Jamie doesn’t actually remember this happened until she gets home and is informed by her roommates, then Jamie will likely say some fraction of this stuff out loud, justifying her behaviour to them.

stage D(C)

Similar to the above, except there’s this sense that maybe there’s another way. At early stages, this awareness might consist of an infrequent realization that you’re spending a fair bit of energy justifying yourself to people.

Jamie: “[same as D, then…] …though I guess it doesn’t really help anything to get mad.”

Alternatively, if she’s less aware, she might not even realize until she has already ranted at her roommates, then later that night reflects on this as she is falling asleep.

stage D/C

What’s new at this stage is there’s actually a fully-functional curious module. However, it is being used in service of the defensive one.

Jamie: “Huh, that’s not really like me… how did that happen? I guess, I mean, I was in a huge rush, and oh yeah, Cristina called!” (with her tone becoming more defensive as she becomes attached to the reasons).

Or “I wonder what my housemates will think… Cristina might not even notice, to be honest. Bart might just move it all… I hope they’re not mad. I mean, they’d better not be mad, it’s not like they don’t leave stuff out too!”

Or perhaps, arriving home and speaking to her roommate Cristina: “Oh yeah, sorry, how did that happen? Well, hmm… I guess it was because I was in a huge rush, and… oh yeah, you called me right as I was leaving.” With a sense of exasperation.

stage C/D

As in the previous stage, both mindsets are active, but now the ultimate one is curiosity. So rather than ending up in an agitated place, for the most part you’re able to be curious about the defenses themselves.

Jamie: “[same as D/C, then…] …whoa! I’m becoming super defensive. Where’s that coming from? I guess I feel like maybe they’ll think I was hypocrite because I was just complaining about Bart’s messiness last week.”

stage C(D)

Now the curious element is quite dominant, but you still have to exert a fair bit of effort to ensure that you don’t get pulled into the defensive thought patterns. Especially if this is in a context where someone else is directly accusing you of something and you feel innocent—it can take a lot of skill to explore the situation without coming back with force.

Jamie: “Huh, that’s not like me… how did that happen? Well I guess I was in a huge rush, and Cristina called just befo—hmm, am I getting defensive right now? Yeah, kind of.”

As Jamie progresses through the stage, she’ll notice and subvert the defensive tone of voice/thought sooner and sooner, until…

stage C

The single-letter of this stage indicates a certain amount of stability to it. While the defensive thoughts are likely still present, they’re not powerful and so they can be easily dismissed. They can still form useful information to help you model other people’s defensive patterns (although there can be a tendency with this sort of thing to forget that other people are at a different stage of development than you).

Jamie: “I wonder if Cristina and Bart will be annoyed by that. They might—oh, there’s a little part of me that feels afraid that they might think I’m a hypocrite since I was complaining before.” Notice that she instantly catches the hypocrite-fear, before it even has a chance to say anything. She might then prepare to apologize when she returns home, but she doesn’t enumerate the justifications because she reasons that her housemates don’t actually care for them.

In the not-realizing-before-getting-home version, Jamie would still have a certain lightness here: if her roommates were annoyed, she’d potentially have the capacity to empathize with them (since it wouldn’t be employed dealing with defensive thought patterns) and if her roommates were mostly unbothered, then Curious Jamie would be able to just drop it and move on to more interesting topics. A more defensive Jamie might find herself still needing to get the last words—to speak her justification—in order to feel safe.

A cartoonish drawing depicting a jar. The label on the jar says, "You can't read the label of the jar you're in."

This is what subject-object means

What has happened over the course of the shift from D to C is that Jamie has moved from being caught up in her own defensiveness (subject to it) to being able to take her own defensiveness and get outside of it (take it as object), so she can actually have a look at her own thinking. This is the fundamental act of metacognition. In order to be able to think about your own thinking, you have to be figuratively outside of those thoughts, in the same way that in order to really look at something in context you have to be literally outside of it, so you can see it and the backdrop at the same time.

The abstract model behind it all

If you paid any attention to the headings, you’ll notice they progressed from D to D(C) to D/C to C/D to C(D) to C. This is the structure of subject object notation. It can be applied to many shifts from a more limiting perspective to a bigger-picture one. The general structure is summarized below, with X as the simpler perspective and Y as the more complex one.

  • X: The person is embedded within the assumptions made by X. X seems like “the way things are”; there is no subjective experience of a bigger picture.
  • X(Y): The person is still grounded in X, but has the sense that there might be another way to approach things, and may be starting to gain an understanding of what that might look like.
  • X/Y: The person has both X and Y present as systems of understanding, but ultimately Y (the more advanced/nuanced perspective) cashes out into terms that are valued within X.
  • Y/X: The tables have turned! Again, X and Y are both present and active but now the person is outside of X and is able to look at it and understand it using Y.
  • Y(X): The person is primarily operating using Y, but may slip back into X-based thinking and acting in some situations (particularly stressful ones) if they aren’t attentive.
  • Y: The person’s entire understanding (on this particular dimension) is within Y. Note that Y usually retains some ability to model the world using X, but this doesn’t happen accidentally.
Sidenote: How to say this notation out loud:

  • X(Y) = “X bracket Y” or “X glimpsing Y”
  • X/Y = “X slash Y” or “X over Y”
  • Y/X = “Y slash X” or “Y over X”
  • Y(X) = “Y bracket X” or “Y holding X”

Another way to phrase the subject-object distinction is the difference between looking through a lens versus looking at it. When you’re viewing the world through the lens (subject) you often don’t even realize it exists, but it affects the way everything appears to you. When you’re able to hold the lens at arm’s-length and actually see it as an object within a broader context, then you can appreciate how it would affect your vision but it doesn’t necessarily do so.

How Constructive Developmental Theory uses the subject-object distinction

I got this model from CDT (also known as Subject-Object Theory) which is basically this structure applied to 5 big shifts that cover all ages. Unlike many other models, which are linked tightly to age and maturity, with CDT there is a lot of variance in terms of when people reach various levels, and lots of people make it to old age without getting past stage 3 or 4.

What makes CDT a developmental model is that this process of being able to look at more and more lenses only really goes in one direction. The “constructive” part of the name refers to the underlying assumption that our understanding of the world is an active meaning-making process rather than just passively collecting raw information about reality.

There’s a decent overview to Constructive Developmental Theory here. (Use this if that link is broken.) If you’re interested in investigating this more deeply, I highly recommend the book In Over Our Heads, which is one of my favourite books I’ve read—a delightful mix of theory and examples. It only talks about the main stages though. If you want to read more about the substage structure, the best source is A Guide to the Subject Object Interview, which despite terrible typography does a good job of outlining the process for assessing someone’s current developmental level.

CDT has 21 total levels:

  • 1, 1(2), 1/2, 2/1, 2(1)
  • 2, 2(3), 2/3, 3/2, 3(2)
  • 3, 3(4), 3/4, 4/3, 4(3)
  • 4, 4(5), 4/5, 5/4, 5(4), 5

The aforementioned Guide cites an 89% interrater reliability at arriving at the exact same result out of 21, and a 100% reliability at being within two adjacent stages (eg one rater assesses the subject as 2/3, the other at 2(3)), which is impressive compared to other theories. I include this paragraph because lots of developmental theories are pretty shoddy or arbitrary, and it’s my opinion that this one is not.

Conclusion / Takeaways

You can use this kind of model to talk about a number of shifts. Growth aside, even, subject-object notation is pretty good for classifying metacognition in general. It allows you to identify how you’re relating to your own patterns of thought—essentially, how much you’re subject to your own thinking in a particular arena, versus able to look at it more objectively. It can also help you to construct a growth-oriented understanding of being torn between two parts of yourself.

It’s worth noting that you don’t need to do a full rigorous write-up of a particular subject-object shift—that’s hard, because you need a fairly developed understanding of the shift in question. I’ve been living in a community dedicated to this defensiveness to curiosity shift (among other things) for about a year now, and it still took a fair bit of thinking to articulate all of this.

Rather, I’m hoping that this post will allow us to use more nuanced vocabulary (and a more nuanced model) to understand our own experiences of growth, which I think will be valuable…

  • pedagogically
  • for telling stories
  • as a roadmap for growth

The map is not the territory, but in mindspace, the map can affect the territory.

Edit (2016-09-19): It occurred to me that an excellent exercise-for-the-reader, if you want one, could be to write out a little paragraph for each of the S-O stages between Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset: F, F(G), F/G, G/F, G(F), G. Those mindsets don’t necessarily function exactly like this, but can probably be modelled reasonably well with SO Notation.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


kathleen kilgore » 4 Jan 2024 » Reply

Love your take on this. Thanks so much for the insight. And the graphic is everything.

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