posttitle = Why you can’t beat your shadow in a fight titleClass =title-long len =47

Why you can’t beat your shadow in a fight

“Having is evidence of wanting.”

— Carolyn Elliott (eg here)

This is true, and useful, on net, but can easily encourage an Over-reified Revealed Preferences frame, in that it doesn’t account for the emergent results of conflict! …which is what’s underneath most behavior, particularly confusing behavior. By ORP I mean, assuming that you or others want exactly what’s happening, for some specific reason, as opposed to it being the attractor basin they found themselves in given various pressures in multiple directions.

When my partner Sarah & I walk, I sometimes end up about a foot ahead. We were reading some shadow shit into this (power dynamics!? respect!?) until we realized that I just have a faster default pace, & my system would only slow down once the error of me being ahead reached about 1′; she had a similar threshold for speeding up.

Hence me being one foot ahead was a stable point, what Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) calls a “virtual reference level” formed by two control systems in a tug of war (the tug of war being about walking speed, not position). The speed we were walking was also at a virtual reference level that was a compromise between our two set-points.

Neither control system wants the current situation, but neither has unilateral access to a move that would improve things in terms of what they do want. The gap was erroneous to both of us, but in order to close it, I would have to slow down or she would have to speed up, and neither of us had decided we would do that and shifted our overall mood towards walking to be compatible with the other.

So yes, the fact that part of you wants some shit that is socially unacceptable and/or bizarre from the perspective of your conscious desires, doesn’t mean that want is any more true or real than what the other parts of you want, and the want may not even really be direct.

Your shadow stuff may be “deeper” in the sense of “more buried” but that doesn’t make it “more profound” or whatever. All the things you consciously want also matter!

“Having is evidence of wanting” points at how if you say you want to change some behavior, but you aren’t changing—whether that’s listening better, changing your diet, or filing your taxes—then that’s a sign some other part of you isn’t letting you. And if you pretend that you “just need to do it” then you’re basically in denial that there’s a part of you that has the ability to stop you and is succeeding and will largely keep succeeding until you figure out how to dance with it.

All parts of your system, conscious and unconscious, shape your behavior… but your shadow stuff might be able to overpower your conscious wants, not because it’s inherently more important to you but because it’s less constrained. You can call this freedom sneakiness or darkness, but you don’t have to use any connotations like that. It’s actually just effective learning.

However, just because your behavior doesn’t have one single meaningful reason or purpose, doesn’t mean that you can just impose something to get rid of it. You have to deal with that conflict. You might be able to find a simple or creative solution that satisfies both sides of the conflict, either by understanding what they’re each wanting and designing a win-win, or just by trying different approaches until one of them works. Although if your attempted solutions work for a bit and then stop working, that’s a sign that the unconscious part is reorganizing to solve some problem it has that the approaches of your conscious part keep recreating.

And… it will usually succeed at this, because it’s less constrained than you.

Your shadow has 2 superpowers

Your subconscious drives are reorganizing your mind to try new strategies til one works, and since they aren’t conscious, they aren’t nearly as constrained by:

  • what you’ve adopted as “acceptable”
  • your own… belief… that you’re not allowed to fuck around and find out?!?

Holy shit that actually explains why your subconscious seems (/is?) smarter than you!

This came from @jondubin pointing at the question of why a given part wins an internal conflict. Not sure I’d seriously thought about it like that before.

From a PCT (Perceptual Control Theory) lens, when there’s a direct internal conflict, nobody wins, it’s just a tug of war that either stabilizes at some compromise (with both sides still tugging full-force!) or oscillates if perturbed from that compromise.

But what if the internal conflict is indirect?

The brain is a learning system and in general tries to reorganize itself in order to achieve the various aims it’s pursuing at various levels. I’ve long been aware eg school traumatizes people away from that natural learning process (by framing mistakes as problems rather than an intrinsic part of how deep learning happens) …but I’m realizing that there might be a sense in which the learning process itself goes underground a bit, and renders shadow parts more capable of outwitting you than you are at outwitting them!

Hence the experience of these persistent weird desires that can’t be tamed.

The brain’s learning/reorganization system is kind of endlessly creative as long as it’s able to run. But when we’re doing things consciously we often think we know how they should work and we don’t let the reorganization happen naturally. Or if the first try fails, we give up.

By contrast, if our unconscious drives are, by their nature, not under conscious control and thus also can’t be criticized into giving up (to avoid fear of failure)…

…they’ll just keep trying stuff, and sooner or later come up with a new way to thwart most counteractive moves!

The takeaway here is that just because your shadow parts manage to win a bunch of your internal conflicts, doesn’t mean that those desires are more true for you. Conflict is a whole phenomenon itself!

No, I spoke too soon. The real takeaway here is that you can’t beat your shadow in a fight.

And thus, integration is the only way to sustainably get what you want. Thinking through this helped me grok a whole nother level of what’s going on with internal conflict—a topic I’ve been exploring for 4+ years since I first got into Perceptual Control Theory (see eg Towards being purpose-driven without fighting myself).

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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.

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