Positive, neutral, negative, none: the four types of conversation (or more generally, interpersonal interaction)

Ultimately life is all about our relationships: the ones with others of course, but also with ourselves.

Of course we all want to have positive interactions with others. But that's not always possible.

Some of us grow up in environments where there are too many negative interactions. Inter-generational trauma is passed down from parents to children. In situations like this, it's no wonder kids choose to disengage. They choose none over negative.

The admin console analogy of how to be in nonjudgemental presence with one’s emotional state

From the book Focusing in Clinical Practice, there are a number of different terms and descriptors for the statue of being in nonjudgemental presence with one’s own emotional state:

Ogden et al. connect this state with what is called “mindfulness of present-moment organization of experience.”

In Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)… the core concept is “Self,” which is a state of mind that has qualities of compassion, clarity, curiosity, and calm.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a similar concept is known as “self-as-context”:

Helene Brenner (2012) says: My first goal in therapy is to bring a stronger self, a stronger “I,” a stronger sense of self-efficacy, of self-autonomy, that there’s a strong “I” there. A self that is coming from a place of “I” and their own experience, rather than what everybody else tells them they should feel, rather than what they think they should feel or an externalized self.

[Still other concepts include] witnessing, observing, large, compassionate, spacious, content-free, and so on.

I, of course, have developed my own term for this, which I call present sense. It’s a derivation of the term present tense, which helps make it easier for me to remember. The core idea is to be in the present moment with your sensory input, not in the past, future and not in your thoughts.

I realized there is an analogy from computer science for this state, and that is the admin console. An admin console can see how particular computers or devices are operating without getting caught up in the operations themselves. That's essentially what this state is for people. The ability to step back, be with the current situation without getting caught up in it.

Dunbar’s donut—our all-too-common lack of skill in intimate relationships creates a unfulfilled hole in our emotional lives

I previously blogged about Dunbar’s Number. I was speaking to a guy friend about this and he joked about having a “Dunbar’s donut”; he didn’t have anyone that really qualified as a member of his support clique, so the closest he really got with friends was in the sympathy group. I think this is far too common in our society—especially for males. I feel like I was there for a lot of my life. Or maybe better said that I had friends I considered in my support clique, but I didn’t really have the skills or understanding to feel entirely comfortable express myself with them.

We need to fill the hole in Dunbar’s donut so that everyone out there has a complete Dunbar Disk.

Managing emotions—the forest fire management analogy

For the better half of the 20th century, the forest fire management policy in the United States was complete suppression. If a fire starts, put it out. However, there was no one around to put out the fires in the preceding 300+ million years; Yet somehow the planet managed just fine despite lightning-induced fires. In fact, some species of plant/tree require fire to reproduce, like the giant sequoia. It turns out that recurring ground fires actually are a vital part of the ecosystems in which they occur. That’s how nature works. It takes whatever environmental conditions exist and it adapts to them.

So what this policy ended up actually doing is allowing a lot more kindling to build up, reducing a supply of essential nutrients, and preventing some species from reproducing. When a fire does break out in these conditions with so much fuel available, the fire burns far hotter and intensely than it would otherwise literally leaving nothing but scorched earth. It takes so much longer for such a landscape to recover, whereas a typical low intensity ground fire might burn dead kindling and some quick-growing plants and grasses, leaving the larger, mature specimens.

One might say we are in our “suppression” phase when it comes to emotions. Our society tells us that some emotions are ok to express and others are not. And in more public forums, this holds true. However all emotions are designed to be expressed and shared with another, if only the innermost circle of your Dunbar relationships. This subtle nuance can be lost on people, and they end up in a state where emotions have been bottled up for so long that when they do come out, they do so in an explosion of anger and rage. Look to the mass shootings we've had as a horrifyingly large set of examples.

It is possible to get back to the natural state of things, just as we did with our forests. It takes a fair amount of effort and courage to process the backlog of emotions. But once that is done, emotions can be managed as they come in real-time the way that nature intended. It gets easier.

Modern society decoupled obtaining basic necessities from strong social relationships

The third way in which modern society has made it more difficult to maintain strong social relationships is that we’ve made it possible to get a job, earn money, and use that money for the basics (food, shelter, clothing…) without needing to have more than a superficial ability to interact with others. It makes sense that at least some people will choose to avoid “bad’ feelings like sadness, disappointment, guilt and shame. In society today, it’s entirely possible to live such a superficial life, meeting the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs without truly having Love & Belonging, Self Esteem or Self Actualization.

I’m not saying the solution is to go back to our tribal roots. But it is something we all need to be aware of to ensure we have an emotionally healthy population. Surviving is much different than thriving. And in order to truly thrive, people need to learn how to have healthy social connections.

How social mobility impedes close relationships

The Bowlby conjecture states that we were designed to operate within a social network of about 150 individuals. And while there were changes to that group (births, deaths, the rare individual joining or leaving the tribe), it was overall stable. The relationships you made as a child were the same ones you had throughout your life. Your interactions with each person were strung together in an ‘infinite game” where there is always another encounter after the current one, and one after that, and so on.

Another name for this is the iterated prisoner’s dilemma (but I prefer the term “cooperation dilemma”). In our modern society, it is possible to uproot yourself and move to a new community severing ties with your old one, and no one really looks askance at that. It's common. But it enables people to never learn the emotional skills necessary to work through conflict and injuries, which is essential in building long-term healthy relationships.

In our ancestors’ world, the constraint of needing to be a member of a tribe to survive and thrive essentially forced everyone to work towards a resolution. Of course in extreme cases, the resolution might be banishment or death, but the vast majority of the time, it meant both sides shared, made amends, healed, got to closure, and moved on. Our social emotions exist for a very important reason: they bind the tribe together, and push us towards reconciliation when there is damage in the relationships.

Here’s why so many struggle with relationships in modern society

Relationships are the most important thing in your life.

As an introvert who has struggled with social anxiety, eye contact, and even things that “should” be easy like accepting a compliment, that's not an easy truth to accept. But studies like the one on Adult Development from Harvard, Murray and Peacock and the Blue Zones have shown it to be true. It’s a core piece to the Bowlby Conjecture. We are social animals so we are wired to need connection.

But if relationships are so important, why are they so hard? It shouldn’t be so difficult for an organism to maintain such a necessary function to survive, right?

The problem is our environment. It’s much different than the one bands of our modern hunter-gatherers ancestors lived in for 50,000 years.

There are three key factors—social network size, social mobility, and ability to meet basic needs (the lower levels of the Maslow hierarchy). I’ll focus on the first in this post.

Robin Dunbar’s research shows that our brains are designed to be able to maintain about 150 social connections. Let 𝓡 be the total amount of relationship energy any one person has to invest. In the environment in which we evolved, it would look something like this, where more intimate relationships get more energy than weaker ones.

Dunbar's distribution EEA

But in modern society, we have a lot more that 150 relationships to manage. Our brains simply aren’t designed for this. We only have so much 𝓡 to distribute, so by investing in longer tail relationships, we necessarily have to reduce the investment in more intimate ones.

Dunbar's distribution modern

It’s common for the most intimate relationships to suffer the most, especially for people who haven’t learned the deepest relationship skills for what it takes to truly be compassionate, vulnerable, and non-judgemental.

I’ll cover the other two points in subsequent posts. But short answer is if you struggle with your relationships, you are not alone. It has a lot to do with your environment.