Category Archives: Mental Health

Emotional challenges of Stage 5

Required reading

This post uses a key framework of personal evolution by Robert Kegan.  It is summarised by David Chapman here.

This post is in dialogue with, and an expansion on, Chapman’s recent post about moving through stages 3, 4 and 5 in modern society (and the lack of support for it) here.

This post will not make sense unless you have read the other two posts first. They are somewhat lengthy, but I will be returning to these ideas as a basis for my blog posts for a long time, so it’s worth settling in.

Emotional challenges

Much has been said (some has been said) about the intellectual progression of stage 4 to stage 5. In this post I will outline some emotional challenges I faced (am still facing) to making the transition.

My evolving story

Four years on from university (which I attended a little later than average), at age 27, in the midst of deliberately making myself homeless and abandoning any regard for money, I was challenged to articulate the political position of a person on the opposite side of an argument to that which I held. I found I could indeed do so. It was common for me to hear that it is good to empathise with another person, and since I had been accused of failing in that area before, it was something I had been trying to attend to more closely. I was also aware of having to debate a position one personally does not hold (from Star Trek as well as school). So as an educated person I managed to imagine the position of someone who believed that austerity, small government and benefit cuts was an appropriate response to recession. I myself was about to go on a march against austerity, from the position that it made life worse for minority groups such as the disabled and also overly impacted a majority group: women. During that march I was extemely morose and it took some time to figure out why.

Beyond Empathy

Not only had I managed to do more than superficially imagine some arguments from “their side”, I could also understand why someone would hold that position. I could imagine which principles were important to that side of the political spectrum almost as clearly as I could see the principles that supported my own side. In addition, if supporters of that side believed the underlying assumptions or principles, they would not have to be stupid or amoral to believe the conclusions drawn from those principles.

It became clear that if one side is right, and the other wrong, it would be a matter of whether their principles were right or wrong. However, the more I thought about someone else’s side of the argument, the more their principles seemed at the very least appropriate for what they were trying to do. Their principles seemed logically right, (even if I thought they were morally wrong). And yet on my side of a debate, the principles seemed right too. How could this be?

Examining Assumptions

I began to realise that I had been making the assumption that my side’s founding principles were right and therefore the conclusions were also right and therefore the articulated position was morally right and therefore any different position that contradicted it must be wrong. In fact, dear reader, if you would care to re-read the opening sentence of the preceding paragraph to this one, you will notice the uncritical assumption – “if one side is right and the other wrong…” This very assumption came into view for the first time. The assumption that one position is right and that all other positions are wrong. It suddenly seemed self-evident that this was a silly assumption to make but at the same time I had clearly been operating with it for years.

Foundation Processes

I think I had been approaching these realisations gradually by being more and more open to the arguments from the ‘opposing’ side. I might have originally been motivated by the idea that one must “know thine enemy” – the better to thwart them. I felt meaningful progress could only be made if one engaged properly with another’s arguments and then was so persuasive with one’s own arguments that the other person would change their minds.

In addition, as a result of throwing myself into new situations, I was exposed to a person whom I liked but who used an entirely different framework from me to see the world. They came from a scientific, rational, logical background. They scorned my emotional/social view of the world as biased and refused to engage on the topic in anything other than their own ‘rational’ language. I could see they had some good points but also felt that they were missing something from their worldview. Out of sheer spite I began a long process of learning their technical language, in order to one day criticise them in a language they would understand.

Neither of these processes lead to their stated conclusions but: never underestimate the power of spite as a way to motivate learning.

In addition to the story told above about politics, I had similar conflicting intuitions when it came to money. The begninning of the story is here. I shall endeavour to write up the second half of the story soon. But in short, capitalism seemed to no longer be the spectre of evil I once thought it was.

Leaving the old stage

All of this lead to my eventual move out of stage 4. At the time, it felt like I had been booted out. Indeed in Kegan’s descriptions, a person at first criticises the world for not being what it appeared to be, and moving out of a stage is unpleasant. The current self has no desire to change.

Eventually, the criticism can be directed inward. Feelings of shame can arise when shifting through a stage change and I felt a certain amount of being intellectually ‘caught short’, the feeling of having been walking around with my pants down this entire time and no-one had told me.

Emotional problems shifting through change

And so we finally get to the subject of this post: emotional difficulties when transitioning out of Kegan’s Institutional evolution, stage 4. These descriptions are almost entirely focussed on intellectual growth as they seem easier to articulate. On emotional terms I feel more muddied. Perhaps I will post about that later.

Lack of stage 5 environments

One of the problems of this stage is a lack of cultural, institutional or familial frameworks to move towards when the previous thinking has been left behind. As of the 1980s, only 5% of adults may reach this stage. From Kegan:

“the requirements of the ‘holding environment’ within which to evolve become a taller order with each new evolution.”

There are therefore few, if any supportive voices to contradict the negative thoughts that accompany leaving a stage behind. This problem is discussed at length in Chapman’s post about people becoming lost at stage 4.5.

Loss of self, loss of identity.

Loss of the self is characteristic of all of the evolutionary stages:

“[people] may speak of a ‘loss of identity’ or that they have let themselves down, betrayed themselves, abandoned themselves”.

however this may be felt particularly strongly since:

“this is the first shift in which there is a self-conscious self to be reflected upon”

The instiutional stage 4 is characterised by adopting a system to order one’s life. This can partly mean aligning with a particular system that others also use which becomes an identity. For myself social justice style identity politics was my system. I aligned strongly with the left, with feminism, with minority sexuality and polyamory.

The negative thoughts which accompanied my new apparent relativism with regard to left and right wing politics, as well as capiltalism, were strong and distressing. I felt I was selling out, had lost my passion, was being weak or without resolve, was a traitor to the cause and I was particularly bothered by the phrase “you get more right wing as you get older”. I was terrified that this applied to me.

I applied these thoughts to myself because I believed my social group would do so if they knew what I was thinking, and I had no alternative viewpoints to challenge this “selling out” as anything other than negative. I could do nothing but accept these negative labels for myself. At this time I stopped any and all activism because I felt like a fraud and was also exhuasted from feeling this way.

Evil relativism

This longer passage from Kegan explains a common fear in 4-5 transition:

“All transitions involve leaving a consolidated self behind before any new self can take its place. At the 4-5 shift this means abandoning – or somehow operating without reliance upon – the form, the group, standard or convention. For some this leads to feelings of being “beyond good and evil”, which […] amounts to looking at the that beyondness from the view of the old self, and thus involves strong feelings of evil. Ethical relativism – the belief that there is no (nonarbitrary) basis for considering one thing more right than another – is, on the one hand, the father of tolerance: it stands against the condemning judgement; but it must also stand against the affirming judgement, and so is vulnerable to cynicism.”

Ethical relativism is a half-way point. One has realised that there probably is no perfect sytem that is “right”, rather all systems have validity given the way systems function (based on rules, assumptions, axioms or reasons, which therefore make them “rational”). However this leads a person to the conclusion that all systems are equal, have equal value, have equal utility, are interchangeable. I believed this for a while and it is quite frightening, leading one to a strong sense of nihilism.

In Kegan’s words:

“In the shift to stage 5 there is often a sense of having left the moral world entirely; there is no way of orienting to right and wrong worthy of my respect. This is the killing off of all standards, the attempt to be not-me (who is his standard) – the cynic, or existentially despairing.”

Short Postmodern digression

This problem is exactly where an unsophisitcated grasp of postmodern thought runs into trouble (Postmodernism can be seen largely as a 4.5 stage of philosphy). Postmodernism is the critique of Modern “systems” of thought, or rather a critique of the idea that the world can be apprehended through systemic thinking. This part was the focus of most Postmodern writing and is the easiest to grasp when discovering the topic.

When one reaches this far with the ideas it is easy to think that when Postmodernism is saying that “all systems of thought that give rise to opinions have arbitrary foundations” it is also saying that “all opinions have equal value”. This is not actually the case but it takes a long time to untangle. It takes a much closer and much longer study of Postmodern ideas to grasp what Postmodernism is moving towards, rather than away from. More on this in a later post.

Loneliness

When this shift out of a strucutual Identity is occuring it is no longer possible to associate with other people who are still firmly embedded in The Identity [whatever it is]. It is key to realise that this process is not voluntary for the person changing, they have no desire to suddenly be alienated from their friends, but at the same time thoughts cannot be unthought and changes are taking place regardless of desire.

I felt a distance from other people of The Identity that I had not felt before. I no longer agreed with them in the way they needed me to. If I voiced my new thoughts they saw me as dissenting for no reason or diluting the cause.

Eventually I no longer felt that my new thoughts were wrong, I felt they represented a new way to see the world, but I also knew that there was no point forcing the ideas onto people who were not ready for them. This made the alienation from certain people, and from certain parts of many people, inevitable.

This can be extremely problematic if one’s social circle is entirely made up of people who share The Identity. If there is no-one who can be part of a non-judgemental “holding environment” during these changes, it could lead to much heartache or even emotional/psychological problems that require professional intervention. (There is of course nothing wrong with seeking professional help, indeed it is absolutely the best thing to do, I am simply saying that it is nice to not have to).

During my initial moments of crisis, I took myself away from my city and all my friends. I think I experienced a lack of an environment for change. I finally found people who were confirming of the change and over some years of stability with new friends I feel I have progressed from the worst of the dissonance.

Now what?

Having dealt for some years with making this change (across some axes of my life at any rate), I feel somewhat more stable in my meta-systemtic state, but the loneliness persists. I feel comfortable again with interacting with others who have a different worldview, in fact I can see the extremely high value of their operations, in thought and in life. But I am always searching for others who may be able to understand some of my new ways of thinking.

Chapman proposes that much of society operates using stage 4 systems that interact with each other and I think that that is correct. (Systems interacting sounds pretty much stage 5 and indeed all society is actually constantly moving. However many societal systems rely heavily on being the “correct” system to function, most notably politics).

So what about stage 5-style operations that are larger than individuals? A stage 5 society?

Kegan notes that even proposing a stage 5 can be problematic:

“Suggesting that there is a qualitative development beyond psychological autonomy and philosophical formalism is itself somewhat controversial, as it flies in the face of cherished notions of maturity in psychological, philosophical, scientific and mathematical realms.”

In later posts I will spend some time imagining what stage 5 is or means for an individual (Kegan is more vague on this stage than the other stages) and what it is or means for a society. What would stage 5 societies look like? What features would it have? Do our societies already have stage 5 organisations in place? If so, what are they? Is there a way for individuals to safely encourage stage 5 institutions?

Also, check out the rest of meaningness.com for more fascinating (and in my view comforting) descriptions of how one might choose to make sense of the world.

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Thoughts on dopamine

I recently read a post about some science behind introverts and extroverts. The way the article is written is all over the place when it comes to the ‘science’ and relies on tertiary sources. I have not checked the tertiary sources for their secondary and primary source reliability.

With that caveat, the things briefly and confusedly mentioned in the article got my attention. The article mentions dopamine as a mechanism in the brain to which introverts and extroverts react differently, thus explaining their behaviour.

Dopamine is described by the NIH in the US as “a neurotransmitter associated with movement, attention, learning, and the brain’s pleasure and reward system” and I have found it interesting ever since someone told me about the proposal that nicotine is actually the ‘gateway drug’ to other drugs because it is a dopamine antagonist and re-uptake inhibiter which is not only pleasing in and of itself but also serves to enhance other drugs when taken in combination eg: alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, natural dopamine released from social interaction, sexual activity etc. All of these ‘drugs’ are enhanced by also having a cigarette, and form a large part of the habit- or social-based addiction to cigarettes. Nicotine can be seen as the ‘gateway drug’ because it enhances all other drugs beyond their actual effects.

And now the article above from ‘Introvert, Dear’ links dopamine responses to introverted and extroverted behaviour. I think the point made in the article is that everyone has similar levels of dopamine, but while extroverts are keen to keeping getting more and more hits of dopamine, so therefore love parties, introverts are easily overwhelmed by levels of dopamine rising higher, and for them a party might raise the levels too high, and they will retreat to a quieter environment.

(The author describes this by saying “extroverts have a more active dopamine reward system”, which I think is actually not a good way to describe it. It depends upon which part of the mechanism one is describing. In my view, one can easily say that extroverts are somehow not absorbing/feeling the effects of dopamine enough, therefore seeking out more “hits”, meaning their system is underperforming on the experiencing end. On the flip side it is introverts whose system is more “active”, indeed maybe overactive, because it experiences dopamine effects to a strong degree, to the point of needing to hide from too many sources of stimulation. I personally don’t think you’d choose to describe a long term heroin addict as having “a more active opiate system”.)

The article mentions extroverts thriving when using the “fight, fright or flight” response, or sympathetic nervous system to fuel their social engine, giving them high blood sugar but reduced decision making/critical thinking while introverts use the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body at rest, digesting food, lowering blood sugar and with thinking systems more on full.

The article also talks about some other things:

Even moving the limbs of the body takes more conscious thought for introverts. Introverts also have a tendency toward low blood sugar, low blood pressure, shallow breathing, sleep difficulties, tension headaches, and occasionally feeling drained and discombobulated.

In the article this is not explicitly linked with dopamine but given the description of it up there from the NIH, it seems to me that rather than being “made for hibernation” it could be that being too sensitive to dopamine means a deficiency in other ways, such as lack of ability to move limbs, low blood pressure etc.

How this relates to me: I would describe myself as an introvert. I get energy from being alone, I have low blood pressure, a slow heartbeat and I like thinking. I have consciously stopped smoking (regulated and non-regulated things) due to mental health problems. The effects of smoking are: raised heart rate, uncomfortable digestive sensations, dizziness and panic attacks. Coupled with the effects of smoking two substances at once I also get: sugar cravings, desire to sleep, more introspective thoughts. It now seems more obvious why all these things happen. Some are a function of nicotine & dopamine and some are a function of that other thing. The effects could “cancel each other out” or they could create a confusing array of bodily sensations which is probably why panic is so easily triggered.

I recently smoked again for the first time in a while and had the chance to observe other effects of doing so. I suddenly became more keen to talk at the party I was attending, more excited by interactions with other people and stayed awake longer than I would have. My heart beat much faster than usual, especially while talking with people. Later on that night I felt more active and dominant when having sex.

It seems very helpful to reflect that, rather than being scared of my fight or flight response, I could actively use it to be an extrovert for a day and that it is not a sign of something harmful, it’s just something that nicotine does, and extroverts. Indeed being an extrovert for a while could lead to other benefits like raised blood pressure and easier limb movement. Also that I should definitely replenish my blood sugars since they are either being actively used up or are a little bit too low during baseline because I’m more prone to introversion. It might be a good idea to smoke in more high energy situations, such as parties, rather than alone when sitting still.

I will be watching dopamine effects and research with great interest from now on.

 

Metaphor for panic

I’ve noted the following life scenario: at some point after the mid-20s, someone has made very positive changes to their life, taking steps to feel their emotions, communicate them and try to deal with them in an emotionally mature way, whilst also being more empathetic and tolerant of others, letting go of old grudges etc.

And then they suffer from panic attacks and anxiety.

Why should this be? If the changes made are so positive, why this horrible symptom of mental ill health?

Well, I hit on an analogy worth sharing.

It is as if the person has been riding a white-knuckle rollercoaster, but the rollercoaster is life, and is a mental one rather than physical. They have recently taken steps to get off that rollercoaster and stand on firm, calm, non-moving land.

But, they’ve been on that rollercoaster for many years, since they were born in fact. It has been constantly moving, a continuous adrenaline pump and it was a constant battle just to stay in their seat. Now that they are on the stable ground, have finally relaxed their grip, they are terribly, terribly sick. They have finally stopped moving and have land sickness. They are vomiting all over the place.

Now, the vomiting is just a sign that they’ve finally stopped looping the loop but their system still needs to take time to adjust. It’s an understandable reaction. Vomiting feels awful when it’s happening. It feels way worse than the rollercoaster. It also feels like it’s never going to end.

But it’s still a very good thing that they have finally gotten off that infernal ride.

If you are suffering panic, it means you have unclenched yourself from years of mental trauma, it means you have done the right thing. It means you are on the road to a much better life. But your system is having after shocks and is learning to adjust. It feels like it’s the worst thing in the world, but in every respect it is not very damaging. It feels like it will last forever, but it won’t. Just relax, be patient. You’re already off the coaster and you did it all by yourself. Everything is going to be ok.