[From Bill Powers (2009.07.12.0812 MDT)]
David Goldstein (2009.07.12.04:06 EDT)]
DG: A remark could be a "stressor". For example, a policeman stops you for speeding and gives you a ticket. Is this "an external force?"
BP: Yes. The policeman's action is a variable in the environment that affects your controlled variables (your speed of driving in this case) independently of your own ability to affect them.
DG: Or a person's schedule is so packed and full of things to do, that s/he experience stress when something happens to impact the time schedule. Is this an "external force?"
BP: Yes. The person's own reference condition is the planned time schedule, which the person's own actions are aimed at meeting. If something happens like another person being very late for a meeting, that is an external force, not produced by the person's own actions, that alters the perceived schedule and causes an error.
DG: Or a person who has had a difficult day at work, comes home and a verbal disagreement happens with a spouse. Is this "an external force?"
BP: Yes. The person wanted agreement with his spouse (whether he had a good day or a bad day). His spouse disagreed. That perceived disagreement was generated by the spouse's words which were not what he wanted to hear. His part of the argument was determined equally by the change in perception of the relationship and his reference level for the relationship. His communications, presumably, were aimed at getting agreement, while his spouse's were not.
DG: Or a man who wants his wife to have sex more often or be more expressive during sex? Is this an "external force?".
BP: Yes. From the man's point of view, the controlled variable is the degree of pleasure from sex, and it is disturbed when the woman is too passive, or not passive enough (depending on his reference level). From the woman's point of view, the perception may also be the degree of pleasure from sex, with a positive reference level, but the perception may be of a smelly, grunting pig with whom sex is not perceived as pleasurable. Each person's actions are a disturbance -- an external force -- that affects the controlled variable of the other independently of the other's actions.
DG: Or my annoying repetition of the phrase "Is this an external force?" The problem may be that we use the word stress both to refer to disturbances and error signals.
BP: I agree: that is the problem. Now that you've seen it, what comes next?
Your words are an external force that affects my perception of our communications (relative to my reference levels), while mine are the same for your perception of the communications. I did not have any particular reference level for the repetitions themselves, which I perceived as meaning you were making the same point each time. I did perceive, in each case, that the questions were actually denials that the examples were "external forces," so I tried to reply in a way that would show why I classify them that way, in accord with the basic PCT model. I hoped to change your mind about whether they should be thought of as "external forces."
DG: I have spent years helping people with "stress management." This involves educating them about a number of topics. For example, they are helped to learn when their body is under stress versus relaxed.
BP: You are using "stress" in two different ways in these sentences (as you noted above), and indeed within the third sentence alone. You do not teach people, with biofeedback, how to manage the stresses that impinge on them. That would require altering the causes of body's becoming tense, not the tension itwself. What you do is teach them to manage bodily changes that arise when stresses occur -- increases in heart rate, headaches, and so on. In the third sentence, you contrast "when their body is under stress" with "relaxed." But the opposite of "relaxed" is "tense" or "active", states of the body, while "under stress" says that something stressful is happening, unnamed, producing a state of the body, also unnamed, that is not relaxed. You help people manage the effects of stresses, not the stresses themselves. Resolving conflict, may I add, alters the causes of stresses by eliminating internally-generated disturbances of perceptions (that is, each system's action disturbs the controlled variable of another one enough to disable both systems). This kind of cause of stress is far more damaging than most external causes, because the ability to resist the effects is destroyed.
DG: It may surprise you that many people cannot accurately perceive this.
I think I've known that since biofeedback was invented. It did surprise me at first.
The use of Biofeedback Equipment provides an objective measure to help them learn this. There are many other topics covered involving: breathing techniques, skeletal muscle relaxation, smooth muschle relaxation, using imagination to create peaceful/safe scenes, using imagination to alter how one is paying attention, using discussion to identify the aspects of their life which are not under control.
BP: Only the last of these ways of combating the effects of stress does something to the cause of the stress (whether it is external or internal). The others involve learning to do something that controls an unwanted perception of the state of the body. If, for example, the person suffers migraine headaches after a day in the office with an unpleasant boss, you can teach the person to control certain perceptions in a way that makes the migraine less likely to occur, but without affecting the way the boss treats the person -- that is, without altering the stressor or disturbance. This could be useful, or it could just hide the problem and make its recurrence likely.
BP: But failure to control doesn't cause psychological problems in itself.
DG: This is because of the way you define a "psychological problem". The only kind of psychological problem that you recognize are internal conflicts. This is a much more narrow and specific than I am familiar with, as a Psychologist.
BP: Conflict is not a psychological problem; presence of conflict causes and explains psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, jealousy, lack of confidence, and so on down a rather long list of superficial symptoms. That is why resolving conflicts can permanently do away with such psychological problems; remove the cause and the effects go away. Other ways to make the psychological problems go away are to suppress them chemically, oppose them by will power, ignore them, or in general learn (with help from biofeedback or other measures) how to act internally to alter the body's responses without removing the causes.
BP: "Exhaustion" is the final stage before so-called learned helplessness is observed.
DG: I thought that "exhaustion" was Selye's term for the final stage of what happens after a long period of stress. At first there is an initial body reaction of "fight or flight", then an adjustment period in which the organism reaches a new stable state, then an exhaustion period in which there is tissue damage and death.
The third stage is when learned helplessness sets in. In the second stage, the organism is still trying to counteract the disturbance and regain control. When it can no longer sustain the effort it gives up, and that is when it ceases to try to control -- I suspect that the control system that was trying to control is reorganized (because of the continuing large error) to make it stop trying, because trying has a cost, too.
BP: But that would be exactly the wrong advice in the case of the learned helplessness experiments.
DG: I don't agree with this. I have a suicidal patient who has "hung in there" with my encouragement and is still trying to find a way to make her life more meaningful.
That is not a case of learned helplessness, in which it is literally impossible to control something by any means whatsoever. If you are telling her she should continue trying to control something that is impossible for her to control, you are deceiving and deluding her, and perhaps prolonging her suffering. I wouldn't assume that is happening, but it would happen if the situation were like that in the learned helplessness experiments.
Should I stop encouraging her to keep on trying to find meaning in her life?
Only if there is some chance that this might happen, and the cost to her of trying doesn't exceed her potential benefit.
I think, of course, that using the method of levels with her would be more effective than simply encouraging her to keep trying when she clearly has been doing that for some time without success in removing her problem. "Trying" implies conflict, when there's no obvious continuing disturbance. If she has to "try" to get out of her suicidal state, then something else is trying to stay in it. Otherwise, if it is possible, she would just get out of it. If it's impossible to change, making her keep trying is cruel. Why not just give her relief with drugs, if there's no chance of recovery by using psychotherapy?
It's possible that she has a physical condition that feels like grief or despair when it's really something else. Mary had this experience with unexplainable anxiety. It was finally cured -- almost instantly -- with Prilosec! The physiological symptoms of acid reflux were mimicking her previous experiences of actual anxiety.
BP: So look what we're doing. I am arguing from the standpoint of PCT. You are arguing as a defender of conventional psychology. I can't see why you're doing that.
DG: I see it a little differently. ... I am a working Clinical Psychologist who does his best to help people through difficult times with an inadequate toolbox. A Psychiatrist I worked with for a while at the residential center described all of us practioners as "desperate therapists." Hopefully, PCT/MOL will prove itself to be the only tool I will need in the future. Right now, I am trying it out. It is looking good.
BP: I know you are trying it out, and that is good. By arguing with you, I'm trying to show you that the old methods are not as simple and clear-cut as once thought to be, involve some very inadequate reasoning, and quite likely get in the way of the method of levels. But I can't resolve this conflict for you, nor do I know exactly what it is for you. You're the only one who can figure that out. If you did figure it out, the knowledge you gain would be of immense usefulness in communicating our new approach to others who are in the same desperate lifeboat with you. The battle within you is precisely the battle between the old paradigm and the new one, happening right where you can observe it. Your problems with this battle are exactly the problems that hundreds of thousands -- who knows how many? -- of other psychologists would have with PCT and all that grows out of it. There would be many beneficial effects if you were to explore this problem as deeply as you can and find a resolution of it. Each person has to do this because no two problems are exactly alike, but what one has done, others can learn to do in their own way.