Monday, April 24, 2017

Chapter 5-4: De-Coding the Messages of High Stakes Reactivity

[Formerly titled: Do You Want to Save Your Ass or Your Face...?]

In contemporary society, we've learned to treat High-Stakes Reactivity like an unsightly embarrassment.  It's usually the elephant in the living room that someone is trying to hide under the rug.

It is time to rethink that.  Nature isn't stupid. High-Stakes reactivity is about our survival.  Our well-being - and sometimes our lives - are literally at stake.  Accordingly, we have every reason to believe that evolution has made this system both

  1. critically informative, and 
  2. highly reliable (if you know what you're looking for).
In truth, the High-Stakes system is the most critical, reliable carrier of important information we have as human beings.  It tells us things we absolutely need to know about ourselves, each other, our surroundings and what is happening in them.

Yes, it's inconvenient in a lot of social contexts.  But the High-Stakes system doesn't bullshit around.  It doesn't wait it's turn.  It isn't particularly focused on keeping up appearances.  It's there to save your ass not your face.

Once we understand those basic principles, we can begin to look at High-Stakes reactivity in a new light.  This was revolutionary for me.   It was here that I began to see myself through new eyes - and to realize how much there was to learn.

What High-Stakes Reactivity Is Trying to Tell Us

It has taken a lot of time and patient observation to understand what my own High-Stakes reactivity was telling me.  Here are are some of the things I've discovered along the way.

1. What I really care about  

The High-Stakes system tells me what I care about.   If I don't care, then High-Stakes doesn't even register.  It's only when things matter, really matter, that High-Stakes gets involved.  The things that get High-Stakes going are the stuff I care about the most.

In other words, the High-Stakes system tells us who we are.  It is the key to understanding our core needs, values and motivations as human beings.  So, if you want to know who you are, who you want to be, and even get clues to your purpose on this earth, then pay attention to your High-Stakes reactions.

All of this got a lot clearer to me once I began to ask myself questions like this:

  • What kinds of stuff is High-Stakes to me...?
  • What do I chase after the most or run from the fastest...?
  • Why do I do that...?
  • What are the major needs and values that seem to direct my behavior...?
  • Why do these things matter to me...?
  • Do I like the choices I am making...?
  • How do these choices make me feel about myself...?
  • If I feel conflicted, what needs and values see to be at odds with each other...?
  • What does it say about me that I care...?

For example, let's take a look at the stuff that unsettles me the most.  As a kid, I was always concerned with fairness.  My family saw me as a bean-counter  - and kept asking if I needed 'a pound of flesh.'  But that was my way of trying to address social dynamics I didn't understand.  In essence, I was trying to say:   

Hey everybody - I don't feel all that connected here.  Whatever is happening between the rest of you isn't really happening for me.  I don't understand why, and I sure as heck don't know what to do about it. The best I've come up with so far to get that across is just to count beans.
The result was that everyone thought I loved splitting hairs about who was right or wrong or got more than their share.  They teased me endlessly for arguing seemingly trivial points.  In reality, I hated that role.  The issues I was trying to express were, for me, so much bigger than that.  I wanted to connect. I put a lot of effort into trying to connect.  But, at the same time, the stuff that spelled connection for others didn't really do it for me.  I hated the dinner time small talk where we all took turns sharing about school activities and play dates.  It seemed boring and unimportant.  I wanted to know what life was about and what was really happening in the world.

Little did I know, but those kinds of conversations were just not going to happen.  My mom had grown up with way too many hard knocks from the school of real life.  She was born the year the stock market crashed.  Even so, her family managed relatively well until her dad was called up for World War II.  He died only a year later, at which point her known universe changed on a dime at the ripe old age of 12.  After that, it was elbow grease, ingenuity and meticulous frugality that made survival possible.

To her credit, my mom did everything in her power to protect us from the devastation she had grown up with.  With Mary Poppins-like elegance, newspapers closed themselves, TVs turned off and conversations sweetened like spoonfuls of sugar.  Day in and day out, we woke to up to sunshine or light songs about it. Each night, she tucked us in to crisp white sheets and read us to sleep from Caldecott picture books.  In between, she planned three well-balanced meals a day and a steady diet of educational activities designed to enrich young minds.

Looking back on it now, it's easy to see - and admire - how hard she worked to give us happy childhoods. The problem for me was that my heart was somewhere else.

I remember being riveted in second grade by a civil rights story called  'Three Who Dared.'   Ever since that time, I've wondered whether I too could find the courage of my convictions.  Would I be brave enough to lay down my life like so many others have in social justice movements throughout history...?

This was High-Stakes activation of a different kind.  I literally felt pulled by my whole  being into these issues.  That explains a lot why, in my family, I felt like an outsider.  The things that engaged me the most were off limits for discussion.

Years later, some of the emptiness I felt started to emerge.   I began eating and purging thousands of calories daily.  Everyone was worried, and  I got sent to psychotherapy.  The mental health system's approach was to try to pathologize either me or my family - often both.  Yet, there is nothing, at core, wrong with either way of being.  The central conflict was about different values and different ways of being.  What gives my life purpose, and what give my mother purpose, are very different.

It's good to know that now.  It might have helped us all a lot to know that then.  Of course, we felt at odds with each other!  Of course, we were always tipping each other over! We were putting each other in High Stakes just by being who we were.  The social justice involvement I craved reminded my mother of the political unrest of her childhood and spelled, for her, instability and disaster.  On the other hand, I would have rather poked pins in my eyes than live the Better Homes and Gardens floor plans that made my mother feel like she had arrived.

It took a long time to make sense of these issues and understand what they were telling me.  Sad to say, despite thousands of hours of therapy - and spending hundreds of thousands in today's dollars - the mental health system wasn't that helpful. As with today, the focus was mostly on how I could become more normal.  Could I learn to eat the right amount of food, do the right amount of exercise, enjoy small talk in the right small bites at the right social gatherings?

It is hardly surprising that that approach didn't help.  I was already getting 'normal on steriods' from my home environment.  My passion was for the big ideas and the big issues - and there wasn't very much of that happening in the circles I was steered to travel.  For a time, the mental health system made it even worse by characterizing these interests as too dangerously 'grandiose' for the likes of a 'manic' like me.

Suffice it to say, it took a long time to recognize and own that big ideas and big issues are the stuff of life for me.  I have to engage them or my zest for living dies. As with anything one cares deeply about, the question is not whether but how.   The key to discovering this for me has been to follow the reactivity. In the end, questions like those above help me figure out not only what my personal 'big ticket' items are, but also how they harmonize with other needs and values that are also High-Stakes for me.

2.  How much I care

Usually we are taught to write off or ignore extreme behaviors.  The conventional wisdom is that that is how you get them to go away.  That strategy may work but it is missing the point.

The High-Stakes system is a wake up call. The louder the alarm, the more it matters.   Extreme energy and extreme behaviors are the High-Stakes system's way of communicating that something really important is up.

It may look crazy, but that is how High-Stakes gets my attention.  High-Stakes is very effective this way.    The bigger the energy, the badder the behavior, the harder it is to disregard.   So High-Stakes just keeps amping up the volume until I notice.

I have to say this can be extremely irritating and inconvenient.  There are a lot of times I've felt like my High-Stakes system was just a spoiled brat.  Oh, here we go, another temper tantrum.  Give me a break.  Why should I care...?

But, with time, I've learned to respect the High-Stakes method.  If the High-Stakes system just made little pathetic whimpers it would be easy to ignore.  I would brush it off and go on with my day.

It is a mistake to see the High-Stakes system as solely focused on life and death.  Some of the most important information I get has to do with who I am as a human being.  It's about the values that motivate my existence - the purpose some part of me believes is important to live out on this earth.  When these things are threatened, the danger isn't lessened just because I don't get it.

So, the High-Stakes system is taking no chances. When something is really High-Stakes, this system is determined to get my attention.  It will stop at practically nothing to get it.  It creates high drama to insure I will notice.   It goes for the jugular of what I care about. Crazy, novel, and shamefully outrageous are all are perfect for this effect.

3. What I'm really good at

I'll say it again:  The High-Stakes system is about our survival, and it isn't stupid.  So, the last thing the High-Stakes system is going to do when it really matters in put in the B-Team.

That stands to reason right...?  Imagine you're facing the challenge or opportunity of a life time.  How many of our ancestors would have survived if their bodies or brains had said:   
Wow, a [tiger/ cute girl].  I've never played the flute before, but I've always wanted to.  I wonder if I could make one with this stick in front of me and then play it and maybe the [tiger/cute girl] would like the music and do what I want as a result...  
 No No No.  That's the stuff of All-Is-Well. All-Is-Well is where we experiment and try new stuff and see if we like it and how it works.

High Stakes is totally different. It is about the tried and true.  It calls on our known strengths and assets - the stuff that feels most familiar and comes most naturally..  Thus, we turn to what we are best at (natural gifts, aptitudes, expertise) when we're under the gun and the stakes are high.

So, if you want to know what you're really good at, ask yourself this:

  • What do I say or do when the stakes are high?
  • What comes most naturally for me?
  • What are my go-to strategies? 

Here are some of the 'old faithfuls' for me in High-Stakes: 
  • Intensity
  • Energy
  • Believing in my own knowing
  • Endurance, persistence
  • Sensitivity to fairness/unfairness
  • Vision of social justice and collective action
  • Loving the excitement and challenge of daring big
  • Longing for spirituality and transcendence
  • Fierce determination to make my dreams real
  • Ability to concentrate energy, sustain focus and go without sleep
  • Big voice, loudness, holding my ground
  • Sheer volume of effort and activity
  • Food works for me - supplies energy and comfort
  • Alcohol works for me - supplies stress relief, comfort and courage

When I made this list for myself, I had another realization.  If wonder if the following experience is similar or different for you...?  When I look at the list, it is easy to see why the medical model labels me Bipolar.  Either the so-called 'symptoms' - or the stuff that gives rise to them - are pretty much cataloged there.

It's also easy to see get why bipolar drugs have felt so limiting for me.  The very things that the medical model defines as 'illness' are also the source of my greatest gifts.  They're at the heart of what I value most about myself as a human being.

So, yes, I admit these things can get extreme and scary when the stakes are high.  Yet, so many times in my life these same things have been assets.  For example, as a kid, I wasn't a great reader.  I also wasn't naturally athletic.  Without the attributes listed above my life would have been totally different.  But because they were there, a lot of doors opened. The personal qualities listed above made me an A student and got me a closet full of sports medals.  They facilitated some great college and career opportunities.  They are helping me show up to write this guide, when other voices tell me it is hopeless and no one will care.

In other words, the very features that the medical model is trying to eradicate in me are what, in my life experience, have made the good stuff possible.  They are what I know best, do best, and have the most experience with.  They give me the best chance possible against the odds in those High-Stakes moments when I need them the most.

4. What it's not safe to say

A lot of High-Stakes stuff cannot be directly spoken.

Say you're head over heals attracted to the stranger across the room.  You don't walk over there and say that.  For most of us, it would be too high a risk, as well as too much too soon.

So what happens? Your eyes and posture start to talk for you.  You keep looking that way.  You groom your hair.  Essentially you act out the message, 'I want your attention.  Pay attention to me'  instead of saying it.

What you're doing is obvious if the other person cares to see.  But without the words actually being said, the intentions remain deniable enough for both parties to save face.  This is your High-Stakes system both protecting you and communicating for you when actual words don't work.

Here's another example.  

Suppose you're attending a community meeting. A member of one demographic says something insulting about the members of another demographic (e.g., race, sex, gender, religion, income, etc.).  Feelings run high on both sides.  Neither the insult nor the correcting of the insult are considered socially safe to voice.

So, High-Stakes does it for us.  Several people jerk awake.  Bodies tighten, faces frown.  You can prick the silence with a pin.

At that point, almost everyone knows something just happened. Some people may not know what offended, but almost everyone will note the missing beat.  Maybe someone will call it out directly. Maybe no one will.  But from that point on, nearly everyone is on guard. Either they're getting ready to defend against more of the same, or they're trying to figure out how to keep alliances and still correct the social wrong.

Almost always, after the meeting, people will get together with allies and process what happened. Did you hear what so and so said?  Yeah, can you believe it?  Should we say anything to Mike?  I bet James was really hurt.  

So, if you want to know what the social norms are - if you want to know what can and can't be voiced - pay attention to High-Stakes reactivity.  It tells you a lot about the culture we live in.  There is a tremendous amount that is not safe to say.  There is a tremendous amount - really important stuff - that we are not allowed to talk openly about with each other.

No less frightening, those of us who say what is socially unspeakable usually get labeled.  We are considered childish, intellectually disabled, 'on the spectrum', impulsive, oppositional, inappropriate...  In other words, the ability to hide, obscure, or ignore troubling social dynamics is considered a sign of 'good judgment' and 'mental health'. But honestly voicing the true nature of what is occurring is considered immature or a 'symptom' of 'disorder.'

A third example

The above examples are fairly common.  But High-Stakes can get pretty coded and idiosyncratic. There was a time when I was afraid to leave my apartment.  I kept having flashes in my mind of doing something horrible.  I could see myself yelling profanities in church. I could see my hand touching someone's butt as I walked past them on the street.  I worried I would abuse kids.  It occurred to me, repeatedly, that I could murder loved ones while they slept.

I talked about this a lot in therapy.  Ultimately the thoughts were framed as a weird variation of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). I was told to take my meds and ignore them.  But I couldn't.  They tortured me for a really long time.

Then, finally, I started to do my own thinking.  I asked myself stuff like:

  1. Do you really want to act on these thoughts?  Well, I 'm not sure.  I don't feel that much of a pull, but why else would the thoughts be happening?
  2. Ok, but what about the stuff you really do want to act on?  How do the thoughts compare, for example, to wanting Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, or when there's someone you'd like to go on a date with?  Not even close.  The thoughts barely even register.  But still, why are they here?
  3. Ok, what else could they mean?  How do you feel about having these thoughts?  I feel horrible. Like the only thing I want to do is have a life, but I can't because I'm afraid I might hurt people.
  4. Okay, so you care about having a life.  And you care about not hurting people. Yes...
  5. So what's the problem?  Well, it's possible I could hurt people.  I mean if I wanted to, I could probably do these things.  I have the power to actually carry this really bad stuff out if I choose to do so.
  6. But you don't want to.   True, but I could do it if I wanted to.
  7. Oh, so this is about risk and responsibility. Like you have power and you're afraid of abusing it. I guess so.
  8. Do you want to abuse the power you have?  Not really, but sometimes I have a lot of energy and I get carried away.  I think I know what's best for people or I think everyone wants the same thing I want. I feel horrible about myself when I overstep in those ways, but then I get carried away and I do it again.
  9. So you don't want to abuse your power, but you know you have the potential to 'bulldoze' others if you get carried away or you're not paying attention? Yes.  
  10. So how are you going to deal with that?  Well, I guess these thoughts are kind of a mindfulness bell.  They tell me my energy is too high, and that I need to be cautious or I might hurt someone. 
  11. So the thoughts are actually helping to keep you and others safe? Huh.  I never thought of that. I guess they're letting me know I need to back off, look around, be more careful about where my energy is going and how fast. 
  12. Kind of cool, huh.  Yeah, for sure.  
  13. Who knew.  Yeah, who knew.

The thoughts haven't troubled me that much since I had this little chat with myself.  It was a difficult conversation and contained some painful truths.  I don't like the fact that my intensity and energy tends to overwhelm others.  I also don't like the idea that I can get oblivious to the personhood of others and hurt our relationship.  At the same time, it has been a relief to recognize how much some part of me cares about becoming more aware.  And it feels great to know that part of me will work really hard to get my attention - and do what is needed to 'shock' me back to awareness.

5. What must be grasped rather than fixed

The High-Stakes system speaks a lot in metaphors.  The last conversation was one example.  But why does High-Stakes do this?

My best guess is that this is intentional. The reality is that a lot of stuff in life can't be addressed directly or resolved literally.  Choices are made.  Opportunities are gained or lost.  Some losses are necessary.  You leave home, graduate from school, get a promotion, find a new interest that requires leaving something else behind....  Other losses are unambiguously painful.  We lose capacities and don't get them back.  People die, move away, relationships change.

The above stuff is really important - so High-Stakes has to get involved.  But, at the same time, almost none of this stuff can be fixed literally by fight, flight or freeze.  The challenge is existential rather than something material that you can physically subdue. There is no direct way to repair the damage or recover the losses.  The only hope is to use symbols or make meaning.

Enter metaphor.  The 'fuzzy' stuff of life is what metaphor is made for.  By speaking in metaphor, High-Stakes is effectively saying two things:

  1. This is bigger than you.  It is not something you can fix in a literal, concrete way.
  2. If you are going to cope with this, you will need to find some new ways of measuring and making meaning.  See if you can figure out what I'm trying to tell you.  If you can do that, you'll be well on your way to developing the intangible savvy that you need to make it through stuff like this.
In other words, the High-Stakes system is helping us to develop the capacities we need endure losses that can't be fixed.  This, in turn, aids our survival.  We get better and better at turning hard times to good use.  We learn to make meaning from our difficulties.  We find reasons to go on that are bigger than ourselves.  We learn how to connect - through imagination and empathy - to the very fabric of life itself.  

To read more of this guide: 

Not Broken Biology: Getting Beyond the Disease Model Paradigm of 'Mental Illness'

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