I have decided that I want to engage in some deconditioning, to eliminate some specific limits within my personality that really bother me. I’ve been researching the psychological technique of systematic desensitisation, but that doesn’t seem quite right for what I need (and tends to rely far too much on teamwork and imagination for what I intend).
Trawling through my limited selection of chaos magic books, and through the web, proved similarly unhelpful. Folks love to talk about the subject of transgressing one’s boundaries from an armchair, and they love telling lurid stories of (mostly other people’s) weird misadventures when doing so, but I cannot seem to find a decent template or framework for doing this myself.
So of course I am going to invent one.
One of the great things about having a blog is that it can be used as a tool: specifically, a tool for compelling honesty with myself, since if I publicly announce something I intend to do in this journal and then do not do it…well, yes, I can lie on the internet, but I will know that I am lying. That in and of itself is a powerful stimulus for honesty.
Ok, so first I am going to outline a very simple deconditioning methodology which borrows from half a dozen magical and psychological techniques. Then I am going to plan out the use of this method with some specific aspects of my own life. Then I am going to apply that method.
Before I get started though, I would like to indicate that all of this involves a lot of fear. Why? Well, transgressing one’s limitations is scary. Anything could happen. Especially when they involve other people, as my specific focus does.
Ok, so here is how the system works.
First of all, you need to define exactly what it is that you want to ‘decondition’. In my case it is a set of rules I impose on myself about my behaviour, but it could be anything. You might want to decondition your emotional reactivity to a given trigger (something I’ve been working on this year); you might want to decondition a tendency to leap to a negative interpretations of events; you might want to decondition a story you live out such as ‘I will always be poor’; you might want to decondition even a physical mannerism that might arise in response to some situations.
The thing(s) you are seeking to decondition might be quite superficial or they might have deep roots. It is impossible to know exactly until you start messing with them – sometimes serious problems prove to be largely due to habit, other times trivial problems turn out to be deeply rooted in the psyche.
I suggest that avoiding entertaining too many expectations is helpful, since these are basically empirical questions and if you presuppose an answer then you risk getting into trouble.
Also, often our theories for our negative aspects are quite thin and one-dimensional and very easily obscure our ability to notice all the other possible interpretations that could also be true. Human beings are very vulnerable to confirmation bias – we tend to notice evidence for what we already believe and ignore evidence that contradicts our beliefs.
Hence it might be safer to uproot and avoid an particular explanation for the psychological pattern you intend to shift and just get on with shifting it.
So how do we do that? First of all, you need to work out a hierarchy of intensity. Brainstorm a whole bunch of situations that might set off the pattern that you wish to decondition. They might be actual experiences you have had, or imagined ones that could happen. Try to sort them into a ranking of extremity. You’re going to work through these so the ranking is reasonably important. I will give you an example in a moment.
Once you have your hierarchy of conditioned thoughts/feelings/behaviours, you need to work out some alternative responses to what you’d normally do. So if a particular provocation would normally throw you into a rage, you might prepare a plan involving slapping yourself in the face to break the anger circuit. The idea is simply to transgress whatever your habitual response is (it might take a bit of reflection to work out what the habit is that you are trying to break).
Of course, remembering to do this interrupter might take a few tries and a bit of effort. And it needn’t be dramatic – even just consciously reminding yourself that your response is arbitrary and open to transformation might be enough.
Once you have managed to master the first rung on the hierarchy – that is, you have exposed yourself to the provocation enough that you can reliably exercise choice in your response – you can proceed to the second, third, fourth, etc. With luck you’ll soon have shed a whole load of psychological armour and be much less encumbered.
Be wary of doing harm to yourself, however. The objective is not to force yourself. You need to be able to do the new response without discomfort or displeasure. Otherwise all you are doing is pitting conscious will against unconscious habit, and we all know where that battle usually ends up.
I’m not sure how well I have explained the idea (and bear in mind that this may well be a load of rubbish that won’t work, not even for me), but here is my example of me.
What I would like to be is less concerned about taking social risks. I would love to be so confident that I could be a sales guy, specifically. Not that I ever want to ‘go into sales’, but I would love to have that much social confidence. I would love to talk to strangers in the street without fear. I would love to happily make a fool out of myself, cause offence, or stick my nose into business where it might not belong. I would love to see strangers as potential new friends rather than anonymous robots.
This is all the more relevant because right now I am looking for a job. So these kinds of social confidence skills would be very handy. My reclusive nature has flared up however (predictably) and so I find the process much more stressful than really I would like it to be.
I realise that looking for work is not fun for most people most of the time, but I would like to think that if I am any sort of well-adjusted person then I should be able to learn to handle the process with aplomb. Instead I find it rather anxiety provoking, and that really has to go.
Oh yes, things are not totally one dimensional. I have started to get into a habit of singing reasonably loudly to myself when in public. It utterly terrifies me to do this (what a transgression of public robot-space)! But I think I might gradually be learning that if you sing in public people just ignore you and nothing bad happens at all…and this might be a nice little microcosm for the whole process that I intend to explore.
Ok, my personal list of exercises (not quite in a hierarchical order) for reducing social fear:
Singing in Public
This is where I am currently working. I will know I have it mastered when I spontaneously sing in public and don’t even think about it.
I would like to walk down a street (preferably a reasonably busy one) and happily greet each person as I walk by them. This is quite a transgression, it seems, in a built up urban environment (whereas when I lived in a more rural setting it became much more habitual). I might even be singing between greetings!
Striking up Conversations
At this stage I would like to feel so confident that any time I am standing in someone’s proximity for any length of time (e.g. waiting for a pedestrian light to change) I try to start up a conversation. Woah, scary! It doesn’t matter if they are not interested (I do not have to try to force them or anything silly). The point is just to discover that I will survive the experience.
Asking for a Favour
At this point I have to be able to approach someone and ask them to help me, say, ask them directions to something, making it a bit difficult for them (that is, I have to play a bit dumb). Then I have to try to get them into a conversation. Sort of an elaboration on Stage Three, but one with more artifice and more of an attempt to irritate the other person a bit (not too much, I hope).
This is a tricky one, something I have often struggled with in more benign forms. The idea is to go to a café or restaurant, make an order, and then when it comes say that I have been served the wrong thing. Holy cow, this is getting scary. The complaining is not to be done in an aggressive, jerk kind of way, and I am allowed to let them off the hook (that is, I don’t have to make them take it back). I am sure I could think of other situations where complaining is warranted too…
Cold Job Lead Hunting
Since I am looking for a job, what about cold calling a few companies and asking if they have jobs going, if I could have an interview anyway, and all that sort of thing? Likewise dropping in resumes off the street. Oh, scary. I mean, I have done this sort of thing before, but how cool would it be to be able to do it all day, every day, without raising a sweat?
Selling Stuff on the Phone
What about inuring myself to cold calling random people and trying to sell them stuff? That’s got to be close to the ultimate in scary for me. Maybe I could sell copies of my Ein Skopudhr Galdra CD, which I would love to shift a few copies of (hint, hint, dear reader).
Selling Stuff in Person
Same as above…except doing it door to door or on the street like those charity collector folks. I’d love to actually get, and thrive in, a sales job like that…just because it would represent a total victory over my social fears and anxieties.
These items are more or less in a hierarchy, although I struggle to get it into a perfect linear structure. Maybe it does not matter so long as the general hierarchy holds. Some of them I have actually done before, but not enough that I feel at all comfortable with them.
What sort of time frame should I adopt for this experiment? Well, that really depends on the number of opportunities I have (a lot of this relies on me wandering around in public), how brave I am, and how long it takes for me to acclimatise.
Setting a definite deadline is no good, therefore, and there’s no point hurting myself with unrealistic expectations. By the same token, I need to be honest with myself so that I am not, as we say in Australia, just ‘copping out’. I will have to refine this aspect of the process as I go.
Tags: Chaos Magic