posttitle = Internal Trust Dancing case study 1: EA & relaxation titleClass =title-long len =57

Internal Trust Dancing case study 1: EA & relaxation

This post consists primarily of a lightly-edited text of a chat-based coaching exchange between Malcolm (M) and a participant (P) in a recent Goal-Crafting Intensive session, published with permission.

It serves several purposes I’ve been wanting to write about, which I’ll list here and describe in more detail at the end:

  • Share an initial model of Internal Trust-Dancing, which is also relevant to interpersonal non-naive trust-dancing
  • Talk about the importance & relevance of Perceptual Control Theory & conflict
  • Provide a Goal-Crafting Intensive coaching sample

Without further ado, here’s the conversation we had:


P: I’m thinking useful next steps might be planning out how to explore the above; the ML-work will come relatively naturally as part of my PhD, whereas the science communication could take some fleshing out.

I feel a little discouraged and sad at the prospect of planning it out.

M: Mm—curious if you have a sense of what’s feeling discouraging or sad about the planning process

P: My sense is that if I plan it out it’s somehow mandatory? Like it becomes an “assignment” rather than a goal, like I have to persevere through even on the days where I don’t want to.

M: Here’s a suggestion: write a plan out on a piece of paper, then burn it
(inspired by the quote: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”)

P: That was fun! I guess I’m very much a “systems” man, I have this fear that nothing will get done if it’s not in the system. But that might be detrimental motivationally for stuff like this.

M: Hm, it sounds like you have a tension between wanting to track everything in the system but then feeling burdened by the system instead of feeling like it’s helping you

P: That definitely strikes a cord (as well as your points, George, about separating “opportunities” from tasks). I guess I’m worried that I won’t get as much done if I’m not obligated to do it, or that it’s somehow “weak” to not commit strongly. But for long term growth, contribution and personal health, that’s probably not the way to go.

M: Yeah! If you want, we could do some introspection and explore where those worries come from!
(we could guide you through that a bit)

P: Sure!

M: So one step is “sentence stem completion”. Try saying out loud “if I don’t commit strongly, then _____” and just keep talking see what comes out of your mouth. And do that 5-10 times or until you start getting repeats, or you notice a response that surprises you

P: Huh, that was interesting! There’s a theme of something like “if I don’t commit strongly then things won’t get done, and if they don’t get done I don’t contribute to the world, and if I don’t contribute to the world then I don’t matter”. Consciously/cognitively I don’t believe that, I see it as a failure mode in others, so I’m unsure about what to make of it.

M: If it came up for you, that suggests that part of your unconscious/emotional brain does believe that!
even if another part of you disagrees. And even if you think that’s dumb, or a failure mode, if some part of you genuinely thinks that, then it’s going to be steering your behavior that way until you can understand why it thinks that and find a different way to see things that this part can understand
.

P: So, there’s definitely some skepticism coming up now (currently reading “How Emotions are Made” where Barrett criticises the “emotional vs. rational part of the brain” dichotomy), but that’s probably not useful right now.
If I suspend that disbelief, where might we go from there? 🙂

M: Haha I have some critiques of Barrett 😛

P: I’d imagine 😂

M: TL;DR = emotions are indeed constructed but you don’t have as much control over how you construct them as she thinks, and you need to dialogue with your existing constructions

P: I can accept that!

M: If you want to check out a source that underpins a lot of my thinking here, this Unlocking the Emotional Brain book summary (and the book itself) have a great articulation of what’s going on with the emotional brain

P: Yeah, love Kaj’s writing! If we were to go back to introspection, what’d we do next?

M: Sure. So there’s 3 separate links in this chain here:

  • if I don’t commit strongly then things won’t get done
  • if they don’t get done I don’t contribute to the world
  • if I don’t contribute to the world then I don’t matter

…and we could explore any of those.

P: I think point no. 1 draws me in the most 🙂

M: okay great. so yeah, here’s a few questions to explore it

  1. consciously, do you agree with “if I don’t commit strongly then things won’t get done”? or is it another thing that bubbled out of your unconscious but you don’t think is true
  2. is it true of other people, or just you? if so, is it true of everybody, or just most people?
  3. is it true for every kind of thing you might do, or just certain kinds of things?

P: re 2… I think it’s true for most people if the task is hard, challenging and stretches over a long duration of time. OTOH, I can’t imagine e.g. Martin Luther King having a productivity system.

P: Re 3… Definitely only certain kinds of things; those that are hard, uncomfortable, stretch over time – but are also often some of my greatest sources of meaning.

M: I’ve sometimes articulated “I never would have started this if I’d known how long it was going to take… unless I’d also known how much more rewarding it would end up being than I’d imagined”

P: Haha, yeah, that resonates. For medicine it turned out that the elements of practice that I’d expected to be the most daunting (communicating with suffering patients) was the most rewarding.

Re #1…

1. consciously, do you agree with “if I don’t commit strongly then things won’t get done”? or is it another thing that bubbled out of your unconscious but you don’t think is true

P: …to some extent. My experience has been that I can spend long stretches doing nothing much, e.g. gaming or watching TV, and that committing strongly tends to cut those periods down, and makes me more satisfied with how my days/weeks have gone.

I guess I don’t trust myself to make good choices in the moment; I fear that if I do “what I want to do”, then I’ll end up watching TV and gaming, which is failing to live a meaningful life for me.

M: Yeah, that makes sense as a fear, given that that’s the experience you often have. One puzzle I have some partial answers to but not an exhaustive solution for yet, is like… why do we do things like watching TV even when it’s not more satisfying than our other work? It’s one thing if someone were to watch a lot of TV instead of doing backbreaking labour for a boss they hate… but it’s weird that sometimes even though we have projects we know would feel really fulfilling and satisfying, we… just… bounce around and do other stuff.

P: (Right now I’m leaning towards the behaviorist explanation, that many of the rewarding activities aren’t rewarding in the moment. I.e. short-term feedback loops competing with long-term ones. Would love your thoughts on that.)

M: Agreed that it’s often a feedback loops thing. I think behaviorism is kind of inside out though: humans aren’t stimulus-response machines but control systems. (More precisely, hierarchical networks of control systems, all the way up to “I have a dream” and all the way down to the actuation of single sensory cells or muscle cells.)

P: Hmm, in the sense that we have a desired state and then employ “behaviours” (of any type depending on the control system’s complexity, e.g. different for cell vs. whole body + mind) to try and reach/maintain that state?

M: Exactly—cybernetics etc. Perceptual Control Theory is the main model I’m drawing on here.

P: I think productivity systems/strong commitment have been my “solution” to that frame. Implement short-term feedback loops that punish behaviors that move away from a desired state and reward those that move you closer to it.

M: Right, but the simpler solution to avoiding punishment is almost always to avoid the system that’s punishing you. which means you will systematically undermine your systems and commitments.

P: Good point! Even if the “punishment” is for goals that you haven’t achieved to become salient?

And if so, what’s the alternative?

M: So my overall read is that you’ve got two conflicting main control systems, one of which is saying “not enough output! commit strongly so things get done and I contribute (so that I matter?)” and then the other has some sort of careabout that is generating the TV watching instead.

It might be “not enough rest” or it might be “not enough freedom” or it might be something elseand we can explore what that is.

P: Ah, I’d love that!

(Currently I’m oscillating between the “commit strongly” and “TV/gaming” states)

M: the problem with sustained control system conflict is that it is LITERALLY isomorphic to setting your Air Conditioner to “chilly” and your Furnace thermostat to “cozy-warm”… the result is that both the AC and the furnace run full-tilt (burning a lot of energy!) and meanwhile the actual temperature of the house is maybe, at best, somewhere in between.

But then if someone leaves the door open and there’s a draft, and it cools down, then suddenly the AC shuts off because its temperature condition is met, which means the furnace heats up the house… and if there’s enough delay, maybe by the time the AC kicks back on, the furnace has shut off, and then it gets freezing again!

P: Hahahaha, that’s a great point! Matches with the oscillating behaviour as well.…exactly.

M: so the thing you want to figure out is how the hell the two thermostats got set to conflicting values 😛

and how to set them to something where they can cooperate to keep the temperature of the house perfect.

P: Hmm, that’s a great point. Knee-jerk; contribution near infinity because of moral imperative (utilitarianism/EA), relaxing/gaming very high due to “work smarter, not harder” mindset and ability to coast through much of school.

M: Ah man I resonate with both dimensions of that. What’s interesting about this is that the two strategies end up making enemies of each other, which reinforces their own importance! Like the relaxation-oriented part feels like the EA part would try to work 100% of the time, and so it goes “hold up man, that would be inefficient, work smarter not harder”… which like, in principle is what EA is all about! But if the EA strategy sees the relaxation part as an enemy, then it doesn’t trust it, so it doubles down on some commitment.

P: Haha, yeah, and I’m afraid I might’ve given the relaxation part some evidence that its interpretation of the EA/productivity part was correct – I ran pretty hard with an auto-scheduler for half a year, and then basically watched Netflix for 3 weeks straight.

M: 😆 textbook case

P: Haha, point me to the textbook, then! I want to look at the solution sheet 😉

M: I still need to write the textbook haha. Although in all seriousness the Perceptual Control Theory stuff is a major component. It just doesn’t have a solution sheet directly unfortunately.

P: Any intro-reading you’d recommend?

M: Although they did develop a therapy method designed to recursively ask the question “who the hell set this thermostat?” This book is a great overview: William T. Powers – Making Sense of Behavior: The Meaning of Control. It has specific chapters on reward & punishment and on conflict.

P: Only a 150 pages? To the top of the reading list it goes! Do you know of any empirical study of it?

M: They’ve done a bunch of studies, from neurological to psych-behavioral using little applets.

P: Anything randomised? (Just seeing how far I can prod, hope that’s OK!)

M: I mean a lot of it isn’t interventiony – it’s model-based, not stats based.

P: Ah, fair.

M: He actually snarks in his other, longer, more technical book, about the problem with stats based psych. He’s like “they’ve found a bunch of correlations but they have almost no idea what’s actually going on under the hood”. Here’s a link to that book: William T. Powers – Behavior: The Control of Perception

P: Hahaha, well, if it’s randomised and interventional, it’s causation as well. But understanding the mechanisms is extremely hard with the amount of noise there is in humans, I’ll grant him that.

M: Anyway, I appreciate your attention to rigour! Shall we explore this bit a bit more:

P: Haha, yeah, and I’m afraid I might’ve given the relaxation part some evidence that its interpretation of the EA/productivity part was correct – I ran pretty hard with an auto-scheduler for half a year, and then basically watched Netflix for 3 weeks straight.

M: and explore what the second control system is trying to achieve:

So my overall read is that you’ve got two conflicting main control systems, one of which is saying “not enough output! commit strongly so things get done and I contribute (so that I matter?)” and then the other has some sort of careabout that is generating the TV watching instead.

M: The aim is to do 2 things, basically:

  1. devise a solution (in terms of behavior) that both parts feel satisfied with
  2. get the parts psychologically/emotionally on the same page about how inefficient it is to be fighting each other, so that they’re oriented towards cooperating

P: Awesome! I’m game.

M: In practice, doing 1 often requires doing 2, unless there happens to just be some solution you haven’t thought of already that they’re both like “boom, perfect!”

P: Yeah, 2 draws me in more as well.

M: One piece is to just sort of explore, can you stand in the perspective of one of the parts, and say to the other “hey, I don’t want to fight. can we work together? I know you don’t trust me, but I’d like to build trust with you”

P: Hmm, that was pleasant. It’s like the EA part is apologising to the relaxation part, and there’s a sense of wanting to find a compromise that they can both be happy with. (edited)

Of finding an “effective” day, where some part of it is effortful and meaningful, and some part of it is just pure fun – but might be meaningful if done with others/building relationships.

How’d you recommend taking that further? Loosely structuring the day, then playing it by ear?

M: Yeah, exactly—it’s an ongoing process, it’ll evolve as you go. And you might still notice some tug of war between those parts. You could also try standing in the perspective of the relaxation part and saying something similar to the EA part.

P: Yeah, that part came up with something like “You’ve hurt me, you’ve pushed me away for a while, so it’ll take time. But I want to work with you too, for the greater good.”

(Greater good in the sense of “me” as a system)

M: Yeah, the reality is that you’re stuck with yourself!

P: Haha, true that!

M: So yeah, I’d encourage you to try facilitating more dialogue between these parts, both in acute situations when something comes up, and maybe just having them check in once or twice a week about how this new experiment is going. You could try having them ask the other part for what they need

P: Ahh, that elicits some less loving/trusting responses. But I might’ve been getting more the “EAs prejudice of relaxation” rather than relaxation’s answer to EA.

Okay, much better response this time! Relaxation needs to feel heard, to be reassured that it won’t get crushed/subjugated like it has in the past, and a couple of hours a day to do whatever seems pleasurable.

M: Cool!

P: EA needs relaxation to give space, to not distract while doing important work, and to allow most of the day to be “productive”.

M: Makes sense! ultimately there’s no single answer for how to have the dialogue. the important thing is to maintain an attitude of dialogue, and for each part(y) to agree that they want to find a way to dialogue that works for everybody

So eg you might explore having a thing where if you notice a distraction during the workday, you have a particular protocol for how to handle that and how to raise it as a thing you want to do, but if that protocol doesn’t work and you end up rebelling and stubbornly refusing to work for a whole day or week, then, well, you know something was missing from that protocol

P: Ah, so like adding it to a “reading list” of activities, and then seeing if that satisfies the “craving” in the moment?

M: Exactly, yeah. But the deeper point of what I’m saying is that if that system doesn’t work, you might start fighting yourself again, and that’s okay—that’s part of the learning process! And see if the EA part can find a way to turn towards and say “oh, was that not working for you? how can we fix it?” as opposed to “Ha! see, I knew I couldn’t trust you to cooperate!”

P: Ah, awesome! Rather than “How can I overrule relaxation”.

M: Exactly, because overrule is trying to use the AC to cool down the house while the furnace is still running!

P: Yeah, just gradually moving them further away from each other. That makes perfect sense.

M: This has been a really satisfying convo for me!

P: This has been fun, Malcolm! It resonates strongly with tendencies that’ve been ongoing – I’ve been using an activity “menu” that I designed with a much more restaurant-menu style interface, rather than a to-do list for my leisure time for a while now.

But finding that realisation through a different path, and trying something like IFS but guided by someone, has been fun and helpful. Thanks!

M: I’m also thinking about the “textbook case” ness of it and wondering if you might be down to have it published somewhere (could be anonymously). I think a lot of people would benefit from reading it

P: Sure! Would prefer anonymous.


Reflections

Internal Trust-Dancing

I lead the participant through what could be described as a simple “partswork” technique that I’m provisionally calling “internal trust-dancing” since it’s the smallest fractal scale of applicability of my Non-Naive Trust Dance framework. It’s similar to other partswork techniques, such as IFS (Internal Family Systems). I’ve only worked with IFS a bit (this Sent To My Room post was inspired by an IFS session) with mixed results so far, but it seems to be broadly an excellent, powerful, robust approach to doing emotional coherence work and memory reconsolidation.

The most obvious difference between IFS and my ITD process is that ITD doesn’t involve accessing a particular notion of Self, but focuses on directly evoking or generating inter-part curiosity, perspective-taking, and empathy. And, like non-naive trust-dancing at any other scale, ITD encourages parts to acknowledge and respect that other parts have distrust towards them, and to honor that building trust is a process rather than taking a stance that implicitly demands “I trust me so you if you don’t trust me then you must be confused (otherwise I would have to doubt my own self-trust)”.

The capacity to respect that others can’t trust us as much as we would like is what makes a trust-building process non-naive. Without that, any trust-building process tends to constantly sweep things under the rug which later cause rifts and betrayals and oscillations. I talk in terms of trust-dancing because the process is necessarily interactive and requires responsive improvisation with what’s available from the other person. In this case study above, the participant actually had more openness than I expected!

Obviously any process that involves inter-part curiosity, perspective-taking & empathy would tend to evoke and/or require what an IFS practitioner would call “Self energy”, but it doesn’t involve any “mode” or “voice” distinct from the parts themselves, even though it does require some amount of differentiation. Functionally this is not different from how resolving conflict between people doesn’t (intrinsically) require some mediator who translates between them, but does require them to speak clearly for themselves as a differentiated part of the whole, rather than speaking for the whole.

As I see it, the issue with people getting blended with parts is that the parts speak and they use the word “I”, and when they use the word “I”, they’re referring to the entire person. As long as the parts can keep track of their part-ness and the wholeness they’re part of, they can dialogue with each other. This is also true of people speaking their whole-self truths to each other in interpersonal conflict resolution, or even just any conversation. The conversation will get confused if they speak of what’s true for them as being true for everyone, rather than speaking of it just as true from their perspective and creating space for a larger shared truth to emerge. The two eyes have different perspectives—in some sense, they disagree about what reality looks like—but instead of arguing about it, a well-functioning organism leverages that difference to generate a 3D view instead!

Anyway, given that ITD as I’ve constructed it here requires substantial differentiation, this process might not work well for parts that are very young and/or very traumatized. I haven’t tested it in extreme circumstances! I’ve actually only tested it a few times, although it’s based on the exact same principles as interpersonal non-naive trust-dancing, which I’ve been practising intently nearly every day for the last year. Internal trust-dancing is a vital part of being able to dance well with others, because if you can’t hold conflicts spaciously given the bandwidth available in your own brain, you’ll have trouble doing it when you only have words and tone and body language. Plus if part of you is at war with another part of you, it’ll also be at war with similar parts in other people.

Perceptual Control Theory & conflict

I’ve been meaning for years to write up something about Perceptual Control Theory and its implications for internal conflict. This write-up is not thorough, but it’s very alive, and you can see the immediate applicability of PCT to this situation and similar internal conflicts that almost everyone is in on different scales. Any time you notice a stuckness or an out-of-control oscillation in your behavior, it’s likely that these control system dynamics are at work. And you can try a similar internal dialogue process to find a way out of the tug-of-war!

To learn more about PCT, check out William T. Powers – Making Sense of Behavior: The Meaning of Control.

Goal-Crafting Intensive coaching sample

Ever wondered what coaching looks like at one of our workshops? Well, this is one thing it can look like. Honestly it looks like tons of different things—sometimes we’re recommending productivity or habit-tracking techniques, sometimes we’re poking holes in (then patching holes in) peoples’ plans, sometimes we’re guiding people through big career decisions, and sometimes we’re helping people get clarity on exactly why they want to start their own business and how to pursue it based on that. But this is one sample, which is more than we’d had published before!

(If you want to hear about upcoming GCIs, sign up for the Complice newsletter here—aside from a few welcome emails, we only email a few times a year)

If you found this thought-provoking, I invite you to subscribe:    
About Malcolm

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



1 Comment

Kaj Sotala » 2 Aug 2021 » Reply

Really liked this post! And yes @ “textbook case”, have been one myself too. 😀

The most obvious difference between IFS and my ITD process is that ITD doesn’t involve accessing a particular notion of Self, but focuses on directly evoking or generating inter-part curiosity, perspective-taking, and empathy. […] Anyway, given that ITD as I’ve constructed it here requires substantial differentiation, this process might not work well for parts that are very young and/or very traumatized.

Yeah, I suspect that dealing with and healing traumatized parts is the thing that being in Self is really the most useful for. And IFS encourages you to get into Self both so that you’re able to deal with them when they come up, and also (I suspect) because being in Self makes them easier to draw them out, as its presence tells them that it’s possible to come out and be healed. Whereas they might not come out if there are only other parts around, because other parts can’t heal parts, only Self can heal parts (or so the theory of IFS claims).

But in a lot of cases you can just facilitate dialogue between parts, as you do here, without spending that much time on “getting into Self”.

As I see it, the issue with people getting blended with parts is that the parts speak and they use the word “I”, and when they use the word “I”, they’re referring to the entire person. As long as the parts can keep track of their part-ness and the wholeness they’re part of, they can dialogue with each other.

That’s one of the major issues. The other issue is that you can be looking at a part (call it Part A) while being subtly blended with Part B, in such a way that what you see is Part B’s perception of Part A, rather than seeing the way that Part A actually views itself.

The instance of this that is the easiest to spot is when a part comes up and it seems frightening to you; maybe it has the appearance of a ferocious monster. If you then realize that the fear indicates the presence of a second part that is afraid of the “monster part” and you get the scared part to move to the side, this may change the appearance of the monster so that it suddenly looks like something completely innocuous.

But there may also be cases where this is harder to notice; maybe there’s no obvious clue, but a part just seems unwilling to talk, or maybe the process just generally seems to fail to produce lasting changes. A part’s silence may be an indication that there’s another part present (possibly blended with you) that the first part is afraid of; or if the process seems to go well until it doesn’t, it may be that you’re blended with a part that’s subtly twisting the responses you get from some of the parts.

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