“Partswork” (usually “parts work” but it’s on its way to being one word like “cupboard”) is sort of a catch-all term for therapeutic or introspection approaches that involve orienting to yourself as having different parts, that have different desires, wants, needs, beliefs, experiences, perspectives, etc.
Speaking in terms of “part of me” is very common. I would be surprised to find a reader of this post who has never used a phrase like “part of me wants to go out tonight, but part of me wants to stay in” or “part of me distrusts him” or “part of me really just wants to finish this right now” or “part of me wants to do nothing but eat chocolate all day” or “part of me thinks nobody will ever love me”.
And this was the origin of Internal Family Systems therapy, the most famous form of partswork. When Dick Schwartz was working with his clients, he noticed them saying phrases like that, and started developing a theory of these “parts”. The term “parts” came from the common language of his clients. He then developed a powerful taxonomy of different types of parts (exiles & protectors (subtypes: managers & firefighters)) which relate in particular ways and have specific types of relationships with each other. In IFS sessions, it’s common for the parts to be given names (perhaps by asking the part what to call it) and to have fairly stable identities across different sessions over weeks or months.
People have different models of what’s going on there, and whether these parts truly “exist” or whether they’re just a useful interface or metaphor for relating with oneself. I don’t have a particular take on that—in fact, I’m not even entirely certain that those two views refer to a different world (Don Hoffman posits that all perception is interface). The parts obviously aren’t discrete in the way car parts are; they’re much more organic and intertwingled.
What I do have a take on is that you don’t need to reify or name parts in order to do partswork. You can—for big issues this can be really helpful. The IFS model is good and seems to track for a lot of people.
But it can also add unnecessary overhead, and make it hard to notice that the same principles of internal conflict apply on other scales as well.
This is particularly salient to me since my introduction to the importance of inner conflict wasn’t IFS, it was Perceptual Control Theory, whose parts are very tiny and in some ways ephemeral.» read the rest of this entry »
The following is a piece I wrote a year ago. A few months back I started editing it for publication and it started evolving and inverting and changing so dramatically that I found myself just wanting to publish the original as a snapshot of where my thinking was at about a year ago when I first drafted this. I realized today that attempts to write canonical pieces are daunting because there’s a feeling of having to answer all questions for all time, and that instead I want to just focus on sharing multiple perspectives on things, which can be remixed and refined later and more in public. So, with some minor edits but no deep rethinking, here’s one take on what coercion is. And you might see more pieces here soon that I let go of trying to perfect first.
Coercion = “the exploitation of the scarcity of another, to force the other to behave in a way that you want”
The word “behave” is very important in the above definition. Shooting someone and taking their wallet isn’t coercion, as bad as it is. Neither is picking their pocket when they’re not paying attention. But threatening someone at gunpoint and telling them to hand over their wallet (or stand still while you take it) is coercion. This matches commonly accepted understandings of the word, as far as I know.
A major inspiration for this piece is Perceptual Control Theory, a cybernetic model of cognition and action, which talks about behavior as the control of perception. I’m also mostly going to talk about interpersonal coercion here—self-coercion is similar but subtler.
If someone has a scarcity of food, you can coerce them by feeding them conditional on them doing what you want. This is usually called slavery. One important thing to note is that it requires you physically prevent them from feeding themselves any other way! Which in practice usually also involves the threat of violence if they attempt to flee and find a better arrangement.
In general, a strategy built on the use of coercion means preferring that the coerced agent continue to be generally in a state of scarcity, because otherwise you would be unable to continue to control them! (Because they could just get their need met some other way and therefore wouldn’t have to do what you say!)» read the rest of this entry »
Letting other people make their own mistakes is a very basic and underappreciated form of respect.
The main cause of failing to do this afaict is having an overzealous self-other boundary that includes the other person and then says “I would never make a mistake like that!” and then tries to correct their behavior with our own principle bruh, they’re not you!
Letting people have their actual understandings (even when they’re misunderstanding you)
Letting people try an approach (even if you know/think it won’t work)
Letting people have their triggers & neuroses (even if they make no sense to you)
= all forms of acceptance & respect» read the rest of this entry »
I am coming to the conclusion that everything I was trying to get myself to do is better approached by exploring how to allow myself to do it.
😤✋❌ how do I get myself to do the thing?
😎👉✅ how do I allow myself to do the thing?
It’s obvious, on reflection: if “I want to do the thing”, great! The motivation is there, for some part of me that has grabbed the mic and is calling itself “Malcolm”.
The issue is that some other part of me doesn’t want to do the thing, for whatever reason, or I’d simply be doing it. (To be clear, I’m not talking about skills, just about actions, that I’m physically or mentally capable of taking.)
So there’s a part of me, in other words, that isn’t allowing me to do the thing that I supposedly want to do (I say “supposedly” because the part claiming I want to is necessarily also partial).
…and that’s the part with the agency to enable the thing!
So the question is:» read the rest of this entry »
I scheduled this post to go live as a showtime, then realized I wasn’t sure if “consciousness” is the right way to even frame this, but I let it go live anyway. In some sense it could be called “sanity”, but that has its own challenging connotations. I use both terms sort of synonymously below; I might decide later that yet a third word is better. There’s also a lot more that I can—and will—say about this!
I figure collective consciousness can be summarized as the capacity for a group of people to:
(Jordan Hall’s 3 facets of sovereignty: perception, sensemaking and agency.)
I like to say “Utopia is when everyone just does what they feel like doing, and the situation is such that that everyone doing what they feel like doing results in everyone’s needs getting met.” On a smaller group, a sane We is when everyone in the We does what they feel like in the context of the We, and they are sufficiently coherently attuned to each other and the whole such that each member’s needs/careabouts get met.
In some sense, obviously, if there existed an X such that if you supported the X it would cause everything you want to be achieved better than you could manage on your own, you’d want to support the X. Obviously, from the X’s perspective, it would want to support the individuals’ wants/needs/etc to get met so that they have more capacity to continue supporting it supporting them supporting it [ad infinitum]. This is the upward spiral, and it’s made out of attending to how to create win-wins on whatever scale.
As far as I can tell, there can’t exist such an X that is fully outside the individual(s) it is supporting. In order for it to actually satisfy what you actually care about, consistently and ongoingly, it needs a direct feedback loop into what you care about, which may not be what you can specify in advance. Thus you need to be part of it. The system gives you what you need/want, not what you think you need/want, in the same way that you do this for yourself when you’re on top of things. Like if you eat something and it doesn’t satisfy you, you get something else, because you can tell. (This is related to goodhart and to the AI alignment puzzle).
Fortunately, as far as I can tell, we can learn to form We systems that are capable of meeting this challenge. They are composed of ourselves as individuals, paying attention to ourselves, each other and the whole in particular ways. Such a We can exist in an ongoing long-term explicit committed way (eg a marriage) or one-off task-based unremarkable ad hoc way (eg a group gathers to get someone’s car unstuck, then disappears) or something in between (eg some people who meet out on deep playa at burning man and end up being buddies for the rest of the day).
What does it look like to aim for flow & sovereignty? There’s a kind of conversation that can surface all that’s present for people and allow a lot of sensemaking to occur. How do you get to such a conversation? There are various elements:
There’s also a matter of “what is the point of this conversation?” I think the best conversations have an orientation towards some fluid emergent combination of:
There might also be a specific topic, perhaps reflecting on an experience that everyone just went through together, or a question that one person has convened the conversation about.
I sometimes call these sorts of conversations a “co-what-now” process. “What now” is both about “what do we do now?” and also simply about making space to collectively hold the implications of whatever has just happened and what everyone’s sitting with. And when it’s working, there’s a lot of getting on the same page, that emerges clarity of the situation and of the next steps, and leaves people feeling satisfied and understood.
It seems to me like for some groups, eg ones oriented towards operating in a metarational way, it makes sense for them to aim towards having conversations like these on a consistent basis, not necessarily formally but in terms of the basic stance & attitude, and to incline towards whatever makes these conversations more satisfying.
And if one person is clear that the thing they need to do is some specific solo project, then perhaps they don’t participate in the co-what-now conversation at all (or beyond showing up to say “I’m gonna go do X”). There’s obviously a cost to having that person not present, but ideally there’s a collective sense of trusting that that person is taking that into account in their prioritizing. And if not, then that gets talked about. And maybe that person wants the large-group co-what-now conversations to happen at a different time of day or something. And maybe the conversations are recorded and the person listens to them later, or maybe someone else fills them in. Or maybe they just take some distance for a day or a week, and this is also workable.
And maybe one person isn’t actually internally clear about what they need to do, but they’re conflicted and tangled about something that feels really pressing and urgent but they don’t know how to solve it. In such a case, it’ll be hard for that person to settle into a collective train of thought & not-knowing because their situation will be dominating their experience. It may be possible for them to expand their awareness while holding onto that situation, so they can step into co-flow, although if they experience doing so and their situation often continues to remain unresolved at the end of the conversation, they will—accurately!—feel like the conversation is failing to address what’s most pressing to them, which will produce distrust and oscillation.
If they can’t expand their awareness enough to get into a kind of collective flow (which should be very rare by the time you get to a fully collaborative group but will be common with a partway there group) then there’s a sense in which what they need to do is whatever is going to solve their situation and liberate their attention so they can rest. That might not be a total solution, but something that makes the situation feel handled. And some or all of the other people might be able to support them in that with conversation or coaching or labor or whatever else, but also perhaps not. And the other people may or may not feel appetite towards supporting them in that. And the others may also want to still convene with each other, sensing into what-now in the context of the situation of one person being preoccupied by something else.
Note that one interesting phenomenon is that a conversation of 2 or more people yields a clear next step for one person, that makes obvious sense to do, but when they go to do it they find it’s not so obvious anymore. This can be for a few reasons:
Most of my posts are essays of one kind or another. This one is mostly to announce that if you’re only following my blog, you’re missing out on some of my thinking which is starting to show up in other places.
One of these is I’ve now done half a dozen podcasts which you can find listed in detail here, or in brief here:
I want to do another podcast episode around monthly this year, so let me know if you want to have me on your show, or recommend me to an interviewer you like. (I’m down for both interview-style conversations and more deep jamming dialogue-style ones.)
Another medium is that I’m starting to post videos to my own YouTube channel more, including:
Let me know what topics you’d like to hear me speak on!
I’ve also been writing a lot on Twitter, as uhhh you may know from the frequent remark at the beginning of my posts the last couple years saying “this blog post is adapted from a twitter thread…” We’re incubating a beautiful little scenius there and would love to welcome you. Seriously, you don’t know what you’re missing.
While I’m at it: I’m interested in doing some guest blogging, so if you know anyone who runs a publication of any kind that might increase my visibility, let me know! I’m particularly interested in finding other places to share my thoughts on motivation, productivity, goal-setting, etc.
(If you’re reading this in my email newsletter, you can just hit reply; if not, hit me up on twitter @Malcolm_Ocean)
I said that to some friends—“mindset choice” is a confusion—and they were like “what?” and I wrote this response.
In order for this post to make much sense, you’ll need some referent for what I’m calling below “the complete stance” and “confused stances”… these are pretty obscure terms used by David Chapman on meaningness.com. I sent a draft of this to David and he said “it makes sense”. I used different terms in the original, which are even more obscure (“collaborative mindset” and “coercive mindset”).
Arguably this point might hold for terms like “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” but these are often treated pretty shallowly, and growth mindset has to be seriously steelmanned in order to be anywhere near as complete as the complete stance. In any case, we’re talking about constellations of foundational assumptions.
I refer below to “the complete stance” as having certain self-evident properties. If those properties aren’t obvious to you, then I must be pointing at something else than what you think I’m pointing at—either something completely different or something approximately the same but with some other detail. The thing I’m pointing at is precisely the thing that has those properties. So insofar as you have a referent that seems to work, try it on, but if it doesn’t fit, aim towards one that does. This is central to what I’m saying here.
To get started with, here’s another important not-what-I’m-saying: I don’t think “choice” is always a confusion. There’s something people experience that we created the word “choice” for… but that doesn’t mean that this is the best concept for the job. We created telegraphs, but now we don’t use them because we have email & phones. Newton created a model of mechanics, which is still the best model for doing most human-scale engineering but fails when things get really tiny or really fast. Nor does it mean that the thing it was originally invented for is the thing it’s being used for now. It might be a metaphorical application for which it is ill-suited.
It seems to me that “choice” is best suited for things like “do I choose to get on the plane to Paris or the one to Dubai?” Once the plane is in the air, the choice has been made and no further choice is needed—or even possible. Mindset is clearly not like this—one tries to choose, then discovers one has apparently unchosen without even noticing. Wat.
It seems also that “choice” is somewhat well-suited for situations like Malcolm & Sarah choosing to go to British Columbia. We were in the state of not having chosen for awhile, but being aware of such a choice, and then there was a moment when we chose. And ofc, if Sarah’s car had completely fallen apart, or an avalanche had completely blocked the entire Rocky Mountains, or we had had the worst fight of our entire relationship, or we’d gotten invited to an epic context somewhere else in the world, maybe we would have then chosen something different. But in the absence of some major unknown unknown, we were now in a state of intending to incorporate all emergent factors into a plan that included going to BC. To not let letdowns or breakdowns or meltdowns or lockdowns otherwise disturb that overall plan.
Mindset/stance, still, does not appear to me to be like this, inasmuch as with mindset:
A) people “choose” but then this choice appears to later get reverted without a conscious intention to choose otherwise. This would be like Sarah and I forgetting that we chose to go to BC. This does sometimes happen in relation to concrete choices too but it’s weird and indicates unconscious resistance here as well and more choosing is NOT the answer.
B) the complete stance is by definition better than confused stances in all ways, so if you appear to have a choice and the answer isn’t obvious, then the thing you have labelled “complete stance” isn’t the real thing. It’s missing something. And if the answer is obvious, why bother calling it a choice? (except perhaps as an interesting exercise… I’ve done this exercise on mundane things sometimes—it’s worth doing!)» read the rest of this entry »
This article is an elaboration on this tweet:
Everyone is basically living in a dream mashup of their current external situation and whatever old emotional meanings are getting activated by the current situation. Like dreaming you’re at your high school but it’s also on a boat somehow.
What makes this metaphor really powerful is that, as in dreams, somehow the weirdness of this mashup goes unnoticed until you wake up (and only then if you think about it). And then even though you’ve noticed while awake how weird dreams are, you’re just as fooled by the next dream, until you wake up.
This helps explain the vivid reality of peoples’ experiences. The part of the brain that’s bringing up this old memory is experiencing something totally real—just as your high school is real. The part of you that’s taking in sensory input of the scene in front of you is experiencing something totally real—just as boats are real. But, unless you had a really avant-garde education, there is no real “my high school, except on a boat”.
So people experience these mashups in relationships as well, emotionally experiencing their friends & partners as if they’re a parent, teacher, sibling, or bully from childhood, or an earlier friend or partner. Or someone is an adult but when they talk with their parents, they readily overlay their experience of their parents from childhood, who had absolute authority over them. To be clear, it can be particularly strong & weird with trauma but as far as I can tell this is how meaning-making works in general. It’s just sometimes the mapping is a good fit and other times it’s really weird.
And, as with dreams, no matter how weird it gets—and how obvious that weirdness would be from the outside—we usually don’t notice when it’s happening to us.» read the rest of this entry »
When I was 16, I accepted I would die.
It wasn’t hard to do—I was about to die! What point would there be in not accepting it?
Spoiler: I didn’t die. But at that moment, I thought I was about to die. I was jumping off a cliff into some water, with friends, on a volunteer trip in Kenya, and on this particular jump I did some sort of flip and thought I hadn’t cleared the part of the cliff below my jump spot that stuck out, and I saw the rock coming towards me and thought
“This is it. I’m going to smash my face into this rock, and then die of that impact, blood loss, or drowning.”
We were hours’ bumpy drive from anything remotely resembling a hospital.
Moments later, a splash—
I spent a few minutes, shaken, sitting on the bank and appreciating my life.
Years later, I noticed that that acceptance of death wasn’t persistent. It was a kind of short-issue visa, and because it was issued last-minute it also expired pretty quickly.
And over the last few years I’ve noticed I have many layers of complexities in my relationship to death.
I'm Malcolm Ocean.
I'm developing scalable solutions to coordination between parts of people as well as between people. More about me.