Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Negotiating with the Imp of the Perverse

In my last post Yang Within Yin, Yin Within Yang, I touched upon how elegance and absurdity are two parts to the same whole. Some pyschological literature recommended to me by Gaelen Billingsley really brought this point home to me, especially along the dimension of fears. These books were marriage and sex therapist David Schnarch's A Passionate Marriage, which deals with building a strong romantic relationship through differentiation, and family therapist Donald Williamson's The Intimacy Paradox, which deals differentiation between children and parents to improve your family relationship and develop personal authority. These books define differentiation as the ability to hold onto yourself and your values, while remaining close to your romantic partner or family. It is being who you are to improve yourself so that you can give your best and loving self whole-heartedly to a relationship (this touches very much on the idea that selfishness is a virtue). Your best, calmest self is the greatest gift that you can give to anyone you love. Williamson defines this paradox clearly:
We want to be emotionally free and self-determined, but simultaneously we want to share our ideas and feelings, beliefs and values, hopes and fears, monies and homes, with significant others in intimate relationships.

These books provide structure and techniques for identifying what holds people back from reaching their goals within the construct of these relationships, so that you can break through.

The Enemy: Fear Itself
Fears tend to be the root cause of most relationship problems. And 2 particular fears really stand out in my experience:
1) Fear of your true self not being accepted by your partner
2) Fear of losing yourself by giving too much to a relationship

Think about these, how much do you hold onto your darkest secrets? Or how much do you "give in" to the other person and maybe resent it or just not feel like you're putting yourself first. Do you feel guilty when you put yourself first? Do you sometimes put yourself first as a kind of triumph? Do you feel relieved when you finally open up a juicy, closely guarded secret and it is accepted, though you feared for it all along? These fears have a way of getting you to put yourself into the exact situations that you were fearing.

Edgar Alan Poe's The Imp of the Perverse (love the title) describes a man who had gotten away with the perfect crime, though he kept fearing and fearing that someday he would be caught and found out. He repeatedly told himself not to tell anyone about committing the crime. Over and over he repeated this to himself. In a moment of weakness, his brain forgot the word "not" and he delivered a full confession condemning himself. His worst fear, that of being found out, was the force that ultimately led him to make the mistake that had him found out.

This reminds me of a software bug that I once experienced. There was an XML parser issue that caused formatted text (bold, italicized, underlined), etc. to be pushed way outside of the context it was in. So the more someone tried to emphasize something, the more likely it was to be stripped away. The bug would transform text like: "Do not deploy the solution under conditions X, Y, and Z. ...." into "Do deploy the solutions under conditions X, Y, and X. ....not" Which was essentially creating the opposite message. The brain does the same thing.

Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis brings up this same idea in a metaphor describing the mind as a rider trying to control an elephant. The rider has a complex objective in mind, but his ordered of not doing something confounds the elephant who keeps hearing the order and just decides to do it. Haidt supports this with the layers of repitilian and mammalian brain eventually overpowering the v1 neocortex (something that I have touched on in previous posts 1 2 3.) Joe Costello calls a very similar concept negative target fixation, which is a real risk for pilots. Having a negative target in mind such as "do not hit the telephone lines" gets the fixation on the telephone lines and leads an inordinate number of pilots to actually hit them.

Essentially, the machinery of fearing things causes people to challenge and fixate on what they most fear, somehow leading these things to come about.

The Remedy?
Instead choose, positive target fixation. Using a mantra such as: "land safely in the lake" is more likely to aid the pilot into steering to safer water landing. The elephant is more likely to get the clear message, and the universe seems to conspire to realize what you are asking of it.

I have kept a mug since childhood bearing my favorite quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.” This quote reminds me to but the thoughts that I want to happen out into the world, just start going toward the positive target. The bold act of doing so will inspire a universal providence to start aligning the stars in favor of this goal.

Keep facing the challenges in the world as opportunities, identify your fears and train yourself to drop these in favor of positively-stated goals, then calmly and confidently act on them.


  1. Let's say you are 80 and your life comes to an end, but at that very momeny an angel appears before you and asks you what you are willing to give up to live another year of life. You happily give up anything - title, possession, even relationship. But, what's another year going to bring? Same old stuff. If you have lived the today fully, you are ready to die tonight. Close your eyes as your parachute descends and 80% of the time, you will land in the open field.

  2. Patrick, you were the person who first introduced me to the idea of positive vs. negative target fixation. Thank you for continuing to share with me on the topic.