I’ve been reading quite a few psychiatric/therapeutic/self-help books recently. This post is some notes on a common thread I noticed in a few of them about the positive sides of “bad” behaviours.

All of these deserve their own posts, but here’s a one-sentence summary:

  • Self-Therapy presents Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), which suggests treating yourself as a collection of anthropomorphic parts, which you can relate to and heal.
  • Unlocking the Emotional Brain presents Coherence Therapy (CT), an approach based on eliciting patterns of emotional knowledge and dissolving (“reconsolidating”) them by exposure to disconfirmatory experience.
  • Existential Kink (EK) is a somewhat ridiculous book which deal with integrating your shadow, or parts of yourself that you reject consciously.
  • Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway (FTF) is an extremely American self-help book about overcoming fear.

One thing that all of these books have in common is the idea that behaviours which you don’t like (“symptoms” in the language of CT) can have positive aspects, which are typically often denied or non-conscious. Moreover, drawing conscious and non-judgemental attention to these positive aspects can have transformational impact.

Identifying the pros of the symptom

Let’s go through the systems.

In the IFS model, symptoms are often generated by protectors, which are parts which try to protect other hurt parts of you by taking some kind of defensive measure. For example, a protector might make you feel very angry in order to protect a part of you which feels very vulnerable and hurt. A key part of relating to protectors is to accept that what they are doing is motivated by protecting you, and that often it is effective (even if it has other bad consequences). The angry protector does manage to stop you feeling vulnerable and hurt, and it is trying to provide you with help and protection. Acknowledging the good work a protector does makes it much more likely to open up to you.

CT works with schemas, which are learned emotional knowledge. Part of a schema is the pro-symptom position, namely the part that argues that the symptom is, actually, good for you. A schema might be “I can’t trust people who are close to me not to hurt me, therefore it is better for me not to let anyone get close”. Identifying the pro-symptom position is helpful because it allows a more understanding attitude towards the symptom, rather than viewing it as something totally irrational and unwelcome.

EK goes even further and argues that you actually enjoy some of the bad behaviours you do (it is called Existential Kink for a reason). Admitting this can be very powerful, either in that you can simply allow yourself your strange enjoyment of being powerless (or whatever it is), but also in that making this enjoyment conscious can lessen its hold on you. Brought into the light it can lose the totemic power it has when it is hidden in shadow.

FTF is mostly about other things, but makes the observation that symptoms often have payoffs for us, although we might not want to admit it. Playing the victim can bring us attention, or an easier life; not challenging ourselves means we don’t need to face up to the risk that we might not be up to it. Again, bringing these payoffs into consciousness can both let us feel more compassionate towards ourselves, and let us reason more clearly about what to do. Maybe the comfort I get from the job security in the boring job is worth not having a more interesting job. Making that choice consciously is much easier than having an unconscious drive for security fighting a conscious drive for more interesting work.

I think the similarities are striking. All of the systems emphasize identifying positive aspects of the thing you are trying to get rid of, and bringing those into conscious attention so as to avoid fighting a much stronger unconscious force. The similarity makes me think that they’re on to something!

Resolving symptoms

When it comes to actually resolving the symptoms, there is much more difference.

IFS resolves symptoms by reassuring and convincing the protector that its work is no longer needed. CT requires you to reconsolidate the problematic schema by exposing it to a strong opposing emotional experience. EK isn’t even sure if you should get rid of the symptom, maybe you should just embrace it, or do magic, or something. FTF suggests that once you bring the symptom payoff into conscious experience, you will naturally be able to make a calmer, more reasonable judgement.

An interesting difference is that EK and FTF both leave open the possibility that the payoff from the symptom may actually be good enough to keep the symptom! Admittedly there is an implication that there would be less inner conflict in this case, so some amount of suffering has been removed, even if the behaviour changes which were originally expected don’t end up being implemented.

What about me?

I often feel like I’m hiding myself away or diverting my attention from things that I “should” do, instead doing something light and attention-absorbing like reading or playing computer games. Historically, I viewed this as something like a compulsive behaviour. Something bad, that I would inexplicably still do. But in fact, I deeply enjoy being locked away, solitary, and focussed on something low-stakes. I enjoy it both for itself and because it makes me feel safe. And that’s okay: accepting that I can be more compassionate and let myself enjoy it when it happens. Perhaps I’ll even find that it becomes less attractive as it becomes less taboo.